Hamlet was just reiterating what ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers knew about values and one’s own thinking when he remarked: “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Simply put, one’s thinking is the prism through which one sees the world.
Hamlet’s clever remark is actually one of the bedrocks of the Stoic tradition — that one’s mind controls one’s values, not the other way around. So that a person’s reactions to the world, to external events, are to a large extent controlled by one’s preconceptions, attitudes, judgments. But these preconceptions, attitudes, judgments are malleable — you formed them but you can also alter them. So this line of thinking leads naturally to a mind over matter discipline that the Stoics employed to free themselves from views of the world that were, in their view, not rational and so counterproductive for living a truly virtuous life.
But where — or when — did this line of thinking among the Stoics actually begin?. Most scholars place the beginning of Stoicism itself with Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century B.C. However, this perspective does not emerge with Zeno or his direct disciples who came to be known as “Stoics”.
However, this perspective is widely seen in later Stoics. For instance, in the late 1st century and early 2nd century A.D., Epictetus asserted: “Man is affected, not by events, but by the view he takes of them” or “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” In other words, that belief is a necessary prerequisite for the harm, so if there is no such belief, there is no harm — even if hit or insulted. In other words, you have to believe that you have been insulted to be insulted.
Perhaps the clearest explanation of this principle is by Marcus Aurelius who wrote in the 2nd century A.D.: “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” In effect, no judgment means no pain — despite the existence of “any external thing.”
Marcus Aurelius might also point us in the right direction to the true originator of this central Stoic concept of the pivotal role that the mind plays in reacting to external reality. In his book Meditations, he wrote: ” ‘All is as thinking makes it so.’ The retort made to Monimus the Cynic is clear enough: but clear too is the value of his saying, if one takes the kernel of it, as far as it is true.”
So we have it, indirectly, from Marcus Aurelius that an early Stoic by the name of Monimus the Cynic could well be the originator of this gem of an idea that Stoicism latched onto. But what was this “kernel of his saying,” which Monimus the Cynic must have made? His brilliant assertion, summed up very tersely, was: “All is opinion.” This was the revolutionary thought that established a very strong Stoic tradition of the power of one’s preconceptions, attitudes, judgments in shaping one’s response to the external world and external events — because these mental constructs are our own, they are subject to our will, and are therefore subject to whatever change we see fit to make of them. There is a certain freedom granted to the individual by this perspective, as it provides license to reinvent oneself.
Monimus was saying that it’s all about opinion (i.e., preconceptions, attitudes, judgments), that virtually everything we encounter comes down to forming an opinion about it. And so it becomes crucial to form more rational preconceptions, attitudes, judgments about the world, especially if one wants to live what was the ultimate ideal of the Stoics — the rational virtuous life.
This view of the role of the mind in interpreting the world could lead the Stoics to very different reactions to what they considered to be “natural” events in one’s life. For instance, Marcus Aurelius believed that death was just a natural event in every man’s life, like eating or sleeping, etc., so to mourn someone’s death was the height of folly. Rather, death should simply be accepted without much fanfare as an inevitable occurrence — accepted not with a great deal of emotion but passively and graciously and certainly not mourned. So you can see how these types of altered Stoic reactions might well have been the result not of “toughing it out” — the popular conception of Stoicism — but rather of adopting an entirely different set of more rational preconceptions, attitudes, judgments, as per the insight originally provided by Monimus the Cynic.
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