Two new books filled with ancient wisdom offer an alternative to the culture of victimhood which currently dominates public life.
In recent years the culture of offence, emotional lability and learned helplessness has encouraged people to be weak in order to gain social status. If we are upset we display our emotions for support; if we are hurt we show our wounds for sympathy; if we consider ourselves slighted we indulge our injury. By rewarding weakness we encourage it. We learn to make ourselves unable to accept valid criticism by rejecting it as a personal slight. We demand respect without displaying the qualities that might generate admiration. Whenever we encounter opposition we feel defeated because we have defeated ourselves peremptorily. Social and psychological data show that we are making ourselves, our children and our society ever more fragile in a descending spiral of blame, making anyone but ourselves responsible for suffering. The culture of victimhood can be seen in social-media outrage mobs, the prevalence of identity politics and the casual assumption that bigotry is endemic and condemns subjects to lives of intolerable failure.
The Stoics believed that suffering largely emanates from within each person and that each person, therefore, has the power to overcome suffering through conscious thought and learned habit. They believed that treating both failure and success with equanimity preserved the individual from the excesses of pride and despair. An interior search for meaning led to understanding of virtue and to dignified restrained conduct not to temptation to succumb to self-pity, vanity and selfishness. Stoicism’s cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.
Stoicism was a school of moral ethics originated by the ancient Greeks in Athens in the 3rd Century BC. Two of the most prominent writers were Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) and Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-36 BC). Princeton University Press have produced two attractive small volumes of which publish the original texts (Cicero in Latin, Epictetus in Greek) with parallel English translations and brief introduction and endnotes.
How to Be a Friend (Laelius de Amicitia – literally “Laelius on Friendship”) was written by Cicero for his friend Atticus when they were both old. He was reflecting upon the importance and nature of friendship, using the general and orator Gaius Laelius not only to share Laelius’s thoughts but to reflect Cicero’s own understanding of friendship. In the translator’s introduction some of Cicero’s observations are summarised:
Only good people can be friends because trust, wisdom and good faith are essential to deep friendships; persons of low moral character cannot be trustworthy friends. Make new friends, but keep the old because your friendships of longstanding may change as your circumstances change; new friendships reflect new aspects of your life. A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong because moral distortion of a friendship is the result of moral flaws which should disqualify the friend from your trust. Friendship should never – ideally – be material or the result of dependence.
To the degree a person relies on himself and is made sturdy by virtue and wisdom so that he depends on no one and thus possesses all he needs within himself, to that extent he most excels at seeking out and cherishing friendships. Did my departed friend Africanus need me? By Hercules, not at all! And I had no need of him. But I loved him because of his goodness, just as he, if judged rightly, loved me because of the virtue he saw in me.
In one touching passage, Cicero talks of two friends becoming competitive in their attempts to help each other, trying to outdo each other with consideration and generosity. Elsewhere he writes, “Friends are the finest and most beautiful adornment of life.” This is tempered by moral seriousness. “True friends should give faithful advice to each other, not only with frankness but with sternness if necessary. And this advice should be heeded.” On the response to the death of a friend, Cicero writes “If you let your sorrow overwhelm you, you’re not showing how much you loved your friend, only how much you love yourself.”
One might quibble with a handful of points – including that one must never give consideration to negative comments made about your friends – but generally the book is full on sound insights into human nature.
How to Be Free (comprising extracts from Encheiridion (Ἐγχειρίδιον) (“Handbook”) and Diatribai (Διατριβαί) (“Discourses”)) is a parallel translation with the colloquial Greek, as spoken by Epictetus in his lectures. They were transcribed from memory by his pupil Arrian of Nicomedia. Epictetus was a freed Geek slave who became known as a thinker after he was granted his freedom. For Epictetus, freedom was a mental choice. One could examine one’s self and become aware of the virtues and vices and understand how different phenomena affect one’s outlet. After knowledge and self-knowledge comes the exercise of will. Epictetus does not, however, address the dangers of passivity in the acceptance of one’s fate. The philosopher enjoined persons to treat every situation as expected and necessary and to only respond by tempering one’s reactions. Mastery of oneself – through deciding how to respond – gives both serenity and stability.
Epictetus helps us view with equanimity things that most people care about: wealth, poverty, illness and so forth. If we treat such matters with distant appreciation and mindfulness we become not entirely indifferent but less swayed by passing states. Do not get carried away with your passions, for good or ill.
“In company don’t go on at length about your deeds or adventures. It may be pleasant for you to recount them, but others are less eager to hear about what has happened to you.” (That just about kills social media.) Refrain from luxuries, socially unacceptable sex, emotional excess and humour. Epictetus is capable of his own dry wit. “If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”
If someone in the street were entrusted with your body, you would be furious. Yet you entrust your mind to anyone around who happens to insult you, and allow it to be troubled and confused. Aren’t you ashamed of that?
In an age of vanity, fear and self-absorption, Stoicism offers hard truths and curt truisms. These small tomes should appeal to readers with a desire to better themselves and a willingness to take on tough wisdom that has not aged in 2,000 years.
Epictetus, A. A. Long (trans.), How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 173pp + liii, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17771 7
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (trans.), How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship, Princeton University Press, October 2018, hardback, 208pp, £13.99/$16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 17719 9
28 September 2018
© 2018 Alexander Adams
See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art