Well, yes, apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health… they may also have given us the most practical method with which to tackle the complexities of living in our modern times. The philosophy of Stoicism.
Imagine you wake up one morning to discover you’re the only person left on the planet. Everyone else has disappeared. Was it something you said?
The world is now your oyster. You can choose the most luxurious home to live in and take whatever you want from the countless, unguarded shopping malls. After the initial euphoric frenzy, I would suggest you’d settle down in a small and comfortable habitat and find the most pleasure in the more practical items that you really need to make your life easier.
If we stop to think about this scenario, it makes us realise just how much our current desires are driven by the demand to attain fabricated societal goals in an attempt to win over the acceptance of others.
The principles behind Stoicism help us to question the validity of our thoughts and actions, with the ultimate goal of spending our energy on what we can control, and avoiding reaction to events and outcomes that we cannot. The belief is that this leads to true and lasting happiness in our lives, rather than the perpetual chase to so-called “needs” which are not honestly based on our own personal contentment.
Stoicism as a school of thought emerged from ancient Greece and Rome in the early 3rd Century BC. It was founded by the Greek Zeno, who would teach his theory on the Stoa Poikile (a famous painted porch), and thus the term given to the philosophy.
Observed by the Greeks, but it was with the Romans that the philosophy became doctrinal and popular through the writings of Seneca, a tutor to the Emperor Nero, Epictetus, a former slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors.
Stoicism is more of a practical guide to life than a philosophy. It promotes a calm and rational attitude of indifference towards external events, whilst also being in harmony with nature in order to live the best possible life. Its principle teachings focus on positive emotions for personal thought and action, whilst reducing the need for connecting negative emotions to external events that we have no part in.
By doing so, Stoicism provides a compelling toolkit to the anxieties and fears of our time. Some have likened its method to an operating system that deals with the trials of the human condition, but this presents a rather cold analysis of a philosophy that has virtue and connectedness with one’s environment at its heart.
The use of the masculine modern term for “stoic”, the definition of a tough, unemotional person, is a misrepresentation of the philosophy. It’s not about bottling up emotions, but rather to respond in more rational ways to the challenges we face. Stoic philosophy doesn’t declare that a person should suppress emotions like grief, joy, pity or even shame, but rather that they should examine their origins.
By principle, stoics are not “armchair philosophers”, but individuals who get out and live by its theories. Here’s a brief overview of some active principles.
Take control. With regards to events in our lives, we can actually control very little. The only thing we really control is how we think about external events, our own judgements and actions upon them.
“We should always be asking ourselves: ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” – Epictetus
Train the mind. Reflect rationally on what events are causing negative emotions and unhappiness. If they are not within our control, accept them and find creative solutions, not focus on the issue. If, as example, we encounter angry, stressed people in our day, reflect that it is not their intention. It is their own mistaken judgement.
“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” – Marcus Aurelius
Accept what happens. We should understand our relevant importance. Our lives are but a series of moments. True connection and observance with nature and our place within it will lead to a happier mind. If you expect the universe to deliver what you want, it will lead to disappointment. If you embrace whatever the universe gives, life will be a lot smoother.
“Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.” – Seneca
Whilst being largely lost to the masses for millennia, Stoicism has always had its influences across the ages.
Consider the Serenity prayer. “… grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In prison, Nelson Mandela was sneaked in a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a popular book on the Roman emperor’s private notes to himself and a key text on stoic philosophy. It is said to have strongly influenced Mandela’s approach to life and his latter presidency of the people.
Modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is based on the stoic idea that how we think (cognition), how we feel (emotion) and how we act (behaviour) all interact to determine our state of mind and happiness.
All good advice, but as we all know it’s a lot easier said than done. But the next time the tuk-tuk driver screams at me in Patong, when the immigration officer sends me away for yet another never-requested-before photocopy, or disgruntled readers of this monthly column attempt to disrupt my island life inner calm, I’ll try to remind myself that it’s all Greek to me.