Marcus Aurelius Anniversary Event

Note: This event is FREE to attend. A donation in any amount will also give you access to the recording after the event.

Organized jointly by Modern Stoicism and the Aurelius Foundation.

Attendance at this event is open to everyone.

Date: Sun 25th April, 12pm EST

Tickets: Payment by donation, amount of your choosing

Format: Zoom (video recordings available later to donating attendees)

Duration: Approx. 3 hours of talks (plus breaks)

All profits (surplus) from this event will be donated to the Modern Stoicism nonprofit organization, which promotes discussion of Stoic philosophy and carries out research on its potential benefits, and to the Aurelius Foundation.

Program

  • Introduction, Christopher Gill, emeritus professor of Ancient Thought, Exeter University, editor of Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, Books 1-6 (OUP)
  • Core Ideas of Marcus’ Stoicism, John Sellars, author of Marcus Aurelius (Routledge).
  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Robin Waterfield, editor of Meditations: The Annotated Edition (Basic Books)
  • Marcus Aurelius, the Man, Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St Martins)
  • Perspective: The Modern Relevance of Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations for Professional Women, Sukhraj Gill and Lori Huica discussion with Justin Stead, founder of the Aurelius Foundation

Premeditatio Malorum: Friend or Foe? by Antonia Macaro

Recently I came a bit unstuck. It was to do with a complicated set of circumstances surrounding a house move, which went on and on causing me much anxiety, frustration and occasional despair. If I’d been a good Stoic I might have been able to avoid all that and breeze through it – but then I already knew I wasn’t, and in truth I wasn’t really trying to be. Nor does being a psychotherapist immunise against troublesome emotions.

As I tried to understand what was happening, someone close to me said that my distress seemed connected with long-standing patterns of thought that until now I’d got away with, but that in this challenging situation had come back to bite me. One of these was the deeply engrained habit of dealing with uncertainty by leaping ahead to the worst possible scenarios.

Why did I get into this habit? More importantly, what did it really do for me? The origins of it are probably a mixture of supposedly protective mechanisms, none consciously chosen, rooted in childhood. One of these seemed to have what we could call an “apotropaic” function, which is basically about averting bad luck. The twisted rationale for this is that if you manage to convince yourself that something bad will happen this will somehow stop it happening. This is clearly irrational and not advisable as a self-help strategy. But don’t underestimate its tenacity: once such a superstitious practice has taken hold, trying to dislodge it will feel like inviting disaster, and mindfulness and effort will be needed to make any progress.

One of the main motives, however, must have been to remove the discomfort of uncertainty and protect myself from disappointment. It may seem weird, but sometimes it’s easier to manage the conviction that things will go badly than not knowing how they will turn out. If my cat goes missing for a day, for instance, I immediately tell myself I need to accept he’s gone.

Seneca wrote about how closely intertwined hope and fear are. He quotes the Stoic Hecaton as saying: “You will cease to fear … if you cease to hope.” (Letters, 5) We can eliminate fear by banishing hope. The idea is that if I manage to knock on the head the hope that the cat will come back I can avoid the anxiety about it. This is more or less what I try to do. But it doesn’t really work, as the thought the cat isn’t coming back is upsetting, so I just end up replacing one negative emotion with another.

Seneca also gives some contradictory advice on this: ‘give careful consideration to hope and fear alike; and whenever the situation remains uncertain, do yourself a favour and give credence to the thing you prefer.’ (Letters, 13) From this point of view, when the cat goes missing I’d be better off foregrounding the thought that he’ll be back soon. But if you’re given to mentally jumping to the worst outcome before you even realise it, this is quite hard to do.

The jury is out on whether thinking the worst can be effective in protecting ourselves from disappointment, or whether it would be better simply to deal with disappointment if and when it comes. It seems clear enough that if the thought that things will go wrong ends up causing a lot of distress then the treatment has become worse than the disease.

But wait a minute – isn’t there a practice known as premeditatio malorum (anticipation of evils), recommended by eminent Stoics as a healthy mental habit? What’s the difference between that and my habit of anticipating the worst, which was most unhelpful?

My mental tricks didn’t work because the thought of disastrous events was accompanied by the implicit assumption that if the imagined thing happened it would be awful and unbearable. So, if spelled out, my thought would be of the form: ‘x will happen and that’s awful and unbearable’. This sort of thinking is known as catastrophising and is associated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy approaches, it is seen as involving various distortions:

1. overestimating the likelihood of something happening

2. overestimating how bad it would be if it did

3. underestimating our ability to cope with such an eventuality

These were definitely present in my thinking about the house situation. I thought certain negative scenarios would almost certainly happen and that this would be awful. While I did not tell myself anything explicit about my ability to cope, again the implicit assumption was that I would be crushed by the events.

The correct Stoic formulation would be very different. It would be something like: ‘x may well happen (and if x doesn’t something similar probably will, as we are human beings and as such prone to such misfortunes), but that is fine because the things I’m terrified of are not that important’. This obliterates distortion 2, thus making the other two irrelevant.

