Saturday, February 14, 2009
The Stoic Path: Socrates, the First Stoic
Few people have had more influence than Socrates – a tough reputedly ugly man who lived in Athens 2300 years ago. But interestingly, his influence comes not from anything he proclaimed as truth, but from the questions he asked. When Socrates went to Delphi – the holiest of the Greek shrines – the priestess there proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest of all men. Socrates interpreted this bizarre claim as a riddle. To learn why he was the wisest man - something he believed he was not - he undertook a rigorous process of self-examination - in order to know what it was that really made him tick. This turn inwards eventually became a philosophical rallying cry and starting point for all knowledge in the Greek world: "know thyself." Socrates learned that the idea of the self comes from knowledge of the "good" and the "true." To be truly authentic, truly one's self, was to be guided by the truth. That is what freedom requires. Conversely, to be guided by what is false was, for Socrates, to be enslaved. Socrates trusted that the truth would disclose itself, if he persisted in questioning everything. And it was the questioning that followed his visit to Delphi that eventually led to his demise, and death sentence. The questioning he pursued led him to realize that he was not a purveyor of knowledge but - in a sense - a midwife. He did not give birth to knowledge. He awakened truth and knowledge in those he questioned as if knowledge was never actually discovered, but awakened and recalled. This process of recollection was the essence of the so-called "Socratic Method" - an educational approach followed still in the world's universities.
Only three other important figures in the history of human thought have made demands as radically transforming as those of Socrates - and in many ways their approaches can be viewed not as contradictory- but complimentary: they are the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. But these three became founders of religious movements - Socrates did not. Socrates was and is thoroughly human. His demand that humans engage in a personal journey leading to an enlightenment of self knowledge rests thoroughly on reason.
Socrates freed himself from the fears of the world using reason in new ways. For example, he used his reason to ask why human beings were so fearful of death. “For to fear death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so: no one knows whether death does not happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils .” This to Socrates was freedom! An authentic life, for Socrates, is not a life directed towards death, but a life directed towards the "good." Because to Socrates the "good" stood at the center of all examination. Socrates never claims to know what the good is exactly - the later Stoics did, as we will see below. But Socrates remains ever open to the possibility that in all the uncertainty and non-knowledge he professes, that this "good" -- that which to Socrates simply "is" - always remains. When we keep our mind's eye ever trained on this central fact of existence, this reference point for all else, life has meaning, and death brings peace.
These ideas were so radical and so threatened the status quo in ancient Greece that Socrates was charged with sedition; the idea of the "good" seemed to challenge the sanctity of the Greek gods. Socrates was tried by a jury of 500; convicted; and sentenced to death – a death, which true to his words, he met with calm equanimity and peace. He was given an opportunity to escape his sentence – a choice he refused. To flee and to live in exile would signal to the world that what he understood about death, from his use of reason, was a sham, and in doing so he would become enslaved. Socrates was a martyr – a martyr for reason.
Socrates' lifelong example of rigorous self-examination (which was a free and responsible search for truth and meaning), together with his willingness to die, rather than to yield to false values, animated the Greek world. Within a few decades of his death in 399 BC, an active band of Athenian followers of Socrates began to examine more closely just what it was that Socrates had discovered. What was it that Socrates had seen that made him so impervious to the fears of the world, and impervious also to the temptations and pleasures that enslaved so many others? Socrates was poor yet satisfied; he never sought power – although he might certainly have had power; he was courageous in battle in his days as a soldier; and he was seemingly impervious to the extremes of discomfort and even the need for sleep – in one famous example he stood motionless on a beach staring out to sea all night long in the bitter cold - thinking.
Socrates was doing more than thinking. He was meditating. And this is what this early band of followers began to realize. They were called the early Stoics. The name was derived from the Stoa – a painted corridor on one side of the Athenian marketplace where these early followers would meet. These early Stoics wanted to understand what it was that Socrates saw in those meditative moments. Socrates himself would refer to these contemplative moments as "divine" – as he became witness to what he called the "Good." This thing, the "Good," was, for Socrates, the reference point for everything else. But what was it?
