Marcus Aurelius 121 –180 AD
I read a news story recently about a man in Croydon who was sacked by his employers, Lidl, for racially abusing his fellow workers. He claimed unfair dismissal and used as his defence the fact that he was a Stoic and, as a Stoic, he was obliged to speak his mind without repercussions. As Stoicism was a religion, he claimed, his dismissal was a contravention of the Equality Act. Curiously, at the preliminary hearing, the court upheld his claim that Stoicism was a protected religion under the terms of the act and so could use this as a legitimate defence. The case, as they say, continues.
I’m not sure what Marcus Aurelius, the celebrated 2nd century Roman Emperor and author of Meditations (now enjoying renewed popularity) would have made of this—or what his fellow Stoics would have thought. Not much I suspect.
Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, was (or it seems is) a philosophy of personal ethics uncannily similar to those we espouse in our Mindfulness sessions, and was also a great influence on early Christianity—especially the writings of St Paul. As in Mindfulness it holds that the path to true happiness can be found in accepting each moment as it presents itself, not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure, or fear of pain, by using our mind to understand the world as it is, playing one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. Essentially it’s about brotherly love (caritas or agape- see previous blog on Philautia) and our citizenship of the world, living according to reason and virtue and in harmony with the divine order of the universe. Nothing about racially abusing your fellow workers in a popular discount supermarket.
I thought I was a Stoic in my late teens and early twenties. I hadn’t heard of Stoicism, but if I had I would definitely have been one. Along the lines of the Lidl example rather than in the mould of Marcus Aurelius, though I don’t think I racially abused anyone. I believed that we all must be true to ourselves, be authentic, call a spade a spade no matter what, if it hurt someone well that was just collateral damage and they needed to toughen up. My mother had a favourite phrase: white lies. ‘Just tell a little white lie Jeremy’ she would say, just to save their feelings. Eughh! No, I would be honest and truthful at all times. I didn’t like it when people were as tactless as this to me of course, but such is the confused mind of the adolescent. And now I realise that, as in most things, if not all, Mum was right! Tact and diplomacy go an awfully long way. To rise above a difficult situation, and not simply be reactive, is being skilful, and it is very difficult to achieve. Evolution has hard-wired us to be the opposite in fact, we are programmed to fight, flight or freeze, but non-reactivity, held in awareness, is a way to be truly authentic, stoic even.