The Three Moirai (Fates), Triumph of Death.
It is without doubt that many of Valens’ passages in Anthology contain Stoic elements in it. This requires special study since Valens in no place states that “Yeah, I am a Stoic”. However, one who is acquainted even a bit with the Stoic sages from those early ages can notice that some of Valens’ advices on how to except life’s hardships and how to be a brave soldier of the fortune, have Stoic reminiscences in them.
Marcus Aurelius lived in 2nd century AD, in the same age Valens lived. Marcus Aurelius is born 121 AD and died 180 AD, very close to the supposed date of birth and death of Valens (120 AD – c 175 AD).
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are probably most popular (even today!) Stoic read. What I find similar to the approach of exercising ‘happy life’ in Meditations is the teaching of the three topoi (fields of study) which were highly thought by Epictetus [55 – 135 AD] to his followers. This was standard Stoic practice which I will describe shortly in what follows; but what is interesting to me in investigating Stoicism of this period is the excitement of somehow ‘catching the spirit’ of times. You know, hardly that we today have a real Stoic who was thought by a real Stoic and this one was thought by a real Stoic. What I mean by ‘real Stoic’ is a Stoic who is a part of the chain of teacher-student lineage, something which we have in Hindu tradition and their religious traditions. As a language like Latin or Ancient Greek, this Stoic practice is a ‘dead practice’ that needs revival. I mean, we do not have succession of teacher-student, we do not have lineage of Stoics that survived till today, if I am correct. Now, as in revival of ancient language, revival of ancient astrology, here lie some barriers in revival of the practice of these ancient sages through the books and fragments we have from them.
This is always a hard task. I know this from my studies of Orthodox Christianity in my late teens, when I was involved in reading many Orthodox Christian books about how to live moral and blessed life, BUT until I met my first teacher who was also Orthodox priest, I was never able to get into the spirit of the teachings of the Orthodox sages. When I met my teacher, his presence and spiritual power, illuminated me like no book I have ever read. This is the same with Stoicism, I have never met a Stoic, if not a Stoic from a Stoic ‘lineage’, at least, a Stoic who spent his life in practicing this art of living. However, since I met with great Orthodox teachers and spiritual men in my life, I can get a bit from the spirit of these sages, because the Orthodox spiritual practice, bears some similarities with the practice of the Stoics, even though in its core is very much different, because of the cosmic philosophy, eschatology, etc.
To get back to the three topoi. The three topoi in the Stoic teachings are:
1. Desires (orexis) and aversions (ekkliseis).
2. Impulses to act (hormas) and not to act (aphormas).
3. Value-Judgment (sunkatathesis).
[John Sellars, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Marcus Aurelius entry]
This was the practical philosophy of Epictetus and his famous always repeated ‘things that are in our own power and things that are not in our own power’. The thing is that we as human beings have impressions (phantasia), the whole difference in practicing philosophy and how to live a blessed happy life (eudaimonia) is how do we value-judge those impressions. If I see a man is drinking wine, the impression is that he drinks a wine, the value-judgment [sunkatathesis] would probably be that he will get drunk and that he is immoral, which is of course bad value-judgment because how do I know from only seeing the appearance, what is there, maybe he drinks something else that looks like wine?!
Epictetus, and hence Marcus Aurelius, teaches us that we need to work on our value-judgments and correct interpretation of our impressions. If we receive bad value-judgment temptation upon some impression, we could easily decide by our own inner power to correct this value-judgment and say ‘I do not want to value this impression in this manner, I will value it such and such’.
Impulses to act (hormas) are also in our own power, although the outcome of our actions is not in our own power. The archer can strive to hit the target, to do his best, but he can’t control the wind and other outer circumstances to achieve his goal. Here lies the analogy as to the things that are in our own power and those things that are not in our own power. ‘I know that I can control the outer circumstances’, someone would say, ‘I can reach my hand and grab that stone’. Yeah, but the Nature already put the stone there for you to grab it. The point is that we do not have total control and we have only limited amount of power, some more some less. We should then, not lament on the things that are above our control since the Nature or the Cosmos of which we are part as everything around us, has ordained the things as they are meant to be in perfect order for those who can see this order without the value-judgment of our habitual thinking.
