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Step out of the Epicurean Garden and into the Stoic Cosmopolis – Episode 24


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Our modern world is bursting with angst. News of an impending environmental crisis, worldwide political turmoil, gratuitous violence, wars, and human suffering are delivered instantaneously, twenty-four hours a day, to the smart devices in the palms of our hands. It seems there is no escape from the incessant stream of allegedly newsworthy catastrophes short of ignoring the news, abandoning all forms of social media, and sequestering ourselves in some form of safe space, far away from the mayhem of human society. That was the solution offered by the ancient Epicureans. They retreated from social and political life to their garden where they tried to live tranquil lives among like-minded friends. There were exceptions; some Epicureans engaged in society when they thought the benefit of doing so was significant enough to risk their tranquility. However, the primary Epicurean strategy was to retreat from society and thereby avoid the people and events that can cause psychological distress. The Stoics provided an alternative solution. It appears the Epicurean garden did provide a place to develop tranquility for some ancients, and it seems reasonable to assume a similar approach to life can do the same for moderns. However, the Epicurean garden is no place for Stoics. To become a Stoic, one must avoid the alluring walls of the Epicurean garden that separate us from society. The Stoic path does not lead to any peaceful, secluded garden. Instead, it leads us out of the garden and into the clamor of society, where we can fulfill our roles and duties as rational, social creatures. Fortunately, Stoicism provides us with the psychological tools and training methods that will enable us to thrive and experience tranquility, even amid this seemingly hostile environment. Stoics are a different breed; they can flourish in whatever sociopolitical circumstance they find themselves while they simultaneously work to create a society and world that exemplifies courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation. The Stoic prepares to handle the best and worst of human nature within their homes, marketplaces, cities, boardrooms, political forums, and battlefields, while the Epicurean prefers to remain in their garden to escape those potentially disturbing environments. While both pursue virtue, the Epicurean seeks inner tranquility (ataraxia), in part at least, by controlling their external environment; the Stoic, on the other hand, creates inner resilience that allows for psychological well-being (eudaimonia) regardless of external circumstances. Stoics realize how easy it is for the hordes of externals to trample and burn the walls of the Epicurean garden. In contrast, the formidable walls of the Stoic’s inner citadel can withstand the siege of Fortuna and the crashing waves of inexorable fate. Therefore, it is not surprising that many ancient Romans from the political class adopted Stoicism as a way of life. In fact, two of our surviving textual sources come from a Roman emperor (Marcus Aurelius) and a Roman senator (Seneca), and a third comes from the lectures of a freed slave turned philosopher (Epictetus). These writings resonated with people throughout history because these three Stoics lived their philosophy in the real world. They were not academic philosophers expounding on hypothetical scenarios. Instead, each of these ancient Stoics lived and thrived in the tumultuous, chaotic, sweaty, and occasionally bloody world of humanity because they relied on their inner resilience, cultivated by Stoic practice, to live virtuously. The Stoic builds his retreat inside his psyche, not in a garden retreat. The Stoic inner citadel provides an ever-present fortress and retreat, where the Stoic’s soul remains untouchable amidst the vicissitudes of life. As a result, the ancient Stoics possessed the inner strength to engage in social and political life. As C. Kavin Rowe points out, In contrast to the Epicureans, for example,

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