What’s Stoicism then?

It’s a philosophy that first appeared in ancient Greece in 300 BC. Philosophers taught Stoicism in the streets of Athens, under the Stoa Poikile or painted colonnade, hence the name ‘Stoic’. It became popular in Roman culture and most of the surviving Stoic books we have are by ancient Romans, like Seneca, Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (that’s him on the right).

Doesn’t Stoic mean you repress your emotions beneath a ‘stiff upper lip’? Or being a Vulcan?

No. That’s what it’s come to mean in modern English, but the ancient Stoics tried to help people transform their emotions, not bury them. In fact, they were constantly talking about emotions and how to transform them – they were the pioneers of what today we’d call psychotherapy (a word which comes from the Greek for ‘care of the soul’). In fact, Stoicism is the principal influence on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which the British government has put over £1 billion into making available for the treatment of emotional disorders.

So how can I practice Stoicism?

The first Stoic, Zeno of Citium, said Stoicism means ‘living according to nature’. That doesn’t mean living like a wild beast. The Stoics thought humans are blessed with a natural capacity for reason and moral deliberation, and being true to our humanity means learning to develop this inherent capacity so we think right and act right. When we think and act virtuously, we will naturally be happy. They agreed with Socrates’ remarkable claim that ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness’.

All I need to be happy is to be virtuous?

Yes. We can use reason and wisdom to respond wisely and virtuously to anything that life throws at us – even imprisonment or torture – and still be content. As the psychologist Viktor Frankl learned in a Nazi concentration camp: ‘Everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose our response.’

How do I respond to adversity wisely?

The trick is to understand how our thoughts and opinions cause our emotions. As Epictetus put it: ‘Men suffer not because of events, but because of their opinion about events.’ We put labels on the things that happen to us, like ‘this is catastrophic’, ‘this is intolerable’ and so on, and this guides our emotional reactions.

We can learn to change our emotions by changing our thoughts, and asking ourselves questions like ‘Is my automatic emotional reaction wise or true? Might I be misinterpreting this event, or making it worse with my thinking about it? Could I see it another way?’ Seneca said: ‘All adversity is training..the obstacle becomes the way’.

Epictetus was a slave who became a great philosopher of inner freedom in the first century AD. He taught that humans can cope with any situation if they ask themselves: what in this situation is in my control, and what is out of my control. Our own thoughts and beliefs are usually within our control, if we choose to concentrate and be mindful and responsible. Everything else is, to some extent, beyond our control and in the realm of change and fortune, and we need to accept that, or we’ll be the slave of circumstances, constantly pulled from joy to despondency. We can remain the master of our self by focusing on our own thoughts, values and actions, while accepting that we’re not God and don’t control the universe.

Why should I accept external things?

Ancient Stoicism was in fact a sort of philosophical religion – they believed the universe was guided by a pantheistic intelligence they called the Logos, through which everything ultimately turned out for the best. Later Stoics, like Seneca, were a bit more agnostic, but they still recognized the wisdom of accepting the limit of our control over the universe. If our life-philosophy is not about external things like money, fame and power, but rather about intrinsic goods like doing the right thing and developing our virtue or soul, then everything that happens to us can be grist for that mill. Any situation can be an opportunity to develop and grow our moral self.

But doesn’t this acceptance make you into a doormat for others to tread on?

Not necessarily. The ancient Stoics were very involved in politics – Cato the Younger gave his life resisting Julius Caesar, Seneca gave his life standing up to the emperor Nero, while Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome. The Stoics believed in doing the right thing, even if that meant you lose your life – doing the right thing is more important than longevity. This made them quite difficult people to manipulate or threaten. Epictetus, for example, was banished not once but twice from Rome. In modern times, many politicians have been influenced by Stoicism, including Nelson Mandela – he was inspired by the Stoic poem, Invictus while he was in prison for 27 years in South Africa. He even said that ‘prison was my great teacher’. That’s the point – any situation can be an opportunity for moral growth, even situations that to the conventional eye appear awful and unbearable.

It all sounds very individualistic. What about our relationships with other people?

The Stoics believed that all rational beings are connected through the Logos. We all have reason, so we’re all brothers and sisters, citizens together in the great ‘city of god’ (or cosmopolis). We have a duty to treat each other with dignity, and this duty extends to all humanity, not just to our family, race or nation. This radical idea was influential on later universalist philosophies like Christianity, Islam and liberalism.

Are there still Stoics today?