There are enough superficial similarities between the Stoic pattern and the catastrophising one, however, for us to be able to deceive ourselves that our erroneous practice of anticipating the worst conforms to an illustrious Stoic practice that is designed to be helpful, when in fact we’re only digging ourselves into a hole.

The Stoic formulation would work if, like a proper Stoic, you managed to withdraw attributions of good and bad from any ‘externals’ (basically anything other than virtue and vice). But what if, like me, you struggle with that idea? Then the technique might work for things that are easily classed as unimportant, but definitely wouldn’t for those that we perceive as central to our life. For me the latter include home, for instance.

It would be useful therefore to explore constructive ways of adapting the premeditatio malorum for those who are not fully-fledged Stoics. A tweaked premeditatio could serve a very useful purpose by challenging two crucial assumptions that are likely to lie behind the anxiety: a. the thought that it would be awful if certain things were to happen, and b. the fear that we would not be able to cope with them if they did (points 2 and 3 above).

a. The first tweak, like the original concept, concentrates on questioning the thought that if x happened it would be awful. Now if we’re not Stoics we may well judge that a few catastrophic events really would be terrible, and there is little point in trying to convince ourselves that in fact these things don’t matter. For those issues we’d be better off focusing on our fears about not coping, which we’ll come to shortly.

But even non-Stoics should be able to recognise that many of the things we distress ourselves about have come to matter too much. I certainly feel I would benefit from challenging just how important home should be for a good life. It does have some importance of course, but I now see that how I live my daily life matters more than what exact ‘container’ I do it in.

I also believe the Stoics are right in pointing out that placing too much significance on something that is not in our control leaves us vulnerable to the whims of fortune. In this respect a less demanding source of inspiration is Hume. Under the influence of Stoicism, Hume undertook

the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life.

Letters of David Hume, 1, 3

Hume believed that in small quantities this kind of reflection had a positive effect. But he became aware that too much of it ‘wasted the spirits’ and ended up having a detrimental effect on his health. He concluded that that the Stoics were ‘too magnificent for human nature’: ‘Philosophers have endeavoured to render happiness entirely independent of every thing external,’ but ‘That degree of perfection is impossible to be attained.’ Not only is this unattainable, it is also undesirable, as it would involve renouncing or becoming suspicious of some central human experiences that make life worth living.

A more modest but realistic goal for him was to ‘endeavour to place his happiness on such objects chiefly as depend upon himself’. (‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion’, 3; my italics) This is subtly but importantly different from making one’s happiness rest entirely on what is in one’s control. If we were to follow Hume in this we would acknowledge that living a full life entails some loss of independence, but at the same time we would commit to checking frequently whether we have become too dependent on something outside our control.

In a nutshell, since few things are truly awful, we could benefit from challenging how much we have allowed external things to dominate our life.

b. The second tweak focuses on how we respond to the possibility of negative events happening. The general approach is expressed in the following thought: ‘x may happen and if it does it’s really not great but perhaps there is something I can do to prepare for that eventuality, and anyway I will find ways of dealing with it’.

This approach rests on our ability to think ahead to possible threats. This is important for our survival, and may have been crucial in our evolutionary past. In support of this point, psychologist Roy Baumeister has argued that bad events have a much greater impact on our life than good ones. But while it can certainly be overused, that ability may still be useful in moderation. Anticipating potential problems can be helpful if it helps us to prepare for them, for instance.

‘Defensive pessimism’ (see Julie Norem, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking) starts from the idea that there are circumstances in which positive thinking – convincing ourselves that everything will be rosy and we will experience no challenges – is not the most helpful strategy. Instead, a form of negative thinking can be most beneficial. In particular, we are encouraged to consider specific outcomes we are anxious about and take steps towards countering or ameliorating them.

But ultimately it is confidence in our own ability to deal with negative circumstances that is the most useful asset. Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy places a lot of emphasis on learning to tolerate scenarios in which things don’t turn out as we’d like. In Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Albert Ellis describes as irrational the idea that ‘it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.’ He advocates changing a thought such as, ‘How terrible this situation is; I positively cannot stand it!’ to something like: ‘It’s too bad that conditions are this frustrating. But they won’t kill me; and I surely can stand living in this unfortunate but hardly catastrophic way.’

When the much quoted admiral Stockdale was asked about the value of different coping strategies in relation to his time as a POW, he apparently replied that it was the optimists in the camp who had fared badly, those who thought they were going to be out by Christmas, because they were not prepared when that didn’t happen. Instead, his approach was to be brutally realistic about not being out by Christmas, but unwaveringly confident about his ultimate ability to prevail. (This is sometimes called the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ but is not actually much of a paradox. It just shows we can be pessimists in one respect and optimists in another.)

Note that none of this is simply about protecting ourselves from disappointment, or avoiding anxiety by replacing uncertainty with a grim kind of certainty. Instead, the take home message is that anticipating the worst can help us to prepare, either by taking practical steps to improve the situation or by developing healthy strategies to cope with it. Coping strategies could involve finding ways of getting support, for instance, or of managing emotions. There may be times when the best we can do is reassure ourselves that people cope with worst things and we’ll cope too.

