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From Vol. 5, Issue 12, December 2023

Stoic essence: Be a good person

Practicing Stoicism || JOHN KUNA

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Endless Stoic debates

People will debate endlessly on the role of a divine providential cosmos, on whether the Dichotomy of Control is a legit Stoic concept or not, on how the soul or the hegemonikon factors into our capacity for reason, on whether Stoicism is watered down when you divorce the Physics from the Ethics and Logic. None of that fundamentally matters. Will the nature of the cosmos prevent you from being a good person? Will the correct translation of eph' hêmin really affect your moral character? Will Stoic theories of consciousness impact your ability to think? Will the eclecticism or fundamentalism of others really change the way you act toward people overall? If you seriously answered “yes” to any of those questions then I have news for you: you’ve lost the plot.

Sure, there is plenty of merit to having theoretical conversations from an academic sense, or from the perspective of trying to dismiss myths and misconceptions so people don’t inadvertently come to believe that Stoicism is about getting rich, being successful with women, or achieving personal happiness at the expense of others. It’s especially useful to approach Stoic theory from a position of curiosity so that you can better understand what they said to determine whether you fully agree with it or need to modify it for your own practice. But if you’re a practicing Stoic, a prokoptôn, then your only focus on what you need to strive toward is being a good person – being excellent to one another.

For those of us who have been practicing and studying long enough, we know that getting lost in the details and nuance of Stoicism can distract us from our goal. And our goal isn’t sagehood; it should never be about perfection. Our goal is to just keep trying to get a little better all the time. There are some scholars with such knowledge and such expertise with the philosophy that for them it amounts to little more than an academic exercise of constant purity tests about what Stoicism is and what it isn’t. That’s not only a waste of time, it directly contradicts some of the greatest Stoic philosophers of the day.

Be a good person

Marcus was all too familiar with this trap. As a lifelong pupil of philosophy, he loved pouring over ancient tomes of wisdom and knowledge. He too found himself so enthralled with reading and theorizing and thinking about living a good life that he had to remind himself several times throughout Meditations to get back to his roots. 

Discard your thirst for books; let them not distract you so that you won't die in bitterness, but in cheerfulness and truth. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.2.

Those who study and practice long enough know this refrain cuts like a hot knife through butter. But he best captures the essence of Stoicism in the following passage. 

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man is; be one. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.16.

This is Stoicism. Let it echo in your mind.