In his “Essay on Epitaphs,” Samuel Johnson recalls the lines inscribed on the tomb of the Greek Stoic teacher: “Epictetus, who lies here, was a slave and a cripple, poor as the beggar in the proverb, and the favourite of heaven.” To which he adds this consideration:
In this distich is comprised the noblest panegyrick, and the most important instruction. We may learn from it, that virtue is impracticable in no condition, since Epictetus could recommend himself to the regard of heaven, amidst the temptations of poverty and slavery; slavery, which has always been found so destructive to virtue, that in many languages a slave and a thief are expressed by the same word. And we may be, likewise, admonished by it, not to lay any stress on a man’s outward circumstances, in making an estimate of his real value, since Epictetus the beggar, the cripple, and the slave, was the favourite of heaven.
The notable advantage of Stoic teaching over other ancient moral systems—which tended to emphasize a sufficiency of material goods as a means to “happiness”—is the belief that integrity and contentment are ultimately independent of external things. However, as noted previously, Johnson was often critical of Stoic doctrine: it was too simplistic and demanded so much of individual self-sufficiency as to be beyond the reach of most mortals.
In another work, “The Life of Dr Herman Boerhaave” (1668-1738), Johnson offers a relevant insight. During his final painful illness the Dutch physician and humanist displayed remarkable serenity.
This is… an instance of fortitude and steady composure of mind, which would have been for ever the boast of the stoick schools, and increased the reputation of Seneca or Cato. The patience of Boerhaave, as it was more rational, was more lasting than theirs; it was that patentia christiana, which Lipsius, the great master of the stoical philosophy, begged of God in his last hours; it was founded on religion, not vanity, not on vain reasonings, but on confidence in God.
The English writer alludes to an anecdote about the Renaissance Neo-Stoic, Justus Lipsius. Those in attendance at his death bed urged that he resign himself by means of philosophical apatheia (rationally raising himself above feelings or passions), to which he responded, while pointing to a crucifix, “Those things are vain. That is true patience.”
Seneca, the Roman philosopher, did indeed boast, “Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it… in thinking it slight, you will make it slight.” But what is lacking in so many of these cheerless, if noble, considerations is an incentive beyond the here and now. From a purely empirical point of view, theoretical systems of virtue have never gained as many followers as the major religions.