When people gain their first insights in stoicism, often they tend to focus rather on how stoicism can help one to improve gaining a healthy perspective and finding things occurring in life less burdensome.
Which stoicism definitely helps with. Stoicism is a great aid in those matters because practicing it helps us remind that we do not have any influence over many things and thus they shouldn’t affect how we live life, how we experience things.
Stoicism also helps one remember that everything in life is ephemeral, fleeting. Or as Marcus Aurelius said it so eloquently:
Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.
Obviously, understanding that things happening may be out of our reach of influence and that they are rather “irrelevant” because most in life is fleeting, also contain an inherent risk… the risk of turning apathetic.
Yet, that isn’t what stoicism is about. People who wish to focus more on the self-centric philosphy are better served with philosophies which pursue the state of ataraxia, a state of “imperturbability” or “tranquillity”.
While stoicism does recognize ataraxia, it doesn’t make it an end-goal to achieve, that also includes apatheia, the freedom of being disturbed by passion. Not necessarily a freedom of mind though.
In stoicism passions are not considered healthy a state of mind because they veer away from the rational approach to life, and more even to finding a healthy harmony for ourselves with the world around. Apatheia is an integral part of mastery of stoicism because it can help achieving the peace of mind.
But, obviously, that also entails the inherent risk that the stoic student, practitioner becomes self-centric. That is countered by the constant acceptance by the stoic that everything in life is mutually woven togetther, connected and thus have an inherent affinity for each other.
When pursuing peace of mind, it is easy to forget that and to focus solely on the absence of passion and emotions by maintaining a rational perspective.
Yet, forgetting to recognize that everything is intertwined would be negative for ourselves and our own evolution. A perfect modern example of that is climate change. If we recognize that our atmosphere has its limitation and we, as humans, have the biggest influence over that then we need to also accept that we can not be focused on ourselves alone.
Because to the stoic everything is part of a larger organism, a chain of evolution. No matter who we are. When the world suffers, we suffer.
What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.
— Marcus Aurelius
Everyone is part of something bigger and because of that it is important that we regularly ask ourselves what is our role in life and in the world?
Not merely who we are and whether our own problems are truly that important or big, but how do we fit in the larger picture.
If an emperor who had to defend the empire against intruders and also fought rebellions found a way to make things work for him, maybe there’s value to be found for others in his approach and thinking too.
The universe made rational creatures for the sake of each other, with an eye toward mutual benefit based on true value and never for harm.
— Marcus Aurelius
How do we live in a rational harmony with the world around us. Who do we want to be and where do we see our own place on this planet. How do we fit in it?
Don’t merely ask focus on your own problems and whether they are big enough to be an actual burden. Remember that we are all part of a larger organism. Remember sympatheia.
sympatheia (συμπάθεια): sympathy, affinity of parts to the organic whole, mutual interdependence
Marcus Aurelius wrote most about this in Book Six of Meditations. He reminded himself about it when he wrote: “Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe”.