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8 Great Ideas from Stoicism

Old-time philosophers can teach us a lot about living.

philosophers
If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety or depression, you might find some relief in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. It’s probably not what you think, if you think of stoics as hiding their emotions.

According to Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems, a combination of philosophy and psychology is not only practical, but an effective way of approaching today’s problems. Not unlike cognitive-behavioral therapy, the classical ideas explored by Evans make use of the mind to deal with one’s less helpful emotions.

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Of course, you can work with emotional pain in any number of ways. But for those with the tiniest bit of an analytic bent, or those who have been unhappy for way too long—like Evan’s himself was in his college years—this combo approach can be extremely helpful.

I found Evans’ book to be thoughtful and a pleasure to read, and even his appendices (especially Appendix 3 where he compares Socrates and Dionysus) are not to be missed. A journalist and writer, Evans is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, and helps run the huge London Philosophy Club. He’s also one of ten BBC Next Generation Thinkers for 2013.

Consider the following ideas, in Evans’ own words:

8 KEY IDEAS FROM STOICISM:

1) It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.

The Stoics thought we could transform emotions by understanding how they’re connected to our beliefs and attitudes. Often what causes us suffering is not a particular adverse event, but our opinion about it. We can make a difficult situation much worse by the attitude we bring to it. This doesn’t mean relentlessly ‘thinking positively’ – it simply means being more mindful of how our attitudes and beliefs create our emotional reality.

2) Our opinions are often unconscious, but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions.

Socrates said we sleepwalk through life, unaware of how we live and never asking ourselves if our opinions about life are correct or wise. The way to bring unconscious beliefs into consciousness is simply to ask yourself questions. Why am I feeling this strong emotional reaction? What interpretation or belief is leading to it? Is that belief definitely true? Where is the evidence for it? The Stoics used journals to keep track of their automatic responses and to examine them. 

3) We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react.

Epictetus, the slave-philosopher, divided all human experience into two domains: things we control, things we don’t. We don’t control other people, the weather, the economy, our bodies and health, our reputation, or things in the past and future.

The only thing we have complete control over is our beliefs – if we choose to exercise this control. But we often try to exert complete control over something external, and then feel insecure and angry when we fail. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts and beliefs, and use the outside world as an alibi. Focusing on what you control is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and assert autonomy in chaotic situations. The Serenity Prayer is a nice encapsulation of this idea.

4) Choose your perspective wisely.

Every moment of the day, we can choose the perspective we take on life, like a film-director choosing the angle of a shot. One of the exercises the Stoics practiced was called the View From Above: If you’re feeling stressed by some niggling annoyances, project your imagination into space and imagine the vastness of the universe. From that cosmic perspective, the annoyance doesn’t seem that important anymore – you’ve made a molehill out of a mountain.

Another technique the Stoics used (along with Buddhists and Epicureans) was bringing their attention back to the present moment, if they felt they were worrying too much about the future or ruminating over the past. Seneca told a friend: “What’s the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now because you were miserable then?”

5) Habits are powerful.

One thing the Stoics got, which a lot of modern philosophy (and Religious Studies) misses with its focus on theory, is the importance of practice, training, repetition and, in a word, habits.  Because we’re such forgetful creatures, we need to repeat ideas over and over until they become ingrained habits. It might be useful to talk about the Stoic technique of the maxim, how they’d encapsulate their ideas into brief memorizable phrases or proverbs (like “Everything in moderation” or “The best revenge is not to be like that”), which they would repeat to themselves when needed. Stoics also carried around little handbooks with some of their favorite maxims.

6) Fieldwork is vital.

Another thing the Stoics got, which modern philosophy often misses, is the idea of fieldwork. One of my favorite quotes from Epictetus is: “We might be fluent in the classroom but drag us out into practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked.” If you’re trying to improve your temper, practice not losing it. If you’re trying to rely less on comfort eating, practice eating less junk food. Seneca said: “The Stoic sees all adversity as training.” Imagine if philosophy also gave us street homework, tailor-made for the habits we’re trying to weaken or strengthen, like practicing asking a girl out, or practicing not gossiping about friends, or practicing being kind to someone every day. Imagine if people didn’t think philosophy was “just talking.”

7) Virtue is sufficient for happiness.

Stoicism wasn’t just a feel-good therapy, it was an ethics, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with virtue. They believed if you found the good life not in externals like wealth or power but in doing the right thing, then you’d always be happy, because doing the right thing is always in your power and never subject to the whims of fortune. A demanding philosophy, and yet also in some ways true – doing the right thing is always in our power.

8) We have ethical obligations to our community.

The Stoics pioneered the theory of cosmopolitanism – the idea that we have ethical obligations not just to our friends and family, but to our wider community, and even to the community of humanity. Sometimes our obligations might clash – between our friends and our country, or between our government and our conscience (for example, would we resist the Nazis if we grew up in 1930s Germany?). Do we really have moral obligations to people on the other side of the world? What about other species, or future generations? 

(Most of the foregoing was adapted from Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, used with permission of New World Library.)

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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