Stoicism: The Core Religion?

‘Every soul will taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as a trial, and to Us, you will be returned.’ – Qur’an 21:35

All religions on our planet have elements of Stoicism in their teachings. If we look at the Abrahamic ones: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam they teach that God is all-knowing and knows the past, present, and future.

These religions confirm we do have free will and so a result, we the followers of religions whether Abrahamic, Dharmic or others choose how we handle the circumstances around us, whether they are considered good or bad. And so what happens positively or negatively to us are opportunities to demonstrate our faith in God (or nature or our life) and to act with wisdom.

In turning to God then becomes an act of personal humility that acknowledges that we don’t control everything and that there is something higher than us. This is why we suffer – many a time when we forget that the world doesn’t revolve around us.

If all is great in our lives and we are on the top of the world then, in reality, we are not in a balanced state of mind. Suffering is a reality and helps us gain an understanding of the true nature of things around us. Nature does not suffer – it just is and we are part of nature or The Creation if we use religious terminology.

This certainly does not mean that we should force our suffering on to others but rather understand that we are all suffering in one way or another – regardless of how much we have or think we have. We are born and will die, we have and will experience pain, hurt, anger, fear – as well as the opposites of those – simply because we are alive.

Our religions and philosophies are all variations of the core, fundamental truths, and our teachers, philosophers, and prophets said the same thing in different ages and contexts that the truth remains the truth and nothing can oppose that and that we humans should become in-tune with the truth.

In walking a path (life) in a way that keeps us sane and humble (submission to God, nature, what is out of our control) and learning and helping others along the way without attaching ourselves to others paths is something we should all focus on and this is why the Philosophy of Stoicism is something that we should all understand.

What is Stoicism:

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). Stoicism can also be called ‘Submission to God or Nature’.

Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.” This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,” and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature”.

Stoicism was a popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire.

When did Modern Stoicism begin?:

Starting around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”), from which his philosophy got its name. Unlike the other schools of philosophy, such as the Epicureans, Zeno chose to teach his philosophy in a public space, which was a colonnade overlooking the central gathering place of Athens, the Agora.

Zeno’s ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno’s most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for the molding of what became known as Stoicism. Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.

Scholars divide the history of Stoicism into three phases:
1. Early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno to Antipater.
2. Middle Stoa, including Panaetius and Posidonius.
3. Late Stoa, including Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature—the logos or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.

The four cardinal virtues (aretai) of Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato (Republic IV. 426–435):
1. Wisdom (σοφία “sophia”)
2. Courage (ανδρεία “andreia”)
3. Justice (δικαιοσύνη “dikaiosyne”)
4. Temperance (σωφροσύνη “sophrosyne”)

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. So if someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of unkindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one’s own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.

Presence of Mind:

Philosophy for a Stoic was not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims; it was a way of life involving constant practice and training (or “askēsis”). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment, and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions. Philosophy for a Stoic was an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:

‘Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…’

Equality of men:

They held that external differences such as rank and wealth were of no importance in social relationships. Instead, they advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all humans. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco-Roman world, and produced a number of writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger and Epictetus.
In particular, they were noted for their urging of clemency toward slaves. Seneca exhorted, “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”

In the Discourses, Epictetus comments on man’s relationship with the world: “Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy.” This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said, “I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world.

Stoicism Today:

The word “stoic” refers to someone indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. The modern usage as “person who represses feelings or endures patiently” was first cited in 1579 as a noun, and 1596 as an adjective.

In contrast to the term “Epicurean”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Stoicism notes, “the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins.”

Mohammed Abbasi

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