Uncertainty, anxiety about the future, fear of getting sick, being sick, bereavement. Many of us have had to confront some of these things over recent months. Yet none of these things are new. Far from being the unique products of 2020, they have always been with us, if not quite so squarely in the forefront of our minds. Throughout history people have had to deal with these things and over the centuries they have looked for ways to help with them. Religion is one obvious source; another is philosophy. If your image of a philosopher is of someone in an armchair reflecting on whether a tree falling in a forest when no-one’s around makes a sound, then the idea that philosophy could help might seem implausible. But philosophy has not always been like that—and, to be fair, much of it is not like that now. In antiquity, Greek and Roman philosophers grappled with how to deal with adversity, harmful emotions such as anger, pain, and death, alongside the sorts of issues that commonly preoccupy academic philosophers today. The final flourish of this ancient tradition can be seen in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written in the 6th century AD while he was in prison. In the Consolation, Boethius drew on a wide range of ideas from earlier ancient philosophies, and one of his sources was Stoicism.
Not many people in search of consolation read Boethius these days but increasing numbers have been turning to the Stoics. Over the last decade or so Stoicism has had something of a rebirth. Previously it had largely been the province of academic specialists, just one minor school of ancient thought that came along after the giants of Greek philosophy Plato and Aristotle. But in recent years Stoicism has found a new, wider audience of people looking for guidance in how to live in increasingly uncertain times. William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life, published in 2009, was one of the first books repackaging Stoicism to reach a wide audience. In 2012 a team of academics and psychotherapists (of which I was a member) launched Stoic Week, an online experiment designed to put ancient Stoic advice to the test to see if it really worked, and it has run every year since. In 2016 Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman produced the best-selling The Daily Stoic, reaching an even larger audience. The usual online communities flourish, as do local meeting groups, co-ordinated by the organisation the Stoic Fellowship. What is it about Stoicism that has led to this resurgence of interest in recent years? Why might it continue to be useful to people today, especially in our current predicament?
Perhaps it’s worth starting by saying what Stoicism is not. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism (with a capital “S”) has little in common with the “stiff upper lip” usually associated with lowercase “s” stoicism. Indeed, a study conducted this summer during the height of the UK lockdown has shown a negative correlation between genuine ancient Stoic attitudes and the popular image of stoic emotional suppression. The Stoics were indeed tough on some emotions—anger, jealousy, bitterness—but more well disposed towards other positive ones, such as joy. Participants in the same study reported after a month of following Stoic advice a 15 per cent decrease in negative emotions along with an 11 per cent increase in positive emotions, a 14 per cent increase in life satisfaction, and a 13 per cent increase in resilience. If resilience sounds like something you might be able to benefit from right now, Stoicism might be just the thing for you.
So how does it work, and who were these Stoics? The school started and developed in ancient Athens, where members of the burgeoning school would meet at the Painted Stoa on the edge of the marketplace, hence the name. The modern revival of Stoicism merely glances at the early Athenian Stoics, though, and relies instead on later Roman Stoics, notably Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Of these, it was Epictetus who articulated a couple of key ideas that have been foundational for the revival. The first of these is often called “the dichotomy of control”. There are some things that we control and there are some that we don’t. Much of our frustration and unhappiness comes from misclassifying things; most of it comes from thinking we can control things that we can’t, and then getting upset when they don’t conform to our will. So, what does Epictetus think that we control? He suggests that in fact it’s very little. We control how we think about things, and that’s pretty much it. We certainly don’t control our bodies, which can and do get sick whether we like it or not, let alone everything else going on around us. We can of course try to have an impact on those things, but we can’t control them completely. We ought not to expect things to work out the way we would like, because often they won’t. This is the power of realist thinking.
Closely related to this thought is the other key idea, which Epictetus put like this: “it’s not things that upset us, but our judgments about things”. The frustration we feel when things don’t go our way is not caused by the event itself—whatever that may be—but by our reaction to it. But, as we saw in the dichotomy of control, how we think about things is the one thing we do control. I am upset if I lose something that I judge to be valuable, but the negative emotion is caused not by losing something; it is caused by the judgment. After all, if someone else lost the same thing while being largely indifferent to it, they might barely notice it missing. Together, these two ideas from Epictetus set out the central idea of Stoicism, namely that our wellbeing or happiness is not dependent on external circumstances or events but is in fact something entirely within our control. It all comes down to how we see things. This is what makes Stoicism a philosophy for uncertain times, as indeed all times are.
