Apparently, sales of books about Stoicism have rocketed during the pandemic. Why would there be a surge in interest about a school of ancient philosophy which is over 2000 years old?
Maybe, because one of the specific skill-sets associated with the Stoics is dealing with adversity; which is exactly why the Stoics may well have something to offer martial artists.
It is strange how the word ‘Stoic’ is used today. When you hear of anyone described as behaving stoically, it usually suggests that they are putting up with bad experiences or bad times in an uncomplaining way, or displaying zero emotion, or perhaps indifference to pain, grief (or even happiness). This is a little misleading and over-simplistic, and on its own, not particularly useful.
For anyone who has not heard of Stoicism before, a potted history may be necessary.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and enthusiastically embraced by key individuals in the later Roman Empire. It was established in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium in the city of Athens. Its main themes were the search for wisdom, virtue and human perfection.
After the Greeks it was eagerly embraced in ancient Rome, first by Seneca (4BCE – 65CE) a writer, politician and philosopher who was heavily embroiled in the politics associated with emperors Claudius and Nero and miraculously escaping two death sentences. Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is one of my go-to reads, an amazingly modern sounding set of conversations coming out of the long-distant past.
Stoicism was then picked up by Epictetus (50CE – 135CE) an educated Greek slave who lived in Rome, but was later exiled to Greece. He left no direct writings, but had one faithful disciple, Arrian, who dutifully wrote everything down.
Perhaps one of the most famous and accessible of the Stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121CE – 180CE). Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Gladiator’ may remember that Marcus Aurelius appeared in the very early part of the movie played by Richard Harris, and although he actually did die of unknown causes whilst on a military campaign at the age of 58, it was unlikely it was at the hands of his son and successor Commodus, as the movie suggests, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the great and virtuous Roman emperors. Fortunately for us, he left behind a book, now titled, ‘Meditations’ and it is this book of Stoic wisdom that has been snapped up in the recent Covid year.
I had wondered if any modern martial artists had picked up on the Stoics? While there are a few online references, the tone very much suggested to me a misappropriation and over-simplified cherry picking; reminding me of how a particular disreputable 20th century fascist regime (who will not be mentioned) misappropriated and misunderstood the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche.
Yes, some of the writings of the Stoics seem to suggest a kind of toughness, but Stoicism is a bigger package, involving elements of compassion and love. This perceived ‘toughness’ emanates from the Stoics’ detailed dissection of human motivation and how we should respond to the trials of just living. What is really of value, matched against what is trivial and not worthy of our attention.
It is a very pragmatic, workable philosophy. I often wonder if boxer Mike Tyson may perhaps have been influenced by the Stoics when he said, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That might have come straight out of Marcus Aurelius’’ ‘Meditations’. He would have liked that.
There are many cross-overs between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. It is a strange coincidence but scholars have pointed out that all of these great thinkers sprang up at almost exactly the same time in human history, but in places with no obvious geographical or cultural connections (Persia, India, China and Greco-Roman culture). Philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the ‘Axial Age’. The cross-overs are indeed uncanny, but I can’t help thinking that civilisations reached a particular pitch in their development which supplied the right nutrients for these philosophies to grow.
There is far too much on this theme for one blog post, but I will supply one example which is relevant to martial artists.
Stoicism is often referred to by modern behavioural psychotherapists, who tend to use a very close variation of this particular pattern of Stoic thinking.
(This comes from a recent podcast interview with psychotherapist Donald Robertson, information at the foot of this post.)
The ancient origin of this go back to a mischievous commentary engaged in by Socrates (considered to be one of the root thinkers of Stoicism) and dealing with the subject of managing adversity.
One day, Socrates said that he was incredibly disappointed with the way the heroes of Greek dramas coped with adverse situations, and that they’d nearly always got it wrong. His young companion asked him, ‘how so?’. Socrates then gave four pieces of advice on how to cope with bad situations.
- When bad stuff happens how do you know it won’t actually turn out for the better in the long run? To explain; maybe that job you didn’t get was not really for you and the next job is really the one that will launch you into a more positive future. Or, that girlfriend that you broke up with, actually did you a favour?
- If it already hurts, why voluntarily add on another layer of suffering by indulging in your own misery? (He’s not against regret or even grief, but if it goes on and on, then you are into another realm altogether, in the modern age it would probably described as clinical depression). Incidentally ‘venting’ is also of limited use; again, it can become habit forming.
- Although to you, in that moment, it is the end of the world; but in the grand scheme of things it may well be microscopic (depending on severity of course).
- Anger or freaking out may give you energy, but it actually inhibits clear rational thinking, which is actually the very thing you need to make yourself useful in a crisis. If it is your habit to fire up your adrenal glands to respond ‘positively’ then you’ve got it wrong. Over time, that particular habit will kill you. Some martial artists think that the fire of anger is useful, and train to artificially ‘switch it on’, – big mistake.
Of course, all of the above comes with a disclaimer; i.e. it depends on the situation and how extreme it is, not to put too fine a point on it, but, terminal is terminal, but even then, you still have choices. One of my heroes, Michel De Montaigne once said that the measure of a man is how he conducts himself when the ‘bucket is nearly empty’.
I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He chimes clearly with the Stoics and supports their idea that even in the worst of situations, you still have choices, you still have control. You can choose how you want to view the situation and you can choose how you want to react to it; even resignation is a choice.
Now put that into a Covid scenario. What is really interesting is how people choose to respond to Covid.
What would the Stoics have made of our Covid days?
Well, for a start, it wouldn’t have been anything outside of their experience. Socrates experienced a catastrophic plague at the age of 38 while serving as an infantryman. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the deadly Antonine plague which started in 165 CE and finally blew itself out in 180CE, with an estimated death toll of between five and ten million, located within a relatively restricted area, all of this at a time when they had none of the tools we have. With the Antonine plague (which was probably Smallpox) there was a dramatic shift in social structure, because, like Covid, it was indiscriminate, but inevitably was the scourge of the poorer classes. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius had to rapidly promote people from the lower orders, even freeing slaves, to ensure the infrastructure was able to operate. This was a perfect opportunity for a Stoic emperor to show what he was made of. Very much the Stoic ideal of changing what you can change, and not obsessing about what you can’t.
Yes, the Stoics taught resilience and a deep examination of human affairs, take these examples from Marcus Aurelius:
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”. (Obviously this not necessarily about physical injury.)
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life”.
And a particular favourite of mine and one to really ponder, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. And this from a man who knew about combat, both individual and large scale.
My view; there is much to learn from the Stoics.
Mo Gawdat podcast, talking to Donald Robertson about psychotherapy and Stoicism (says ‘Part 2’, but it’s really Part 1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8PH-DL5AI8
Featured image: A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. By Pierre-Selim – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954 (detail).