Over recent years, the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has gained a new lease of life. 3rd Century BC ideas are now motivational quotes on Pinterest and proposed in mainstream books like Calm the F*ck Down. But how do the ideas of Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca apply now? In a world of COVID-19, lockdowns, and impending recession, what can we learn from Stoicism? Well, in times of crisis or strife, we could do far worse than looking to the Stoics…
This is perhaps the key principle of Stoicism, and it gives us a helpful way to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. The point is that we can’t control or predict outside events and circumstances, but we can control our minds and choose our actions and reactions accordingly. Regardless of the hand we are dealt in life, we can maintain a rational mind and act virtuously. Right now, we can’t control what’s happening in the world—not coronavirus, not the economy, not politics. But we can control our reaction to what’s happening and that is key. In essence, we should focus on what we can control and accept what we can’t.
According to the Stoics, we should always act and react based on reason and virtue, not emotion. There’s a common misconception that being Stoic means being an emotionless robot, but Stoicism isn’t about being cold and heartless. It’s about stopping and thinking, rather than blindly acting or reacting because we’re angry, upset, or afraid. In all of our actions and reactions, there are four virtues we must live by: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. Right now, that means not panic-buying toilet roll, thinking before criticising other people for their actions, and seeking a balanced perspective to the news. Importantly, it means not letting fear drive your actions.
Stoics are renowned for their calmness in the face of adversity. How do they do this? By planning for things to go wrong. While this might seem negative, Stoicism actually underpins cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). By anticipating possible problems, you can mentally prepare yourself and create a backup plan to get through it. That way, if the worst happens, you’re unphased. This might mean having a back-up if you lose your job due to lockdown. Or it might mean preparing yourself for somebody you love to get ill. Whatever happens, it won’t catch you by surprise.
The Stoics argued that external events were neither good nor bad, but indifferent. This includes health, wealth, reputation, and death. We only perceive such things as good or bad. So, while things might seem awful right now, especially if you’ve lost your job or are isolated from your loved ones, you can look at the situation as indifferent, then choose to make the best of it through your actions. For example, if you’re stuck at home, reframe the situation as a challenge for you to overcome. Maybe it gives you the opportunity to declutter, spend time with your pet, get through your TBR list, or write a book. In essence, turn your obstacles into opportunities for success.
Stoicism was the first proponent of the uber popular mindfulness theory. Its key principle is to be fully aware of each moment. It’s tempting to worry about the future—whether your loved ones will get ill, whether your work will dry up—but instead focus on the now. However, it’s important to note that Stoicism isn’t just about thinking; it’s about acting. Just because external events are indifferent doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act, nor that our actions are indifferent. This means that ranting on Twitter about people going to parks doesn’t make you a virtuous person; volunteering to help those in need does. Stoicism is about doing good things, not just sitting back and watching others fight the good fight.
In 49 AD, Roman philosopher Seneca wrote On the Shortness of Life. He argued that we see life as short, but that nature gives us sufficient time—and it’s up to us how we spend it. Unfortunately, most people don’t see the value of their time because it’s intangible, so they waste it on things that are meaningless or unimportant—often tangible things such as wealth. The wise man (or woman) understands that time is the most valuable thing. When faced with death, as we are now—and as Seneca was more than once, it should be easier for us to see the value of time. So right now, we should refocus to value our time and spend it mindfully, intentionally, and purposefully. i.e. not mindlessly trawling social media (though I admit I love a good cat meme, sorry Seneca).
In times of crisis, there is often a focus on death in the media and society because we’re confronted by our own mortality, more so than normal. As Albert Camus’ The Plague points out, we are always on the edge of the mortal coil—we just choose to pretend we’re not. For many people, a focus on death leads to an increase in fear, which drives their actions. For the Stoics, death is natural, inevitable, and indifferent (because it is outside our control), and so it shouldn’t be feared. This is a difficult notion for many people, but the Stoic principles of planning for the worst, accepting the outcome we get, and living in the moment are all vital parts of dealing with death. Instead of worrying about losing your loved ones, appreciate them and the time you have with them now.
Despite being centuries old, the logical, practical advice of the Stoics is still sage today: control what you can control, accept change, be rational, be virtuous, aim for the best, plan for the worst, find the positive, be mindful, be active, don’t waste time, and don’t fear death. Or in the words of Seneca, “In so large a world there is every day some change…Let us hasten with bold steps whatever circumstances take us…The two finest things of all will accompany us wherever we go, universal nature and individual virtue…Every individual can make himself happy.”
• Marcus Aurelius, Meditations• Epicteus, The Enchiridion• Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
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