The young Marcus Aurelius read the works of Epictetus as part of the education that would prepare him to become emperor of Rome. Marcus’s own book, the Meditations, has been a perennial best seller for many years, but publishers reported a huge spike in sales in the first month of the lockdown as more and more people turned to Stoicism for guidance. The Meditations is an unusual book and probably never intended for wider circulation. What we have is Marcus’s private notebook, full of personal reflections, striking quotations from authors he was reading, and comments on events in his own life. This practice of what Michel Foucault called “writing the self” has also featured prominently in the modern revival of Stoicism. Stoic Week asks participants to keep a written diary of reflections on how each day has gone and what one might do better tomorrow. The Stoic Salon is a flourishing online community that combines Stoicism with journaling. The aim—both ancient and modern—is to use this form of written reflection in order to identify bad habits and inculcate better new ones.
Many of Marcus’s written reflections inevitably deal with issues connected to his role as emperor. He often reminds himself that in the larger scheme of things he is of no great consequence. Surrounded by wealth, power, flatterers, and the pressure to live up to posterity, Marcus describes himself as almost nothing, a mere moment in the vastness of time, a miniscule pin-prick compared to the enormity of the universe. He counsels himself that soon after his death he will be forgotten, although ironically of course, he was not. The vast majority of us, however, certainly will be. The goals and achievements that so many people strive for are unlikely to make a mark on history and will be long forgotten much sooner than any of us would like to admit. In the long run, none of it really matters. The tone with which we hear this, though, is really important: it’s not a glum “none of this really matters and so what’s the point”; instead it’s a relieved “there were all these things that I’ve been tying myself up in knots over, but thankfully none of it really matters”. So, what does matter? Enjoying life in the here and now; being a decent human being.
The third Roman Stoic who has proved influential for the modern revival of Stoicism is Seneca. Again, there was a surge of book sales at the beginning of lockdown. Although Seneca wrote on a wide range of topics—from natural science to his own tragedies—it is his reflections on the brevity of human life that strike the strongest chord right now. None of us know how long we have. Perhaps in recent months some of us have been more conscious of this than usual, depending on our personal situation, but again it is something that has always been true. It is easy to complain about not having enough time, yet Seneca insists that this is only because most of us waste so much on things that ultimately don’t matter to us. We rush around from one task to the next, never taking the time to pause and reflect on what really matters most. For many of us, all that changed in lockdown. All the frantic activity was brought to an abrupt halt whether we liked it or not. Suddenly there was a lot more time to reflect on what to do and what really matters, once all of our usual routines had been upset.
It was also a time to reflect on some of the specifically Stoic ideas mentioned above. The question of what we control was brought forcibly home to many, with both restrictions on activity but also that sense of uncertainty about whether we or our loved ones would succumb to the virus. Then there was the question of when things might return back to “normal”. The fantasy of planning the future was starkly revealed for what it is. The inherent uncertainty of life that was always there suddenly came into full view. The possibility that we might lose our job, become gravely ill, or lose a loved one didn’t suddenly appear with the virus even if, sadly, more people than usual have seen that possibility realised. How can Stoicism help with any of those things? Well, in one sense of course it can’t. But by reminding us in advance that these events are by no means uncommon—indeed, they are unexceptional parts of a normal life—it can help to make us more resilient when they happen. The virus has disproportionally affected the elderly. Many more people than usual have lost loved ones. No one wants to have to bury a parent. But, if we are lucky, all of us will have to do so at some point; if we are unlucky, they will have to bury us. These really are the only two options. It may be helpful to think of Stoicism not as a cure for current anguish, but as a preventative medicine that can take the edge off our reactions to these sorts of events when they happen in the future.
Stoic Week will run this October. It is online, free, and open to all. People taking part will reflect on a series of Stoic ideas like those outlined above each day for a week at morning, lunchtime, and evening. The aim is to look at the world anew. It’s not really about seeing things through a Stoic lens, it’s more about stripping back the unconscious value judgments we make about things and realising that much of our mental suffering is the product of how we think. We might not be able to control the virus, but we can at least control that.