Stoicism is a word from yesteryear. The ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to life made famous by the British, epitomised by the Queen. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ or even the Australian, ‘She’ll be right, mate’.
Or perhaps you picture Stoicism as superhuman bravery in terrible situations: Ukrainians getting married in a war zone, a band playing as the Titanic goes down.
But it turns out the word ‘stoic’ has been so lost in translation since the original Stoic philosophers started to think about how to live well, it has little to do with the original meaning.
It’s also something we desperately need in this uncertain post-pandemic age, during rising economic instability, nuclear threats, wars and rumours of wars.
Capital ‘S’ Stoicism is a road map for living well; a series of virtues and ethics for staring life square in the face, warts and all.
“If life hands out lemons, the Stoic will certainly try making lemonade, but if that doesn’t work she’ll at least know why and be able to manage nicely. Her philosophy prepares her for whatever the world sends her way; she will be well-practised in the art of managing life, using her intelligence and training to embrace it, whether it’s going well or badly,” writes Brad Inwood in his book, Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction.
Origins of Stoicism
The Stoics got their name from the word ‘Stoa’, literally ‘painted porch’ which was a covered walkway, or ‘portico’ designed for public use. Imagine towering Greek columns and marble floors where the public would gather to listen to philosophers like Plato.
Meanwhile, the ancient Romans were faced with economic depression, plague, foreign invaders and civil war, so their philosophies were rooted in the same experiences that reoccur throughout history.
There’s Marcus Aurelius, the poster boy for Stoicism with his famous Meditations. This diary was never intended for publication and is often cited by world leaders, celebrities and athletes as their inspiration. He would have been a hit on Twitter with soundbites of wisdom like, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength”.
But Stoicism began 500 years earlier in 300BCE with a man named Zeno who lost everything but discovered philosophy and “appears to have been trying to synthesise the best aspects of Athenian philosophical traditions”, Donald Robertson writes in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
Rather than setting up a philosophical school, he gathered followers to present his thoughts and discuss ideas in the more informal setting of the Stoa. Robertson is arguably the world’s leading thinker on Stoicism with multiple books on the subject including a graphic novel, Verissimus, which tells the story of Marcus Aurelius in vivid visual detail.
As a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, Robertson combines his knowledge of Stoicism with his clinical practice of cognitive behaviour therapy or CBT. Aaron T. Beck, the founder of CBT, wrote in the original manual that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers”.
Robertson says the Stoics emerged in contention with the Sophists, teachers of philosophy who thrived on rhetoric and speech that was “tailored to get the most attention in a way that would sacrifice the truth”.
Sound familiar? Robertson sees parallels between our social media ecosystem and the Sophists. “You know this is risky [if] you’re going to end up teaching things and saying things that please people regardless of whether it’s true or helpful [and] you’re more concerned with appearances or persuasion than reality or logic,” Robertson says, paraphrasing Socrates.
“Social media influencers that are the most successful are the contrarian ones. They get more attention by saying things that are shocking, surprising or make people angry.”
Stoics wanted people to understand the only thing they had within their control was their character, actions and reactions to such inflammatory talk. The prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference” – has a direct lineage from Stoicism.
Buddhism emerged 200 years after Stoicism and is remarkably similar. Both emphasise seeking happiness from within rather than external factors which are out of your control. ‘Non-attachment’ is the Buddhist term, the belief that desires are the root of all suffering. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in Antifragile , “a Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude.”
Striving for harmony
You may think Stoicism is a personal improvement program, designed to make you more resilient and maybe drink a bit less. But Plato’s cardinal virtues of Stoicism: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance (the drinking less part), are also intended to create a more harmonious world.
Stoic philosophy says that people who hurt you are simply lacking the skills to act differently. “Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill. I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together,” Aurelius wrote in Meditations. Perhaps a good one for road rage.
The Stoics were particularly wary of anger; Seneca called it a “temporary madness”. Of all the emotions, anger is the most destructive. “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?” Marcus Aurelius wrote.
Donaldson backs this up with modern psychological research that proves anger is futile when it comes to problem-solving. He compares it to fixing a leaky tap. You bang your finger on a spanner and become angry; how much harder is it now to fix the leaking tap?
“Interpersonal relationships are far more complex, so if getting angry and losing your temper makes you rubbish at fixing a tap, what are your chances of fixing a relationship problem or social or political problem?” Robertson asks.
It comes down to the relationship between your rational thoughts and emotions. Many people believe they’re separate, like oil and water, forever at odds.
But the fundamental teaching of CBT is that emotions and logic are deeply entwined. Emotions are not just powerful waves, but the product of thoughts and beliefs.
Prescriptions for a Stoic life
You don’t need to be an ancient emperor to reap the benefits of Stoicism. Here’s how you can weave its long-established wisdom into your daily life for maximum effect.
1. Affirmations. Use the power of repetition to change how you think. The Daily Stoic website ( dailystoic.com ) has a collection of quotes from the Stoic philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus and Cato. Start with this one from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Speak it out loud or write it somewhere you can see it throughout the day.
2. Use ‘negative visualisation’ to be grateful for what you have. Robertson says start small; imagine that you didn’t have your pet dog. Or that television. Then work up to larger things like relationships or life itself. Don’t dwell on these images but let them flash briefly in your mind. Notice how they cultivate gratitude.
3. Sign up for ‘Stoic Week’ on the Modern Stoicism site or dip into their resources and courses, like ‘Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training.’
4. Become aware of your reactions and attitudes to life’s adversities by journalling, like Aurelius. Journalling can be a good training ground to test your thoughts and beliefs.
5. Don’t go it alone! Grab a friend or start a book club or connect with the Stoic communities that already exist online.
6. Go without something for a time to strengthen your self-control. It could be alcohol, a particular food, or television. Remind yourself that overcoming desires for external things strengthens you internally