So the next time you find yourself going over worst-case scenarios ask yourself in what spirit you are doing it. Check that the practice you have adopted is constructive, and that you’re not falling prey to the seductions of irrational thinking.

Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.

Poster: Stoicon-x Military

The new poster is out for Stoicon-x Military, showing something you’ve never seen before: Socrates in armour. Read my Medium article about Socrates’ military service, and the process we went through with a team of illustrators designing the poster for this event.

Tickets are available now via EventBrite for Stoicon-x Military, starting from only $1 –payment by donation. Book now and you’ll get free access to recordings of all presentations after the event, which takes place 15th May 2021.

Check out the event listing for our full program, which is packed with speakers, including keynote Prof. Nancy Sherman, author of Stoic Warriors and the forthcoming Stoic Wisdom. Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Obstacle is the Way and The Daily Stoic, will be interviewing former US national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. Come along and join us – get your tickets now!

The Subtle Stoicism of Tyler Durden by Nicole Eyraud

The Hellenistic period proves itself to be amongst the most intellectually rich time periods throughout the entirety of recorded history for a plethora of reasons, however once this period concluded, the philosophies of thought popularized during this time did not cease to progress. Despite being a dominant thought process throughout ancient times, the ideologies presented throughout Stoic philosophy run rampant throughout society contemporarily, not only through classical studies, but within popular culture on a more broad spectrum.

Director David Fincher’s critically acclaimed 1999 film Fight Club, based upon author Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name, reflects these ruminations subtly, incorporating fundamental notions of Stoicism throughout the work, and more significantly within the development of the work’s antagonist: Tyler Durden. In attempting to draw a parallel between archaic perceptions of Stoicism and their application to Fight Club, it becomes apparent that these concepts continue to infiltrate our society not only academically, but also culturally, centuries after their conception. 

Upon Stoicism’s creation, Zeno of Citium indulged in the discovery of this philosophy due to the tremendous emphasis this school of thought places upon living “a good life” through the practice of virtue and existing harmoniously through nature. As Stoicism evolved, figures like Epictetus continued to advance and refine the intricacies of this philosophy; in Epictetus’ Enchiridion, we observe him practicing this through his discussions of mediocrity, forbearance, and the willingness to accept things that we cannot control.

Epictetus also provides a particularly compelling and unique perspective upon this school of thought, given that he was a slave. He proclaims that “A man should live so that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” This notion emphasizes the importance of self-discipline that is fundamental in understanding Stoicism; if the world around us is constantly changing and evolving, we mustn’t  rely on some grandiose idea of fixed fate, or depend on fleeting external circumstances to maintain our convoluted idea of happiness. This quote informs us of the ideology that the less we desire for ourselves, the less power these causes have to ultimately control us. 

Epictetus’ proclamation draws a striking parallel alongside perhaps one of Tyler Durden’s most celebrated statements throughout the entirety of Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Tyler says this after hearing about the films Narrator’s apartment burning down, with all of his furniture and clothing inside of it, fairly early on in the film; we later of course realize the irony of this, once it is revealed that the Narrator and Tyler are the same person, meaning that he is the one to have set flames to the apartment in the first place. This position taken by Tyler intensifies throughout the film, however, with him later proclaiming: 

 You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f*cking khakis. You are all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. 

Tyler Durden and Epictetus both ultimately seem to warn readers and viewers against a consumerist lifestyle, emphasizing the idea that when our happiness depends upon these external factors, we will never acquire an authentically “good” life, but rather our actions will be dictated by our reliance upon materialism. To improve oneself through the eyes of society is oftentimes different from genuine self-improvement, and when we deny this, we run the risk of developing an inauthentic second self.

Epictetus and Tyler’s similarities do not cease there, however. Both of them find significant meaning in existing in a simple state. Epictetus denies trivial pleasures entirely, and Tyler seems to share this mentality with regard to his tendency to detach himself from property and possessions. Tyler’s house in the film is depicted as a basically abandoned, barely functioning, complete disaster. He does not seem to have an issue with this, because the things that would make this home more “acceptable” by society’s standards are merely trivial products of a consumeristic, materialistic culture.

Both Epictetus and Tyler seemingly have a shared contempt for artificiality, however Fight Club may take this notion a step too far from Stoicism. When we reject societal conformity, rather than remaining indifferent to it, we have the potential to conform to something else, that could arguably be more detrimental. Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations stands out from the other texts we have analyzed for numerous reasons, however one of the most enticing factors of this particular work is the fact that it was never meant to be published at all. Throughout the fifth book of Meditations, Aurelius echoes the claims of Epictetus regarding materialism. He makes this abundantly clear, proclaiming: 

 Be it so: yet there be many other good things, for the want of which thou canst not plead the want or natural ability. Let them be seen in thee, which depend wholly from thee: sincerity, gravity, laboriousness, contempt of pleasures; be not querulous, be content with little, be kind, be free; avoid all superfluity, all vain prattling; be magnanimous.

5.5

Perhaps the most glaring similarity in the approaches of the Stoic philosophers and the character of Tyler Durden is the insistence upon the toxicity of materialism, and the detrimental effects this can have upon us societally. Aurelius warns us against becoming dependent on our pleasures, believing that liberation is impossible when concerned with possessions and status. Tyler Durden continues to highlight this opinion somewhat excessively throughout the film, Tyler at one point exclaiming “F*ck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns. I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say lets evolve— let the chips fall where they may.” 

