The Stumblings of Stoicism

A Muslim Critique

The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has been making headway over the past decade as a new-age movement of sorts. Founded by the merchant Zeno of Citium in the third century BC, this alternative to organized religion for “living in the moment” has been the topic of Ryan Holiday’s writings (The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph in 2014), the Daily Stoic Twitter page, and numerous meet-up groups. While a synopsis of what this philosophy entails is beyond the scope of this article, it suffices to say that Stoicism is a method of “cultivating self-control and self-awareness” through certain meditative practices and deep reflection over the ups and downs of life.[1]

While we do not possess a complete work by any of the three incipient Stoic thinkers – Seneca the Younger (4 BCE–65 CE), Epictetus (c. 55–135 CE), and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) – scholars have been able to conceptualize the framework through what remains. It is unknown to what extent Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king, practiced this askêsis (a way of living characterized by strict self-discipline and meditation), but his son Commodus certainly did not seem to take after his father’s footsteps. Comedically, it is recounted that the egomaniacal Commodus renamed one of the twelve months by his name and attempted to label all citizens as “Commodians”.

I had a chance to critically read through Epitectus’s Enchiridion (often translated as Handbook), compiled by the Stoic disciple Arrian in the second century, for the first time since my liberal arts undergraduate studies. The work consists of 53 short chapters, with sections focused on grappling with external events, appropriate actions to society and God, and the notion of justice. In this review, I critique three essential ethical precepts expounded in the work that are tied to practical advice for daily living as a Stoic.

Before delving into the work, I follow the Islamic principle of ‘taking what is good and leaving what is bad’. This entails acknowledging the several pieces of advice which are compatible with Islamic values, such as Epitectus’s belief that the “…deity’s choice is bound to be superior to human wishes.”[2] Some other examples include:

  • “Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet” [3] 
  • “Duties are universally measured by relations” [4] 
  • “And let silence be the general rule” [5]
  • “Forgiveness is better than revenge” [6]

First, Epictetus attempts to convince his audience of developing an internal logic for interpreting the world’s events. He states, “Events are good or bad only in terms of our reaction to them.”[7] For example, if one were to lose a child or loved one, one should think of himself or herself as already dead, and to take whatever of one’s remaining life in full stride.[1] When it comes to an internal logic for morality, Epitectus exhorts, “If you wish to be good, first believe that you are bad.”[8] If taken as an exhortation for character development as opposed to a comment on human nature, this mindset can be compatible with the Quranic worldview. In surah Tin, after making possible allusory references to the great prophets through oaths by the Fig (prophet Nuh), the Olive (prophet Isa), Mount Sinai (prophet Musa), and the secure city of Mecca (prophets Abraham and Muhammad ), Allah affirms that “We have certainly created man in the best of stature.”[9] An explicit connection is drawn between the goodness of humanity and following these excellent individuals. Epictetus’ advice is mirrored in Islamic virtue ethics or tazkiya, which counts pride – believing yourself to be a good person – as a spiritual sin. It is only when human beings depart from the example of the messengers and the revelations they bring that Allah returns them “to the lowest of the low.”[10]

Second, the practice-based advice that Stoicism forwards is not supported by the Sunnah nor by modern-day research on the relationship between action and one’s internal state. Returning back to the case study of one’s loved one passing away, Epitectus declares, “If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed.”[11] But when the Companion Al-Aqra said that, “I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them”, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ declared, “Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.”[12] The clinical sciences have only reinforced the bi-directional relationship between willful behavior and emotional state; It is not only that happiness leads to one casting a smile on one’s face, but the act of smiling itself actually increases one in happiness.[13] Likewise, the act of social isolation itself is a risk factor for depression, and the loss of social skills that accompany seclusion makes it even more difficult to reintegrate into society.[14]

Third and most importantly, Stoicism appears to cultivate a philosophy of passivism that may lead one to accept their slated slot in life, both spiritually and socially, or remain overly focused on one’s internal locus of control. To take some remarks from Epitectus himself:

  • “We ought to stretch our legs and stretch our hopes only to that which is possible” [15]
  • “But wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life” [16]
  • “We are not responsible for the ideas or events that present themselves to us, but only for the ways in which we act on them” [17]
  • “But to select the part, belongs to another” [18]

