At the beginning of The Odyssey, Zeus utters a famous lament that must, one imagines, be shared by all gods and parents and presidents alike:
This is absurd
That mortals blame the gods! They say
we cause suffering but they themselves
Increase it by folly.
At the heart of Stoicism is an admission that life is unfair and largely out of our control. Bad stuff happens to everyone, the vast majority of it not even remotely our fault. Nobody asks to die. Nobody asks to be lied to or smacked by a natural disaster or leveled by some freak accident. The Gods, or luck, or Fate—that’s who is responsible for these untimely deeds (to us at least).
But the Stoics also agree with Zeus’s complaint: That humans take this misfortune and compound it. We make things worse than they need to be. By complaining. By quitting. By getting upset about them. By placing blame. By trying desperately to undo what must happen, or to outsmart it by scheme or by bargain. We add folly on top of misfortune.
That’s really the plot of The Odyssey if you think about it. Odysseus is too clever for his own good, and it gets him into trouble constantly. He was almost home, but then he took a nap and his curious men—who he refused to explain himself to—opened a bag of wind that set them back. He was free of the Cyclops—who was awful, yes—but then he had to taunt him, not content to leave well enough alone. It was the costliest of all the errors he made. The whole story is Odysseus making a bad situation worse, over and over again until he is rescued by Athena.
The key to life may not be brilliance or power. What if it’s just not being stupid? What if it’s just not increasing our troubles by adding folly and hubris and greed on top of them? There’s no guarantee, but it’s worth a try…