Sir John Templeton (1912 – 2008), an American by birth who later became naturalised as a UK citizen, was an extremely successful investor and fund manager. He was also one of the 20th century’s most notable philanthropists, reputedly giving away over a billion dollars to charity. In 1987, he founded The Templeton Foundation, describing its goal as follows:
We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.John Templeton
Templeton was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. He had a very diverse interest, though, in spiritual and philosophical classics from other traditions. His writings are full of quotes from famous Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. He also quotes frequently from Cicero, an orator and Academic philosopher who was himself heavily influenced by Stoicism. Templeton also liked to refer to Socrates, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, who preceded and greatly influenced the Stoic school.
I counted about 22 references to Stoicism in Worldwide Laws of Life, his most popular book on Amazon. To save me repeating “Templeton quotes xyz as saying”, incidentally, bear in mind that every one of the quotations below is used by Templeton in this book.
Templeton derived two major themes from his reading of the Stoics, which run throughout his writings:
- Our own thoughts shape our character and emotions
- Our happiness depends upon having self-discipline, and living consistently in accord with our true values
We’ll explore each of these in turn before discussing a third Stoic theme, death reflection, which Templeton only touches upon indirectly.
1. “Your life becomes what you think.”
Templeton uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as the title of one of his Worldwide Laws of Life. He also includes another quote, which better explains its meaning: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts,” says Marcus, “such also will be the character of thy soul—for the soul is dyed by thy thoughts.” Marcus is also quoted as saying:
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thought: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.Marcus Aurelius
Marcus was steeped in the teachings of Epictetus, an earlier Stoic philosopher, whose most famous saying was:
Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinion of the things that happen.Epictetus
Templeton quoted Epictetus because he understood that our emotional life depends much more on our opinions than we normally tend to realise. Our spiritual progress requires taking responsibility for our own thinking, and bringing our actions more into alignment with the goal of living wisely and virtuously.
Recalling that we can always view events differently helps us to cope with setbacks in a wiser, more constructive manner. Epictetus is quoted as saying, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.” One who has mastered this ability has overcome fortune.
Happy is the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.Seneca
Templeton also quoted with approval Epictetus’ remark:
Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things are either what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.Epictetus
We are unlikely to be deceived when things are as they appear to be. However, often the contrary is true. Something might be healthy, on the one hand, without appearing to be so. On the other, something may appear to be healthy, without, in fact, being so. Appearances, in short, are distinct from reality, and can therefore be quite misleading. This might seem obvious but we’re naturally inclined to forget the distinction between appearance and reality. Philosophers like Epictetus want us to be more mindful of this distinction throughout our daily lives, as a safeguard against being deceived by superficial impressions.
We have to make a commitment to the truth as it requires intelligence and effort to see clearly, without letting our feelings get in the way.
The great teacher Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.”John Templeton
He also quotes Seneca saying “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.”
Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism, as it were, was the first to really emphasize that we need to question our own thinking very deeply, every day, if we want to achieve wisdom and learn to see life clearly. Templeton relates the famous story of the Delphic Oracle, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Pythia. She once, controversially, announced that Socrates was the wisest of all men. This prompted Socrates to respond by insisting that he was only wise because he realized that he knew nothing, at least nothing certain about things of great importance. “Surely,” writes Templeton, “these are the words of a teachable man.”
Socrates reputedly said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, words which Templeton also notes approvingly. After the Delphic Oracle’s remarkable proclamation of Socrates’ wisdom, the Athenian philosopher dedicated his life to following the most famous prescription engraved outside her shrine. It consisted of two simple words: Know thyself. For Templeton this was emblematic of Socrates’ mission to urged Athenians “to live noble lives, to think critically and logically, and to have probing minds”, although as we’ll see it also has another meaning.
2. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Templeton used this quote from Epictetus as another of his Worldwide Laws of Life. Philosophy, philosophia in Greek, literally means “love of wisdom”, including the wisdom that comes from studying our own nature. Striving to truly know ourselves, following the maxim of the Delphic Oracle, is the essence of Socratic philosophy, and of Stoicism. It means realizing that our minds shape our emotions and that our happiness therefore depends, fundamentally, upon our thinking, our beliefs, and our overall philosophy of life. Knowing yourself is the key to your freedom, in other words. Templeton quotes Seneca on this: “A good mind is lord of a kingdom.” That’s because self-knowledge leads to self-control, which we need in order to free ourselves from our own unhealthy desires and emotions. “No man is free”, according to Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.”
Ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was not an abstract bookish or “academic” diversion but a whole way of life, similar in some ways to a religion such as Buddhism. Templeton knew this and used the words of another Stoic to illustrate the point.
Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in firmness of mind and mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do as well as to talk; and to make our words and action all of a color.Seneca
Of course this requires an unusual degree of dedication to the goal of living wisely. “No man”, says Epictetus, “is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.” We all too easily risk wasting our time otherwise. “Part of our time is snatched from us,” as Seneca puts it, “part is gently subtracted, and part slides insensibly away.” Yet when we focus ourselves on our fundamental goal in life, the goal of attaining wisdom and virtue, we can achieve a great deal. “Better to do a little well,” says Socrates, “than a great deal badly.” Templeton also liked to quote Cicero, who was influenced by the Stoics, in this regard:
Diligence is to be particularly cultivated by us, it is to be constantly exerted; it is capable of effecting almost everything.Cicero
The secret to achieving this level of diligence and focus lies in self-knowledge, though, and the realization that we already have an overriding goal in life: the goal of wisdom. For Socrates and the Stoics, wisdom and virtue are the same. The supreme goal in life is to become wise and good, or to improve and ultimately perfect ourselves. Nature gave us the capacity for reason and self-awareness, and left us to finish her work by using these faculties well throughout life. “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”, as Seneca put it. We’re constantly tempted to stray from the path, though, by endless diversions in life. “No longer talk at all about the kind of man a good man ought to be,” says Marcus Aurelius therefore, “but be such.” We know we’re on the right track when we can look back on our life and feel that we’ve actually spent our precious time well. “The life given us by nature is short,” said Cicero, “but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
The goal of life is to act consistently in accord with our fundamental goal, of seeking wisdom and virtue. The Stoics doubted whether any mortal had ever achieved perfection but they still thought it was a goal worth aspiring toward, although we should be grateful for making even small steps in the right direction. Templeton quotes a stunning passage from Seneca on this:
The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on god is most unfaltering.Seneca
This is the famous “Sage” or Sophos of the Stoic philosophical tradition: their knowingly idealistic definition of the potential for greatness implicit in human nature.
Templeton and the Stoics on Death
As we’ve seen, the words “Know thyself” were engraved at the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens. Inside was seated the Pythia, who not only spoke on behalf of her patron god, but channelled his very presence, so it was believed, through a form of possession. Those standing outside the temple were reminded, therefore, to show humility because they were about enter the presence of an immortal being, the god Apollo himself. In other words, the inscription “Know yourself” originally meant “Know your place” or “Remember that you are a mortal.”
Here’s a quote from the ancient Stoics, which you don’t find inTempleton’s books:
Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11
“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.
You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11
Contemplation of our own mortality is a major theme in Stoicism. It was known in Greek as melete thanatou, or training for death, following a saying of Socrates. It’s better-known today, perhaps, by the Latin phrase memento mori meaning “remember thou must die”. This phrase, as Epictetus noted, was one of several traditionally whispered in the ears of victorious Roman generals and emperors, by attendant slaves, in order to protect them against delusions of immortality and godhood. The Stoics believed that by contemplating our own mortality on a daily basis, in the right way, we could overcome our fear of death, and this would liberate us from many other unhealthy desires and emotions in life.
John Templeton does, in fact, describe a similar practice. “Many people have a fear of change”, he says. He therefore advises his readers that, in the form of a spiritual practice, they may come to accept change and loss, without upset, by learning to view such things as part of nature. We should remember that “nature’s great scheme involves change”, as Templeton puts it. This sounds just like Stoicism as does Templeton’s remark: “We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.” In part, this comes from accepting change as natural and inevitable, as the Stoics say. Our suffering can also be helped, according to Templeton, by viewing every ending as also a beginning.
We generally like beginnings—we celebrate the new. On the other hand, many people resist endings and attempt to delay them. Much of our resistance to endings stems from our unawareness, or inability, to realize that we are one with nature. Often we don’t feel the joy of an ending, perhaps because we forget that in each ending are the seeds of beginning. Although endings can be painful, they are less so if, instead of resisting them, we look at time as a natural process of nature: as leaves budding in the spring, coming to full leaf in the summer, turning red and gold in autumn, and dropping from the trees in winter. It can be comforting to comprehend that we are an integral part of the great scheme of nature.John Templeton
This leads to Templeton’s sage advice with regard to losses we experience in the course of life: “The more we allow ourselves to trust that every ending is a new beginning, the less likely we are to resist letting go of old ideas and attitudes.” His own Christian faith, however, meant that he also viewed death as a new beginning, because he had faith, personally, in an afterlife. He compares human life to the existence of a lowly caterpillar, and death to our soul’s emergence from a spiritual cocoon, into a more resplendent life in Heaven.
Yet, if you are willing to trust, as caterpillars seem able to do, the end of your life as an earthbound worm may be the beginning of your life as a beautiful winged creature of the sky.John Templeton
Death is not something to be feared, therefore, because we may be reborn as beings of pure spirit, living on in a better place.
We can see each ending as a tragedy and lament and resist it, or we can see each ending as a new beginning and a new birth into greater opportunities. What the caterpillar sees as the tragedy of death, the butterfly sees as the miracle of birth.John Templeton
That belief is not as widely held today, though, at least in those countries where agnosticism and atheism are common.
In the ancient world, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat more agnostic attitude toward death was also quite common. Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, expresses belief in the gods and hope that he will enjoy a happy existence in the afterlife. However, he admits his uncertainty about such things, and adopts a philosophical attitude, preparing himself for the possibility that death may, instead, resemble an endless sleep, a state of total nonexistence or oblivion.
Many people share Templeton’s interest in using “the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”. They don’t all share his Christian faith in spiritual life after death, though. Some of these individuals would struggle to interpret their own death as the “seeds of beginning” an afterlife in Heaven. I think this is an area where the Stoic position could arguably serve Templeton’s overall aim of a rational and “scientific” investigation of spirituality better.
As we saw earlier, Templeton used perhaps the most widely quoted of all passages from the Stoics… Epictetus says that it is our own opinions, ultimately, that disturb us. In the next sentence, though, Epictetus applied this insight to the fear of death, using the example of Socrates, because he considered this the most important fear of all to overcome.
Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing.Epictetus, Handbook 5
It’s easier for some non-Christians, especially the atheists and agnostics, to accept uncertainty about life after death. The guidance they’re usually seeking from ancient spiritual traditions today is more about maintaining their values while coming to terms with that very uncertainty, and adopting a philosophical attitude toward their own mortality, such as the one exemplified by Socrates and the Stoics.