CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

On the human condition


View PDF Back to Latest Issue

Our life is short

When we look back on our lives, we see that ever ything has moved too fast. We are born, get married, bring up children, acquire things, and die of old age or of other causes – all within a short span of time.

It was just a moment ago that, as a boy, I sat in the school of philosopher Sotion. It was just a moment ago that I began to argue cases in the courts. It was just a moment ago that I lost interest in arguing cases. And it was a moment ago that I lost the ability to argue. - Seneca, Moral Letters, 50

We’ll soon leave behind all that we so greedily acquired during our life. Everything is over altogether too soon. As Omar Khayyam put it,

Suppose you acquire all that the world can pr ovide; And your life’s cup brims over with all you hold dear ; Still, on the desert’s barren face like snow, you’ll last a while, only to disappear!

But why? What for? Many early Stoics believed that the universe is logical, well-ordered, and benevolent. This view offers the implicit comfort that whether we understand it or not, everything that happens is in some way logical. But not all Stoics accepted this view. For example, Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius asserted that Stoic ethics would work whether all things spring from an intelligent source or are the result of atoms joining and splitting at random.

Either all things spring from one intelligent source and for m a single body (and the part should accept the actions of the whole) or ther e are only atoms, joining and splitting fore ver, and nothing else. So why feel anxiety? - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.39

Either way, we need to deal with the human condition. Whether we fully grasp it or not, we need to deal with the cards we are dealt. There is nothing we can do to change things that happen to us. But we have considerable freedom in the way we deal with what happens to us. With this in mind, we start with the question what is it to be human?

The 1% that makes us different

Several years ago, I was wandering in the jungles of Borneo (with a guide, of course, just in case you were wondering) and had the opportunity to watch orangutans in the wild. I was amazed how similar to humans they were. In fact, 99% of our DNA sequencing is the same as that of apes. This brings us the question “W hat makes us human?” What is this 1% difference that makes us so incredibly different from apes? How is it that human beings keep changing and reconstructing this world while chimps, 99% similar to human beings, live and die leaving no trace?

The answer is that animals mostly act instinctively and seldom choose to respond one way or another. We have a choice in how we respond to our circumstances. When we use this ability wisely, we become uniquely human. But it’s up to us to make the most of it, says Brittany Polat.

When life hands you a lemon

Stoicism provides plenty of answers on how to make decsions that will lead us to a life of joy and not suffering.

But how exactly do you use these skills? What if you wake up one day and find that you are afflicted by an illness which is chronic and for which there is no real cure? This is exactly what happened to Karen Duffy. How do you deal with it? Stoicism is very clear on this point: You have to move past mourning for your old life, and figure out how to make the most out of this life. It is up to you to play the hand you have been dealt. After all,

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will. - Epictetus, Enchiridion, 9

No matter what the circumstances are in your life, you can choose the way you react to them and create suffering or joy. It’s up to you.

When life makes no sense

One way of looking at this is to assume that the universe is ordered and benevolent whether we see it that way or not in the short term. This is what many ancient Stoics thought and some modern Stoics believe. But what if you don’t believe the inherent rationality of the universe? How do we live in a world where so much is outside our control, and where there is no logic to what is happening around us? Meredith Kunz suggests that, in spite of everything, we need to continue to face our problems with courage and justice, with wisdom about the nature of our world, and with the self-discipline to carry on. This is happiness.

When we lose faith

The basic tenet of Stoicism is that virtue is the only good and we flourish when we practise virtue. But if you lose faith in this? Or want to give up because you are not good at practising virtue and keep falling short? Brandon Tumblin says, that it’s helpful to understand that perfection doesn’t exist... When in these particularly dark moments, you don’t need a divine light shining down on you. All you need is a spark to light the way just enough to find the path back to faith. As a Stoic, that spark comes in the everyday opportunities for virtue: kindness, apologizing, and courage (to name but a few).

When we don’t know how to live

So how do we navigate our lives to live better? Kai Whiting and Santara Gonzales have five suggestions:

  1. Aim for a life worth living;
  2. Don’t try to fake it until you make it;
  3. Know what is (and isn’t) in your control;
  4. Recognize luck; and
  5. Live according to Nature.

Putting these five timeless tips into practice might not change the world, but we believe that they will change your world for the better and have a ripple effect that touches the lives of those around you.

When we lose joy

At the end of it all, we are still left with the nagging question, what’s the goal of all of it? Why do we need to study Stoicsim? The answer is that the goal of Stoicism is to live a flourishing, and joyful life. This conveys best what the ancient Stoics had in mind and also that this is the best modern framing of the original term eudaimonia, says Peter Stankiewicz. Cultivating positive emotions leads to a life of joy.

Human predicaments have a very long history. Let’s see what the ancient Stoics had to say.

Marcus Aurelius on the human condition

Marcus Aurelius lived during a pandemic, just as we do now. In his new book, Verissimus, Donald Robertson channels a dialogue between Marcus Aurelius and his former tutor Fronto. Fronto despairs that he has lost five of his children and contemplates dying himself. Marcus Aurelius comforts him by saying that things like that happen to all of us, no matter who we are. So they cannot possibly be good or bad. Therefore, there is no reason to despair.

In another dialogue, this time with his Stoic mentor Rusticus, Marcus recalls what he has learned over the years, studying Stoicism:

Our distresses are less to things themselves than our opinions about them.

Everything changes, nothing is forever.

What matters most is how we respond to it... whether wisely or foolishly.

Seneca on the human condition

Seneca sees our life made up of time. Look closely. You will see that most of our life slips away from us when we are not doing well and much of it when we do nothing. But when we don’t pay attention, we lose it all. - Moral Letters 1

We are stripped of all our goods. We worry about losing our life. No part of life ever benefits us. We spend it all. It slips through our fingers. - ML 22

Most of our fears are due to our imagination. Most things we fear never happen in reality. More things are likely to frighten us than to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. - ML13

So how do we actually live our lives then? Here are some of his suggestions: Hold every hour in your grasp. Get hold of what needs doing today and you will be less dependent on tomorrow. - ML 1

What does it all mean?

Things happen to us. Not all of it is of our making. Not all of it is to our liking. We ask why. Not everyone believes that the universe is rational. Marcus Aurelius said that it does not really matter why things happen the way they do.

Either all things proceed from one intelligent source ... or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed? - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.39

We don’t need to concern ourselves as to why things happen, but we need to know how to deal with what happens.

Is the cucumber bitter? Throw it out. Are their briars in your path? Go around them. That’s enough. Don’t add, “Why are such things in the world?” - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.39

How to deal with what we face is the focus of Stoic ethics. It offers specific ideas about dealing with our problems.

As to why, life does not explain itself. It is what it is. Deal with it.

Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, Editor