“You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.” — Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Do you ever wonder why the Stoics are more popular than ever? Why would Epictetus, who died in 135 A.D. be relevant today? Why would Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 A.D. be so revered? Or Seneca, who died in 65 A.D.? I believe it comes down to a few key reasons: First and foremost, they wrote from a very human perspective that is still relatable no matter what millennium you’re passing your time in. Second; if it weren’t relevant it would have long ago been vanquished to the trash heap like the lesser work of millions before and after them. And finally, you might also say they gain a lot of momentum as the great men and women who followed them referred to them for wisdom and inspiration. And if it worked for them, why not us?
On our journey from the vulgar, callow juvenile inside each of us to the refined, philosophical sage we may wish to become, we learn to cultivate discipline. Discipline draws us deeper into our true selves, structures our lives in such a way that we might accomplish a few things and bring us closer to becoming who we want to be. To stop looking from one shiny object to the next and focus on what means the most, now, and when we reach that stepping stone find the next.
Will our own work become timeless, or vanquished with the lesser work of millions? We’re dealt an unfair hand trying to measure up with the greatest thinkers of the past. That’s not stoicism, that’s upward comparison. Comparing yourself to others leads to unfocused misery. It’s better to compare yourself with the person you used to be instead. Stoicism is a quest to become the best person you can be in your short time on earth. Ultimately everything we do shows the way for those who follow us. Just as those great Stoics did. If it’s transcendently great it might become timeless. But it’s not for us to decide such things.
Our only purpose is to maximize our potential in the time we’re given. To cultivate our own ruling faculty and apply ourselves to becoming what we might. While we may.