Science fiction writers often reference a super race of enlightened ones whom somehow we lost touch with over time. Scientologists have their Thetans, Mormon their lost tribe, and Stargate fans just call them The Ancients. But there are Ancients who are more available to all of us if we care to look. Our ‘still on the shelf Ancients’ dispense their own wisdom and they include Epictetus, Seneca, Epicurus, the Stoics, Sceptics and Cynics. Try not to be put off by their handles, they tend to be more profound and honest than the uber positive self help drug dealers of today. Greek and Roman thinkers of the last three centuries BCE and the first two afterwards were simple and surgically logical. They held that life, nature and the universe are ruled by immutable laws unconcerned and unaffected by our existence. We are just biological creatures.There is no transcendent purpose to our existence, we are simply born, live, and die. Admittedly we are creatures of reason, and have the ability to control emotional excess. We are instructed to have no hope or fear, and to find courage in the face of helplessness, insignificance and uncertainty.Pretty bleak, don’t you think? They coined a term for all of this, “apatheia”, a passionless equanimity in the face of everything. I suppose there is a certain Spockian nobility in all of this, but it is undeniably terribly inhuman. Don’t get too attached to anyone or anything, and spare yourself the pain of loss; don’t be afraid to die, because as Epicurus put it, when we are here,death is not, and when death is here, we are not; remember that the worse that can happen is not that bad. In case you were unaware, there is lots of this type of thinking in certain types of Christian asceticism. Attach yourself to nothing other than God.
I was never inspired by these philosophies. I admire some of the stoicism, but I am not risk adverse either in business or in the personal sphere, and that means there are times when I live on the edge. In fact I am a living breathing antithesis of apatheia. I believe in attachment rather than detachment, and I am moved by the exuberance and vulnerability that is love in all its forms. I believe in self control, but not at the expense of opening oneself up to others. Human life cannot be about keeping others at a distance and forever playing it safe.
There is another Way, a path which sees us as more than predetermined biological organisms, where the universe is more than matter in motion. It is an ecology of love where people can face the future and be afraid, but have no fear, where there is no need to play it safe, where we can take unknowing and uncertainty in our stride.
Remember William Blake:” Mercy has a human heart and pity a human face. And love, the human form divine. And peace the human dress. ….. where mercy, love and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too. The Stoics would have none of that. It is too high risk, makes you vulnerable to betrayal, ridicule, misunderstanding and indeed abuse. Alas, as Jonathan Sacks, a great Chief Rabbi is wont to point out, I can do no other.