During my first university tutorial, over a decade ago, I can still recall the gasps of horror as our Greek History lecturer first introduced us to the idea of ‘stoicism’.
‘It’s basically a preference for pain and hardship over nice things,’ I remember him explaining. ‘Ugh,’ cried one student. ‘Why the hell would you want that?’ complained another.
Furrowed brows followed as he tried to explain this ancient philosophy to a room full of young restless minds, glued to the idea of instant gratification.
But I suspect there were some in the room who, like myself, understood or ‘felt’ what he meant but were too scared to pipe up.
Let me be clear – I was hardly living the life of a Trappist Monk at the time. I enjoyed a beer, didn’t mind KFC and used most opportunities to shut my eyes rather than study or read. But my first year out of school was also a time when I spent hours each day training with Olympians on a Queensland Academy of Sport water polo scholarship.
Sport, while not for everyone, had taught me that getting better meant driving to training at half past four in the morning and jumping into a cold pool and then lifting weights. And water polo – without the glamour of pay-checks and big crowds that motivated many of my highly successful rugby union mates – taught me a lot about appreciating struggle and not getting too caught up in getting things too easily.
Fast forwarding a few years, and after actually taking time to read books, I slowly learned more about the stoic philosophy. But the stoic lessons became less about delayed gratification and more about human nature.
Marcus Aurelius, the great second century Roman General, centred on stoicism in his classic Meditations. Leaders of all types, from former US President Bill Clinton to publishing giant Ariana Huffington, supposedly keep copies of Aurelius’ tome within arm’s reach. American President Donald Trump’s current Defence Secretary, James Mattis, used Meditations as a four star Marine Corps General in battle to remind him that ‘faced nothing new under the sun.’
What did he mean? ‘Technology throws a few odd wrinkles in,’ he said in a recent interview, ‘but the bottom line is the fundamental impulses, the fundamental challenges and the solutions are pretty timeless in my line of work.’
Indeed, picking up and reading Meditations – well over a millennia after its production – is not a tough task. But I think it has a resolute and timeless message for two reasons.
First, it reminds us of elements in our control, regardless of circumstances or surroundings. In one of my favourite passages, for example, Aurelius urges readers to ‘display those virtues which are wholly in your own power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.’ This requires no status, money, race or level of privilege to appreciate.
Second, Aurelius reminds us of life’s temporary unforgiving nature. Try as you might to constantly uphold principles we all know that tragedy and downfall can strike at any time. ‘See how many lives of striving,’ he writes in one part, ‘met with a quick fall and resolution into the elements.’ Or, as he writes more starkly, ‘You should always look on human life as short and cheap. Yesterday sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes.’
Today we enjoy unprecedented prosperity, peace, access to information and choice. It’s simple to want things now without long-run sacrifice. Or to avoid taking on responsibility.
Meditations, or any timeless advice that pre-dates the iPhone, isn’t about scolding you each time you reach for a doughnut. Nor is it going to instantly solve all your challenges.
But avoiding impulses and taking responsibility is helped significantly if you’re aware of good virtues and not ignorant of them early in life. I had a good chance to at least appreciate stoicism at an informative period in both my career and formal education.
And while I certainly remain no model of stoicism, I firmly believe the sooner other young people get acquainted with such ideals the better. It will provide a bit of armour through challenges but may also help, like it did with me, expand horizons and tap into an instinct I felt but couldn’t quite explain.