The ancient philosophy of Stoicism still has a place in the modern day.
Stoicism is making a comeback. In recent years, there has been a rise in self-help books and blogs based on stoicism such as “Stoicism Today”, “How to Be a Stoic”, “Daily Stoic” and “Traditional Stoicism”. These books and blogs market stoicism as a tool for people to lead happier, peaceful, and more productive lives. They are only a small part of a larger movement often referred to as Pop Stoicism, which is an effort to place stoic philosophy in the modern context. What, you may ask, does our modern day society have in common with Ancient Greece and Rome that makes stoicism still relevant in the 21st century? The answer to this question can be found in the core tenets of stoicism.
Founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy of personal, eudaimonic virtue ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. These days, when most people think of a stoic, they imagine an emotionless person not bothered by any events. This makes stoicism seem like an unappealing philosophy, in a world that values emotions and prioritizing mental health. While it is important to acknowledge our feelings and create a world where those feelings are nurtured, stoicism offers an alternative model of handling our reaction when something bad happens. As Epictetus, a Greek stoic philosopher, wrote:
“Some things are in our control and others not. […] The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others.” — Epictetus, Enchiridion and Selections from the Discourses
The stoic path to freedom and happiness lies in the ability to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not. In the passage, Epictetus notes that confusing the two leads to suffering. It is irrational to be unhappy about things we can’t change. Imagine a situation in which your car breaks down. Of course, the first reaction you might have is to feel bad about the situation. You might ask yourself: “Why did this happen to me of all people?” or “Why did I not get the car serviced on time?” According to stoic philosophy, doing this confuses what you can and cannot control.
To maintain peace of mind and to resolve the issue at hand, you must focus on things you can affect—your impulses, thoughts and actions. You can’t stop the car from breaking down, but you can get it fixed. Your feelings on the matter might be an impediment to finding a remedy to the situation. You might, for example, relate it to how this is just one of the many things that went wrong in your week, leading your mind into a spiral of negative thoughts that, at the end of the day, have nothing to do with the situation and only prevent you from thinking clearly.
The example of your car breaking down is a simple example. What about the harder issues we face in life, such as when someone we love dies, or when we fail to get a promotion at work after having worked tirelessly for it? The stoic approach to this is to say that it is all a matter of perspective.
“…every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see. Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely like that, and embody it in your actions: goodness—what defines a good person.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Here, Aurelius makes the point that our world is a delicate balance and everything that happens happens for a reason. This may seem like something typical we hear today and it may not offer much comfort, but the stoics actually had an explanation for this based on stoic physics. The stoics understood the cosmos to be a single god, one which is rational and the basis of all which exists. The stoic god is not separate from the universe, rather it is a divine element immersed in nature itself. Since the world is ruled by divine reason, everything that happens is the most rational of an infinite number of paths.
Although any reader with a basic understanding of modern physics might find issue with this, there is value in acknowledging that from this conception of how the universe functions and how reason fits into that equation, the stoics were able to offer an explanation of why certain things happen in life and how to deal with tough circumstances. Working on the assumption that everything happens for a reason, stoic principles dictate that what is left to do is to change our perspective. If we are able to see the reason behind the worst things that happen to us in life, it will alleviate the pain we feel when they happen. The anguish we feel over a situation only comes from poor judgement of the situation, which gives it power over us. Of course, this is easier said than done, and the stoic sage spends their life refining their ability to judge a situation in order to achieve peace of mind.
These are only some of the ways we can use the teachings of stoicism as guiding principles. As we can see, there are many reasons why stoicism is still relevant today, especially in its usefulness in helping us deal with the daily struggles we face as humans. In fact, it is well known that Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, the fathers of cognitive behavior therapy and rational emotive behavior therapy, drew from stoicism in developing these techniques. This explains why stoic principles are often used today as a form of self-help.
The question then arises, should philosophy be used as self-help? On one hand, using stoicism as self-help leaves out certain aspects of stoicism and emphasizes others. For example, there is a tendency to cherry-pick ideas from stoicism, leaving out ideas that are important, but harder to understand. For this reason, Pop Stoicism is often criticized for its inaccurate understanding or inappropriate use of stoic philosophy. Then, there is the fact that stoicism is a philosophy based on an understanding of the natural world which is now outdated. Some might argue that since these foundational assumptions do not hold anymore, pop stoicism is simply a futile attempt to make sense of an ancient ideology.
On the other hand, Pierre Hadot argues in “Philosophy as a Way of Life” that stoicism was always practiced as a way of life. More precisely, stoicism is the art of living. The difference between modern philosophy and ancient philosophy is that while modern philosophy is focused on developing philosophical discourse, ancient philosophers put philosophy into practice and used it to calm the worries of the soul and to lead better lives. Thus, even if the foundational beliefs that made stoicism come into being are outdated, the philosophy still serves its purpose as long as it helps us lead better lives. Considering the unimaginable and unexpected loss suffered by many due to the ongoing Covid pandemic, I would argue that the existence of this philosophy—which helps us find hope in light of the suffering we endure as human beings—is needed now more than ever.
Having expressed the potential I see for the use of stoic philosophy today, I will leave you with a warning on the danger of self-help books by author and philosopher Juliano Baggini. Baggini warns that self-help books are based on the assumption that humans know what we want and know what a good life looks like; what’s left to do is close the gap between life as it is and life as we’d prefer it to be. This is not what philosophy is for. Philosophy should force us to question what it means to lead a good life, even if that means asking the hard questions.
The takeaway should be that there are many aspects of stoicism which make it relevant and useful today. I would recommend anyone to learn more about stoic philosophy, whether from an intellectual standpoint, with the intention of using it as a self-help tool, or even just to cure the curiosity one must feel after reading this article. However, we must also heed Baggini’s advice to avoid the trap of using philosophy to reassert what we already know. We can do so by continuously seeking out knowledge and not simply accepting what appears to be true. Philosophy is meant to challenge us and help us lead better lives, even if that means facing some cold, hard truths.