The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even (by way of concession to traditional religion) ‘the gods’. It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which ambition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.
Living ‘ in accordance with nature ‘ means not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world. We are meant to set free or perfect this rational element, this particle of the universal reason, the ‘ divine spark’ in our human make-up, so that it may campaign against and conquer pain, grief, superstition and the fear of death. It will show us that ‘there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’, discipline the pleasures and the passions, and generally subordinate the body and emotions to the mind and soul.
In this way we shall arrive at the true end of man, happiness, through having attained the one and only good thing In life, the ideal or goal called arete in Greek and in Latin virtus — for which the English word ‘virtue’ is so unsatisfactory a translation This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’ usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control and justice (or upright dealing). It enables a man to be ‘self-sufficient’, immune to suffering, superior to the wounds and upsets of life (often personalized as Fortuna, the goddess of fortune). Even a slave thus armed can be called ‘free’, or indeed titled ‘a king’ since even a king cannot touch him.
Another example of these ‘paradoxes’ for which the Stoics were celebrated is one directed at the vanity of worldly possessions: ‘the route to wealth is the contempt of wealth’.