This idea of “letting the chips fall where they may” complies alongside Stoic philosophy exceptionally- why internalize the things we cannot control? Later in the film, the Narrator begins to understand this perspective, rationalizing Tyler’s actions by stating that “It started to make sense in a Tyler sort of way- no fear, no distractions, the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.” Yet again, Tyler instills Stoic principles upon himself and those around him. We must practice indifference toward contempt, while actively avoiding falling victim to mercenary, materialistic systems. There is merit to be found in the notion of “letting go,” and liberating ourselves completely from what we do not have the power to dictate- “the ability to let that which does not matter truly slide,” if you will. 

One of the most defining characteristics that embodies the practice of Stoicism is courage, and the ideas proposed by Seneca the Younger regarding this concept seem to be most adamantly in accordance with the philosophies practiced by Tyler Durden throughout Fight Club. Seneca is accredited with uttering the quotation “If you have passed through life without an opponent, no one can know what you are truly capable of, not even you.” Of course upon making this claim, Seneca was not encouraging people to literally, physically challenge an opponent, but rather to accept opposition willingly, and utilize it as a means to bring awareness to our own potential.

Tyler Durden seems to shed light upon the necessity of courage as well, interpreting Seneca’s words literally by asking the Narrator to hit him during the first fight scene of many that occur within the film. The Narrator expresses reluctance, and questions Tyler’s desire to be harmed; Tyler responds to him simply, posing the question of “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” Tyler’s attitude seems to be explicitly reminiscent of Seneca’s findings, both of the men being of the belief that it is nearly impossible to understand everything about oneself without facing opposition.

Later in the film, Tyler challenges all members of Fight Club to instigate a fight with a stranger, but intentionally lose. The club members attempt to practice this, but ultimately find that most random people are not willing to partake in a physical altercation arbitrarily. Tyler knows this when he poses the challenge, however he deems it necessary that everyone participate, nonetheless. In assigning members with this task, Tyler is unintentionally emphasizing Seneca’s belief that without facing our adversaries, we are incapable of holistically understanding our potential, and the potential of those around us- it is not only our comrades whom we must be aware of. 

One of Seneca’s most relevant proclamations to analyze human existence, and our collective existential dread regarding death, comes once he recounts a story in which an Emperor states that “You want to live—but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying—and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?” This is a common notion present throughout Stoicism- the understanding that one must accept death in order to live an authentically virtuous life. Seneca calls the reader to question their own routine, arguing that a life of banality is synonymous with no life at all, operating similarly to death.

Our character of Tyler Durden seems to share this sentiment with Seneca, and this prospect is apparent within one of the most disturbing moments of the film. During this scene, both Tyler and the Narrator walk into a store at night and hold the cashier at gunpoint. Tyler takes his wallet, stealing the man’s ID, reading his name and yelling at him “What did you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel?” over and over again, until the victim eventually tells him his former dreams of becoming a veterinarian, but ultimately giving up because it was “too much school.” Tyler steals his license in order to “check-up” on Raymond weeks later, to ensure that he is re-enrolled in school, and on his way to fulfilling a better life. In these instances, we can observe the conspicuous similarities between the approaches of Tyler Durden and Seneca; where Seneca encourages readers to examine their way of living, and question if it’s truly any better than simply being dead, Tyler actively practices this mentality, instilling it not only in himself, but in others around him, albeit sometimes involuntarily. 

Marcus Aurelius’ work was written by himself, for himself, and was only published after his death, without any intention from Aurelius of this ever being released to the public. Despite all this, it’s findings are rather applicable to society collectively, and are prominently relevant to the philosophies that are subconsciously present throughout Fight Club. Although their philosophies share several similarities, this particular instance of Tyler holding the cashier at gunpoint in attempts to motivate him to live a more fulfilling life actually seems to contradict some of the wisdom Emperor Marcus Aurelius sheds light upon throughout his Meditations. Aurelius states: 

 And do not think, just because you have given up hope of becoming a philosopher or a scientist, you should therefore despair of a free spirit, integrity, social conscience, obedience to god. It is wholly possible to become a ‘divine man’ without anybody’s recognition.

7.67

The fundamental disconnect between the approaches of Marcus Aurelius and Tyler Durden is found within their responses to mediocrity, and their personal understandings of empathy. Aurelius believes, in truly Stoic fashion, that we should not be surprised or taken aback by being faced with mediocrity, but instead we should expect it, and only put our energy towards our own thoughts and actions that we are in control of- it is imperative to indulge in indifference.

Due to the fact that Tyler Durden seems to walk a thin line between practicing Stoicism and Nihilism, his understanding of this concept is undeniably convoluted. Aurelius argues that one can accomplish divinity and integrity without external social recognition, while Tyler’s approach seems to contradict this principle entirely, going as far as stealing his victims belongings in order to guarantee that he has knowledge of their whereabouts and can find them at any time. Tyler does not rely on society, necessarily, to judge its members, but still relies upon himself to deem what is permissible. Aurelius finds merit in failure; just because we fail at accomplishing impressive professions does not mean our lives are not worth living. In spite of all their shared ideologies, Tyler Durden just cannot seem to act in accordance with this particular notion, explained by Aurelius. 

