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Bear and Forbear Only Gets Us Half the Way There – Episode 12


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Does the cosmos have a purpose that gives human life inherent meaning? Or do we live in an accidental universe that lacks any inherent purpose and thereby makes our lives as potentially futile as that of the mythological Sisyphus, who is compelled for eternity to roll a boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll down again? This question has puzzled and haunted the minds of numerous thinkers for many millennia; however, to seriously entertain the possibility that the cosmos has an inherent purpose today one must step outside the spirit of our time, which operates on the mostly unspoken and unprovable assumption that the universe is accidental and purposeless and the only meaning in human life is that which we create for ourselves. Stoicism stands staunchly opposed to that assumption. The Stoic worldview is so different from that of our secular age that most people who are interested in Stoicism today ignore the concept of a providential cosmos, and question or deny any difference it can make in the life of a practitioner. That is unfortunate. Originally, I intended this episode of Stoicism On Fire to move on to the spiritual exercise known as the discipline of action, which falls within the field of ethics. However, I think more attention needs to be focused on a distinction covered in the last episode before we move on. In episode eleven, I offered the following meme: Bear and forbear only gets us half the way there My goal in offering that meme was to highlight the vast gulf between the common caricature of a stoic as one who bears and forbears all the events in life with equanimity, and what we see in the Stoic texts. The accurate portrait of a Stoic presents a person who loves the events of nature and expresses gratitude for them—all of them. The Stoics were renounced for their resilience to the events of life. They considered it irrational to want things to happen differently than they do. However, Stoic practice did not stop there. If it did, the caricature of the Stoic as emotionless and detached would be justified. Yet, Epictetus said: I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (Discourses 3.2.6) Throughout the writings of Seneca, the Discourses of Epictetus, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, we see more than a grin and bear it acceptance of events. The point of Stoicism is not to tolerate events that occur; although, that is a significant step in the right direction. The ultimate goal of Stoic practice is more than bear and forbear. Again, as I said in the last episode: Bear and forbear only gets us half the way there The proper Stoic attitude is to love all events that occur as if we wished for them. In his lecture “On Contentment” (Discourses 1.12), Epictetus opens One who is still being educated should approach his education with this aim in view: ‘How may I follow the gods in everything, and how can I act in a way that is acceptable to the divine administration, and how may I become free?’ For someone is free if all that happens to him comes about in accordance with his choice and no one else is able to impede him. (Discourses 1.12.8-9) Here is a key point that is too frequently overlooked in Stoicism. Freedom does come from making ourselves psychologically immune from external things and events. Neither does it come from being the master of our fate and overcoming all of the obstacles placed between us and our goals. True freedom only occurs when everything happens in accordance with our choice. Only then are we unimpeded. That state of freedom only occurs when our choices are in accordance with what actually happens rather than what we wish happened.  Epictetus makes it quite clear that our human freedom rests on our understanding of what is and is not “up to us” and our practice of the discipline of desire.

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