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From Vol. 1, Issue 11, November 2019

What should you seek? Courage to face the world


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We are all physically vulnerable 

Humans have always been physically vulnerable. We are not born with huge teeth, curving tusks, or thick horns. We don’t have the advantage of size or strength compared with other creatures on Earth. And yet, through the use of our flexible brains, we have become the planet’s dominant species. It’s our mental fortitude that carried the day. 

The Stoic sense of strength 

One of the major themes that draws me to ancient Stoic texts is the sense of strength and power in the individual. Stoic philosophy fosters a kind of courage and mental fortitude that faces down an often-violent world. Stoics cultivate this virtue alongside wisdom, justice, and self-control. 

In ancient times, during the rise of Stoic thinking, the world was a harsh place. The Greek city states battled often with each other and outside powers. Later, politically dominant Rome suffered adversity, too. Plague decimated the population, and Rome was often rife with unrest, civil war, and slavery. Many “bad” things happened to good people… and still do today. 

Why does this happen? How can we make sense of it? The Stoics made a complex argument about how to describe “good” and “bad” that is worth exploring. 

“Bad” refers to what is under our control 

Stoics argued that “bad” should carry a different meaning from that in our common language. Rather than saying, “It’s bad that she broke her leg,” a Stoic might point out that this is not a morally “bad” event. Rather, we should reserve the word “bad” for our thoughts, choices, desires, and behaviors that stray from our moral and ethical sense. Similarly with “good.” Winning the lottery, for example, is not Stoically-speaking “good.” What’s “good” is a rational use of one’s impressions, sound judgments, and moral choices. What’s “good” is how we advance the virtues in our lives and the lives of other people. 

But we are ready to face challenges 

That doesn’t mean we should take hard challenges lying down, however. One very “good” thing is how we can develop our character in trying times. Seneca believed that adversity and hardships make people strong and brave. In fact, he felt that these difficulties are a necessary ingredient for developing courage. Seneca explored the concept how to have “valor without adversity.” Seneca explored this concept in his essay De Providentia (On Providence) and says “valor withers without adversity,” He writes 

Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering; and yields to no misfortune; nay, even if he falls, he still fights upon his knees. 

Seneca, De Proivdentia 2.6 

I think this means fighting not just physically, but mentally, too. Even if we do not necessarily believe in ancient ideas about the plan of “Providence” for our lives, we can solidify courage to fortify ourselves in an unpredictable world. 

Speak up for wise ideas 

Ponder this: Could we do that by taking on more difficult tasks in our jobs, our communities, and with our families? By finding ways to speak up for wise ideas and bring justice to everyday interactions? By shining a light on lies, and becoming a role model of self-control? 

I say yes. And that we could always do more. 

Meredith Kunz is a Silicon Valley-based writer. @thestoicwoman on Twitter