How to Be a Stoic

Learn from the ancients how to live with anger, loneliness and fear of death.

Posted Aug 27, 2018

You may have noticed a flurry of blogs, books, and conferences touting Stoicism, an ancient philosophy.

Stoic wisdom influenced Christianity and in our day, cognitive behavioral psychology. Yet much of it remains unfamiliar and astonishingly useful.

It has given me moments of enlightenment on the biggest of questions: how to love, how to bear loneliness and anxiety, and how to think about death.

Massimo Pigliucci, an Italian-born philosopher at City College of New York, is a leader in this movement. 

The “fundamental Stoic idea,” Pigliucci says, is realism and good reasoning. Learn how things work, rather than how you wish they would — then make your choices. If we are anxious it is because we want things that may not arrive or stay, though we can do our best to influence the outcome — social or romantic acceptance, health, money. The answer is to accept uncertainty.

Loneliness, in Stoic terms, comes from feeling in need of help you lack. It’s really helplessness combined with a sense of isolation.

That’s not the usual idea — we think of loneliness as arising when you are alone more than you want to be or have recently lost a close tie, or are anxious about the quality of your ties, which might have nothing to do with how capable you are of addressing your problems. But when I think about this more, the Stoic definition is useful.

Imagine a widow feeling lonely as April approaches because her husband used to do the taxes — she might not realize that calling an accountant or learning tax software would alleviate her loneliness. She might think of it as a unhappy chore, one she really doesn't want to do  because she doesn’t want the reminder that her husband is gone. Her procrastination would demonstrate a fantasy that she can bring him back by pretending he isn’t dead. She might understand that getting the job done will make her feel better, but not that it would make her less lonely.  

When it comes to a thornier problem, the remedy may be to accept that it can’t be solved by your own actions — and avoid the extra unhappiness of longing for the person who would solve it for you or berating yourself for not having attracted this problem-solver into your life.

Overcoming anger, anxiety, loneliness, and longing all take training, Pigliucci asserts: we are to think of emotion regulation the way we’d think of learning to drive a car or play the sax. We need lessons and practice. You’re likely to make mistakes but improve over time. “True philosophy,” he writes, “is a matter of a little theory and a lot of practice.”

Stoicism offers remedies for anger that are close to what you'll read on the site of the American Psychological Association (APA). Seneca, a Stoic hero, advised taking a deep breath and going for a walk when first feeling rage. Yes, that was written down in the middle of the first century in Rome! 

Pigliucci offers a bullet list of Seneca’s recommendations to handle anger:

- Engage in preemptive meditation

- Check anger as soon as you feel its symptoms, don’t wait, or it will get out of control

- Associate with serene people, avoid irritable or angry ones

- Play a musical instrument, or purposefully engage in whatever activity relaxes your mind

- Seek environments with pleasing, not irritating, colors

- Don’t engage in discussions when you are tired

- Don’t engage in discussions when you are thirsty or hungry

- Deploy self-deprecating humor

- Engage in cognitive distancing, what Seneca calls “delaying” your response

- Change your body to change your mind: deliberately slow down your steps, lower the tone of your voice, impose to your body the demeanor of a calm person

What about love? Pigliucci explains that to the Greeks, Eros is the appreciation of beauty everywhere — beauty with a big B — through a single person. We tend to think of attraction and good sex as mysterious matters out of our control. The ancient idea puts responsibility back on us — instead of saying you’re only attracted to a “type,” you can open your heart and look at what artists over the years have found beautiful. My personal experience bears this out. I can think of three people I considered ugly. When I let go of the idea that this was a problem, I had magical, memorable sex with them. They transmuted to beautiful in my eyes. I now know this is possible and see everyone differently — when I remember.

Of course, the Stoics also would never buy the romantic trope of helpless love for “the one” who is out of reach.

Then there’s death. Stoicism instructs us to contemplate our own death, and the deaths of loved ones. What if you were to casually start sentences with “When Janet dies…”? The one time I came close, people were horrified. It’s as if admitting someone will die is suggesting you’re looking forward to it. But I’m not. I’m just not living the fantasy of perpetual health and life that pervades our times.

A longer version of this piece appears here.