Is your life driven by a fate governed by a wise and just providence? Or are you and everything else simply the chance movement of atoms? Unlike Chris Fisher who claims modern Stoicism requires a belief in providence, Donald Robertson claims you can be a modern Stoic even if you are an atheist or agnostic. One common interpretation of the choice between providence and atoms offered by Marcus Aurelius “is that he is reminding himself that whether a creator God exists, or whether the universe is simply ordered by blind chance, in either case the practical (ethical) principles of Stoicism should still be followed.” For example, “whether the universe is rule by a provident God or due to the random collision of atoms, either way it makes no sense to blame others for our actions.”
Is your life driven by a fate governed by a wise and just providence? Or are you and everything else simply the chance movement of atoms? In a defense of the Stoic worldview, Christopher Fisher says your psychological well-being may depend on how you answer these questions. “The chasm between the providentially ordered cosmos of the Stoics and the random atomic universe of the Epicureans was deep and wide, and it could not be bridged. Thus, as Marcus asserts, one must make a choice between them—either providence or atoms. … [W]e can choose to follow the cart of fate willingly, with gratitude for the life we have been given. We can take control of what is ‘up to us’ and leave the rest to providence. Or, we can continue to get dragged through life yelping all the way. The choice is ours and the choice is critically important to our psychological well-being.”
William Irvine explains and updates a Stoic formula for a happy, meaningful life. It has to do with the number of days you have left to live and the number of times you will do something in the remainder of your life. (Note that “Irvine” is misspelled in the title of this post on the “Stoicism Today” blog.)
In “Cicero on Living a Stoic Life,” John Sellars explains Cicero’s view that there are four dimensions to who you are: common human nature, your own character traits, the circumstances in which you find yourself, and the career you choose. “So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.” And all of this raises challenging questions about how much is up to you and how much just happens to you.
Would-be Stoics can begin by relaxing their upper lips. Massimo Pigliucci describes how he recently became a Stoic, how he practices a number of standard Stoic exercises daily, and how Stoicism might or might not fit in with his scientific and philosophical beliefs. “For my part, I’ve recently become a Stoic. I do not mean that I have started keeping a stiff upper lip and suppressing my emotions. As much as I love the ‘Star Trek’ character of Mr. Spock (which Gene Roddenberry actually modeled after his — mistaken — understanding of Stoicism), those are two of a number of misconceptions about what it means to be a Stoic. In reality, practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity): it is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like. … In the end … Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things. The need for this sort of insight seems to be universal.”
Philosophies such as Stoicism and Epircureanism promise that you can render yourself invulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But in “Against Invulnerability” Todd May asks whether we really want to be invulnerable. “But for those who choose to remain vulnerable, life is not and cannot be undergone as anything other than a fraught trajectory, one hedged about by an inescapable contingency, and one that is likely to leave scars alongside its joys. And for most of us, most of the time, we would not want it to be any other way.”
According to Lary Wallace, Stoicism is eminently understandable but is grotesquely misunderstood. It’s misunderstood even by great philosophers like Nietzsche. It’s typically thought to be about remaining impassive. But in fact Stoicism promises “lasting transcendence and imperturbable tranquility.” It’s one of the best mind hacks ever.