by Celia Coates
My mind was on a ramble the other day with my thoughts wandering from the question of what makes a good person, to what values are in fashion in this 21st Century, and then on to the story of the young Spartan who chose to die rather than face discovery. That’s a story I read decades ago in my Latin class about a boy who had stolen a fox (where did he find it?) and hidden it under his shirt. Facing being found out, he chose to stand still, not making a sound, while the fox gnawed into his stomach. It was always a story that puzzled me. Why was that admirable, a story worth telling, one that has lasted for centuries? What kind of strength was being praised?
When I looked up the Spartan view of life, I found that for hundreds of years in ancient Greece they’d been fierce warriors, ones who had to depend on what they could forage or steal in order to provision themselves for their battles. It had great survival value in this warrior society to be good at stealing and not getting caught. And even more important, the boys were raised with a very strict military discipline and taught to show no fear of death. The Spartan code of honor was harsh and based on right action – they were fighters not philosophers – and the story of the boy and the fox was a fine teaching story for them.
Soon after thinking about the Spartans, the Stoics came in to my mind. The word “stoic’ calls up stern-ness and not complaining, so I wondered if their value system was like the Spartan’s. I did not have to read far in Wikipedia to find that the two were not at all alike. In Athens around 300 B.C., Zeno of Citium (there is more than one Zeno) became the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. He emphasized the, “… goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature.” In Zeno’s philosophy nature was considered divine, all aspects were part of a greater whole, and the human task was to create eudaimonia – “the good life.” Unlike the rough values of the Spartans, the four central or cardinal virtues of the Stoics were temperance, justice, courage, and practical wisdom – all ways of being that can lead to good lives and harmonious communities.
In the Wikipedia entry about the Stoics there is an unexpected, charming story about the way parts can be seen relating to a greater whole in an instance of synchronicity, the fortunate, and often meaningful coincidence of events. After being shipwrecked, Zeno ended up in Athens and soon visited a bookseller where he saw Xenophon’s Memorabilia. “…(H)e was so pleased with the book’s portrayal of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where men like Socrates were to be found. Just then, Crates of Thebes … happened to be walking by, and the bookseller pointed to him.” Zeno became his pupil and then he himself became a great teacher.
In For Everything Stoic (www.thestoicgym.com/the-stoic-magazine/article/504) Chuck Chakrapani wrote, “Ancient Stoics believed we are all equipped to grow toward virtue, and our natural instincts will push us in this direction if nothing gets in the way.”
And, “(The) … basic tenet of Stoicism (is) that some things in our life are up to us and others are not.”
The Stoics had the view – in modern form – that life is what we make it, although some aspects are open for us to make choices and some are decided by circumstances or forces we cannot control.
I went on to think about another young boy, Harry Potter, who made his life what it was, balancing his destiny with making his own choices. Elmer Green had some favorite books and movies that he went back to over and over again. He read the seven Harry Potter books through at least three times and he talked about the little person, the unlikely, ordinary one who accomplishes heroic tasks. Harry Potter as well as Bilbo Baggins from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, had no obvious powers or gifts and their origins were humble – they were people like most of us. Bilbo Baggins lived an ordinary life in his small home carved into a hill and Harry Potter had his cupboard under the stairs. Their stories are about the challenges they were given, the dangers they faced, and the choices they made as they “grew towards virtue.” These everyday people who became heroes would have been Zeno’s kind of good person, not the kind the Spartans fostered.
Then I began thinking about the values we hold dear now. There’s a lot to think about with this. Not so long ago, Americans could sum up our moral idealism with a quip about “apple pie and motherhood.” Of course, we had more developed expressions of what it meant to be a good person and to have a good life, views that we shared. Humans have always been human – flawed, unaware, and capable of great wrongs, but we’ve long had moral codes, a sense of the common good, and lists of desired virtues that we generally agreed on. And, around the world for thousands of years there certainly has been the perennial wisdom of the golden rule that says, in one way or another, that we are to treat each other with kindness and fairness as we ourselves would like to be treated.
This seems to no longer be true. I am not sure that now we even ask
about what makes a good person. The questions are more likely to be about success – are you a success, how can I become a success, how rich and powerful are you? We measure each other and compete for a “win.” This is a great simplification and incomplete because of that, but it seems there are two warring sets of values in our country these days, two sides that don’t share common ground or even understand each other. Some of our communities seem to have returned to the mentality and ethics of the Spartans where what is valued is driven by desperation and a single-minded focus on fighting, winning, and keeping power. This desperate need to “survive” has once again made it good to steal and to hide what is being done.
Do we have to go through terrible, terrible times to realize that we are all parts of a greater whole and that we need each other? We need to think now about the choices we are going to make.
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The Wikipedia entry is titled “Zeno of Citium.”
The image of the fox that leads this post is from Pixabay.