Being Better: The Spartans and Stoics Offer So Much More than Self-Help by Kai Whiting

At least on some level, co-authoring my recent book “Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In” was a journey into the hearts and minds of the great men and women, who pointed out the path to eudaimonia (a state that Zeno referred to as the “good life” or “the life worthy of being lived”) and told us that we could obtain it through our work alone. One of the most powerful Stoics that I became acquainted with, and whose story Leo and I tell (in Chapter 7) is that of the Spartan Queen Agiatis[1]. She leant on Stoic ideas to help her husband King Kleomenes III bring down an oligarchical regime that had crushed Sparta’s warrior spirit. Her example speaks to me for three reasons:

  1. It confirms to me that Stoicism isn’t only about the self: While Stoicism is profoundly about sculpting your own character, the Stoic-influenced Spartan land and socioeconomic reforms prove that the philosophy can be used for the common good. It also shows me that we can successfully apply Stoicism at the community level and assures me that Stoicism has something to say about environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, which we normally don’t consider to be under our control. I am convinced that if the Spartans could use Stoicism to improve their society, then so can we.
  2. Sparta was so much more than toughness and austerity: Writing Being Better allowed me to dispel the myths of a Spartan as a single-minded killing machine. It taught me how Kleomenes, with help from his wife and the Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, reformed the educational system, established paths to citizenship for foreigners, and tirelessly advocated for justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom (at least how they conceived of these virtues).   Even in their failures, the Spartan Stoics showed me that reason and justice were more natural to humankind than mere slaughtering in warfare.  It is interesting to me how the mass media creations of Sparta, though often entertaining, says more about the vices of contemporary society than it does about ancient Sparta!
  3. Female Stoics were not silent: If you listen carefully, female Stoics have a voice and they powerfully remind us that role models come in all shapes and sizes, whether they label themselves as Stoics or not. This inspired me to continue playing my part in making the contemporary Stoic community as cohesive and coherent as possible. In particular, it made me think about how we all need to lean into reason and put aside the labels we too often used to define and separate ourselves from others.

 In some respects, Being Better was a very difficult book to write, not least because it rebels against its categorisation as a “self-help” book. This is because it fundamentally  questions the meaning behind, and validity of, the self-help space – at least how it’s conventionally understood. The irony is not lost on me. In fact, if Being Better was a person, I think it would be the troublemaker who is precariously close to being thrown out of the group for biting the hand that feeds it. There would certainly be some truth in this accusation. Without a shadow of a doubt, Being Better owes its existence to the half-truths (and some damn right lies) that litter the self-help space and which, for the most part, constitute the tried and tested formula of self-help success.

In the remainder of this article, I would like to show, at least to some extent, where and why Being Better, breaks the “self-help” mould and challenges Stoic practitioners, including myself, to grapple with what is required to create and belong to a world worth living in.

There Are No Universal Solutions in Stoicism

Many self-help books (not necessarily Stoic ones) are written by people who believe that the secret  to your “success”  (not just theirs) is their 10-step plan, which if followed to the letter will guarantee the life you dream of. However, this view of reality couldn’t be further from Stoicism, which holds that the ability to live a life worthy of being lived (the life the ancient Stoics said we should be dreaming of) is a function of four roles.

As Leo and I discuss in Being Better, only one of these, the role of being a rational human being, is universal to everyone. The second role is shaped by our individual nature. This includes our likes, dislikes, personality traits, and odd quirks. The third is a product of our personal circumstances, which include where we were born, where we now live, whether we have children or elderly parents, and how much money or social influence we have. The fourth relates to the professional path we wish to take in life and includes our career choices: the job that we are trained to do, and the corresponding knowledge that we acquired while doing it.

All four roles combine to determine our path to eudaimonia. Although we may share some steps with others, the path we carve (the choices we make and actions or inactions we undertake) is ultimately our own. It is unique to us because it is created by the way in which we actively chose to shape our character, in light of our moral obligations, responsibilities and the degree of freedom we have to walk upon the terrain (our circumstances) while tied to the metaphorical Stoic cart. As Leonidas Konstantakos and I state in Chapter 5:

Our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to save lives if we happen to be a motor mechanic will be different from that of a trained doctor. Likewise, our ability, and therefore our personal obligation, to enact legal change will be different for those who are qualified lawyers or judges. However, a Stoic mechanic is expected to obtain the necessary wisdom that enables them to fix cars and to treat people justly at the same time, as this will have an impact on their own well-being and the well-being of others.

