One may rightly wonder, if the teachings of a school of philosophy that was founded about 2300 years ago are still relevant today.
2300 years is a speck in evolutionary time and we as a species have not changed much. We still face the same problems, behave in the very same ways as back then. The only difference is a generally higher standard of living, longer life-expectancy, and superior technology in the background that makes life easier.
Humanities basic troubles and troubling behaviour have not changed. Just this morning, I came across this observation made by Emperor Marcus Aurelius:
Recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from ‘good families’.Marcus Aurelius
I assume most of you will not have to think very long to think of at least one family, who shamelessly use their power and influence to get their way.
It does not really matter if it is an illustrious, well connected family in your home town, or more prominent families acting on the world stage.
But this abuse of power can affect anyone who is not cautious. To just mention another example: A former politician in my home country of Germany who rose from a very humble background to supreme prominence is now reviled for smooching up to powerful CEOs and lobbyists and landing some very cushy jobs after ending his political career. I am not naming names and there are several to whom this description fits. The one I am thinking of is still alive.
The hypocrisy of some televangelists and other religious leaders, who of course are supposed to be extra-virtuous, is also legendary and only recently, there was a scandal highlighting all that is in the quote above.
What all those who are corrupted by their power lack is virtue.You can make the point that for some, power is a virtue-killer.
Therefor we have to be ever vigilant not to fall into the power trap. We may be humble and pleasant people as long as we have modest means, but as soon as we have influence and/or acquire wealth, we may well become selfish and act just like Marcus Aurelius observed. To avoid this, we have to continue living virtuous lives, no matter the circumstances.
The stoics practiced living as if they were poor from time to time. While it helps you appreciate the things you have and not crave for more, it also reminds you of the circumstances of the less fortunate and:
Leading an austere or modest life may well keep you from being corrupted.
But this is only to remind you. The key is, as stated, virtue. If you practice living by the stoic virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance, and Courage, you will not fall prey to the “malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces”, even if you are or become powerful. Instead, you will remain true to yourself, just like Marcus Aurelius was, and he was the most powerful man on the planet at the time.
We still have our base instincts left over from the ice age. We have not outgrown this legacy. We still crave more and more and more. Even if it destroys us, or the planet as we see now. It is still in our genes, the craving is natural. It helped us to keep alive in dire times, but now it can be our doom.
One day, we will have outgrown this craving, until then, we have Stoicism to guide our action and be an example to others.
Also, we should take courageous action, or simply take a stand against abuses of power when we witness them.
I know, this is asking a lot, but even when you cannot take action, you can still be an example by your own conduct.
Here’s to hoping that virtue can be contagious, too.