The movement that developed from these meetings of the early Stoics grew and spread throughout the Greek and later the Roman world. Eventually, and it took some time, the movement matured, and evolved into a philosophic school called Stoicism, which, at its height more than eight hundred years later, was the most influential philosophy in the Greco-Roman world. It was then that a Roman emperor, a good man, who had been schooled in Stoicism as a youth, wrote a series of personal reflections on what this perception meant for him. His name was Marcus Aurelius. He was emperor for 19 years and died in 180 AD in what is now Vienna, defending the empire from the North. The Meditations that Marcus wrote were derived from the Stoic principles that he adhered to in all of his actions. And in reading these meditations slowing and carefully we are today able to understand what it was that gave Socrates – the first Stoic- the strength that he had.
Let’s go back to this meditative experience. When Marcus speaks of meditation he asks us to retire – into ourselves. The purpose of meditation – according to Marcus – is to know yourself. And what the Stoics discovered was stunning. What we truly are – what rests at the center of our being – has nothing to do with what most people associate with the self. Marcus and Socrates before him, discovered that what was at the core was that most human of traits – reason. We have the power to reason and that power of reason is completely within our control. In a sense it is the only thing that we have that cannot be destroyed or altered or moved by anyone or anything. We are defined as human beings by our capacity to reason and with it we can change the world.
Marcus and Socrates before him became so enamored with this observation they began to realize that all of the other aspects of human experience that people associate with value in life pale into insignificance, when compared with reason. The pleasures of the body which we seek, the pains which we run from; the death we dread; the power and money we desire; the reputations we seek – are all irrelevant when compared to reason. None of these other things is ever guaranteed; none are ever permanent; and all are under the influence of fortune, luck and the cooperation of others. But reason, and reason alone is within my power. And it is reason and reason alone that makes me human.
This was such a startling revelation that the Stoics looked more closely. They began to ask: what is reason? Where does it come from? And it is the answer to these questions that gives Stoicism its uniqueness. The Stoics came up with a model. Reason they concluded was something that was in nature. It was not something above us or separate from us like a “soul,” although it was often referred to as soul – but "soul" with a difference. The Stoics called reason the active principle of nature – they called it “Logos.” They associated it with a universal intelligence; they saw it as essentially perfect, and understood it as something that each of us contained in varying degrees; It defined “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” they saw reason as the manifestation of a universal Law – not a law of God, but a law of nature – but perfect still, as natural laws are. And because this law was in us, it granted to us the capacity to act in perfect ways (in other words, with “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations”) when we acted is accord with that trait in us that comes from this perfect natural law. And – this is the grand part – because this Law was universal – my reason comes from the same source as your reason! We are not atoms! We are connected – we share the capacity for reason – and in a larger sense we are intimately connected to universal reason, because my capacity for reason and your capacity for reason reflect the operation of the same universal natural law – Logos.
It is this connection that defines our existence and defines our duty in life, and provides us with the rules of engagement for life. For the Stoic, it is reason that defines us. For the Stoic, reason is perfection. For the Stoic, that which is perfect must be good; that which is good is beautiful; that which is beautiful is that which we seek; and that which we seek is that which we love – truly love. The Stoic, seeing the world in this way, had no difficulty in making choices. She will choose beauty over corruption; good over evil; understanding over ignorance. But a Stoic does understand also that the choice is his or hers. He or she must witness this beauty. We must enter first into ourselves and discover this trait; we must see it first in its irrefutable glory. We must first know ourselves; as Socrates tried to do in his meditative explorations.
The Stoic who takes this inner journey will reject those choices that lead so many in other directions. The love of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, the pursuit of worldly power, or the fear of death, are, to the Stoic, false choices. These are choices we make when we confuse our true humanity with the passions of the body. There is nothing at all wrong with the body to the Stoic. The pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain are natural instincts. We will all do these things. But, we will never do these things, if in so doing we must sacrifice our true center – our reason. When a Stoic acts according to reason – and this is his first priority – those actions are called virtuous. He also calls these actions as actions done "according to nature" – by which he means, according to the will of Logos – the universal law that defines us all. To the Stoic virtuous actions are inescapable – we will act rightly – once we understand our true nature – because right actions, virtuous actions, outwardly directed non-self-serving actions, are the only actions in life that offer us real happiness. These actions make us truly happy, because they are "good (Logos is good)" – and we know they are good, because they bring us closer to that with is truly good and perfect in the universe.
I’ll leave you with one meditation. This is the one that says it all.
“If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it”
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.