Modern life is stressful, there’s an abundance of information and opportunity available, and it can often times be difficult to trowel through all of the distraction and focus on the things we should; sometimes there’s even that much of an overload of possibility, it’s overwhelming trying to make a decision about what matters to you and what to prioritise. There’s so many menial, pointless events that we dwell on, and we could better spend our time focusing that energy into other things.
I can’t cover every detail of Stoicism in this post, but it is an interesting topic, and it does bear discussion, there are a lot of reasons why, along my personal journey, I started to embrace the ideals of the old Stoics. One of those reasons was how simple the philosophies of it were, and how adaptable it is to modern culture. The Stoics embrace the idea of the Logos, which is how the universe is structured, it isn’t necessarily a God, but Stoicism is inclusive. The Logos is a respect for all things human and natural, there’s no place in Stoicism for transcendental beings, it’s merely a quest for a happy and meaningful life by embracing all things natural.
The origins of Stoicism date most famously back to, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, and Epictitus (which translates to “acquired” – nobody actually knows his real name) who was a slave that educated himself highly enough to be set free by his master. But you don’t have to read the meditations of Marcus Aurelius in order to be a stoic, you aren’t committed to going to a sacred building at arbitrary intervals in order to prove your faith. And although it has its ancient foundations, the Stoics openly embrace that scientific advancements can dismiss old beliefs, and this philosophy actually embraces the advancement of science, they embraced being proved wrong on a quest to better their own knowledge and understanding of the world around them. The original stoic philosophy actually included specific approaches to logic and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).
Being a stoic sounds like some secret club or society, but due to its inclusivity, there are a number of famous people that have taken on some of its philosophies: Bruce Lee; Theodore Roosevelt; Tim Ferris; Ross Edgley. And there’s more that display this way of life, maybe without even realising it.
Another thing that enticed me was its approach to the unknown, death. Growing up it was something I always had a great fear of, but the Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well” and, amongst a few other things, I looked into this, and I like the interpretation of it that life is an ongoing project, and death is just a natural and logical end point, there’s nothing special about the event itself, and it is nothing that we should particularly fear. This was the understanding of Massimo Pigliucci in the book “How to be a Stoic”, which I would highly recommend. But I quite like the outlook of seeing death, something we often fear or shy away from, as something that doesn’t even have enough significance to bear thinking about, possibly even something that should be embraced just as much as any other part of our lives.
Along the seemingly morbid train of thought, Marcus Aurelius said “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” To me, what he’s saying here is that you don’t have control over the outside world, but you do have control over your inside world, which is even more powerful, you cant always be in control of what’s going to happen, but you can be in control of how you react to it (and it might be worth noting that this, and a lot of other stoic beliefs are similar to a lot of the Buddhist beliefs as well).
And this leads me quite nicely onto my next point, as said by the renowned psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the stoic philosophers.” And this is something I found really interestingdue to the fact I have actually had cognitive behaviour therapy, relatively recently, and I found it really helpful. So, to hear that its origins lie with the stoics was a surprise. Although it did catch my attention when during the therapy we discussed how my thoughts inside my own head are the only things I have complete control over, and the reactions of the outside world don’t matter, the only thing that matters is how I choose to deal with what other people think.
Of course stoicism, like all philosophies, ideas and religions, won’t appeal to everybody, for some people it just isn’t practical for them, it can be quite demanding in the sense that it teaches moral character is the only thing worthy of constant growth and cultivation and things such as education, health, money, marriage, family, all fall under the category of “preferred indifferents”, and as much as stoics don’t practice ascetism, and giving up all earthly goods the way monks do (and in actual fact, a lot of the ancient stoics enjoyed the effluent lifestyles they lived) those things don’t define who we are as a person, and therefore don’t actually matter. But for the same reason it has its pitfalls, by nature this increases its diversity across all races, social statuses and walks of life opening the door for anybody.
The only real true goal of stoicism is ataraxia, achieving tranquillity of mind, and for anybody with an interest in psychology, it’s noticeable that this, essentially is interchangeable with “Self-actualisation”, the top tier on the pyramid of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”. Self-actualisation, or ataraxia, was best described by Ross Edgley as the ability to look yourself in the mirror and to just be content, to be content with who you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going. To just be able to look in the mirror and appreciate yourself for who you are and what you’ve achieved. Ataraxy is defined as “a state of serene calmness”, it’s to just simply be, as the Buddhists might put it “enlightened”. And that is the beauty of stoicism, you don’t have to fully commit your life to something in which the end goal is based on the probability of an afterlife, defined by a two thousand year old book, laced with inconsistency and pure science fiction. But instead, for a stoic, the end goal is just to be the best version of yourself imaginable, to be able to look yourself in the mirror and be content with what’s looking back at you.
And that is why I embrace this ancient philosophy.