Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy

Carrie Sheffield wrote a piece about Stoic Week for Forbes Magazine in November 2013.  In this excerpt from that article, reproduced with her kind permission, Carrie explores five core Stoic ideals.

Want an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy


Richard Harris as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2000 blockbuster “Gladiator”

1. Immediately Recognize What Is Out Of Your Control.

A stoic leader realizes thatonly his thoughts and intentions are truly within his sphere of control;everything else is ultimately uncontrollable.

“Anyone in a leadership role must come to terms quickly with the paradox of their position: that leaders must wield power but that often so much that happens lies outside of their control,” Robertson toldForbes. “How do we accept the limits of our power without slumping into passivity?”

Robertson said people sometimes confuse stoicism with submissiveness, but calls this “a very superficial misunderstanding.” Students of ancient stoicism tended to be sons from wealthy, cosmopolitan families. Many went on to rule empires or advise great leaders in commerce and war.

“Can you point to a single historical stoic who sat on his hands?” quips Robertson, whose forthcoming book, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: A Teach Yourself Guide, is due early next year. “It’s just not in the nature of their philosophy to be doormats or stay-at-home types.”

Robertson gave an analogy by Cato of Utica that a stoic is like an archer who diligently and confidently notches his arrow and draws his bow but must accept that once his arrow has flown it could be blown off course or its target could move.

Stoic managers take great pains to aim well but must accept what happens with total equanimity.

2. Fear, Anger And Other Emotions Are Personal Choices, Regardless Of Outer Circumstances.  

Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James Stockdale i...Rear Adm. James Stockdale, stoic Navy pilot

In a Harvard Business Review article called “Building Resilience,”psychologist Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania discusses his concept of “learned helplessness,” when people subjected to stressful environments eventually collapse into complete passivity. Learned helplessness is the antithesis of stoic belief in inner power.

Trapped in a Vietnamese torture camp, American James Stockdale’s antagonizers wrenched his shoulders from their sockets, shattered his leg twice and broke his back. Shot down from his Navy plane, Stockdale’s captors held him seven years: more than four years in solitary confinement and two years shackled in irons.
Though his body lay captive in Hanoi prison cells, Stockdale later recountedthat his mind was free and his spirit unbroken. Through clandestine channels, Stockdale, a high-ranking officer, maintained chain of command among his fellow captured pilots—75 initially, growing to more than 460—issuing orders and boosting morale. Released at war’s end, Stockdale later won the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award, and served as president of the Naval War College.

Before his capture, Stockdale mentally bulwarked himself for hardship after graduate studies at Stanford University, where a philosophy professor introduced him to the stoics, particularly Epictetus.

“Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of another,” Stockdale later wrote. “You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind.”

A stoic manager understands that no matter what chaotic circumstances surround her, she has total power over her own emotions and the richness of her inner life.

3. Live A Life Centered On Principles, Not Wealth, Awards, Family or Power.

For a stoic leader, the ends do not justify the means. Stoic leaders hunger for and build their lives around four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. If a leader builds his life around anything else—a central theme in business guru Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People –he could be disappointed because everything except these virtues is ephemeral.

It’s difficult to practice these values in rough-and-tumble marketplaces like Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But a stoic businessman recognizes that if his ambition is tethered to anything but the cardinal virtues, he’s in the words of stoic Cleanthes, “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.”

This doesn’t mean that stoics don’t enjoy pleasurable things like acclaim, love and monetary success; it means that they “prefer” them, but they don’t “require” them to be happy. A true philosopher, in the words of Crates of Thebes, is one who’s “looking on generals and donkey-drivers in the same light.”

The journey of life is more important than any material goal because the journey is life. If you feel trapped in a work environment that demands unethical behavior, a stoic guru would advise, it’s better to quit than stay in a place that erodes your commitment to principle.

A stoic leader does everything in her power to succeed but will not compromise her principles in pursuit of fleeting success.

4. People Who Misbehave Do Not Deserve An Emotional Reaction From You.  

In today’s lexicon, say the word “stoic” and you’ll conjure up images of a cold, harsh Scrooge-like figure. But ironically, stoicism can lead to even greater empathy for others who aren’t stoic because they’re not fortunate enough to live a principle-centered life. Someone who treats a stoic unkindly or deviously is merely demonstrating that he or she is behaving like one of Cleanthes’ tethered creatures. And since a stoic has complete control over his response to a negative stimulus, he chooses to emotionally disengage when someone picks a fight.

“The challenge for stoics has always been to live in a society full of people who ultimately suffer because they value material things or social status, without seeming unsympathetic to their plight,” says Robertson, who’s written on the connection between modern cognitive behavioral therapy and stoicism. “Most modern therapists see a great deal of self-inflicted human suffering but have to maintain an attitude of empathic understanding, even when their clients appear to be their own worst enemies.”