In comparison, Tyler Durden and Marcus Aurelius actually do seem to share more similarities in character than one may initially anticipate. This can be most evidently seen in the dichotomies created in each of their own psyche’s regarding their complicated senses of self. Aurelius’ internal schism manifests itself much more subtly than the literal schism of Tyler/the Narrator in Fight Club, however we still see him struggling to confidently present himself. On the one hand, he is an Emperor, possessing much power and being counted on to lead. On the other hand, he is simultaneously compelled to dedicate his life to his studies, constantly on the hunt to satiate his intellectual hunger. Tyler and the Narrator’s dichotomy is explicit, once the climax of the film is reached. It is revealed that the Narrator has suffered from extreme insomnia, causing him to project the delusion of the existence of Tyler Durden, despite him not actually being real- Tyler explains to him: 

 All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I f*ck like you wanna f*ck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.

 In a journal article titled “Fight Club and the Embedding of Delirium in Narrative” (Style 43, no. 3, 2009), scholar Lars Bernaerts analyzes the film and novel, more specifically emphasizing this scene, stating that

Even when the protagonist finally realizes he has been splitting up his personality into two separately acting subjects, the delusional figure is still pulling the strings.

p. 373

In a way, this renders true for Marcus Aurelius as well; while Aurelius was not existing in a state of delusion like the Narrator, the intellectually motivated side of his psyche seems to prevail when compared to his other obligations and interests, ultimately “pulling the strings” as well. 

One of the most defining hallmarks of Stoicism is the endurance of pain, and being able to successfully do this with indifference. We often hear the expression “you’re a stoic” when describing seemingly emotionless, apathetic individuals, who respond impressively yet concerningly to adversity. Tyler Durden wants the same for the Narrator, and this becomes apparent to the audience during the scene in which Tyler covers the Narrator’s hand with lye, igniting a chemical burn. The Narrator attempts to escape this pain, utilizing skills he picked up upon in various support groups to disassociate from the situation. Tyler realizes this, and retaliates against him, proclaiming “Stop it. This is your pain – your burning hand. It’s right here. Look at it… Don’t deal with this the way those dead people do. Deal with it the way a living person does.”

Tyler unintentionally reinforces Stoic principles in this moment, particularly the notion that suffering is optional, and attempting to escape pain is a futile process, due to its inevitability. Marcus Aurelius makes this evident in the seventh book of Meditations, stating: “Check thyself with these words: Now hath pain given thee the foil; thy courage hath failed thee.” (7.35). In both Tyler Durden and Marcus Aurelius’ opinions, courage is of the utmost importance. Stoicism is reliant upon courage as a critical aspect in successfully practicing this philosophy, and in attempting to disassociate from the physically painful situation occurring, the Narrator fails to be authentically courageous- a process that Aurelius advises us against. When we give pain the power to control us, it proves itself to be triumphant, however if we operate in accordance with Stoic principles, we have the ability to train ourselves to be apathetic in the face of adversity. 

One of Tyler Durden’s most Stoic monologues refers to the unfortunate reality that many of us grow up believing we are special or unique, but are later disillusioned from this facade- a sort of Platonic out of the cave epiphany. Tyler proclaims: 

 Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

This idea that life is oftentimes abundant with misfortune and sorrow is depressing, however it regrettably frequently renders true. Tyler knows this, and attempts to bring the other members of Fight Club out of the cave as well- we are not special, we are not remarkable, we are not uncommon. Tyler emphasizes the concept that “our Great Depression is our lives,” to put things simply. Seneca seems to have shared this understanding with Tyler during his time, which can be most evidently supported by his most famous declaration: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

Once again, we can observe the ways in which statements like this could be initially confused with Nihilism, however Stoic philosophy urges us to implore the possibility that life being full of sorrow and misery is not something we should complain or cavil about, but rather something we must learn to accept. In observing solely the instances that occur around us, both within our own personal communities and on a global scale, it is hard to argue against Seneca’s belief that the entirety of life does, in fact, call for tears- even when we are at our happiest, there is still great misfortune taking place around us, ubiquitously. Tyler Durden and Seneca want to bring us out of this ideological cave, once again.

We must see the light of mediocrity and misfortune in order to be successfully disillusioned from our preconceived, erroneous understandings of life. In further exploring the texts and statements of prominent Stoic philosophers, such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, it becomes apparent that the primary findings of Stoicism hold tremendous validity, and can aid us in obtaining more profound understandings of ourselves and the societies in which we exist in. From a slave to an Emperor to a downright anarchist, the fundamental philosophies of Stoicism can be applicable to numerous situations and individuals, and offer us a unique perspective on the world around us, when practiced precisely.

