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 financial uncertainty, the impending and viruses, what can we learn from Stoicism? Well, in times of crisis, uncertainty and change, 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 reactions and our actions. Regardless of the hand we are dealt in life, we can maintain a rational mind and act virtuously. We can’t control what’s happening in the world—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, this could mean thinking before criticising other people for their actions, and seeking a balanced perspective to the news. Importantly, it means not letting fear drive our actions.
Stoics are renowned for their calmness in the face of adversity. How do they do this? By anticipating things going wrong so they don’t get caught by surprise when a worst-case scenario does occur. This doesn’t mean spending hours worrying and planning for the worst, but mentally acknowledging and readying ourselves for when something negative and out of our control happens in life, as it inevitably will. This is all about removing fear from the unknown. Rather than avoiding thinking about the inevitable like death, we should think about it. This fits with the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy approach of facing our fears in a controlled way until we become bored by the thing we are anxious of, so when we encounter it in a not-controlled way, we are less afraid of it.
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 at a point in time, especially when we go through times of financial distress like losing a job, you can look at the situation as indifferent, then choose to make the best of it through your actions. For example, if you’re currently job hunting and have a temporary part-time job, reframe the situation as a challenge for you to overcome. Maybe it gives you the opportunity to discover something new about yourself and make a career change, declutter, or write a book. In essence, turn your obstacles into opportunities for success.
Some argue that Stoicism was an early proponent of the increasingly popular mindfulness theory, which is about being fully aware of and present in each moment. However, this doesn’t mean blindly living in the moment while not considering the past or the future, as some people interpret it. On the contrary, it means reflecting on your thoughts, behaviours, and actions to see how you can become better. Stoic Roman Emperor Aurelius argued that those who fail to pay attention to their own thoughts and know their own minds are bound to lead an unfulfilled life, and his now famous book Meditations was actually his private journal doing exactly that. So, Stoicism is about mindfully reflecting on the past to become better in the future, which is largely what CBT is rooted in. But be careful: recording your thoughts to cause positive change does not mean going on a Twitter rant about popular billionaires, and doing so doesn’t make you a virtuous person. However, acknowledging that the human race is struggling as a species and volunteering to help those in need does. Stoicism is about reflecting and 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 view life as short, but that nature actually gives us sufficient time—and it’s simply up to us how we spend it. Some Stoics argue that most people don’t see the value of time because it’s intangible, so they waste it on things that are unimportant—often tangible things such as amassing material possessions (books not included, ahem). For many Stoics, time is the most valuable thing, and this is something we often realise too late, such as when we lose a loved one and wish we’d devoted more time to them. 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 we admit, we love a good cat meme).
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 thinking about the worst, accepting the outcome we get, and choosing how we view things are all vital parts of dealing with death. Instead of worrying about losing something or someone, appreciate that thing or person 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, consider 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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