None of what I have said so far is remotely contentious or hard to understand. Both the Stoics and common-sense tells that no two people are exactly alike and that, therefore, we get different results when we do the exact same thing. To use a mundane, and rather silly, example, I am 5ft 5 inches, Leo is 6ft. If “success” is grabbing toilet roll off the top shelf in a supermarket, and it is to be achieved by following Leo’s instructions to (1) stand in the correct place and (2) reach my arms up in the air and (3) grab it, then I will fail if the shelf is higher up than I can physically reach. No amount of self-belief will result in my adult limbs growing. It may be a stupid example, but, in essence, it’s no different to all sorts of claims that too many self-help authors make. This is why Leo and I wrote in Chapter 1:

We aren’t privy to your personal circumstances. We don’t know the nature of the problems you are trying to solve. We cannot guess how you and those around you would react to any of the many possible options available to you. Even if we did know you well and tried to “put ourselves in your shoes,” what we would actually be doing is considering your situation from our point of view. In other words, we would be putting our feet into your shoes rather than considering how your shoes fit your feet! [2]

Ironically, writing the above paragraph flies in the face of conventional non-Stoic self-help wisdom, even though it is effectively saying “we are not going to give you answers precisely because we want you to think it through and help yourself”. In other words, Leo and I wrote Being Better in a way that (we hope) gets you to ask yourself better questions, ask yourself questions that you might never have thought about previously and, ultimately, ask yourself how you can be a better person. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the quality of my life has been marked by the quality of my questions.

For me personally, Being Better empowered me to ask extremely difficult questions – ones we typically shy away from, even in the contemporary Stoic community! For example, the book caused me to consider if I truly believed the Stoic claim that slavery is an “indifferent”, i.e. neither a virtue or vice. It made me ask myself whether, and to what extent, Stoicism can be used to fight climate breakdown, extreme poverty and religious/political intolerance.

I am happy to report that, if anything, Being Better convinced me that Stoicism is a powerful tool that goes way beyond our (hopefully) calmer self and quotidian matters.

Stoic Self-Help Isn’t About Me, Myself and I

When I first came across Stoicism, and as I wrote for the Daily Stoic, I saw a philosophy that serves humanity by helping individuals to acknowledge and work towards cosmopolitanism, as captured by Hierocles Circles of Concern. These circles depict the Stoic belief that we all belong to one universal community bound by reason (logos).The circles also visually portray the Stoic belief that a reasonable person’s relationship with others starts with the circle of the “self” and expands into “family,” “friends,” “community,” and “all humanity”, and, in my opinion, the “Earth”.

Figure 1. A contemporary version of Hierocles’ circles of concerns, first established in Whiting et al (2018) [3]

These circles allow us to recognise ourselves in all of humanity and all of humanity in ourselves. It leads to an understanding that Stoicism is more about collective obligations, responsibilities and civic duty than an individual’s rights, a sentiment which is nicely captured by Marcus Aurelius when he says:

What brings no benefit to the hive brings no benefit to the bee

Meditations 6.54

The aforementioned phrase by Aurelius is well-known in the contemporary Stoic community. It is impossible to disagree with it and is the kind of sentence I would expect to find on a Silicon Valley CEO’s fridge, as much as I would anticipate seeing it on an eco-feminist Marxist’s backpack. The problem is that superficial sentiments and pithy quotes can equally support the idea of “success” as becoming a more effective entrepreneur (in your main job or side hustle), who earns considerable money and “crushes it” for the benefit of the customer and shareholder bees. However, such an approach to success contrasts with Stoic ethics, particularly the theological aspects. Leo and I highlight this in Being Better, when we discuss the importance of considering the wellbeing of all things that share the logos with us (this includes animals, plants and rocks).

 Being Better also alludes to the dangers of self-help authors creating the (false) impression that humanity is destined to live in a dog-eat-dog world or is subject to a zero-sum game that only fools think we can escape.[4] To me, the fool is the person who values competition over collaboration only to lose out on the benefits that can be obtained when we chose to work towards for the common good – something that Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, makes beautifully clear when the protagonist highlights the consequences of translating the word “tool” as “weapon”.  

Having written Being Better, I would now say that I am more acutely aware as to how quickly false notions of competition can become a weapon with which to attack the shield of cosmopolitanism. For evidence of this, consider how often business self-help books use the terms “crushing it” or “killing it” to, somewhat ironically,  describe someone who is doing something well. How precisely can crushing, killing or annihilating the competition bring us closer to virtue and eudaimonia? It doesn’t surprise me that these kinds of self-help books fail to mention justice or wisdom and restrict self-control and courage to having enough “self-control” or “courage” to “follow your passion” (not exactly a Stoic message). It also doesn’t help people if authors glorify the making of sacrifices for the sake of a more pleasurable or wealthier (rather than virtuous) existence.

Writing Being Better convinced me more than ever to take a stand against the idea that a world worth living is one where we should all prioritise how we feel over a sense of rational thought processing, duty and civic responsibility. To truly live Marcus Aurelius’ warning, we have to embody it in our day-to-day decisions such as what we eat, what we buy and what we chose to tolerate. Being Better also made me consider just how much we all invest in convincing ourselves that we can do nothing because X or Y is beyond our control. Wouldn’t we all be better Stoics if we invested in our agency so that we could gain control?  In this respect, I think there are definitely times that we all get a little too complacent and comfortable in our Epicurean garden!