Tyler Durden as a character could never be described as a comprehensively, altruistically genuine Stoic, due to the fact that he lacks virtue and logical reasoning, ultimately practicing Nihilist philosophy more so than Stoicism. This notion does not mean, however, that Stoic principles do not apply to him whatsoever. Through contemplations regarding courage, apathy, death, and pain, Tyler Durden demonstrates accordance with Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius, but unfortunately surpasses Stoic ideology in his anarchist tendencies. This being said, the comparison still holds validity; in analyzing the subtle Stoicism implemented throughout Fight Club, the audience can observe that Stoic principles continue to infiltrate contemporary culture at a discernible level today, and it is likely that this process will continue societally throughout the future.

Nicole Eyraud is currently an undergraduate student at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is in her fourth year, studying English and Philosophy, with plans to continue writing professionally post graduation. She is originally from Manhattan, but lived in Charleston, South Carolina for the majority of her life, and has plans of moving back to Manhattan to further pursue English and Film.

Stoicism As An Ally Against Anxiety by Fidel Beserra

I live with a clinically diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder. This means that I constantly suffer  from exaggerated or irrational worries about many different things in my days. Nevertheless, I  lead a reasonably normal and productive life. In this article, I want to discuss Stoic philosophy’s  role in this achievement. 

Anxiety is a natural, and from an evolutionary point of view even beneficial response to threats in our surroundings. It helps us to stay aware and sharp under important or dangerous circumstances. In the right amount, it’s an important mechanism to keep us safe. However, when  the feeling of anxiety grows overwhelming and (every so often) irrational, it becomes a serious  trouble, in the form of an anxiety disorder. 

An anxiety disorder, in general, is an infirmity that affects individuals by putting them in a painful state of restlessness and apprehension. The cause of this problem, according to the bulk of  scientists, is mostly genetic. External factors, however, could worsen an existing scenario, or trigger the symptoms in the first place. Taking this into consideration, we can correctly infer that anxiety  plays out in our emotions as well in the physical structures of our brain, with both elements mutually influencing the other. This is the reason why anxiety treatments both incorporate psychotherapeutic measures and employ of medications, who aim to stabilize the  concentration of certain chemicals in the brain. 

There are specific types of such condition (although common traits naturally can be found among  them).The most prominent ones are: 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Of course, This one I know very well. It causes, as  indicated by its name, a general and continuing feeling of anxiety induced uneasiness.  Symptoms include recurrent worries about various aspects of one’s life, exaggerated fear  over the future and widespread overthinking over possible, or even impossible scenarios.  There may also be physical manifestations like fatigue and muscular ache.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This specific condition causes persistent and mostly  disturbing intrusive thoughts on people affected. Intrusive thoughts are constant and  uncomfortable thoughts about violent and/or disturbing scenes involving, frequently, the individual affected and his loved ones. Intrusive thoughts also come in the form of  obsessions over perfection and symmetry in daily activities, causing the patient to behave  unnecessarily methodically. These unwanted thinkings, not surprisingly, can lead to  anxiety, depression and panic attacks. 

Panic Disorder: Speaking of panic, here it is. This condition is characterized by sudden and  repetitive panic attacks. Panic attacks are somewhat like anxiety attacks on steroids. They come out, sometimes unexpectedly and cause intense fear, with prominence of powerful physical symptoms like racing heartbeat, severe chest pain and short breath. A panic  disorder also includes the very fear of suddenly falling prey to such an attack, which places  a heavy burden of constant fear and paranoia on the person affected. 

Social Anxiety Disorder: This other one is characterized by severe fear of social  interactions. It makes its victim avoid being in public, over real dread of being put into  shame or embarrassed somehow. In certain cases, it causes the individual to avoid pretty  much any human interaction at all. This self-isolation makes the situation even worse, by  aggravating the symptoms of anxiety and leading to possible depression. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): After a shocking or stressful event, some people  may develop symptoms like severe and constant fear, episode flashbacks, troubled sleep,  vivid nightmares, etc. This is a completely normal scenario, however, if these symptoms  become too persistent and disruptive, then, it is a case of PTSD. And it is not uncommon that such a dramatic state of affairs leads a person towards depression, alcoholism and  drug addiction. 

As might be expected, the severity of symptoms vary for each person, but at the very least, being troubled with a pathological anxiety is very unpleasant. Such is the case of around 285 million  people in the world. And not surprisingly, this number is increasing, with the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences strongly contributing to this phenomenon. 

The social, political and economical chaos caused by the virus, as well as the millions of lives taken by it worldwide, have struck terror in the hearts of many people, especially those who were  already suffering with some mental health condition. Social distancing, although an extremely  necessary action to contain the spread of the virus, did not help either, as the feelings of loneliness  and isolation have grown stronger because of it.

All of this deterioration of mental condition has been widely reported on by the media and by specialists, with some studies even indicating a significant escalation in the number of suicides. This recent and saddening situation, along with  the overall and lately rapid technological and comportmental changes in human societies have  been making our lives more connected, more competitive, but also, unfortunately, more stressful.  So, more than ever, mental health problems must not be underestimated, as it is a very serious  issue and must be dealt as such, both by government and society. 

