Friday, September 26, 2008

The Stoic Path: Economic Fear

Stoicism expects and demands social and political action from every member of the community. Inactivity, apathy and passivity in the political realm are, in Stoic terms, mutinous to the community as a whole. But political action must be directed toward the benefit of the entire human community. Self-serving political motivations or political actions that benefit special interests or factions are contrary to the nature of moral political action.

What attitude would a Stoic bring to the current economic crisis? One overarching perspective Marcus Aurelius would advocate would be fearlessness. Human beings ought never fear economic distortions or collapse. Whatever changes occur over the next few months and years cannot - in and of themselves - harm our capacity to live meaningful and joyful lives. This is because meaning and joy come not from the acquisition of wealth or the loss of a home. Meaning and joy come from acting purposefully and directly and in proactive ways for the benefit of others.

None of us is immune from the collapse of the present economic structures. Many of us could lose our homes, our pensions, our material wealth and our livelihoods. None of us desires any of these misfortunes. But the loss of any or all of these things need not disturb our basic serenity - unless our perceived serenity or security rests on the false belief that material wealth is a source of happiness. It isn't.

Stoics are remarkable in their capacity to weather misfortune, while remaining calm. Non-stoics call these attitudes "affectations." But for the true Stoic, this attitude is genuine. In reality the growing economic storm offers the Stoic a unique opportunity to reach out to those in need - not with the goal of restoring lost wealth - but in order to demonstrate to our fellow citizens where true peace and true wealth can be found.

Nothing can be more antithetical to peace than fear. In the last great depression President Franklin Roosevelt counseled citizens that they had "nothing to fear, but fear itself." That sentiment struck a chord with ordinary people. It struck a chord because it echoed a truth about our essential and rational human nature; Roosevelt confirmed what sets us apart from our animal cousins. Yes, we too are animal, and our animal nature is subject to emotional turmoil, and we need to notice these feelings, but our exquisite human rationality - when cultivated through reflection and meditation - allows us to transcend these irrational and destructive and blinding fears.

Political leaders who appeal to fear do not understand the true nature of human beings.

In the midst of uncertainty - economic or otherwise - it will serve us well to recall the words of Marcus Aurelius: Unhappy am I because this has happened to me. Not so, but happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.

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