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Do you think of yourself as a stoic? Via a podcast I run, I’ve recently become a lot more familiar with the Stoic philosophy, and I find it pretty fascinating.
Stoicism, Wikipedia will tell you, was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Athens in the 3rd century BCE. Stoicism posits that, as social beings, “the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.”
Socrates, Cicero, and Seneca, the Greek and Roman philosophers, were grounded in Stoic philosophy and — similar to the Baha’i teachings — they believed in the soul, in a divine cause to our existence, and in a life after death. In line with Stoic principles for living, they advocated cultivating virtue, being detached about the happenings in the world, and in promoting good citizenship.
Stoics, by the way, would be good at controlling anger (which I am not always), but they were also recognized as having what is called a “Stoic Calm,” or a calm indifference to external events (a trait I can relate to). So, the next time someone in your life isn’t “freaking out” about whatever, maybe just recognize that they are good Stoics.
Let’s look at some of the interesting parallels between the teachings of these great sages and common themes found in the Baha’i writings. I’ll start with virtues. In Plato’s “The Phaedo,” an account of Socrates’ last days with his friends and students, Socrates addresses how acquiring virtues is the primary way to purify the soul:
Let a man be of good cheer about his soul,” he says, “who having cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him … has sought after the pleasures of knowledge; and has arrayed the soul, not in some foreign attire, but in her own proper jewels, temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth—in these adorned she is ready to go on her journey.
All of the philosophers referenced above go into great detail on the importance of fostering virtues during our sojourn in this world and, similarly, there are over 500 references to this word in the Baha’i writings. Here’s one from Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith:
Honesty, virtue, wisdom and a saintly character redound to the exaltation of man, while dishonesty, imposture, ignorance and hypocrisy lead to his abasement. By My life! Man’s distinction lieth not in ornaments or wealth, but rather in virtuous behavior and true understanding.
Another principle the Stoics practiced – not getting too attached to either the bad or good things that happen in life – came ultimately from the realization that we will all experience both. We should not, the Stoics would say, be overly controlled by the desire of pleasure or the fear of pain, and be more accepting about what we do, and don’t, have control over. Moderation is a key watchword. In a work called The Tusculan Disputations, Cicero said:
Whoever, then, through moderation and constancy, is at rest in his mind, and in calm possession of himself, so as neither to pine with care, nor be dejected with fear, nor to be inflamed with desire, coveting something greedily, nor relaxed by extravagant mirth — such a man is that identical wise man whom we are inquiring for, he is the happy man: to whom nothing in this life seems intolerable enough to depress him; nothing exquisite enough to transport him unduly ….
The point that Cicero makes is echoed in the following quote from Baha’u’llah:
Consider, how the wind, faithful to that which God hath ordained, bloweth upon all the regions of the earth, be they inhabited or desolate. Neither the sight of desolation, nor the evidences of prosperity, can either pain or please it. It bloweth in every direction, as bidden by its Creator. So should be every one that claimeth to be a lover of the one true God.
Detachment from the things of the world forms a common message in both Stoic literature and the Baha’i teachings, which could be further analyzed. In fact, many other parallels exist, as well. But I will close this short article with the citizenship idea. “The Stoics,” Robin Alexander Campbell wrote in Letters from a Stoic, “saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by supreme providence.” In a work called “Letters to Lucilius,” Seneca told his protégé: “Live in this belief, I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country.”
That represents a key principle in the Baha’i writings too, of course. Interestingly, perhaps Baha’u’llah had to repeat the message because we still haven’t fully embraced it yet, even after some 2,000 years! He wrote:
It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world.
This article is adapted from several of Zarrín Caldwell’s podcasts on The Soul Salons: Exploring our Spiritual Heritage.