Well, after that short clarification on anxiety, it is time to dig deeper into myself. Since I  remember, I have always been an anxious person, but only moderately anxious. It was something  that did not interfere much until personal traumas, a few years ago, made this moderate anxiety skyrocket into real despair. And the situation intensified drastically as the months passed. I had  constant and continuous fear of countless things that in some cases, rationally, I knew would never happen. Yet, this very fear wreaked havoc on my mind. The situation exacerbated to the  point that sometimes even breathing was difficult. I lost several professional, educational and  personal opportunities because of this circumstance and more than once I thought about putting an end to my misery, but ultimately I made the decision of coming back to life. 

After I obtained my clinical diagnosis, I took what I believed to be the first and most crucial step:  Acceptance. I had to acknowledge that I did have a mental health issue and that I could no longer  run away from this fact. So, I decided to face the problem and live my life to the best of my  capability, despite of it. Then, I started a slow process of cutting off toxic habits and adopting new  and positive ones. One of these newfound habits was reading Stoicism. I’ve always liked to read,  so I thought of something to bury myself in that could potentially soothe my anxiety. As a result,  after some research, I decided to try the ancient Stoic philosophy. 

Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around the 3rd century B.C. It  is focused on the notion that, to achieve happiness, one must live a virtuous, meaningful and  tranquil life. And to attain such a feat, it is crucial to realize that we should not dwell on things we  have no control of. Stoic philosophers believed that problems and struggles are as only as  powerful as we allow them to be. Thus, if ‘Ataraxia’, a state of placid imperturbability, is achieved,  nothing from the outside can distract us from the path of cultivating the virtues of courage,  temperance, justice and wisdom, which are the keys to an existence according to our rational  nature. 

I began my studies reading the three most important Stoic authors: Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Within little time, I caught myself fascinated with how applicable to my own life Stoicism  was. So, I started trying to adopt the Stoic ethos in my everyday routine. I initialized this  endeavor first adjusting my mindset, accepting the fact that my suffering was not mine or anybody’s fault, but merely the natural course of Providence. According to the Stoics, Providence is  the main principle of the very existing reality, the breath of life that coordinates everything that  exists, including, of course, our trivial human fate. And as such, there is no use in (like I did) regretting things one has no control over.

After that, I gradually initiated seeking to embrace the strategy of only minding the situations that were really under my control, trying as much as possible to let  go of unnecessary worries about anything else. And, last, I also commenced the process of  becoming a more moderate, just, and rational man. Some reflections helped me a lot in this  process, and I think that they can help others as well, so I would like to share them. Here they go: 

Memento Mori

Translated from Latin, it means, “remember that you must die”. This is a very Stoic contemplation that seems depressing at first, but if it is looked at closely, it reveals itself  as actually motivating: Remember that you must die, so that you can live. Live a life of virtue,  explore all your potential, do not postpone your endeavors and hold nothing back, as you  will certainly die, maybe as soon as later today. This is also a reminder that, no matter how  rich, powerful or famous you are, you will meet your irremediable fate like everyone else. So,  in such case, there is no use in seeking endless wealth, as you may not get the chance to  enjoy it as much and, surely, you will not take it with you on your path down the shores of  the afterlife. Also, (this one especially aided me) there is no point in wasting time  with small things, like what people are thinking about you, for example, because in the grand scheme of things, these futilities mean next to nothing. Your time is very limited, so use it to  deal with meaningful things. 

And on the pedestal these words appear: 
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: 
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.  

Excerpt from ‘Ozymandias’, a poem by Percy B. Shelley.

Premeditatio Malorum

This is meditation upon bad things in advance. In every important thing you do, think  about every detail that could possibly go wrong, and use it to better manage not only your  expectations, but also the difficulties themselves, if they do choose to appear. This thought worked great for me during my recovery, and still works as great now, if I become too anxious about my future projects. My anxiety is capable of making me think that if my goals  do not work, then, they are doomed forever. When such thought comes, I usually stop and  think about all things that could really not work according to my plans, and in all cases, I see  that all these adversities are not as terrible as anxiety portray them, and that they could be  resolved without further drama. So, remember that there is a good chance of things going  wrong with you, so it is better to know what these things are and their real potential of  doing harm. Prepare yourself for defeat so you can have a better chance of winning. 

Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.

Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 13

Make an opportunity out of a disaster. As addressed earlier in this article, the only things you really control are your thoughts and actions. So, give up trying to make the world bend the knee to your will. The flow of life goes as it goes and there is nothing you can do about  it. For an anxious individual like myself, controlling every aspect of the things that happen to  me, would be paradise, however, fortunately or unfortunately, such power does not exist.  Then, instead of being bitter if something bad happens to you, create something good out of  it.

For example, if a person you loved died, take your time to grieve (Stoics, contrary to what  some believe, are not against displaying emotions), but after that, use this misfortune to  your favour. Practice and meditate upon your own mortality (as discussed earlier) and the  transitoriness of life. This should help you perceive death more naturally, making you  mentally stronger. I went through this exact situation, and making out of a tragic event a  valuable lesson made carrying such a heavy load an easier task. 

