The Essence of Stoic Philosophy: Excerpt from Build your Resilience (2012)

An excerpt from Build your Resilience (2012) that paraphrases the Handbook of Epictetus to provide a summary of the basic principles of Stoicism.

The Essence of Stoicism

Excerpt from Build your Resilience (2012) by Donald Robertson.

So what practical advice do the Stoics give us about building resilience? Well, this is a philosophy that can be studied for a lifetime and more detailed accounts are available. An excellent modern guide to Stoicism already exists in the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by Prof. William Irvine, an academic philosopher in the USA (Irvine, 2009). My own writings, especially my book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, have focused on describing the relationship between Stoicism and modern psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010; Robertson, 2005).

However, although, Stoicism is a vast subject, it was based upon a handful of simple principles. Epictetus summed up the essence of Stoicism as “following Nature” through the “correct use of impressions”. By “following Nature”, the Stoics meant something twofold: accepting external events as decreed by the Nature of the universe, while acting fully in accord with your own nature as a rational human being, living in accord with your core values. (Scholars capitalise “Nature” when referring to the nature of the universe as a whole, whereas lower-case “nature” means your internal human nature as an individual.)

Don’t treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you. (Meditations, 12:32)

 

Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re allotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it.

Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should – and as other people deserve. (Meditations, 12: 1)

However, the basic twofold principle “follow Nature” leads on to an elaborate system of applied philosophy, which this chapter will explore in more detail.

The first few passages of the philosophical Handbook of Epictetus provide arguably the most authoritative summary of basic Stoic theory and practice. I’ve paraphrased the key statements below, to highlight the possible continuity with ACT, CBT and the approaches to resilience-building discussed in this book.

  1. The Handbook begins with a very clear and simple “common sense” declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.

  2. Our own actions are, by definition, under our control, including our opinions and intentions (e.g., commitments to valued action), etc.

  3. Everything other than our own actions is not under our direct control, particularly our health, wealth and reputation, etc. (Although, we can influence many external things through our actions we do not have complete or direct control over them, they do not happen simply as we will them to.)

  4. Things directly under our control are, by definition, free and unimpeded, but everything else we might desire to control is hindered by external factors, i.e., partly down to fate.

  5. The Stoic should continually remember that much emotional suffering is caused by mistakenly assuming, or acting as if, external things are directly under our control.

  6. Assuming that external events are under our control also tends to mislead us into excessively blaming others and the world for our emotional suffering.

  7. However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (“no one will harm you”) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.

  8. To really succeed in living as a Stoic, you need to be highly committed, and may need to abandon or at least temporarily postpone the pursuit of external things such as wealth or reputation, etc. (Stoics like Epictetus lived in poverty while others, like Marcus Aurelius, tried to follow the principles while commanding great wealth and power – both were considered valid ways of living for a Stoic but Marcus perhaps believed his complex and privileged lifestyle made commitment to Stoicism more difficult at times.)

  9. From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (“impressions”) and saying in response to them: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.” (Something that closely this resembles the basic strategy we call “distancing” or “defusion” in modern CBT.)

  10. After doing this, ask yourself whether the impression involves thinking about what is under your control or not; if not, then say to yourself, “It is nothing to me.” (Meaning, it’s essentially indifferent to me if it’s not under my control – I just need to accept it; although the Stoics did admit that some external outcomes are naturally to be preferred, despite lacking true intrinsic value.)

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