The Cynic school of Philosophy had a great influence on Stoicism. Cynics believed that the purpose in life is to live in virtue, in agreement with nature. People can gain fulfillment by rigorous standards of living. The Cynic rejected all manners of living with wealth, power, and fame. Instead lived a simple life free from all possessions.
Stoics also followed the belief that the one true purpose is to be a person of moral character and integrity. The Stoics modified the use of externals in life by looking at things like money and health as indifferents. It is possible to have externals in life but they do not bring a life of virtue.
But what say you, philosopher? The tyrant calls upon you to say something that is unworthy of you. Do you say it, or not say it? Tell me.—Let me think about it.—Think about it now? But what were you thinking about when you were attending lectures? Did you not study the questions, what things are good, and what bad, and what are neither good nor bad?—I did. Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.32
One of the icons of philosophy for Stoics was Diogenes of Sinope. He was a philosopher who lives with nothing on the streets of city-states of Greece. He is famous for telling Alexander the Great to get out of his sun. There is almost a romanticized view of his minimalist life.
But the truth about homelessness today is drastically different. People who face homelessness live a life that is reflected by despair, hopelessness and depression. After years of working with this population, I have found that the reasons for becoming homeless are varied. There are ways to take a mindset of action to prevent oneself from becoming homeless or to climb out of the situation. These are reflected in Stoic philosophy.
What Is Beyond Our Control
Working in Social Services I have seen what happens to people that become homeless. It starts with a situation that triggers a series of circumstances. Someone loses employment. They are unable to pay rent. They are then evicted. The conditions caused by the Coronavirus make this a true reality.
Someone has a health problem is not covered under insurance. They have to pay treatments out of pocket dipping into savings and resources. Some have lost homes because of this.
Situations like this can be overwhelming. But the reason for this sense of overwhelm is not understanding what is in our control and what is not. By knowing what is in our power we can focus on solutions.
Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; while the things not under our control are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, therefore, that if what is naturally slavish you think to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, will grieve, will be in turmoil, and will blame both gods and men; while if you think only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own to be, as it really is, not your own, then no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, will find fault with no one, will do absolutely nothing against your will, you will have no personal enemy, no one will harm you, for neither is there any harm that can touch you. Enchiridion 1
The Stoic dichotomy of control is not a generic solution to all problems. It gives a place to start and a rigid mindset of finding ways to overcome obstacles.
I dealing with the homeless there is something that members of the general public find surprising. Some who are homeless want to remain homeless. How is that someone would want to live under these conditions?
People who are homeless can become conditioned to it. It is a lifestyle they have accepted. Many suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues. There are programs that can help individuals overcome homelessness but it requires getting treatment for their afflictions. Many would rather not bother.
This shows the importance of reasoned choices in life. The choices we make directly impacts how we live. Reasoned choices in the present moment can impact what direction we take for the future.
The healthy eye should be able to look at every object of sight, and not to say: ‘I wish it were green’, for this is what a man does who has ophthalmia. The healthy ear and nose must be ready for every object of hearing or smell, and the healthy stomach must be disposed to every kind of nourishment as the mill is ready for everything which it is made to grind. Accordingly the healthy understanding too must be ready for all circumstances; but that which says: ‘may my children be kept safe’ or ‘may all men praise whatever I do’, is the eye looking for green or the teeth for what is tender. Marcus Aurelis, Meditations 10.35
All goods, however, ought properly to be free from blame; they are pure, they do not corrupt the spirit, and they do not tempt us. They do, indeed, uplift and broaden the spirit, but without puffing it up. Those things which are goods produce confidence, but riches produce shamelessness. The things which are goods give us greatness of soul, but riches give us arrogance. And arrogance is nothing else than a false show of greatness. Seneca, Moral Letters 87.32
Growing up in the 1980’s everything was bigger than life. Movies were made with crappy dialogue and tons of explosions. Greed and avarice was part of the business culture. Just look at the synopsis of the Movie The Wolf Of Wall Street. Madonna was right when she said she was a material girl in a material world.
Contrast this in recent years where there have been trends to live with less and develop a minimal lifestyle. Basic amenities and a Spartan lifestyle are how people exist day to day. Even the idea of practicing poverty through Seneca has become hip.
This again shows the power of Stoic indifference. Externals do not bring fulfillment but rather what is on the inside of the individual.
When you get an external impression of some pleasure, guard yourself, as with impressions in general, against being carried away by it; nay, let the matter wait upon your leisure, and give yourself a little delay. Next think of the two periods of time, first, that in which you will enjoy your pleasure, and second, that in which, after the enjoyment is over, you will later repent and revile your own self; and set over against these two periods of time how much joy and self-satisfaction you will get if you refrain. However, if you feel that a suitable occasion has arisen to do the deed, be careful not to allow its enticement, and sweetness, and attractiveness to overcome you; but set over against all this the thought, how much better is the consciousness of having won a victory over it. Enchiridion 34.
With economic conditions presenting challenges for people, it is not out of the ordinary for anyone to worry about becoming homeless. But having the right mindset and living a life of Stoic principles can help in meeting challenges and working on solutions. Government programs like unemployment and rent protection can provide short term solutions. But wisdom brings long term change in times of difficulty.
I want something to overcome, something on which I may test my endurance. For this is another remarkable quality that Sextius possesses: he will show you the grandeur of the happy life and yet will not make you despair of attaining it; you will understand that it is on high, but that it is accessible to him who has the will to seek it. And virtue herself will have the same effect upon you, of making you admire her and yet hope to attain her. In my own case, at any rate the very contemplation of wisdom takes much of my time; I gaze upon her with bewilderment, just as I sometimes gaze upon the firmament itself, which I often behold as if I saw it for the first time. Hence I worship the discoveries of wisdom and their discoverers; to enter, as it were, into the inheritance of many predecessors is a delight. It was for me that they laid up this treasure; it was for me that they toiled. But we should play the part of a careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited. This inheritance shall pass from me to my descendants larger than before. Much still remains to do, and much will always remain, and he who shall be born a thousand ages hence will not be barred from his opportunity of adding something further. Seneca Moral Letters 64.5-7