With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them 

Epictetus, Enchiridion 10

Of course, the change I went through is neither fast nor easy. It would not be for a normal person,  let alone one with a burdensome anxiety disorder. However I made some major progress on  dealing with my anxiety over the years, with Stoicism being a key factor on this change for the  better. Of course, getting into therapy, starting regular exercises, changing my diet and sleeping  patterns, and making new, positive and uplifting bonds with people around me were also very  important. But the reality is that I am not, and I believe I will never be a perfect Stoic, if there is  such a thing, because sometimes, I do still struggle with uneasiness, fear and anxiety. Yet, such  small setbacks do not affect my will in view of the fact that this is absolutely normal as I carry a  medical issue and its treatment takes time and patience. 

And when it comes to Stoicism beyond just me, I obviously know every person reacts differently to  anxiety and other mental health conditions and that my personal experience does not function as  a global parameter on the subject. Yet, I firmly believe that Stoicism can be a powerful tool against many people’s mental suffering, and I have good reasons to believe so. For example, Cognitive  Behavioral Therapy, a very effective type of psychotherapeutic treatment, is heavily influenced by  Stoic thinking.

This method is focused on changing the way a patient deals with struggles,  addressing the fact that we are in control only of the way we respond to life events, not the events themselves. By assuming this, one is capable of tackling difficulties more rationally and efficiently,  getting rid of toxic and negative thoughts on the process. And in addition, there are countless  studies and essays analyzing how Stoicism plays a role in mental health patient’s improvement,  highlighting Stoicism’s potential to help attenuate mental disorders. 

So, if you are faced with ailments such as anxiety or depression,in addition to appropriate medical  treatment, give Stoicism a try. If you are not, give it as well. No matter your mental, social or  financial condition, Stoicism is, literally, for everyone. This becomes very clear if you research the  history of two of the most influential Stoic authors, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. The former was  the ruler of the Roman Empire, and the most powerful man of his time and the latter, a crippled  slave. And naturally, Stoicism is not just a way to cope with pain, but also, as stated before, a way of life. Hence, studying Stoic philosophy will most certainly help you become a better and wiser  human being. 

So, if you wish to proceed on the Stoic path, I advise that you start by reading the classic works.  My personal recommendations are Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca’s Letters, and Epictetus’s Enchiridion (or handbook). After this initial and preparatory reading, the world of Stoicism will be  all yours to explore. I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I did. And to conclude, I would like to  share a favorite quote of mine, one that stands out as a great advice today as much as when  firstly written. 

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm and around it, the  seething waters are laid to rest 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4, 49

Fidel Beserra is a Brazilian freelance writer and translator. He currently studies accounting in college, although his real passion is philosophy, where he finds the answers to his disquiet. He is also an aspiring entrepreneur and an amateur musician

Odes for Aurelius Competition (And Several Limericks)

The Modern Stoicism organization extends an invitation to our readers to write and submit an original short written piece to mark  the 1900th birthday of Marcus Aurelius, coming up on 26th April 2021.

Entries must be 250  words or less (including the title), and can be in the form of prose or poetry (for example, haikus or limericks would be welcome).  They must be focused in some way on Marcus Aurelius

Creativity and humour are encouraged in the entries. As examples, one’s entry could be a verse “to the tune of …,” or a piece written in the style of a well-known writer, or even written as an obituary. In writing your piece,please bear in mind that Marcus was a middle-aged man doing his best to be a good person given difficult circumstances, rather than the perfect Stoic sage.

All of the entries submitted will be judged by a panel selected by the Modern Stoicism organization. Modern Stoicism will publish the winner and other selected entries on the Stoicism Today blog. In applying for the contest, entrants grant Modern Stoicism a non-exclusive right to disseminate their work via the Modern Stoicism website and other media. 

There will be a book prize for winner(s). Winners will be notified by email. No correspondence will be entered into regarding the result.

Entries should be sent only to this email address marcus1900ms@gmail.com  by the deadline of April 1st 2021. Please give your piece a title. Entries above 250 words will be  disqualified

Just to get us into the spirit of the event, here are two philosophy-centric limericks contributed by team members of the Modern Stoicism organization. The first is by Phil Yanov and the second by Tim LeBon. Enjoy!

There was an old man from Citium
whose thoughts were not exactly quotidian.
He lost a great boat,
found a philosophical quote,
and taught us to be eudamonian.

There was a young man from Samos
who wanted to be the big boss.
He founded the Garden,
was not very Spartan,
and he made the Stoics quite cross

The STOIC – March 2021 Issue

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see some overlap in membership).

The theme of this issue is ‘STOIC REFECTIONS. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Sharon Lebell, Jonas Salzgeber, Piotr Stankiewicz, Kai Whiting and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • FREE EBOOK OFFER!
  • Stoicism: Cobwebs and Gems
  • BY TIM LEBON & CHUCK CHAKRAPANI
  • STOIC SKILLS
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Chasing the right rabbits
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Concentrating amid distraction
  • PIOTR Doing the present work
  • SHARON LEBELL. Using logic to avoid fallacies
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Making use of obstacles
  • KAI WHITING. Choosing a diet
  • SENECA. Living until dying

PLUS

  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.
  • STOIC QUOTES for everyday of the month
  • STOIC BOOKS

And much more!