The Ancient philosophical school of Stoicism is undergoing a revival. Whether it be a war or a pandemic, a financial crisis or political upheaval, ordinary people are looking to the Stoics for wisdom to guide them through troubled times.
Self-help books spruiking life lessons from the Stoics have been selling out. The annual Stoicon Conference in London, started in 2013, attracts several thousand attendees each year (most philosophy conferences would be lucky to attract a few hundred). And it’s not just the denizens of an obscure subculture that patronise these events. A recent Australian Stoicism conference included keynote addresses from speakers as diverse as former NSW Premier Bob Carr, tennis luminary Pat Cash and Brigadier General Glenn Ryan.
What, then, is Stoicism, and why is it appealing in our age of disruption?
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism was a philosophical movement in Ancient Greece and Rome that included among its members the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the statesman Lucius Seneca. Cicero was a great admirer of the Stoics and channelled Stoic ideas in much of his work.
The movement’s most pivotal proponents, however, were philosophers such as Epictetus, an influential first century AD thinker and former slave, and Zeno of Citium, who opened the first school of Stoic philosophy in Athens. The word ‘Stoic’ is derived from the Stoa Poecile or “Painted Stoa” – a building in Athens where Zeno of Citium met his followers and taught.
Stoicism is in a large part concerned with the way we view the world and the universe. The universe, for the Stoics, was a cosmos, a complex but orderly system governed by the laws of nature. The Stoics used the term Nature with a capital “N” to refer to the principles that governed both the natural world and the human world alike: principles of creation and destruction, growth and decay, convergence and divergence. The principles of Nature are knowable through human reason and discoverable through observation of the world around us.
While the Stoics believed that we have limited control over the world around us, we do have control over our inner life and attitudes. What’s more, happiness lies not in the external circumstances of one’s life, but rather the attitude we adopt to our circumstances. Thus, Epictetus wrote, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”. Indeed, he went as far as to argue that what is “good” refers to something inside us rather than some feature of the world. If we joyfully accept the natural course of events, then, we can achieve happiness even in the midst of what most people would consider very bad circumstances. We can be, in the words of Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy”.
It is a misconception to suppose that the Stoics were concerned only with willpower and downplayed the emotional life of human beings. Granted, the Stoics were no strangers to adversity. Epictetus was a freed slave, while Marcus Aurelius fought a 16- year war with invading German tribes and the Persian empire; his armies were decimated by the Antonine Plague. But precisely because of this, the Stoics were very conscious of the moral relevance of vulnerability and connectedness. As Georgetown philosopher Nancy Sherman observes:
“…resilience is not a matter of just doing your very best, with individual effort and stamina the marker of survival. Quite to the contrary, being ‘at home in the world’—another pivotal Stoic notion —is a matter of being connected to others who invest in you and who sustain and support your goodness. That richer Stoic story of cultivating virtue by extending circles outward needs to be part of a critical guide of how to thrive as a Stoic”.
The Stoics, in other words, had a cosmopolitan outlook rather than being ruggedly individualistic. They saw their own existence and flourishing as inextricably tied up with the communities of which they formed a part. Social support and cooperation are necessary to living a good life.
The Stoics were keenly aware of the mortality of the human person. Thus, Epictetus said in his Discourses, “when you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, [remind yourself] that they’re mortal”. This may sound a bit morose. But the Stoics didn’t downplay the value of interpersonal relationships. One of the most beautiful odes to friendship is Cicero’s De Amicitia – a transcribed conversation in which Gaius Laelius Sapiens, a Roman statesman, sings the praises of his dear deceased friend, the general Scipio Africanus. Laelius eulogises the virtues of the departed hero and uses this as the stimulus for a profound discussion on the nature of friendship.
The Stoics also recognised the positive dimension of human ageing. Cicero, heavily influenced by Stoic thought on vulnerability and ageing, went on to write a poignant and moving Treatise on Old Age. It’s a must read for everyone in our own youth-obsessed society. Cicero notes that there is a unique peace that comes in twilight of life: “Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!”.
