The Wolf and the Stoic

Image by Lothar Dieterich from Pixabay

Virtues are voluntary. Vices are its opposite. Virtues are the ship’s rudder that takes you to your destination. Vices are people moving from one urge to another, unthinking and unaware. 

There is nothing new under the sun; everything you see or hear is a rehash of the past. It explains why finding a good mystery with a unique plot is hard. At the same time, it’s why the wealth of wisdom passed from previous generations is plentiful—books at libraries and online. They help us rediscover what our bones already know. 

Philosophy 101 was one of the college electives options. I chose Earth Science. Something was irritating about studying a subject that had no home plate. There was always another view. Science was sure footing. But like the texture of my skin, our relationships change. Now science seems like an evolving art form and philosophy as a source for contemplating how best to use the days we are allotted.  

Fifteen hundred years ago in Rome and Greece, three men, Epictetus the former slave, Marcus Aurelius the emperor, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the playwright, led drastically different lives. Still, they had one habit in common, journaling. They shared their thoughts—philosophy now known as Stoicism—about life, and their words resonated through the centuries and influenced the course of history. Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, President Theodore Roosevelt, and General James Mattis, sought/seek advice in this wisdom to guide their conduct.

Stoicism teaches that the chief task in our lives is to know the difference between externals we have no control over and that which we do control. “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” (Epictetus) The purpose in life is found within ourselves in our choices, not that which we have no power over. When we practice seeing this way, we see how insignificant we are as individuals in the world. One square of cotton, no matter how lovely, is only one song. A hundred yards woven together is a choir. A thousand a symphony. The longer the ship sails without a rudder, the further it moves from the shoreline, eventually not recognizing when land is in view. “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” (Marcus Aurelius)

When, if not right now, should our nation examine the mirror’s reflection? In it, we see near half of the nation’s voters chose a wolf clothed in a sheepskin of lies. He claimed without him, their money and rights would be taken away. Little Red Riding Hood, the other half of the country, questioned the wolf in grandma’s clothes. “Why are your ears so big.” He told her it was to hear her better. “Why are your eyes so large?” To see you better, the wolf lied again. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t buy it. But for other half who believed his lies, fear moved in, and conspiracies took root. They forgot about the environment. Forgot about women’s rights. Forgot children in cages. They remembered their self-interest.  

The wolf lacks virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom, character traits of leaders who looked out for everyone: Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. The wolf’s cult watched his conduct and spun his tales. Little Red Riding Hood read books, trusted science, and fact-checked.

True leaders labor for the betterment of all. Advancement for all people was not the wolf’s goal. His believers continued to feast on the food the wolf said was good for them, while the wolf and his friends laughed behind their backs. His loyalist asked no questions, ignored the fine print, and believed what he said and not what he did. “Sure,” they said, “sometimes he gets carried away,” like parents indulging a child.  

Virtue is logic. Like nature, virtue requires we live according to reason and is the key to living happy lives. Happiness is not the goal. You practice moderation not because it makes you feel good, but because it’s the right thing to do. Showing fairness and kindness is not to prove you are a good person, but doing what we are meant to do. You seek discipline or consistency, collecting food for the poor or donating money to inner city school, and in this, you find happiness—not the other way around. Practicing and staying true to your virtues is what makes you happy.

People may admire you for your quick wit or sense of humor. Others say, “I wasn’t born with it.” We can show qualities we earned by repeated practice, not pleasure-seeking. Just because we are not born with them doesn’t mean we can’t acquire them.  

Virtues give rise to happiness that brings lasting joy.  “I worked for it” as an explanation of your life of self-interest instead of living a life for the sake of the whole will never bring peace. George Washington had the well-being of the nation in mind when he studied and quoted the Stoics. History’s greatest minds saw their purpose not in themselves as individuals but as one part of a whole. Stoic philosophy may seem boring on the surface, but like an iceberg its essence is below the surface and takes perseverance and determination to learn and practice.  

Humanity is interdependent. Nobody lives happily who thinks only of himself and averts his eyes from the other fellow. We are born with the same substance and headed for the same end. Instead of judging, we can help where it’s needed. Like the bricks of a house held up by another would fall if one let’s go, we work as a whole.  

The Stoic view is that you find in doing what human nature wishes. You find it by having principles that govern your impulses and actions. There is nothing good in man except what is just, moderate, brave, and free. 

Marcus Aurelius, a man of good character, was granted incredible power he wielded wisely. Nero lacked virtues to guide him and failed as a leader. We can’t predict the future, but the virtues we hold or lack are predictive of how we behave and respond.  

We are citizens of the world. A part of the whole that includes men, god, and nature. We don’t exclude one man because of where on earth he was born. Accident of birth doesn’t shelf you at a different library or ban you from another. Our global citizenship binds us like the sun and the stars. As such, we find ways to support all of humanity. We live for the sake of the whole. “Man is designed by nature to look out for his fellow man.” (Seneca)