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Thousands of events, over which we have no control, impact our lives on a daily basis. The trick to dealing with them without burning up through anger and frustration is to learn to control how we react to adversity.
The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece taught us to set aside destructive emotions and to act upon those things where we can make a difference. It does not mean extinguishing emotions but rather learning to guide them in a positive direction.
Greek Roots of Stoicism
Zeno of Citium (Cyprus) is the person credited with developing the philosophy of Stoicism. He was a successful merchant until he ran into misfortune.
The story is that he was shipwrecked, lost all his wealth, and crawled ashore near Athens. He wandered into a bookstore and picked up a volume written by Socrates. He was immediately hooked on philosophy and opened his school on the subject in Athens in about 300 BCE.
He led an ascetic life with his favourite pleasures being to sit in the sun while drinking wine, eating figs, and debating the great ideas of the time with his students.
“For the Stoics, the best kind of human life you can have is one in which you apply your reason, your intelligence, to improve everybody else’s life.”
Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci
Zeno taught that it’s important to distinguish between the things we can control, such as our reaction to events, and the events themselves over which we have no control. This is echoed by the Serenity Prayer that was written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Philosopher Donald Robertson writes of stoicism that “It doesn’t matter how crazy the world is, how ‘bad’ others are, you can always keep your cool and flourish. Such a promise is always enticing to be sure, but it becomes a lifeline in a world that is confusing.”
The Cardinal Virtues
The modern usage of the word Stoicism tends to bring up the image of a hockey player hit in the mouth with a puck, spitting out a couple of teeth, and skating on. But, stoicism is more a way of life than it is about overcoming a setback.
Zeno, and those that came after him, establish four principles for a stoical life.
Temperance. Living a life of moderation; the exact opposite of the aphorism that “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Stoics strive to live their lives in harmony with Nature and with self-discipline.
Wisdom. Learning to deal with complex problems through the application of logic and information. Again, the exact opposite of making decisions without reference to known facts that seems to be popular in certain political circles. It also means understanding the difference between good and bad.
Justice. Others must be treated fairly even if their actions are unlawful, although justice, in this context, includes more than illegal actions. It covers relationships among and between people in the framework of social virtue.
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Courage. Perhaps the simplest stoical concept to grasp, this does mean enduring pain and misfortune without complaint. Suppose a Stoic breaks a hip. She will not lie in bed for weeks bemoaning her fate but will put the downtime to some practical use such as learning a new language. It also means having the moral courage to stand up and do the right thing.
Stoicism is “not a set of ethics or principles. It’s a collection of spiritual exercises designed to help people through the difficulty of life. To focus on managing emotion; specifically, non-helpful emotion.”
Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, a book about stoicism
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was one of the key exponents of stoicism. His book, Meditations, provides guidance to millions of people almost 2,000 years after his death. Political theorist John Stuart Mill called the advice of Marcus Aurelius “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”
Much of Stoicism’s philosophy was developed by Romans. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic who had no time for lounging around on a comfortable couch and discussing lofty principles. He applied the Stoic guidance of practicality: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be,” He wrote. “Just be one.”
The journals of Marcus Aurelius guided and comforted Nelson Mandela as he endured 27 years of imprisonment because of his activism to end South Africa’s racial segregation policies.
Many other national leaders have been influenced by stoicism. The list includes: several U.S. presidents, although not the 45th occupant of the White House. Frederick the Great of Prussia always carried books of Stoic philosophy with him because, he said, they could “sustain you in misfortune.”
Some of the world’s most highly successful business people, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett among them, are students of Stoicism.
Not surprisingly, Stoic philosophy has found its way into professional sports. One of the most successful sports franchises owes some of its winning way to Stoicism. Coach Bill Belichick and his superstar quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots used Stoic philosophy in their approach to the game. They put adversity behind them and focussed on the present.
J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books is a follower of Stoicism. She says that Marcus Aurelius never let her down. And, former U.S. President Bill Clinton read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius once every year as a way of guiding his presidency.
Advice from Stoic Philosopher Seneca
- At the age of 72, Zeno tripped and broke a toe. His Stoic philosophy dictated that an appropriate action was to obey Nature and die. According to the chronicler Diogenes Laërtius, Zeno pounded the ground with his fist and said “I come, I come, why dost thou call for me?” Thereupon he held his breath until he died, which, of course, is impossible.
- The word Stoic comes from the place where Zeno taught his students. Rather than setting up a school he held his discussions on the porch of a building so that the general public could join in. The Ancient Greek word for such a porch is “stoa” from which comes Stoic.
- One of the craters on the Moon is named Zeno, as is a computer programming language.
- “What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started.” Daily Stoic, undated.
- “What Do the Stoic Virtues Mean?” Donald Robertson, January 18, 2018.
- “Why Stoicism Is Changing People’s Lives for Better.” Sarah Berry, Sydney Morning Herald, February 10, 2016.
- “7 Ways Billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Demonstrate the Ancient Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.” Ryan Holiday, Business Insider, June 8, 2017.
- “Is Ancient Philosophy the Future?” Donald Robertson, Globe and Mail, April 19, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor