Stoic Lessons: How To Act And How To View Death

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others’ action or failure to act. Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. Now if there is nothing fearful for the elements themselves in their constant change of each into another, why should one look anxiously in prospect at the change and dissolution of them all? This is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature. (Marcus Aurelius)

According to Marcus Aurelius, philosophy, more specifically Stoic philosophy teaches two things in particular: How to act and How to view death.

Living requires a lot of decision making. So many decisions that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s even more challenging now than it was in the time Marcus Aurelius lived, for there is an abundance of choices in our current age. Far too many paths in life. Far too many ways to think, behave and act. It’s no wonder why the world is full of self-help gurus who instruct other people about how to live their lives.

Stoic philosophy simplifies action. “Doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Although a simple notion, this advice is difficult to follow because it requires self-reflection. To figure out your aim, your truth and your principles, you have to know yourself. You have to know that humans are part of nature, which means each individual had “divinity” inside them, according to the Stoics. This divinity means that you have to hold yourself up to a higher standard, to demand more out of yourself. To go beyond what is expected of you.

Part of acting also involves “accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin”. Meaning, the outcome is not in your control. All you have control over is your attitude and reaction. There is freedom in this understanding. Concentrate on what you can control.

The Stoic view of death is similar to that of fate: Acceptance. Death is a part of nature and so it must be accepted as such instead of fearing it. “And at all times awaiting death with glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed”. Stoics often practiced an objective point of view.

For example Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that the food he was eating was simply a dead body of a fish of another animal.

How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig.

This was done in order to strip away the glamour and to get to the core of the matter because you can dress up the food however you like and add whatever spices you want but in reality what you are eating is just flesh and meat, carcass of something that will soon rot. Similarly, death can seem grand in our head but in reality its just a “dissolution of the elements”, a dissolution which “is in accordance with nature: and nothing harmful is in accordance with nature.”


On Being Virtuous vs Seeming Virtuous

We are told to judge a person by his actions. Then, people who act virtuously should mean they are virtuous people. But can you be virtuous if your thoughts are muddled with vices? Meaning, your acts are good but your desires or wants are bad. So, its a struggle of suppressing what you truly desire in order to project a certain type of image. A virtuous being. The kind that you see on social media where people only post their highlights, the best and edited parts of themselves. More so than ever before there are people claiming to be one way for the public while being different in their private life. But does that matter? Perhaps these people deserve praise for showing self-restraint, discipline, self-control, showing that they aren’t lead by their immediate emotions that there is a calculated thought behind their behavior.

So, if action alone is to be the judge of character, then it’s easy to be a virtuous individual for it’s easy to seem virtuous in overt actions. It’s easy to do the right then when everyone is looking and expecting you to behave properly. Just like obeying traffic lights in the daytime but how about at midnight? When there isn’t a car in sight? Do you still obey?

Perhaps then, the action of an individual is just one part of the puzzle. Another piece maybe their internal thoughts and desires. Or, the action itself could be broken down to several pieces where the smaller acts hold as much weight as larger ones. Those acts that you perform without the threat of the mob.

Maybe the overt action is controlled and disciplined, but what about the smaller acts? Can someone who is suppressing his vices really keep them locked up in all aspects of life? We do hear stories of supposed good and virtuous people being found guilty of horrific actions. Bill Cosby comes to mind. The disharmony in one’s thoughts and actions will show itself at some point. Maybe this is why we feel put off by a person who puts down those less fortunate than them. Someone who talks rudely to a waiter or makes fun of a janitor. These smaller actions can be the real them seeping out when they don’t feel the pressure to be virtuous or moral or excellent. It’s here we see the sight behind the mask.

I suppose the point of all of this is to withhold judgment about another person’s character until you have sufficient evidence. In our media-driven world, we often see people doing good or bad, see people at their highest of highs and also their lowest of lows and we quickly formulate a judgment. Claim some to be good people and others to be bad. This judgment could be correct and is probably some evolutionary tactic to identify those who can harm us and those who can aid us. But such judgment can also set you up to be fooled or betrayed. Someone you trusted could turn out to be untrustworthy through later actions and those judged as bad due to some overt action could change and this change could be seen in their smaller acts yet you may be blind to such things because of your previous bias’.

It’s always better to detach and be objective. To take into account sufficient evidence. To formulate an opinion but be flexible enough to change it and to harmonize your actions, large or small, with those of equally good thoughts and desires so one can practice virtue at all times, be excellent at all times, be moral without cowardice.

People believe that virtue and vice are only communicated through overt action but in reality, virtue and vice are emitted in the breath of every moment. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance).


For more daily updates follow me on Instagram: