Why Stoicism Matters Today

A philosophy for everyday living



Marcus Aurelius Why Stoicism Matters Today The Mantle
Marcus Aurelius via Bradley Weber



Near the end of the 4th century BCE, a Phoenician merchant named Zeno of Citium (modern day Cyprus) lost his cargo, and barely escaped with his life, in a shipwreck not far from Athens. Having made it to the city he walked into a bookshop where the owner was declaiming Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a book about Socrates.


Struck by the powerful words written by Xenophon and impressed by the very thought of people like Socrates, Zeno asked the bookseller where he could find himself a philosopher to study with. “There is one walking down the street right now,” replied the bookseller, pointing to Crates of Thebes, one of the most famous philosophers in Athens at the time.


Zeno followed Crates and became his student while ultimately starting his own school. The Zenonians, as they were initially known, met and talked philosophy in public, under a colonnade by the agora known as the stoa poikile, or painted porch. Since Zenonians didn’t quite roll off one’s tongue, they soon were referred to as Stoics.


Why am I telling this story? What could a school of philosophy established 24 centuries ago possibly teach us worldly people of the 21st century with our smartphones, social media, and fake news? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Which is why Stoicism has been on the resurgence of late, with major media outlets covering the story of why so many have started reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.


In a sense, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Stoicism is by far not the only, and certainly not the major, ancient philosophy that attracts people today. While there aren’t many card-carrying Epicureans or Cynics nowadays, there are about 500 million Buddhists and almost 2.5 billion Christians. And although Christianity is a religion and Buddhism is a religion and a philosophy, we ought to keep in mind that all religions are also philosophies of life since they all come with the two fundamental components of traditional philosophies: a metaphysics, i.e., an account of how the world “hangs together,” and an ethics, i.e., an account of how we should behave in the world.


Thus, one way to answer the question “why Stoicism?” is to point out that the same could be asked for a lot of other philosophies and religions, the answer being—at least in part—the same: because human beings haven’t changed much in the intervening millennia. Sure, we have advanced technology, but we still want the same things (shelter, food, security, respect, love, a sense of meaning), and are afraid of the same things (poverty, shame, disease, death). Somehow, our ancestors figured out the basic answers to our wants and fears in the time span going from a few centuries before the modern era to the very beginning of it. And that’s why we still read them today.



Why Stoicism?

Okay, but why Stoicism in particular? Because it offers a beautifully coherent view of life, one that can be used as a compass to navigate the good and the bad, and which, moreover, comes with practical exercises that make an immediate difference in the way you look at things and act in the world.


Stoicism’s life compass hinges on three notions: living according to nature, the dichotomy of control, and the four cardinal virtues.


Don’t worry, to “live according to nature” in the Stoic sense doesn’t mean to strip naked and run into the forest to hug trees. Rather, the Stoics asked themselves what kind of animal humans are on the reasonable premise that in order to figure out how to live a good life, one ought to know a bit about what makes for a good life in the particular case of our species. The good life for a baboon, after all, or a lion, would probably look very different.


The answer they arrived at is that the most relevant things about human beings, as a species, are that we are highly social and capable of reason. It follows, then, that one conception of a good human life is one spent using reason in service of the community. Stoicism, therefore, like most of the other major philosophies and religions of the world, tells us that a meaningful life isn’t made of wealth and fame, but of a morally good stance toward others. That’s why Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor-philosopher, wrote in Meditations:


Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.


Which is a good thing, since the dichotomy of control says that wealth and fame are not in our power, while our moral stance is—we are in control of the very thing that gives meaning to our existence! The dichotomy is perhaps most famously expressed by Epictetus, the 2nd century slave turned teacher, in Enchiridion:


Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.


Obviously, Epictetus isn’t saying that we do not influence things like body, property, reputation, and so forth. But we do not, ultimately, control them. I can certainly take care of my body, but accident or disease can nonetheless strike at any moment.


By contrast, even though my judgments, opinions, and values can be influenced by otherssometimes in ways we have difficulty recognizing like “fake news”the buck stops with us. If I take the position, say, that racism or sexual harassment are acceptable, then that’s on me and only me, independently of where I may have picked up such notions.


The upshot of the dichotomy of control is that we should work toward internalizing our goals, because while outcomes are not up to us, decisions are. For example: don’t hope that you will get a promotion at your job; instead, work in order to put yourself in a good position to get the promotion. Don’t hope to be loved by your partner; make sure you are lovable toward them. The key to serenity, maintains Epictetus, is to focus on doing your best, which is under your control, and then cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward outcomes, which are not under your control. In life, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But you can always do your part.


The Stoic goes through life by making sure she is acting virtuously, acting with reason to make the world a better place. This doesn’t mean sacrificing yourself to the altar of pure altruism, however. The Stoics understood that we live in a world in which everything, and everyone, is interconnected by a dense and complex web of cause-effect. In a sense, whenever I improve as a person, I make the world a better place; likewise, whenever my actions make the world a better place, I am better off as a person. The first century Roman politician, philosopher, and playwright Seneca put it this way:


Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad.


But what does “virtue” mean, really? Virtues are character traits, dispositions to behave in a certain way. The Stoics focused on four so-called cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.


Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is truly good or truly bad for us. The ultimate good thing for a Stoic is to arrive at correct judgments, while the ultimate bad thing is to arrive at bad judgments. Courage doesn’t have much to do with the notion of rushing toward danger, but rather with the willingness to stand up and do the right thing. Justice tells us what that right thing is (to treat others with fairness and respect). Temperance consists in doing things in the right measure, neither over-reacting nor under-reacting to whatever situation presents itself to us.


Consider an example. Say that I witness an episode at work whereby my boss is harassing a coworker. Should I say something, even at the cost of getting on my boss’ bad side? Put the virtues into effect: practical wisdom tells me that it is both good, and in my power, to say something even though the outcome (my boss’ behavior) is not. So I should act on it. It is the right thing, justice tells me, because my coworker is not being treated fairly. It will take some courage on my part to intervene, because I risk being fired. And I should talk in clear voice to my boss, not whispering my objection (under-reaction) nor punching him on the nose (over-reaction).


Fine, you say, but surely there are things in life other than arriving at good judgments and acting morally. Indeed there are, and the Stoics refer to them with the deliciously oxymoronic phrase of preferred (or dispreferred) indifferents. Take money. It’s indifferent not in the sense that it doesn’t have value, but having money, in itself, doesn’t make you a better person. Money is morally neutral meaning that it can be used for good or for bad. It is up to you, to your judgment, to decide what use of make of it. As Epictetus remarked:


What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.


The Stoic bet, in other words, is that once you’re on your deathbed, you won’t be looking back at your life and think: “if only I had accumulated a bit more money!” More likely, you will want to think -- and you will, if you acted virtuously: “I’ve been a decent human being, and my friends and family loved me.”



Practicing Stoicism


Early on I mentioned that Stoicism has a number of practical exercises to get you started on what the ancient Greco-Romans called the eudaimonic life, i.e., the life that is truly worth living. Greg Lopez and I have collected 52 of these exercises in a forthcoming book, A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, and modern cognitive behavioral therapy began in the 1960s by way of direct inspiration from Stoic techniques. There are now plenty of empirical studies showing that the basic idea works: the first step is always cognitive: we have to analyze the problem and resolve to act differently. The second step is behavioral: we implement a series of behavior modifications that will reorient us in the right, desired, direction. This two-step process is then repeated, until the new cognitive attitude becomes a new behavioral habit.


It’s a bit like going to the gym. You may not like it initially, but you decide to do it because you realize it’s good for you. The more you do exercise, though, the more second nature it becomes for you, up to the point in which going to the gym is not just no longer a drag but becomes something you actually look forward to.


Let me give you a few examples, each introduced by a pertinent quote from a Stoic philosopher. One exercise, from Lectures, is about exposing yourself to minor physical hardships:


Now there are two kinds of [Stoic] training, one which is appropriate for the soul alone, and the other which is common to both soul and body. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened since it is trained for courage by patience under hardship and for self-control by abstinence from pleasures.


Why on earth would you want to even occasionally put yourself through hardships, no matter how modest? For several reasons. One is to reset what modern psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. We all experience it. Today we are so excited because we’ve just got that shiny new iPhone. The excitement lasts for a few days, maybe. Then the phone is just what it is: a phone, and we immediately start looking for the next source of excitement. The best way to counter the hedonic treadmill is to do without certain things for a period of time. Try, for instance, fasting for a day or two. I guarantee you that your next meal will be the most delicious thing you’ve experienced in a while -- even if it is made of bread and soup. A second, related, reason to go through some abstinence from everyday pleasures is to renew our appreciation for what we have and so often take for granted. A third one is to remind ourselves that a lot of comforts in life aren’t really such a big deal. We can do without them, and still be ourselves. Which proves the Stoic point that externals don’t make us better or worse people. It’s how we use those externals that does so.


A second exercise, from Epictetus, has to do with keeping our peace of mind regardless of circumstances:


When you are about to take something in hand, remind yourself what manner of thing it is. If you are going to bathe put before your mind what happens in the bath—water pouring over some, others being jostled, some reviling, others stealing; and you will set to work more securely if you say to yourself at once: ‘I want to bathe, and I want to keep my will in harmony with nature,’ and so in each thing you do; for in this way, if anything turns up to hinder you in your bathing, you will be ready to say, ‘I did not want only to bathe, but to keep my will in harmony with nature, and I shall not so keep it, if I lose my temper at what happens.’


Take, for instance, one of the things that truly used to make me mad: I sit down in a movie theater, it gets dark, the movie starts… and the jerk two rows ahead of me turns on his phone because he absolutely has to check his messages! Nowadays I prepare mentally before going to the movies, reminding myself that I have two objectives in mind: to enjoy the movie and to keep my serenity, what Epictetus calls harmony with nature. The first objective is not entirely under my control, but the second one certainly is.


One more: catch and counter initial impressions. This one comes, again, from Epictetus:


Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’ Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this—the chief test of all—’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you.


Say, for instance, I am walking down the street and I see an attractive woman. My first impression might be a vague sense of lust. Wouldn’t it be nice to have sex with her? Perhaps, but I am used to questioning my first impressions, never acting on them without further reflection. I engage in an inner dialogue with the impression: “you know, you are just an impression, and you may be deceiving me. After all, I am in a happy relationship of my own and it would certainly not be a good thing for me to do anything that might jeopardize that!” As a result, the initial impression makes a hasty retreat. Indeed, increasingly that sort of impression doesn’t even dare to show up and disturb my harmony with nature.


So, this is why Stoicism matters today: it is a practical philosophy for everyday life, providing us with a compass for how to navigate good and bad fortune and with practical exercises to stay on course. And its promise is that we’ll be pretty happy with what we’ve done when we face the final curtain. Not bad, for something that began with a shipwreck.




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Epicurus, Stoicism