THE STOIC – Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121 – March 17, 180) was a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire lasting from 27 BC to 180 AD.
Stoics practice the cardinal virtues and live in accordance with nature. The postulate to ‘live and let live‘ is a fitting characterization of Stoic’s sentiments regarding the meaning of life. There is no compelling will, as there is for monotheistic people of faith or was for Schopenhauer, a will to which humans better submit or possibly rebel against.
Of Human Freedom
Like the other philosophers of the Stoa, the former Greek slave Epictetus (c. 55–135 C.E.) strongly believed that we can control our feelings by controlling our thoughts.
Epictetus’s essay Of Human Freedom is a beautiful and concise introduction to Stoic wisdom. He writes about “Concerning what is in our power and what is not,” “How a person can preserve their proper character in any situation,” “On satisfaction,” and “How we should struggle with circumstance.” He reminds us that “Every circumstance represents an opportunity.”
All suffering, he holds, is in our minds. It is not caused by external events but by our reactions to those events – by our faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations.
Because most external events are beyond our control, Epictetus believed that it is pointless to worry about them. But our evaluations of these events, by contrast, are entirely within our control. It follows that we should not attach significance to any external phenomena or circumstance. Instead, all our mental energies should be directed inward, with a view to controlling our minds.
Epictetus believed that we should rationally evaluate our cognitions at all times and simply reason ourselves out of upsetting emotional states. He suggested installing a rational fact-checker in our heads, whose task it is to keep our mental state balanced and calm. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Stoic thought is the ancient precursor of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
The more we value things beyond our control, the less control we have. Freedom is, therefore, “not achieved by satisfying desire but by eliminating it” (Epictetus, 2010, p. 81). Life is suffering; bad things will happen, Epictetus asserts.
When they do, we can use our bad luck to test our resolve and strengthen our resilience. “So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material” (Epictetus, 2010, p. 14).
The Stoics’ ultimate aim is control. They want to be the masters in their own house so that they become completely invincible to the many blows that fortune has in store for us. Essentially, they pursue a radical kind of inner freedom that grants full autonomy from external events. Honing a Stoic mindset, they believe, is our most noble purpose in life. The prize is inner peace.
To live and let live is a worthy way of life.