Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of the second century, was a Stoic
December ends, January begins, and gyms fill up to make their traditional best profits in the first month of the year. But is exercise the best New Year’s resolution? As we face another annus horribilis filled with political and economic unrest, with messages and expectations bombarding us from all sides, perhaps it’s time to re-think our New Year’s resolution and go for some peace of mind.
Our times are certainly tumultuous, but it’s not the first time in history things are changing. In the fourth century BC Alexander the Great undertook an expedition that changed the face of the earth. It changed the way people, and especially the Greeks saw themselves. The City-state, that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had pronounced the centers of ethical life, collapsed. A new generation of philosophers responded to the turmoil. They were materialists with profound ethical intuitions: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics. Can we in our tumultuous information age, learn something from their Hellenistic age?
Peace of mind
Plato and Aristotle had left behind the academy and the Peripatos respectively, but soon after their deaths their core discoveries were forgotten and/or denied. The void that left was filled by three main schools: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics. They all took up a theme that had been introduced by the Cynic philosopher Diogenes: the importance of ataraxia, meaning the absence of turmoil, interior quiet, peace of mind. Even if Alexander had left the world outside in complete chaos, they all said, that was not the most important thing. The important thing is to have control over ourselves, to be composed at all times; that’s the fulfilment of human nature and the road to happiness.
The three big schools differed in the way they approached this peace of mind. Their positions are rather radical, but from each we can take a core lesson.
First lesson: don't judge too quickly
The Sceptics took issue with human knowledge. They radically denied our capacity for knowing, and said that by realizing our incapacity of knowing reality, we could learn to not judge anything about the world around us, and in this way have peace of mind. While this stance goes too far, because there are things we can really know (else scientific progress wouldn’t have been possible, for instance), it is true that we often think we know more than we really do. Holding back judgement when things are not clear is a good way to worry less.
Second lesson: accept things and people as they come
The Stoics saw the world as governed by a reason that is contained in the matter the world is made of, and they identified this reason as God. In this way, they were pantheists. They saw everything as ordered by this divine reason; so, for them, all we can do is accept or resist our fate. Their wisdom consisted in always accepting fate, rather than resisting it, and in this way having peace of mind.
While Stoic determinism is again too radical, because it does not take into account the notion of free will nor that of a loving providence (which hadn’t been formulated at the time), the idea that we should in the first instance accept things and people as they come is a valid insight. Trying to improve things is often an important step beyond the acceptance, but skipping the acceptance can give us considerably more unrest then necessary.
Third lesson: enjoy
Epicurus led his followers to “the Garden,” a place where they could enjoy peace and quiet away from the turbulence of the city. For him, pleasure was the highest good, and he justified that through a materialist world-view. But interestingly, the highest pleasure for him was exactly ataraxia, peace of mind. He therefore rejected many of the “pleasures of the world” because, according to him, they don’t bring us any peace of mind. Instead, he enjoyed talking about philosophy with his followers in the Garden. And even when illness and physical pain tormented him towards his death, nothing could take the pleasure of a peaceful mind away from him.
This stance is again too radical (if everyone did this our society couldn’t function), but contains an important point: finding the time and place to enjoy peace of mind is an important skill.
Don’t push it
As we have just seen, each of these schools takes their approach to ataraxia, peace of mind, to an extreme. As a consequence, the model of “the sage” or wise person that they present becomes inhumane. Of some sages it is told that they passed by a friend in need without being perturbed, and therefore also not helping out. Passions didn’t unsettle them, but also their humanity had been suppressed.
Why is this important?
Having peace of mind helps us to detach from unimportant things that clamour for our attention. That’s important, but only as a step to the next phase: attaching to what is really important. That is clearly where our Hellenistic friends fall short. They didn’t understand that human beings are also called to improve the world around them and build strong relationships with others.
Still, their peace of mind is a great starting point for trying to improve things, and dealing with adversity while doing so. A peaceful person is also pleasant to relate to, if he opens up to the concerns of others, that is. So peace of mind is not an end goal, as the Hellenists thought, but it is a great starting point for improving things, and for building strong relationships.
Making it practical
Peace of mind needs to be built through practice, and it is not an easy task. Therefore, it is advisable to come back to any good resolution to work on it more than once a year. Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, making new week’s or even new day’s resolutions at a fixed time every weekend or evening would certainly be more effective.
The questions the philosophical schools raise could be a good starting point for resolutions: our speed of judgement, acceptation of events and people, and finding a time and place for peace of mind are all things to consider regularly. Connectedness and disconnectedness are contemporary elements of this problem. Time to talk to family and friends without being interrupted by messages or entertainments, being able to work at important issues without interruption (see Cal Newport’s Deep Work for practical suggestions), and finding time for reflection about what is important to us personally, perhaps in meditation or prayer — all these are challenges which, once regularly tackled, will improve our peace of mind.
The new year presents itself full of opportunity, but also full of worries and distractions. The suggestions of the Hellenists, if appropriately put in context, can help us reach peace of mind and use that for the good of the world and the people around us.
* This article was inspired by The Systems of the Hellenistic Age: A history of ancient philosophy, by Giovanni Reale. This book is recommended reading for those interested in the philosophical schools mentioned.
Daan van Schalkwijk writes from the Netherlands. He teaches biology at a university in Amsterdam and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence. Visit his blog, Science and Beyond.