Stoicism and Mysticism

Stoicism and mysticism

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics believed that the practice of virtue is enough to achieve eudaimonia: a serene, flourishing life, lived in accordance with the best in us. They also believed that the world is governed by a rational and providential principle, which they called logos, fate, or nature. The Stoics aimed to live in harmony with this principle, by using their reason (i.e., Nous, or the mind) and following their moral duties.

Mysticism is a term that refers to the experience of direct or intuitive contact with the divine, the transcendent, or the ultimate reality. Mysticism, which often involves a conscious effort to connect, through practice, to higher states of consciousness, can be found in various religious and philosophical traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The relationship between Stoicism and mysticism is complex and controversial. Some scholars have argued that Stoicism is a form of naturalistic or rational mysticism, which does not rely on supernatural revelation or miracles, but on the recognition of the immanent presence of the divine logos in the world and in oneself. According to this view, Stoicism offers a way of attaining mystical union with the logos through ethical and intellectual perfectioning (i.e., in accordance with Nous, the highest principle in the Human Being). Other scholars have denied that Stoicism is mystical at all and have emphasised its rational and practical aspects.

One of the most prominent Stoics embracing a mystical dimension in his philosophy was Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and author of the Meditations. Marcus Aurelius wrote his personal reflections during his military campaigns and administrative duties, as a way of coping with the challenges and hardships of his life. He was influenced by the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, who taught him to focus on what he could control (his thoughts and actions) and to accept what he could not control (external events and circumstances). He also drew inspiration from other philosophical traditions, such as Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and Peripateticism.

Marcus Aurelius expressed his mystical views in several passages of his Meditations. He often referred to the logos as his guide and guardian, and as the source of his wisdom and virtue. He also described his sense of awe and gratitude for the beauty and order of the cosmos, which he regarded as a manifestation of the logos. He urged himself to contemplate the unity and harmony of all things, and to see himself as a part of the whole. He also affirmed his belief in providence (or fate), which he understood as a benevolent plan for the good of all beings. He sometimes used metaphors and imagery to convey his mystical insights.

Despite his aim to connect with logos and the universe, Marcus Aurelius did not neglect his practical duties as an emperor and as a human being. He constantly reminded himself of his moral obligations to his family, friends, subjects, and enemies. He acknowledged his own limitations and faults and strove to improve himself through self-examination and self-discipline. He did not seek to escape from the world or to isolate himself from others, but to live according to nature and Nous in every situation.

The quotes below, from Meditations, summarise Marcus Aurelius’ view of mysticism:

“Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world.” (7.9) 

This passage denotes a mystical view of the Cosmos: humans share a common reason with God and each other, which allows them to access the truth and the law of nature, unified as a sacred, meaningful whole. He implied that everything in the universe was connected by the divine logos (universal reason, destination) that governed it. Beauty and order of the cosmos can be appreciated by living in harmony with the logos.

“Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.” (7.47)

This quote shows fascination for the movements and patterns of the celestial bodies, which exemplifies -the intelligent and divine order that governs the universe. In meditating on the transformations and cycles of nature, Marcus Aurelius cleanses his mind and soul from the distractions and corruptions of the earthly life, urging himself to contemplate the unity and harmony of all things, and to see himself as an integral part of the whole.

“Live in harmony with the logos and you will live a life that is great and beautiful and rational.” (10.12a)

This sentence demonstrates the commitment to live in accordance with the logos as the highest goal and the greatest good for humans. Following this principle several qualities of virtue like happiness, beauty, and intelligence can be achieved.

“Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.” (10.5)

In our lives, which are interwoven on the path of Nature (providence), nothing happens by chance or accident. Marcus Aurelius here accepts his fate with calmness and dignity, and he does not complain or resist what happens to him.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” (5.16)

This piece shows an ethical view of happiness, and it contains a warning against the dangers of false and harmful thoughts. He implied that by being virtuous and acting with dignity in accordance with the highest in us, we could attain a state of inner peace and joy which is aligned with the divine logos and “reasonable nature”.

“Remember how long thou hast been putting off these things, and how often thou hast received an opportunity from the gods, and yet dost not use it. Thou must now at last perceive of what universe thou art a part, and of what administrator of the universe thy existence is an efflux, and that a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing away the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go, and it will never return.” (2.4)

This extract encapsulates the brevity and fragility of human life, which can be easily extinguished. The deep connection to the cosmos and the divine logos, regarded as the source and ruler of all things, provides a compelling reason to use time wisely and to free the mind from ignorance and vice, to achieve happiness and virtue.

Marcus Aurelius was not the only Stoic who had a mystical orientation. Other examples include Cleanthes, who wrote a famous hymn to Zeus as the supreme ruler of the cosmos; Seneca, who praised the natural wonders of creation and expressed his longing for immortality; Epictetus, who spoke of God, or the divine principle, as his father and friend.

In conclusion, Stoicism and mysticism are not incompatible concepts. Some Stoics combined their ethics with their mystical intuitions and sought to achieve a balance between their human and divine planes of existence. They regarded philosophy not only as a way of thinking, but also as a way of living, loving, and connecting with the rest of humanity and the universe as a whole.

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