I’d seen the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Cleveland Museum of Art dozens of times over the years. I’m sure I’d even read the placard at the base of the statue. But for some reason, it finally clicked in my head that this was the Marcus Aurelius, the man known as one of the founders of Stoic philosophy.
Zach and I laughed as we walked past. Behind the statue of Marcus Aurelius, the heads of several Roman emperors sat on pillars. They had no bodies. Marcus had no head.
In 1994, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in history and a minor in philosophy. I’ll never forget sitting in the Gothic lecture halls of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, debating the same topics that have been debated by philosophers for thousands of years.
Plato, Socrates, Aristotle. These were the names I had most associated with classical philosophy, but decades later, it would be a small sect of relatively unknown philosophers that would have an impact on me.
I’m not going to pretend that I can explain Stoicism to you in this short blog post. Therefore, I’ll do my best to tell you what I think it means.
Stoicism is the idea of ultimate personal responsibility. Stoics don’t blame others for the downfalls of society. They ask, “What can I do?”
You can’t control the past, and you can’t control the future, so Stoics focus on the present. What can you do right now, at this moment?
And when you really think about it, the only thing you can control right now, at this moment, is what you are doing right now, at this moment. You can choose to be productive. To be lazy. To be hurtful. To be mean. To be helpful. To be inspiring. It is all within your reach, and you get to decide from one moment to another how you spend it.
Stoics also tend to focus more on logic than emotion. Maybe this is because I’m an INTJ, but I’ve always prided myself on being more logical than emotional. I’m not saying that it’s always best to be more logical. In fact, there were times in my life where my partners have made decisions from an emotional place that turned out to be right, so I realize there is value in deciding with emotion. But that is not how I am wired, and rather than trying to create an emotional resonance where one doesn’t exist, I focus on my strength instead.
I abandoned organized religion when I was a young man, and I know I will never go back. I don’t look down upon anyone who uses religion as a means to make sense of this crazy world because that’s what philosophers do as well. But I will say that Stoicism and its root in rationality and logic is something rarely found in organized religion. Religion is based on faith, and faith is the complete opposite of logic.
But I do not want to turn this conversation into an examination of the merits of organized religion or philosophy because I think that would miss the point. Having some type of belief system in place, whether that’s Catholicism or Stoicism, can help you navigate the unpredictable nature of the world we live in.
Stoicism has given me a framework to manage stress and keep it in its proper place. Nobody is immune to stress or distraction. It’s impossible to prevent them. But knowing what to do with stress and distraction when they arise can be the key to living a happy and meaningful life.
I can’t help but wonder why someone decided to cut off the head of the statue of Marcus Aurelius. Maybe his bronze head is sitting on a pedestal in some other art museum in some other part of the world. If you see it, will you let Zach and I know where it is?
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