Stoicism is a deterministic philosophy, which means its practitioners believe that every external action is the uncontrollable result of circumstances leading up to that action. So if a person behaves rudely it’s because of something dysfunctional inside them that triggers that behavior; this is out of the stoic’s control. However, things get dicey in questions of crime and punishment.

“A criminal justice system should treat criminals as if they’re foolishly mistaken about the most important things in life,” Robertson says.  “It should seek mainly to rehabilitate and educate them, or perhaps to deter them, but not to punish for the sake of retribution, which the Stoics would see as a foolish and vicious response to those who commit wrongs.  It makes us as bad as them.”

A stoic leader remains unflappable in the face of others’ irrational misdeeds. He does not overreact, and if it’s his job, any punitive action he takes against a perpetrator seeks to remedy dysfunction behind the misdeed rather than meting out blind punishment.

5. Meditate Daily To Revive Your Commitment To A Principle-Centered Life   

Each day’s a fresh start, and a stoic clears his mind through reading or pondering stoic thought, a process that some call “cognitive hygiene,” or catharsis. Each morning this rejuvenates and reminds him of stoic principles. Each night it helps him identify mistakes and feel healthy pride in worthy accomplishments.

What’s fascinating about this new push to revive stoicism from the dusts of antiquity is that it wrenches stoicism from theoretical realms into the real world. It’s by design, since Epictetus and other stoic sages taught that philosophy is a way of life, not just an academic exercise.

In his book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, British writer Julian Evans compiled interviews with prominent modern-day stoics that add flesh and blood to these lofty ideals. And organizers of Stoic Week, including Evans and professors at the University of Exeter, some three hours southwest of London, encouraged their more than 2,000 participants “to live like a Stoic for a week.” They created recordings of meditations and a 38-page handbook on how to do this.

Emperor Aurelius visualized a stoic “as boxer, not fencer. The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist.”

Stoicism doesn’t require pomp and circumstance, so it can be practiced quickly and simply. Through daily practice it develops men and women whose mental defenses are self-sufficient and instinctual.

If you enjoyed this article, see the new book, Stoicism Today, which contains reflections, Stoic advice, and Stoic life stories. The book It is available as both paperback (£6.49/$9.99) and Kindle E-Book (£3.08/$4.99).

14 thoughts on Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy

  1. Ali says:

    Hello Patrick,
    Really enjoyed reading this piece this morning. Gives a great insight into Stoicism, to the uninitiated especially. I like the last couple of sentences and can identify with them a lot. I choose to practise my Stoicism in as private a way as possible and I have been able to make the choice to do so for myself, without undue influence or interference, but with excellent support and resources. Thanks as always for the great work you do.
    Very best wishes

  2. Angela Gilmour says:

    This was a useful well written article – I particularly resonated with section 3 about Stoics prefering but not needing pleasurable things like love, money and success. I am struggling on week 3 of the Stoic Mindfulness and Resiliance Couse to Aline my 5 most important things in my life with my stoic values!

  3. Shouldn’t the title be “Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy”

  4. […] by Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic PhilosophyStoicism Today | Stoicism Today. This entry was posted in I'm Trying to HELP You!. Bookmark the […]

  5. Lee says:

    “Can you point to a single historical stoic who sat on his hands?”
    Can you point to a single historical figure who sat on his hands? The quality of “not sitting on your hands” seems to have more to do with the historical aspect of historical characters and not the stoic aspect.

  6. Excellent article and a most useful and succinct description of stoicism and its practice in everyday life. I am an admirer of Admiral James B. Stockdale who was much influenced by Epictetus. Stockdale put Epictetus’ philosophy to the severest of tests and survived as a result. Happily most of our tests in life will be less demanding than those of Stockdale. But the philosophy and practice remains essentially the same. Which is encouraging in that it offers such an effective and practical resource.

  7. michael says:

    “Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favorable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.” – Nietzsche

    • Dana Andrews says:

      Sitting on your hands is obviously the most stoic response, but then this is an article about antiquated ideas of heroism and BUSINESS.
      The thing that the Marcus Aurelius quote doesn’t say is that a boxer may clench his fist but he can also unclench it.

  8. Siim Land says:

    Stoicism for me is a means to thrive in a world that is constantly trying to bring you down. With the mindset of Marcus Aurelius we just become immune to everything.

  9. What an amazing post, it made me curious to learn more about Stoicism thanks for that!

  10. Pats says:

    I knew nothing of stoicism but as a result of reading this article, I am interested in exploring further.

  11. Excellent summary of how to use our power to reason to carry our given burdens with grace and to still have some pleasure in life despite the inevitable hassles, deprivations and losses of life.

  12. Tuba says:

    I don’t like being bashed over the head with political correctness. Forcing political correctness on someone — even if only pronouns — is not stoicism.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.