Stoicism was an Ancient Greek and Roman school of philosophy whose main concerns seem remarkably modern:
- How to lead a happy and fulfilling life
- How to become a better person
- How to be calm and resilient in the face of fear and pain
As far as philosophy goes, Stoicism is unusual in that it is primarily practical, intended to be applied rather than simply discussed.
Many philosophers practiced Stoicism, but the three who are best remembered and whose works survive best are Epictetus (c. AD 55-135), a Greek slave who was later freed and became a philosophy teacher in Rome; Seneca (AD 4-65), a prominent Roman writer, tutor and politician; and Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180), a Roman emperor and the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
The lessons of Stoicism are universal, and it’s remarkable that we can find the same lessons in the writings of Epictetus, born a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the world during his life.
Their writings are readable, practical and deeply consoling, and provide guidance on modern psychological concerns such as happiness, anxiety, resilience and control. I like to think of the Stoic philosophers as Ancient psychologists. Indeed, some forms of modern Cognitive Behaviour Therapy are heavily influenced by Stoic writers, most notably Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and its effectiveness is well-supported scientifically.
We can all learn something from the Stoics. In their own words, here are some of the most important lessons.
1. You can choose how you respond to events
We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens.”
It’s an uncomfortable truth, particularly when you are upset, insulted, angry or jealous. If you control your reaction and appraisal of events, it means you have nobody else to blame.
Remember that it is not he who reviles you or strikes you who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When then a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you.”
Or as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
2. We need to be tested to grow
Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”
Another uncomfortable truth. The mind, like the body, responds to stressors, to being pushed beyond what is comfortable. Being presented with an obstacle and overcoming it allows us to grow and become stronger. This is the main subject of Ryan Holiday’s excellent book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, which is based on Stoic philosophy and draws its title from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
The transformative power of suffering is an old idea, and is supported by recent research in the burgeoning area of posttraumatic growth, the idea that we can undergo significant positive change after a traumatic event (under the right circumstances). Posttraumatic growth is more than becoming resilient against future trauma, but involves thriving as a result of the difficulty, becoming stronger than before the trauma.
Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”
3. The most important time is right now
Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment…he can have no other life than the one he loses. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.”
We cannot control what has already happened. We can only change what is happening right now, and we retain the freedom to choose how we act right now. Indeed, the stoics might argue that the only important time is right now:
Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”
This has helped me curtail much of my unhelpful anxious thinking. Anxiety for me often represents fear of future suffering. It should concern me not yet.
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”
4. Practice discomfort to neutralise it
Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while, ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”
Anxiety is so destructive partly because the fear of future suffering is greater than the actual suffering itself. As Seneca writes above, practicing hardship means you will be better prepared for actual hardship. You’ve experienced it before, and you know you are capable of handling it.
Similarly, fear is usually the underlying cause of inaction. It’s easier, safer and more comfortable to do nothing than act and risk failure. But imagining your failure coming to pass, knowing you can handle it, and understanding that the fear is worse than the failure itself – these are safeguards against the inertia and security of never leaving your comfort zone.
5. Imagine losing it all to appreciate what you’ve got
We should love all of our dear ones… but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever– nay, no promise that even that we may keep them for long.”
We are wired to take things for granted. Novelty and gratitude wear off quickly. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. What used to make us happy becomes the default, the baseline from which things are judged. We start to feel entitled to have things the way they are, instead of lucky.
Visualising losing it all helps you appreciate your current circumstances. It helps you want what you’ve got.
He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”
6. Withhold judgement of others
Generally, we’re all doing the best we can… We are not privy to the stories behind people’s actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend our judgement of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding.”
Don’t presume to know someone else’s motivation for doing anything.
You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you.”
7. Let go of what you can’t control
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are in our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”
For me, this is the single most important lessons the Stoics have given us.
Much of anxiety and depression revolve around feelings of control. Anxiety involves frustration and fear at our lack of control over future external events. Depression includes feelings of helplessness and a lack of control over internal and external events.
As Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert writes, “The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed.”
Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.”
The Stoics learned this lesson a couple of millennia ago, and they show us that we should let go of the things we can’t control and focus on the things we can.
Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within… Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control.”
Letters From A Stoic – Seneca
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness – a selection of Epictetus’s writings curated and interpreted by Sharon Libell
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Oliver Burkeman
Authentic Happiness – Martin Seligman