Stoicism as a Spiritual Path

by Michel Daw


When we hear the word ‘Spiritual,’ many thoughts come to mind. Some think of a dogmatic approach to belief, almost a blind faith. Along the same lines, others see it as a rejection of rationality, or a trust in myth and legend, often with no connection to the ‘mundane’ world. Almost by definition, philosophical ideas are to be discussed and debated, and if people think that any ideas are good ones, these ideas are defended and argued for rather than just ‘believed’. This is the case with respect to ideas in Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is intended to be an active philosophical investigation (though at all times seeking to support Stoic ideas) no matter where it may lead us. If, as a result of these investigations, a person chooses to adopt the Stoic outlook, this will happen because he or she has decided it is right, and not because anyone has been coerced to do so.

For this very reason, many people would say that there is a spiritual path at the core of Stoicism. In fact, the actual work of practicing Stoicism is referred to by some authors as ‘spiritual exercises.’ The notion of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is meant to emphasize, in the first place, that in the ancient schools of thought philosophy was a way of life. Philosophy presented itself as a mode of life, as an act of living, as a way of being. The practice of Stoic philosophy consists of an invitation to complete personal transformation, a journey along a spiritual path. Stoic philosophy, lived out in this way, is in a very real way a conversion, a transformation of the way of being and the way of living in the quest for wisdom.

Therefore, the actual practice of Stoic philosophy required exercises that were neither simply exercises of thought nor even moral exercises, but rather, in the full sense of this term, spiritual exercises. Since they are aimed at realizing a transformation of our vision of the world and a gradual change of our personality, these exercises have an existential value, not only a moral one. Being a Stoic does not mean conforming our behavior in accordance with some external code of good conduct. Following the Stoic Spiritual path involves all aspects of our being – intellect, imagination, sensibility, and will – essentially our body, mind and soul. Stoic spiritual exercises are exercises in learning how to live the philosophical life, and applying it throughout our whole life.

Ancient Stoic philosophers adopted a range of metaphysical and theological views concerning the nature of creation, providence and fate, the source of our rationality, and Deity. Modern Stoics are not required to do so in order to call themselves Stoics. Like Seneca, a Roman Stoic of the first century C.E., we learn from those who have gone before us, but allow ourselves to find out more about the world as it is, and to change or abandon much that was taught in the past. Ancient writers, even Stoic writers, are not considered masters or prophets, but rather serve as mentors and guides. We do not claim to know ultimate Truth, no even that such a thing might exist, but instead search out knowledge and wisdom wherever it is to be found.

In a more general sense, the notion of ‘spiritual path’, taken to mean ‘way of life’, ‘outlook upon life’, ‘personal growth’, ‘personal healing’, is in fact the very essence of Stoicism. Some people accept the Stoic views on moral conduct, but reject the ‘wilder’ metaphysical and theological views. But you will not be required to adopt any particular beliefs. The actual transformational process is in and of itself intensely personal, holistic and fundamentally spiritual.

The Stoic Spiritual Path calls us to pay attention to ourselves, to take care of ourselves through these inner spiritual exercises.  Really knowing ourselves requires a relationship with ourselves that forms the basis of all of the Stoic spiritual exercise. Every spiritual exercise is a dialogue, with others, with the world around us, and most importantly, with ourselves. In this way, it is transcendent in the sense that we move beyond our present and past circumstances, beyond our limited ego-centric perspective, and consider our lives from the view of the potential that inhabits each of us.Socrates is famed for his assertion that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). In the most general of senses, what Socrates wanted to examine is the system of values we adopt to justify what we find of importance. And this is the purpose of this website, and of the Stoic Community.
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