There are indeed – I write about many modern Stoics in my book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, and for the last decade I’ve helped to organize an annual gathering of modern Stoics, Stoicon. There are Stoic Facebook pages, Stoic reddit pages, a community at modernstoicism.com, and many blogs, vlogs, podcasts, books and online courses. As several media outlets have noted, we’re in the midst of a Stoic revival.

That revival has happened for several reasons. Firstly, as I and other authors (notably Donald Robertson) have pointed out, the inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – were both deeply influenced by Stoicism. CBT is now one of the most evidence-based therapies for emotional problems, and is available for free in the UK’s NHS. So there’s a good evidence base behind many of the claims of Stoicism – such as the claim that emotions are connected to habits of thinking and behaviour, and we can change our emotions by changing our thoughts and beliefs. CBT also took many techniques from Stoicism, such as using a journal to track your thoughts, or using maxims to create neural habits.

Stoicism has also proved popular in the US military, due to the influence of Admiral James Stockdale, an American who used Stoicism to cope with being imprisoned and tortured in the Vietnam War. The present defence secretary of the US, General James Mattis, is a fan of Marcus Aurelius, as many soldiers have been throughout history. Stoicism has also proved popular with sportspeople, as it helps them focus on the controllables while accepting all the uncontrollables on and off the pitch. In the US, the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick reportedly used Stoic ideas to coach the Patriots to their 2015 and 2017 Superbowl triumphs, while I taught Stoic ideas to Saracens rugby club, who have been champions in the English Premiership three times in the last four years.

Philosophy club at Saracens, three times English champions in the last four years (I’m the little guy in the middle)

 

Because it helps people stay resilient even in the face of insecurity and adversity, Stoicism is also very popular with entrepreneurs, particularly in Silicon Valley. Noted Stoic entrepreneurs and investors include Tim Ferriss (who did a TED talk on Stoicism), Luke Johnson, Jonathan Newhouse of Conde Nast, and Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway. Finally, Stoicism is popular with performers and comedians. Showbiz Stoics include Derren Brown, John Lloyd (creator of the show QI), Alexei Sayle and Adrian Edmondson – the latter was kind enough to say my book Philosophy for Life saved his life.

What criticisms could we lob at Stoicism?

In practice, most Stoics are men – it seems to appeal less to women. It could be criticized as being over-rational and over-serious, and ignoring the more intuitive, erotic or ecstatic side of life.Historically, there’s never been much of a Stoic community (compared to, say, Christianity). Some neuroscientists might say it’s over-optimistic in its claim that we can consciously re-programme our habitual thoughts and beliefs.

How can I practice Stoicism in my daily life?

The Stoics had various ‘spiritual exercises’ they practiced regularly to transform their psyches. One technique was to use a diary to keep track of their thoughts and actions each day, to see whether they were making progress at strengthening good habits and weakening bad habits. Another was to memorize and repeat philosophical maxims. They also practiced various visualization techniques to put things in perspective, such as imagining seeing their life from the perspective of space, or imagining their death. You can find out more in my book, Philosophy for Life, or by watching my TED talk. You can also come to one of my talks, or ask me to come and talk at your organisation or company.

What are some good books on Stoicism? 

Start with the classics – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Essays and Letters to a Stoic, Epictetus’ Discourses. Then you could try some books on modern Stoicism, such as my own Philosophy for Life; Donald Robertson’s The Philosophy of CBT, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, or William Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life.

What are some useful Stoic maxims?

‘Your mind becomes dyed with the colour of its habitual thoughts. Therefore soak your mind in these ideas. ‘

Marcus Aurelius

‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.’

Marcus Aurelius

‘The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.’

Marcus Aurelius

‘Vex yourself not at the course of things. They don’t care about your vexation.

Marcus Aurelius

‘What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do.’

Epictetus

‘‘But the tyrant will chain –’ What will he chain? Your leg. ‘He will chop off –’ What? Your head. What he will never chain or chop off is your integrity.’

Epictetus

‘Progress is achieved not by luck or accident, but by working on yourself every day.

Epictetus

‘Practice, for heaven’s sake, in little things, and then proceed to greater.’

Epictetus

‘When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.’

Epictetus

Perhaps the desire of the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of its domain, and be quiet at last.

Marcus Aurelius

It is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul.

Marcus Aurelius

‘We suffer more in imagination than in reality. ‘

Seneca

‘I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.’

Epictetus

If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’

Epictetus

‘Happy he who learns to bear what he cannot change.’

Friedrich Schiller

‘God, grant me the strength to change the things I can change, the courage to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

The Serenity Prayer

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Viktor Frankl