While we cannot stretch our hopes beyond what Allah has decreed for us, we should ask Allah from what is good and pure in our hearts. If such was not the case, then why would the elderly Prophet Zakariyyah make the plea, “My Lord, how will I have a boy when I have reached old age and my wife is barren?.”[19] It is in the position of qiyaam (standing), which is typically associated with reciting the words of Allah instead of one’s own prayer, when Zakariyyah is given the good news of Yahya.[20]

While Allah created “the sun and the moon [to move] by precise calculation,” the examples in nature are not for us to remain stagnant in our spiritual state.[21] Rather, the unwavering obedience that the orbits have in their rotation is an inspiration for us to obey Allah with precision and verve. The message of the early Quranic revelation was a call back to the essentials of tawheed (purified monotheism) and a protest against exploitative slavery, the oppression of women, infanticide, greed, and usury, not a resignation to the vices of the Quraishi Meccan elite as beyond the control of the overpowered Muslims. 

A self-absorbed lifestyle that is only reactive to the external forces of life may lead to better maintenance of one’s social media profile, personal contacts, and diet and exercise; such a connection to one’s personal sphere can be laudable to the extent that we can have direct control. But our sphere of responsibility extends beyond ourselves. While some cite the example of Stoic reformists such as Diogenes against Alexander and Seneca against Nero to show the compatibility of social reform and Stoicism [22], the gruesome suicide of Cato the Younger speaks volumes to the contrary. Despite preparing for his planned death with a bath and meal with loved ones in collected fashion, Cato had an emotional breakdown in his final few hours.[23] While Stoicism may have guided a leader such as Cato through many aspects of day-to-day life, it does not appear to provide a clear picture as to our societal obligations or making the most of our cathartic moments in life. 

While the living philosophy is certainly interesting in many respects, I side with Augustine on this issue, who “[maintained] that a Stoic virtue ethic fails to deliver on its promised eudaimonistic ends because it lacks a robust eschatological vision.”[24] Many other secular-sounding philosophies will no doubt permeate the brain waves of society in the coming decades. But increasingly, it appears that a world divorcing itself further and further from a divine vision of the cosmos will fall shorter and shorter in achieving eudaimonia (ultimate happiness).

Works Cited

  1. Sulprizio, Chiara. “Why is Stoicism Having a Cultural Moment?” Medium, 17 Aug. 2015, https://eidolon.pub/why-is-stoicism-having-a-cultural-moment-5f0e9963d560.
  2. Epictetus. Enchiridion. Translated by George Long, Dover Publications, Inc., 2004, p. iv.
  3. Ibid., p. 6.
  4. Ibid., p. 12.
  5. Ibid., p. 14.
  6. Ibid., p. 37.
  7. Ibid., p. iii
  8. Ibid., p. 24.
  9. The Qur’an, surah Tin, ayahs 1-4.
  10. Ibid., ayah 5.
  11. Epictetus. Enchiridion. Translated by George Long, Dover Publications, Inc., 2004, p. 8.
  12. Sahih Bukhari. Volume 8, Book 73, Number 26.
  13. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190412094728.htm.
  14. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.
  15. Epictetus. Enchiridion. Translated by George Long, Dover Publications, Inc., 2004, p. 41.
  16. Ibid., 4.
  17. Ibid., iii.
  18. Ibid., 7.
  19. The Qur’an, surah al-Imraan, ayah 40.
  20. Ibid., ayah 39.
  21. Ibid., ayah 5.
  22. https://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-faith-column/2007/05/stoicism-stoical-possible.
  23. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-suicide-of-cato-the-younger-117942.
  24. Boersma, Gerald P. “Augustine’s Immanent Critique of Stoicism.” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 70, No. 2, 2017, pp. 184-197.

About the author: Waqas Haque is an editor for Traversing Tradition. He is on leave from medical school to study public health and also obtained an M.Phil. from Cambridge University. He is broadly interested in tafsir, bioethics, drug development, and entrepreneurship. He enjoys frequenting the gym, masjid, and halal food establishments.

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