When people talk about what it is to be a gentleman, they might used the term ‘stoic’. This describes someone who doesn’t show emotion, and who endures hardship without complaining. The term ‘Stoic’ (capital S) however, refers to the philosophy of Stoicism. Some aspects of this philosophy, I feel, fit better with the idea of being a gentleman.
So….what is Stoicism?
Stoicism has a long history and originated from Athens in Greece in the 3rd Century BC. It was originally a philosophy of the streets, with the term ‘Stoic’ coming from the Greek word ‘stoa’ which is a sheltered porch area where the people used to gather.
Two of Stoicism’s most famous exponents who developed the philosophy were Epictetus, who was a slave but was allowed by his master to study philosophy, and Marcus Aurelius. Marcus was one of the most famous, powerful and well-respected Roman Emperors of all time. At one time, he ruled the entire known world! He could literally have what he wanted, but his strong principles led to him still being described as the last great Emperor.
Living in accordance with nature?
The Stoics stated that people should “live in accordance with nature”. This doesn’t mean getting naked and living in the woods. It’s the idea that people, at their core, are social beings. We don’t live in isolation, so we should aim to be the best that we can be, and measure what we do by how it benefits society. People are also rational, and have the capacity for reason. This is a natural part of being human and what sets us apart from animals. By applying this, they believed that we can live a good life.
To the Stoics, the most important things was the development and preservation of their (moral) character. This was achieved through four virtues (all of which align closely with the common perception of what constitutes a gentleman). These are:
- Wisdom – this is practical wisdom, rationality and good judgement, to determine what is good and bad. The opposite being foolishness.
- Courage – bravery, to embrace fate. The opposite being cowardice.
- Temperance – the avoidance of excess; moderation; self-control
- Justice – linked to integrity; treating people fairly and doing the right thing no matter what the consequences.
One element of a person’s life that reason can be applied to is that of control (the Stoics talk a lot about this). It is ultimately this – there are things that we have direct control over, and there are things that we don’t. The former being our thoughts and our actions, and the latter being…well…everything else really. As Epictetus states in the Enchiridion (chapter 5): “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them”
By understanding that external events are largely out of our control, but that we have a choice over how we react, we can develop resilience and accept what fate has handed us.
Bring this to mind next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam. You could get angry and frustrated. Curse existence and shake your fist at the world. Or, by applying a little Stoic philosophy, you could act in a more gentlemanly manner and reframe the situation. For example, by seeing it as an opportunity to relax for a moment rather than increase your stress levels, maybe think of the things that you are grateful for…
The Stoics had a saying: “Amor Fati” which means love fate. Essentially you can make all of the plans you want but, ultimately, fate will take its course. A lovely metaphor that I found is that of an archer, who can set up his bow perfectly and aim the arrow at the target with expert precision, but other things can always affect the shot, such as the direction of the wind or distractions. Where the arrow lands is, to a certain extent, ‘the will of the gods’.
“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace” Epictetus Enchiridion, chapter 8.
Premeditation of Adversity
One technique the Stoics would practice is what they called ‘Premeditatio Malorum’ or the ‘premeditation of adversity’. To put it simply, this technique involved thinking about the misfortunes that might befall you but, rather than seeing this from the perspective of a victim, you visualise ways that you would cope with the situation, in a rational manner. It is thought that this could increase resilience when misfortune does occur.
For example, you could visualise your toddler turning your house upside down, your best shirt being torn, or you pet dog chewing your favourite shoes, but rather than getting upset, see it as an opportunity to develop and test your inner calm; it is also a way to appreciate the things that you have, whilst you still have them. Okay, so this might be easier said than done, but the Stoics had a belief that a person’s inner peace and moral character was far more important than external possessions.
This is only a very basic introduction to this subject, but Stoic Philosophy has had a resurgence lately and, as well as the classic texts, there are now a lot of new books on the subject at various levels. I love reading books based on this, as, despite being an ancient philosophy, it does have real practical application in our increasingly complex and stressful world. It has been linked to the development of techniques used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, something often used to treat a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. It’s a philosophy that has been influencing people for thousands of years and is still helping people today.
Some of my favorite books and resources on the subject are listed below. Please be aware that I am part of the ‘Amazon Associate’ programme, so if you buy anything I may get a small percentage, but these are books that I genuinely own and have enjoyed.
‘How To Be A Stoic’ by Massimo Pigliucci. – This is quite easy to read and is a good introduction.
‘A Guide to the Good Life‘ by William B. Irvine – Again, quite a nice, accessible introduction to the subject.
‘Stoicism and the Art of Happiness’ by Donald Robertson: This is one of my favourite books but goes into a bit more depth.
Donald Robertson also has a great website full of lots of information and some great courses: https://donaldrobertson.name
There are also some great videos on the subject on YouTube.
The classic works (which are, surprisingly, very accessible):
‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius. This is possibly one of the most famous classic texts. Most of it is written in short notes and was for his own personal use rather than something he intended to be published.
‘Enchiridion’ by Epictetus. Enchiridion essentially means ‘handbook’ and contains short paragraphs that can be read one at a time and digested.