The exercise of the desires is the knowledge that the desires for outer circumstances which are above our own control and power, are unpredictable and can bring us despair and lament. The true desire is the desire for inner excellence, for virtue (aretē), striving for wisdom and happy inner life, free from value-judgments and wishful thinking for ‘creating’ our lives in their external form. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad in this, there is wrong in the totality of expectation that whatever we strive for, whatever we wish for the outer world, will come true. Taming the desires for the contrary of what is already predestined by this Cosmic Creature, and having the desire for inner excellence and living virtuous life, is what is needed for the sage to be.
This is very practical philosophy and working with it on a daily basis, brings inner strength of the character (prohairesis), moral betterment and facing the challenges of life more easily. As a consequence, life becomes more fulfilled and happy (eudaimonia) This is indeed very helpful for those of you who think that great deal of our lives are predestined and that Astrology as an art, is capable of revealing at least part of that destiny.
Valens speaking on the crisis-producing places in book V [Riley] says:
“Some are fated to have unwanted experiences and to be unable to act as they desire. Some seem to be under the power of others; even though they are free, they are punished by a bad conscience. Some travel abroad or sail, and are held somewhere on an island or in deserted places, or they do service in temples or sacred places. Occasionally they are confined by recurrent diseases or by epilepsy, fits, spells, blindness, the ague, and syndromes such as these.”
Exactly these are the things that are fated and outside of our power; things that are fated: our outer circumstances and bodily accidents like illnesses, things that ‘happen to us’. No matter how much we strive with the ‘power of our intention’ to achieve something, the fact is that things in our life ‘do happen’ and it is not that we only ‘make things to happen’.
“Accordingly then, the initiates of this art, those wishing to have knowledge of the future, will be helped because they will not be burdened with vain hopes, will not expend grievous midnight toil, will not vainly love the impossible, nor in a like manner will they be carried away by their eagerness to attain what they may expect because of some momentary good fortune. A suddenly appearing good often grieves men as if it were an evil; a suddenly appearing evil causes the greatest misery to those who have not trained their minds in advance.”
How the initiates of this art [astrology] will be helped? By knowing that sometimes benefic planets in ruling the times, bring only an appearance of good after which some misfortune follows. This is life, the soldier of fortune would know all this and will never be disturbed by the appearance of bad nor overly excited by the appearance of good. This is the exercise of the three topoi offered by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The training of the mind in advance, and actually the whole passage from Valens above is one of the things which relate him to the Stoic practical philosophy of life. We can see here how Valens was trained Stoic or at least, bears practical philosophy very similar to that of the Stoics I explained above.
I will finish this exposition here with one of my favorite quotes from Valens:
“Fate has decreed for each person the immutable working out of events, reinforcing this decree with many opportunities for good or bad consequences. Through the use of these opportunities, two self begotten gods, Hope and Fortune, the assistants of Fate, control man’s life and make it possible for him to bear Fate’s decrees by using their compulsion and deception. One of the two <Fortune> manifests herself to everyone through the forecasted outcome, proving herself to be good and kind at one time, at another time dark and grim. Fortune raises some high only to cast them down, and degrades others only to raise them to glory. The other of the two <Hope> is neither dark nor bright; she moves everywhere in disguise and in secret, smiling on everyone like a flatterer, and she displays many attractive prospects which cannot be attained. She controls men by deceiving them: these men, even though they were wronged and were enslaved to their desires, still are attracted to her again, and full of Hope, believe that their wishes will be fulfilled. They believe her—only to get what they do not expect. If Hope ever does offer solid prospects to anyone, she immediately abandons him and goes on to others. She seems to be close to everyone, but she stays with no one.” [Riley p. 102]
Just a final remark. I do not claim that Valens was a Stoic. I do want to point however, that some of his passages bear Stoic elements, even though this does not make him a Stoic per se. The times in which Valens lived, were times of philosophical eclecticism and different mystery cults, borrowing elements from different philosophical schools and commingling of religious-philosophical influences of different traditions.