He also observes that with old age comes an appreciation of higher, intellectual pleasures that are unmatched in their sublimity by the pleasures of youth. Recounting the great scholarly and oratorical contributions of his older friends, Cicero exclaims: “what, then, are the pleasures of feasts, and games, and sensual indulgence, compared with these pleasures?”
The wisdom of Stoicism for our time
We live in times of turmoil, and we need a philosophy that equips us with advice on how to be resilient and nimble in the face of radical disruption. Stoicism is purpose-built for this task. American writer Ryan Holiday has described Stoicism as the ultimate “life hack” for the 21st century and made a name for himself as a populariser of Stoic ideas.
But to reduce Stoicism to a “life-hack” misses the point. Stoicism is a kind of self-help, but it’s deeper and ultimately far more demanding than the “life-hacks” proposed by contemporary self-help gurus. Rather than “hacking” our way out of serious life change, Stoicism proposes a new way of being in the world that is fundamentally different to the choice-obsessed, techno-utopianism that informs so much of 21st century culture and thinking.
There are two basic ideas.
First, there are many things in reality that we cannot change nor escape from. There are many things in life that are out of our control. We might as well try to change our attitude, which is within our control, if we cannot change the world around us. Second, virtue is the only good, and vice is the only bad. We need to learn how to value virtue and stop valuing things like money, fame and pleasure.
Death is a good case study. We all have to die, sooner or later. Many people have a naive confidence in the power of modern medicine or technology to indefinitely prolong life and treat pain and suffering. The unfortunate reality is that even modern medicine can only partially ameliorate pain, and death remains a fundamental part of our human condition. Instead of running from death or treating it as a taboo topic (as modern culture is wont to do), the Stoics encouraged people to cultivate a keen sense of their own mortality. An awareness of human mortality coloured the Stoic outlook on all sorts of phenomena of human life: ageing, relationships, the value of material possessions, the value of achievement and power, and so on.
Instead of trying to escape death, the Stoics recommend living every aspect of your life in the light of the transient character of human life. “Treasure life while it lasts”, a Stoic might say, for the things of this world are passing away.
Rather than being a “life hack”, then, the value of Stoicism lies in its contention that life cannot be hacked, that it is only in embracing the realities of the human condition and valuing virtue instead of money, fame and pleasure that true happiness can be achieved. Happiness is achieved by becoming virtuous because a life of virtue just is a fulfilled life.
There is also another sense in which Stoicism speaks to the anguish of our time. And it’s the same reason why the work of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson resonates so much with people today (particularly young men).
While people are taught these days to think about the world terms of impersonal structures that shape society – structural racism, gender discrimination, sexual oppression, and so on – Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches that you have control over your own little corner of the world, namely, your inner self. You are in control of this, and you have a choice about how you respond to the world.
Stoicism provides a rich, philosophical elaboration of Victor Frankl’s notion that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one’s own way”. This message is deeply liberating for anyone feeling disenfranchised in our depersonalised age.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Stoic. The Stoics can be bleak and pessimistic at times, and I wasn’t really in the mood when I first read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
Some features of Stoicism are manifestly objectionable. Some of the Stoics, for example, looked favorably upon certain kinds of suicide (rational suicide in particular). Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius maintained that death by one’s own hand is always an option and frequently more honourable than a life of protracted misery. The Stoic idea of apatheia (a detachment from emotion) as the highest virtue also strikes me as an inhuman notion. Contra the Stoics, emotions are part of who we are as human beings; they are a constitutive part of the good life rather than an obstacle to it. So I can hardly give Stoicism a wholehearted endorsement.
But it’s not difficult to see why it is being touted as an antidote for the troubles of our time. Stoicism provides insights into the human condition that our culture lacks To those who are obsessed with youth, Stoicism speaks of the blessedness of ageing; to those who are obsessed with controlling what happens to us, Stoicism speaks of the peace and tranquillity of accepting reality and the human condition.
What’s more, Stoicism is a philosophical avenue by which people recover a sense of personal responsibility in an era defined by determinism, be it psychological, evolutionary, or identity-based.
The Stoics may seem dour and severe. But the bitter medicine of Stoicism is a life buoy to people who are adrift in a world that has lost its metaphysical moorings. This is good news.