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The Art of Holy Indifference: Reading the Classics of Stoic Philosophy

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

24 Mar 2017

The quest for wisdom never ends; every experience, every great artist/philosopher has something to teach us.

Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.  (Eliot)

The purpose of life is to seek happiness, declare Chinese and many other sages from the world, including those from the Muslim world. And fortunately, all of us can find happiness: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” And it depends upon our choice: “No man is happy who does not think himself so.” Tolstoy reported that he found the happiest people among Russian peasants. To master the art and science of happiness one needs to understand a few points noted especially by Stoic philosophers. And one can finish reading the masterpieces of Stoic philosophy – The Art of Living by Epictetus and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius in a day or two. And reflecting on gems there is enough insurance for life against all that may make us unhappy. Let us measure ourselves against the gold standard set by these Western sages and let us not forget that one was slave and another Emperor who had tasted extremes of life’s agonies, tensions, humiliations and challenges. Epictetus is a much easier read – even our good primary/secondary class students can read this masterpiece of philosophy without any previous exposure to philosophy. We today read a few things the Emperor said.     

        Let us begin with what he suggests we should begin our day: “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love ...” One recalls Tuesdays with Morie that tell us what a discovery it is to live after we are confronted with an event of imminent death. Imagine a blind man given eyes for one day how he would treasure every moment. Poets de-familiarise the world for us. Mystics teach us to see God everywhere and see with Gods eyes. And here we hardly ever live – we just vegetate.

We, ordinarily, don’t see God when we see our gardens, streams, mountains because habit deadens us and we take the gift of sight for granted unlike his blind man who has been loaned it for one day only. But if we could see God before we saw anything, we would see everything in a new glory.

 His central insight concerns shunning absolutes in the world of relativities – what La Ilaaha states: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” We all know incorrigible sectarians and fundamentalists whom nothing can make change opinions because they love sects and words more than truth behind them. “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.” And “You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” The question is the difference between opinion and Truth and the tragic confounding of the two by zealots who play God as Judge. Souls have their own destinies to unfold and we being only one Spirit only judge ourselves when we judge others.

 Have you ever been wronged by anyone? What then? “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Are you conscious of having helped someone or sacrificed for someone? If yes, then you don’t know that there is no other whom you could oblige. Humans are only one soul. The universe is part of me or my projection. This is what Iqbal’s Asrar-i-Khudi begins expounding. It is only a vain or mean person who brags about his good doings or plays a victim complaining about everyone else.

     We can count on fingers persons who never indulge in backbiting because we can’t let go things and seek revenge. Here is a golden rule to help: “Whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my colour.” “If any man despises me, that is his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.”

     How to take on misfortune? “I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.” And “Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.” How? We all know that patience perfects us. About complaints we have of anyone including spouses, friends, bosses, and children: “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”      And those who trouble themselves about personal God’s/afterlife’s existence or non-existence are thus advised: “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.

 If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”  “What we do now echoes in eternity.” This is all what the doctrine of heaven and hell is about: our actions have permanent consequences, as Ramsay notes. What do we do now, let us ask. Grumble, worry about how many likes of our Facebook posts or speeches or who will go to hell, brag, play a sadistic boss, hate, backbite, anxiously guess what others say about us, wish the world were otherwise than it is, wish to avoid misfortune and continue slavery of the genie called ego that has taken possession of us? Or we enjoy good art works, listen to beautiful sounds, contemplate beautiful faces, read beautiful minds, praise God for the sunshine and the rain and all the dappled things, love, smile, joke, wonder, create, go to a walk, call a friend long forgotten and thank the Author of this great gift of life that has been granted to us for free, unasked. What we do for this week? Ten thousand things to make life a treat and forget its little woes.  

  “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” Start counting your blessings or privileges – that you can read English in today’s world, have an interest in a piece on philosophy showing you intend to love wisdom which is such a “great blessing,” as the Quran says, enjoy leisure to read, had a good schooling and may be good job/families/friends that many hadn’t, are beautiful or at least have healthy taste of loving beauty, had ample resources to enjoy breakfast, presence of your kith and ken with sound senses – in fact the list is endless. Man needs only one prayer, I keep recalling Eckhart when Imams don’t let us go and prolong prayer sessions after Namaz/Fatiha, “God! Thank you for everything.” With a heart full of faith that connotes gratitude, you have no complaints, no grudges against anyone, no big wish lists. Given a world where it is, as Eliot said, torment to find unsatisfied love and greater torment to find love satisfied, lady fortune/fame/beauty unpredictable, people difficult to live with or to part from, isn’t it best to preserve Raza or equanimity (Samata, “radiant sameness.”)?

       There is an insight from Lacan that states that language is structured like unconscious and we don’t mean what we say. Neither does our critic or enemy. The reason is that we can’t fix or determine the meaning of words and it is meaning slips. None who abuses us through bad words means to abuse us. Have pity on his unconscious drives, his failed love, his inner turmoil. And one excuses people who are half conscious.

As Marcus Aurelius puts it: “When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” Freud famously showed that we are never fully conscious. A genie called language says something and means something else that none controls ultimately. Wisdom lies in let go, in silence, in not taking others bad words seriously. And if we can be silent we are home, in Heaven. Let the chatter of thoughts and day dreams stop.

Let us be ourselves and not thoughts. “Qul Ya Ayyuhel Kafiroon/La Aabudu Ma Tabudoon.” means, according to one reading of our Sufi, that Kafiroon are thoughts that come and go and we should attempt to ward them off, be still, rooted in pure awareness. This is achieved by confining oneself to the present (Wazeefa of Farzi Dayim helps achieve this), leaving past and future as territories of the Devil. Nine tenth of mysticism and religion is what is covered here by Marcus Aurelius: Tranquil heart by focus on the present that is necessarily joyful let go, take easy, perfect the character. Stoicism is the beginning of wisdom and one should read The Five Great Philosophies of Life to move forward after one’s course with Stoic Masters. And one shouldn’t stop there either. The quest for wisdom never ends; every experience, every great artist/ philosopher has something to teach us.