I’m going to let all of you in on a secret, one that has been kept from us for a long time now. Something that everyone tells us to ignore but has an enormous impact on who we are. That secret is:
Life is terrible.
You may think that I’m overreacting to the situation and a pessimist, but this is the general consensus that many philosophers have come to the conclusion of. None of us asked to be born, none of us had any idea what we would be in for, many of us have no idea what lies ahead of us, and when we bite the dust, it will all have been for nothing. If this is so, then what’s even the point of going on in a universe that doesn’t care for us? To the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome, there is no point, and that suicide is always an option, but the Stoics knew much about life and discipline, and how to fight against one of humanity’s greatest enemies: hope.
The Stoics of Ancient Rome were highly disciplined philosophers who kept rigid lives for the betterment of themselves as well as to find happiness and peace in a life that can’t offer either. The two most famous teachers of Stoic philosophy were the teacher Seneca, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius, both had their own ideas and thoughts about what a Stoic should be comprised of. As mentioned before, hope was something that the Stoics shunned and turned away from, because they believed it to be “the opium of the emotions” and an absurd way of facing tragedies in our lives. Although whenever we see someone going through a rough patch, our immediate response is “it’s going to be okay,” “it won’t be that bad” or “I know you’ll pull through better than before,” the Stoics saw this as wasted words on tragedies inevitable in our lives.
The Stoics were particularly fond of two particular subjects when it came to their philosophy: anxiety and anger. These were two problems that the Stoics felt that if were eliminated, life would be all the more better; it would leave people free from their emotions, passions, fears, and personal inhibitions. On the first issue, anxiety, the Stoics sought that fear should not be anticipated when going through a difficult time, for them, the situation may be bad, it may be disastrous even, but there is another side to it. It could be horrible to the point of where one may have to go to prison, lose an appendage or even do something unremarkably horrific, but (and this is a big but) when all is said and done, it will be over, no mater how bad it may be. Anxiety and fear are perfectly normal human emotions, it must be understood, but it mustn’t be used in every little discomforting situation; a person who gives a presentation at a board meeting must not share the same fear as a soldier going into combat. The anxiety does not match up in all situations, and some people may feel differently about certain situations than others, but at the end of the day, it will be over. However, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, the long and painful path may not go on forever, but if you do feel yourself trapped, there is one last route to freedom: turning over your wrists.
When it came to anger, the Stoics were particularly fond of this topic, as the Romans were bad tempered in many ways. Anger, as defined by the Stoics, is the combination of something unfortunate happening that is unexpected, and that the only way to atone for this behavior was to expect every possible tragedy. For example, when it rains outside, we may be upset that it is cold and wet outside, but we don’t stamp our feet and shout, cursing the rain for ruining our day. We don’t do this because we know that on certain days it will rain, and that there is not much we can do about it, so why don’t we expect any other such tragedy to happen?
The chance of encountering any tragedy in our lives is certainly inevitable, although we are less sure of when it will happen. We will drop and break plates and glasses, our houses and bodies will take some damage from time to time, and at the end of the day, what worth is it to get angry or upset over something that was bound to happen? Of course, some tragedies are more predictable than others, and not everyone will experience the same things as other people, and it is okay to feel a little frustrated every now and then, but we must learn to keep our anger in check lest it do some serious damage that we ourselves are fully capable of.
The Stoics were fond of using simplicity, modesty, and insignificance as a way of aiding us in our human condition of vanity, greed, and short-temperedness. They preached that no matter how great our deeds may have been, or how much wealth we are able to accumulate, we will go back to being dust while our names will remain as empty echoes that fall upon deaf ears, ignorant of its context. By using the passivity of life, the Stoics were able to create a philosophy that strengthened discipline in its followers while at the same time, helping people appreciate the smaller things in life, as well as the bigger picture. To the Stoics, death wasn’t an end of accomplishments; it was a savior from the horrors life produced.
So, dear reader, the next time something unfortunate happens that was unexpected, just remember; there is no tragedy life will spare. As Seneca said before he killed himself in front of Nero:
“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”