A Harvey-Two-Faced Stoicism

July 02, 2015

It is rare that a piece of writing feels as if it is demanding to be heard, leaping out in a desperate attempt to be understood by the reader, such emotions were felt when I stumbled upon Seneca's letter 'On the Firmness or Constancy of the Wise Man'. Focussing on a Stoic approach to life, Seneca writes of how the wise man can never be a sufferer of insults or injury as follows:

"Fortune can only snatch away what she has given; but she does not give virtue, and therefore she cannot take it away. Virtue is free, inviolable, unmoved, unshaken, so steeled against the blows of chance that she cannot be bent, much less broken. Facing the instruments of torture she holds her gaze unflinching, her expression changes not at all, whether a hard or a happy lot is shown to her. Therefore the wise man will lose nothing that he will regard as a loss; for the only possession he has is virtue, and of this he can never be robbed." 

Feeling frustrated after a day at work, uncertain of what I was going to have for lunch never mind what I want to do following my degree, there really could not have been a more appropriate time to hear such a veracious piece of literature.

Anyone who knows me understands and readily accepts I am a person more prone than the next to worry, particularly with relation to the future and to foreseeable endings of things. So isn't this more-or-less the very opposite of what the late Stoics taught you're probably wondering? Whilst this is partially true, it isn't the whole picture. For those not so clued up on philosophy, Stoicism is defined as 'the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings or complaint. Teaching that virtue is in relation to knowledge; with the wise living in relation to divine reason and fate'. So what about creating your own fate, whilst still following the concept of endurance of pain or hardship until we arrive our own individual self-actualised reasons in life?

Following the passage offered by Seneca in A.C. Grayling's book 'What is Good?' I am able to understand I am more in control of my life and the paths I am more than capable of taking. Considering everyday in a Stoic light enables the individual with ever-incerasing rationality and logical thinking. Questions of action to reaction arise such as 'was it beneficial to put oneself in such a negative state because a friend was rude to you?', more often than not we are prone to overeacting, something I myself have a tendency to do. Considering such questions before acting, has the potential to lead us to creating our own fate, and less likely to become victims of circumstance.

Whilst easy for us to focus on what we think will make us happy, we should instead urge ourselves to concentrate on what actually will make us happy. Instead of concentrating on what we want, such as materialistic things like a bigger house or a payrise, we should remain thankful for what we already have, like the pay we're on, or appreciating the achievement of living in the house we currently have. This is not to say that we should all just remain comfortable in our present states and not seek out goals, in fact the very opposite would get us far further. We should concern ourselves with internal changes, those we have control over, for example instead of getting caught up about what other people think of us, which ultimately relies on external beliefs out of our control, we should invest time in what we think of ourselves. We have no control over what others think of us, no matter how hard we try, so reflecting on such questions only wastes time and energy. What is more is that we are unable to control both our past and future, so becoming fatalistic with regards to the two, as Stoicism encourages, we readily create time to focus more on the present. We can learn from our past, such lessons can be implemented in the present in order to create a better, more autonomous future.

Through all of this, Stoicism has shed some light on a part of me which had been lost for quite some time; determination. In the early months of this year I found myself surrounded by apathy and loss of motivation. Fragments of inspiration gradually came back to me around March, with the start of a new job, followed by a few more shavings of drive as the exam period began to loom, however nothing hit me as much as the resolution Stoicism had to offer. I'm no longer worried about what I want to do following my final year, because I know whatever I do, I'll be in control of my own fate. I can determine whether I stay in a job, if I make a career more, who I connect with and where all of this could take me in the future. I can determine all of this through what I do and how I act presently; as for those exterior things which I have no control over, I shall let them flow through and out of my mind freely, they shall no longer have the power to become detangled and absorb the energies they once did.

Just like Harvey Two-Face, my fate now remains in the hands of me. Whilst I may take a more logical approach to emailing internships and companies than flipping a coin as he himself did, I'll keep in mind, with reference to fate, the diametric philosophy of his words:

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