From “Remarks on the Stoics” by Allen Thornton (link):
Suppose that you were the only person in the universe. You could exist in the most perfect paradise without reflecting on your good fortune. You could suffer hunger, thirst, and pain and not complain about the “unfairness” of existence. Notions of good and evil, just and unjust, cannot exist unless there are other people and other lives. When we judge these matters, we usually look no further than our neighbors. Americans call people poor whose standard of living would be considered quite high in China. They take for granted luxuries that were unimaginable 200 years ago. A time may come when our descendants will consider our lives horribly brutal and short, but we do not complain so long as we live about as well as those we see frequently or know about.
It would be simple to understand the Stoics’ view of reality if we didn’t have to deal with other people. But people can steal from us, make demands on us, depend on us, and interact with us in thousands of ways. The question of our relations with other people is the most complicated one in any religion or philosophy. Epictetus explains how a Stoic can maintain his serenity in the face of obviously predatory people. He cites the case of a thief who steals your clothes. “Do not admire your clothes and then you will not be angry with the thief. Do not admire the beauty of your wife, and you will not be angry with the adulterer.” He reasons that the thief “does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consists in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think.” The Stoic knows that a man’s good is in his will and character and not in anything external to him.
His logic is an example of a greater truth: Inequality leads to harmony; equality leads to conflict. We are constantly told that the opposite is true, but we should consider the relations between people. Trade and commerce depend on the fact that individuals place a different value on money. If the grocer didn’t value the bag of flour less than the customer, he wouldn’t sell it. Suppose the bag were worth a dollar to the grocer and a dollar to the customer; then the grocer would have no incentive to sell it. But the grocer values the bag at less than a dollar and so both the grocer and the customer can increase their wealth by the trade of one dollar for one bag of flour. Or suppose a rich man wants to hire a person for a job and two qualified applicants apply. The applicants are not in conflict with the rich man but with each other. Or suppose a man is in love with a beautiful woman. He is in harmony with other women and with homosexuals because they do not value the woman the way he does. Their feelings toward her are completely different from his. He feels the most hatred and ill-will toward another man who also loves the woman. Conflict is in direct proportion to equality. Of course, politics turns everything on its head. Groups of similar people with similar values combine to exert pressure to achieve political ends. But even in this case, the group is simply trying to obtain something from the government at the expense of other groups who want the same thing.
Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe. So if the fruit of a fig tree is not brought to maturity instantly or in an hour, how do you expect the human mind to come to fruition, so quickly and easily?
These quotes are derived from The Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
From the Meditations:
- Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All of these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.
- Since it is possible you may depart from life this very minute, regulate every act and thought accordingly.
- A man then must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.
- It is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. For there is no retreat which is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul.
- Take away your opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.
- How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure.
- Look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.
- On every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of the unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts so that superfluous acts will not follow after.
- Time is like a river made up of the events that happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another thing comes in its place, and this will be carried away, too.
- Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.
- “I am unhappy, because this has happened to me.” Not so: say, “I am happy, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.”
- Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune.
- In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.
- Do not be disgusted, dissatisfied or discouraged if you do not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when you have failed, return again, and be content if the greater part of what you do is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which you return.
- Where a man can live, there also he can live well.
- Nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear.
- Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth, he has such armpits: it is necessary that such an emanation must come from such things.
- Consider if you have hitherto behaved to all in such a way that this way be said of you: Never has he wronged a man in deed or word.
- The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.
- If it is difficult to accomplish something by yourself, do not think that it is impossible for man: but if anything is possible for man and conformable to his nature, think that this can be attained by you, too.
- Let us overlook many things in those who are like antagonists in the gymnasium. For it is in our power, as I said, to get out of the way and to have no suspicion or hatred.
- When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.
- It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments.
- Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present.
- Whatever any one does or says, I must be good, just as if the emerald (or the gold or the purple) were always saying, “Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.”
- Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change?
- In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.
- When a man has done you wrong, immediately consider what opinion about good or evil he has. For when you have seen this, you will pity him, and will neither wonder nor be angry.
- Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig.
- The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.
- It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.
- Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.
- No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.
- Practice that also wherein you have no expectation of success. For even the left hand, which is ineffectual for all other things for want of practice, holds the bridle more vigorously than the right hand; for it has been practiced in this.
- How ridiculous and what a stranger he is who is surprised at anything that happens in life.
- If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it. For let your impulse be in your own power.
- Consider that everything is opinion and opinion is in your power. Take away then, when you choose, your opinion, and like a mariner who has rounded the headland, you will find calm, everything stable, and a waveless bay.
- Cast away opinion and you are saved. Who then hinders you from casting it away?
- How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man! On what a small clod of the whole earth you creep! Consider nothing to be great except to act as your nature leads you.