I am reading Anna Karenina and have come across a few passages that remind me of the Stoic mindset. The first, describing the landowner Levin, strikes me as a good example of someone drawing on inner strength and outward-directed goals to lead a fulfilling life.
Levin is caught in a hailstorm while riding on horseback; while this is not, say, the death of a family member, it still seems a highly uncomfortable life circumstance. Yet he is looking about cheerfully and is “peculiarly elated” (his horse seems to be bearing up nobly, too). The weather is an indifferent. What matters to him is his latest farming project, converting his operations to a cooperative of sorts. Virtue is all that matters, and what embodies his pursuit of virtue is his project to improve the lives of the people who work on his estate. A mindful awareness of his ability to endure minor inconveniences gives him the strength to direct his energies outward.
Having finished all his business, soaked through with the streams of water which kept running down the leather behind his neck and his high boots, but in the keenest and most confident temper, Levin returned homeward in the evening. The weather had become worse than ever toward evening; the hail lashed the drenched mare so cruelly that she went along sideways, shaking her head and ears; but Levin was all right under his hood, and he looked cheerfully about him at the muddy streams running under the wheels, at the drops hanging on every bare twig, at the whiteness of the patch of unmelted hailstones on the planks of the bridge, at the thick layer of still juicy, fleshy leaves that lay heaped up about the naked elm tree. In spite of the gloominess of nature around him, he felt peculiarly elated. . . .
“I need only continue stubbornly on toward my aim, and I will attain my end,” thought Levin; “and it’s something to work and take trouble for. This is not a matter of myself individually, the question of the public welfare enters into it. The whole system of culture, the chief element in the condition of the people, must be completely transformed. Instead of poverty, general prosperity and content; instead of hostility, harmony and unity of interests. In short, a bloodless revolution, but a revolution of the greatest magnitude, beginning in the little circle of our district, then the province, then Russia, then the whole world.”
The last few phrases recall the circle of Hierocles–Hierocles being, as Massimo Pigliucci puts it, “the guy who came up with the concept of concentric circles of concern that encapsulate the Stoic principles of oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism,” which happens to make him seem, appropriately, as familiar as the guy who sells us our morning coffee.
Contrast this example of 19th century Russian Stoicism with the following, which strikes me as faux Stoicism–the stereotype of someone who is numb and devoid of all emotions, and is therefore called “stoic.” The person in question is Anna’s unfortunate husband Aleksey.
While there are some aspects of Aleksey’s train of thought that are admirable, namely that he does not blame himself for her treatment of him (“I made a mistake in linking my life to hers; but there was nothing reprehensible in my mistake, and so I cannot be unhappy”). Outward events do not hold sway over his peace of mind, but only whether he did right or wrong. However, his son is not to blame, either, and for Aleksey to cease to be interested in anything “relat[ing] to her and her son” is not Stoic, but cold and unjust. Let’s hold off on passing judgment on poor Aleksey Aleksandrovich, though. He does go through several changes of heart after this passage below, and he has suffered greatly due to his wife’s having run off with a handsome, young count, which also happens to make Karenin the laughingstock of Petersburg.
His wife’s words, confirming his worst suspicions, had sent a cruel pang to the heart of Aleksey Aleksandrovich. That pang was intensified by the strange feeling of physical pity for her set up by her tears. But when he was all alone in the carriage Aleksey Aleksandrovich, to his surprise and delight, felt complete relief both from this pity and from the doubts and agonies of jealousy. . . .
“I made a mistake in linking my life to hers; but there was nothing reprehensible in my mistake, and so I cannot be unhappy. It’s not I that am to blame,” he told himself, “but she. But I have nothing to do with her. She does not exist for me . . . “
Everything relating to her and her son, toward whom his sentiments were as much changed as toward her, ceased to interest him. The only thing that interested him now was the question of what way he could best, with most propriety and comfort for himself, and so with most justice, extricate himself from the mud with which she had spattered him in her fall, and then proceed along his path of active, honorable, and useful existence.