THE lovely people at Penguin sent a book about the Roman philosopher, Seneca, written by a professor of classics, Emily Wilson.
Seneca was a Stoic, and Stoicism was easier than Cynicism. Not modern cynicism — all rolling eyes and jaded yawns — but Cynicism in its original form.
The movement was started a few thousand years ago by Diogenes, who lived in a barrel on the streets of Athens, and threw away his last possession — a spoon — when he saw a beggar drinking water from his cupped hands.
Diogenes didn’t want the hassle of owning a spoon.
Cynicism means ‘dog-like’, because its followers believed that true happiness came from supreme indifference to the material world. It required commitment, beyond living in barrels and throwing away spoons.
“The ideal Cynic philosopher would spend his life in rags or naked, defecating and fornicating in the street, without shame, like a dog,” writes Wilson.
You can see why it never caught on. Dinner party nightmare.
Being stoic is less dramatic. Its idea of happiness is, writes Wilson, “an individual’s capacity to maintain a calm disposition no matter what.”
Forget winning the lottery — for stoics, happiness is grace under pressure.
I’m reading this while sitting in my broken-down car, just off the motorway, 130 miles from home, in the freezing rain, with two children and a Rottweiler in the back.
The car is heady with the smell of frustration and burning clutch. There is one bar left on my phone, and no sign of the rescue truck. We have been here since lunchtime. It’s getting dark.
Stoicism was invented in 301 BC by someone with the video-game name of Zeno — the movement takes its name from its original location, the Stoa Poikile, in Athens, or Painted Porch.
Would stoicism have survived if it had been founded at the M1 services below Northampton? Outside a motorway MacDonalds?
Perhaps this is what the stoics call providentialism — of “being guided by a mysterious, but entirely reliable, divine force.”
I wish the divine force would hurry up with the rescue truck. I use up the last bit of charge on my phone in calling the roadside rescue people again.
Press one if you require assistance; press two if you honestly believe anyone is listening; press three if you are rapidly losing the will to live.
Never mind Madonna — what would Seneca do?
Actually, he would drink hemlock and slit his wrists in a hot bath, so he might not be the ideal person to ask —– at least, not until we get home anyway.
Ten hours, three tow trucks and many hundreds of units of hard currency later (because my roadside ‘coverage’ didn’t ‘cover’ any of the roadside things I needed, other than a man saying, “It’s your clutch, love”), we arrive home.
Then I find out how much a new clutch will cost, and feel like defecating in the street.
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