Sunday, April 26, 2020

Were stoics onto something?

After a lifetime of hearing virtually nothing about the philosophy of stoicism, suddenly I'm seeing articles about it everywhere.

Stoicism, as you may know, is a school of philosophy founded in ancient Greece in the 3rd century B.C. by Zeno of Citium. Famous adherents include Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

According to the Daily Stoic, "The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness, and judgment should be based on behavior rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. ... Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate." (This website also offers nine exercises for developing stoicism.)

The philosophy is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the gist.

So why, after a lifetime of barely hearing a peep about this philosophy, am I seeing stoicism get so much coverage? I'm sure the timing -- coming as the globe shuts down over the coronavirus pandemic -- is no coincidence. Now that life has suddenly become very complicated, I suppose stoicism may offer ways to handle those complications.

The concept of "It's not how you feel, it's how you behave" is a new and possibly difficult philosophy for many people to abide by. Our modern society teaches us emotions and feeeeelings are paramount. Every little perceived microaggression must be treated as earth shattering and personal. We are literally enshrining emotions (hurt feeeeeelings) into law.

But with so much now out of our control, maybe the stoics are onto something.

This article, for example, recommends stoicism for anger management: "Seneca thought that anger is a temporary madness, and that even when justified, we should never act on the basis of it because, though 'other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men's minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.'"

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it, "Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been." (In other words, anger is a choice.)

The author recommends behaving like a rock when insulted. "Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" This way, the insulter can be "livid with rage" while the insultee can retain his serenity. (This author also offers tips on how to keep from getting angry.)

In another article, the writer points out two foundational principles of stoicism: "The first is that some things are within our control and some are not, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things that, in fact, we can’t. What can we control? Epictetus argues that we actually control very little. We don’t control what happens to us, we can’t control what the people around us say or do, and we can’t even fully control our own bodies, which get damaged and sick and ultimately die without regard for our preferences. The only thing that we really control is how we think about things, the judgements we make about things."

The second principle is: "It’s not things that upset us, but how we think about things. Stuff happens. We then make judgements about what happens. If we judge that something really bad has happened, then we might get upset, sad, or angry, depending on what it is. If we judge that something bad is likely to happen then we might get scared or fearful. All these emotions are the product of the judgements we make. Things in themselves are value neutral, for what might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else, or even welcomed by others. It’s the judgements we make that introduce value into the picture, and it’s those value judgements that generate our emotional responses. ... Another Stoic strategy is to remind ourselves of our relative unimportance. The world does not revolve around us."

Yet another article points out how Marcus Aurelius passed the last 14 year of his life enduring a far more virulent plague that we face (which killed him), yet was able to pen his famous "Meditations" on how stoicism allowed him to cope. Very similar to the Serenity Prayer, stoicism allowed Marcus Aurelius to "distinguish between what’s 'up to us' and what isn’t." The author points out how this principle is "basic premise of modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy. ... Stoics reflect on character strengths such as wisdom, patience and self-discipline, which potentially make them more resilient in the face of adversity. They try to exemplify these virtues and bring them to bear on the challenges they face in daily life, during a crisis like the pandemic. They learn from how other people cope."

Interesting, the author of this last article writes, "With all of this in mind, it’s easier to understand another common slogan of Stoicism: fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid. This applies to unhealthy emotions in general, which the Stoics term 'passions' – from pathos, the source of our word 'pathological.' It’s true, first of all, in a superficial sense. Even if you have a 99% chance, or more, of surviving the pandemic, worry and anxiety may be ruining your life and driving you crazy. ... We live in denial of the self-evident fact that we all die eventually. The Stoics believed that when we’re confronted with our own mortality, and grasp its implications, that can change our perspective on life quite dramatically. Any one of us could die at any moment. Life doesn’t go on forever."

Interesting stuff here, folks. There is nothing new under the sun.


  1. Sounds an awful lot like some other good advice, to be meek, to be a peace maker, etc.

  2. A global lockdown is something new under the sun.
    Montana Guy

    1. Globally, yes. But do some research into pandemics of the past (especially the one mentioned above in Ancient Greece) and you’ll find that the populace were terrified and practiced self-lockdown.

  3. The stoics for all their virtue, lacked one thing, namely the concept of absolutes: absolute justice and good as well as the lack of those two. “Cause to set before you, O man, what is pleasing and what the Lord is the one seeking from you, if not to do justice and the loving of undeserved love and the quiet walking with your God.” Micah 6:8. “Justice” in that verse is judicial justice for society, as from a court of law, not just personal piety. This is the righteous anger of wanting to correct injustice, not only against oneself, but especially when others are the victims of injustice. The recognition of is just vs. what is unjust requires that there be absolutes defining justice. Stoicism lacked those absolutes, but the Bible provides them.

  4. I have always been " accused " of being I get older that is fading somewhat ..At my Grandmother's funeral the Pastor stopped about 10 minutes in and said in frustration " This group is the most STOIC I have ever seen , there is no emotion showing on any of your faces ..and one of my cousins spoke up and said " Grandma taught us well" . I always thought it was a plus ,,but others tend to read into a lack of emotional outpouring...but they tend to read into emotional outbursts too.

  5. I added Stoicism to our homeschooling curriculum 4 years ago. We enjoyed reading the book The Daily Stoic so much, we read through it twice, over two years, as the closing of homeschool each day. Now we are on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The phrase from Firefly's Jayne Cobb, "You are damaging my calm," sees a certain amount of sarcastic use around here, followed by comments about failing as a Stoic if one is allowing another to do that. Anyway, I think we have all greatly benefitted from our study, and we will continue in more depth for the next two years, at which point they will all have graduated, and I will continue on my own, because it really is that interesting and helpful.