The Telos of Stoicism
By Paul Wilson
Stoic philosophy is much concerned with darkness and how to alleviate it. Modern proponents of Stoicism may assert its power as a form of self-improvement, or emphasise its zestful properties - both perfectly legitimate points of view - but that is to overlook the very quality that distinguishes Stoicism from modern schools of thought in the field of human wellbeing: it is not afraid of the dark. In fact, it seeks out darkness and does battle with it--by offering illumination in the face of loss, uncertainty and impermanence.
Premeditatio malorum - the premeditation of evils - is a famous exercise from Stoic philosophy. It asks us to anticipate the looming trials of life. It encourages us to prepare for the onset of night. Seneca offered us a powerful example of this exercise: “Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck…All human possibilities should be before your eyes.”
As we look at the modern world, we see ample opportunity for the use of this perspective. Separate crises - economic, environmental, political, social and spiritual - seem to be coalescing into a single, apocalyptic mass. It is a daunting spectacle.
But to anticipate an evil fate is not to surrender to it. It is to prepare for it. It is to marshal our resources in order to resist, or at least endure it. It is to see adversity as an opportunity to improve ourselves - by seeking wisdom, showing courage, dispensing justice and practicing temperance. It is to learn how to suffer well.
Premeditatio malorum is a close companion to another stalwart of modern Stoic philosophy: amor fati. This maxim encourages us to desire whatever comes to pass - i.e. to love our fate, however invidious. It reminds us that we are not the authors of the story we find ourselves in, merely actors allocated roles of greater or lesser significance. But each of us has the opportunity and responsibility to play our part well.
Yes, we can waste time and energy decrying fate, but that would accomplish the square root of nothing. Instead we must summon our courage and stare into life’s darkest recesses. We must become creatures of the night and undergo a radical transformation.
That is no easy feat. Fear of the dark is perfectly natural. Even now, in the safety of our modern homes, there is often a moment of unease when we turn off the lights at day’s end. A primitive impulse is triggered. We are transported back countless millennia, to when we were feeble creatures living in the wild, having only our wits to protect us against an array of nocturnal predators.
But within moments of extinguishing the houselights, and triggering that ancient sense of unease, our rational faculties assert themselves and the process of dark adaptation begins. Our eyes gradually adjust to low light. The mind’s capacity for nocturnal cartography is stimulated. The outline of familiar objects is detected. We develop night vision.
True creatures of the abyss - an oceanic zone somewhere between three and six thousand metres in depth - are amongst the most beautiful and resilient in the animal kingdom. They are nature’s ultimate survivors. They have evolved to live in perpetual darkness - finding safety and sustenance where they can. Miraculous adaptations - such as low density skin and the use of light cartilage instead of bone - enable them to cope with water pressures that would crush a human being like a rusty aluminium can.
Then there is their most extraordinary adaptation: they have developed the ability to generate their own light. That is a quality we would do well to imitate in these ill-lit days. Hard as it may be, we must produce positive energy and convert it into light. We must emit a kind of psychological luminescence - a resilient glow.
How do we become psycho-luminescent? On this Stoicism is unequivocal: by practicing virtue. Ancient Stoics saw virtue - or arete - as the only good. They pursued personal excellence with a social purpose. They cultivated the self so that it could be of service to others. Epictetus reminded us that: “Freedom is the name of virtue; slavery, of vice.” This belief chimes with modern studies of pro-social behaviour and ethical wellbeing.
A period of darkness, such as the one we are passing through, is simply the price we must pay for our collective folly, for not living in accordance with nature - both our own and that of the natural world. But it will be worth it, for what we are experiencing are the birth pangs of progress. The sharp contractions before a prolonged labour that will produce a new world.
In the spirit of amor fati we should be thankful for the role fate has assigned to us. We have been blessed to live in a time of re-birth. Yes, we may well enter the abyss - dark citadel of ordeal and death, crucible of necessary crises - but it is there, in the blinding depths that we will find our boon. The spiritual treasure we locate will give meaning to our suffering. The heightened state of consciousness we achieve will prove our salvation. Wisdom - the cardinal virtue of Stoic philosophy - will finally come to us.
In the meantime, we must become nyctophiles - ardent lovers of the night. It should not be too difficult, for we are born from darkness and we will return to it. It is our natural habitat. A place of transformational magic. Of defiant metamorphoses. Of beauty and brilliance birthed by necessity.
In ‘Meditations’, Marcus Aurelius encouraged us to: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man (or woman) should be. Be one.” In taking his advice, and practicing virtue, we will bring much-needed light to others and illumination to our benighted world. In short, we will become psycho-luminescent, and know the serenity and radiance of a Stoic sage. That is the telos of Stoicism - its true objective and its ultimate reward.