Maybe, Stoicism’s Not for Everyone?

I have heard a great many contemporary Stoic practitioners and scholars say that Stoicism really isn’t for everyone. However, I don’t think I quite understood where they were coming from until after I had finished writing Being Better. While Stoicism certainly doesn’t call us to proselytise or to preach to anyone, I would be lying if I said didn’t want more Stoic practitioners in the world, even though I know that the size of the contemporary Stoic community is well beyond my control!

I think I thought that all people who sincerely came into contact with Stoicism would just ease their way into the practice. I thought that if they understood the fundamentals, they would be prepared to accept that it is a philosophy of extremes practiced in a world of multiple shades of grey. I am no longer sure that’s the case. Quite frankly, a lot of people do want a tick box guide sheet and, unfortunately for them, that’s just not Stoicism!

Stoic philosophy has no tick boxes and makes only one axiomatic claim: virtue is the only good and vice the only bad. Despite this, I find that some people may not wish to accept that what is a virtuous thing for me to do may not be a virtuous thing for them to do, because in Stoicism the right thing to do is dependent on the reason behind it. In turn, those reasons are a product of who you are and where you are at that specific moment in time. This is simply an understanding of the world that some people do not willingly accept because it smells of moral relativism[5].

However, in line with what I explained above, both a medical doctor and an academic doctor (PhD), like myself, who come across a dying person are morally obligated to do everything in their power to assist them. However, my obligation may end with a simple phone call, whereas the doctor might have to involve themselves in a range of complex processes (virtuous acts) that I couldn’t hope to understand.

Personally, I remain convinced that the path to eudaimonia is open up to all adults that are capable of reason and that Stoicism is one path that allows us to obtain it.  I do believe that one of my obligations, at least for the moment, is to do my very best to ensure that I communicate the nature of Stoicism. This requires me to unpack what it really means for something to be an indifferent and to have as many Socratic discussions with contemporary Stoics as possible so we can together distinguish the superficial from the fundamentally important. To my mind, this is the first step on the road to being better and a world worth living in.

Acknowledgement: Kai would like to thank James Daltrey for his formulation of the footnote on Stoicism and moral relativism.

[1] We are largely indebted to Plutarch’s Lives of Agis and Kleomenes and Andrew Erskine’s The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action for the telling of the stories that connects Stoicism and Sparta.

[2] This mirrors Epictetus’s lesson in Discourses 1.1: Discourses 1.1): “If you’re writing to a friend, grammar will tell you what letters you ought to choose, but as to whether or not you ought to write to your friend, grammar won’t tell you that.

[3] Originally proposed in Whiting, K., Konstantakos, L., Carrasco, A., & Carmona, L. G. (2018). Sustainable development, wellbeing and material consumption: A Stoic perspective. Sustainability, 10(2), 474. Open access here: https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/474

[4] Darwin did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”, nor should it be taken to mean the strongest or most aggressive.  It can equally mean the cleverest or most collaborative. For a brief accessible discussion, see: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13671-evolution-myths-survival-of-the-fittest-justifies-everyone-for-themselves/

[5] Stoicism does not invite moral relativism because it holds that being a rational social animal is a normative condition. This necessarily entails coherent reasoning and mutual aid, which is cashed out in terms of roles and positive responsibilities. As such the private internal understandings of any individual, or all actual or possible social customs within any specific culture are not all equally valid. They need to be argued for and justified in the light of the real-world relations between real human animals in the real natural world. Stoicism does not invite moral relativity because it holds that truth comes from universal reason, which is external to humans and not subject or a product of a specific culture or the belief of a single human individual

Kai Whiting is the co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

Get In On The Stoic Fellowship’s Month of Service!

The worldwide Stoic Fellowship and its member local Stoas are engaged in a Month of Service. They would like to invite everyone to participate in the One Thousand Stoics Challenge

How do you get involved, you ask? By engaging in an act of service or kindness this month and sharing the action with the community via this simple Google form.

The goal is to have 1000 actions performed in the month of April. That leaves 15 days. You can read much more about it, and find resources by clicking here.

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Stoic by Robin Waterfield

From an early age, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was drawn to a Stoic way of life. What was the attraction for him?

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was in origin just a bundle of handwritten notebooks that somehow survived his death. Someone close to the emperor must have recognized the book’s value and preserved it, and then eventually it became published for wider consumption. In this journal, which was written in the last decade of his life (he died on 17 March, 180 CE), the emperor jotted down his thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. Entries range from single sentences to longer essays. Almost all of them are deeply personal, and their particular flavor is given by the fact that Marcus was following the Stoic practice of critical self-examination and exhortation to do better.

Marcus saw philosophy as a path of self-improvement, and is concerned more or less exclusively with its impact on him personally. The book touches on the divine order of the world and the role in it that human beings should play, but its focus is chiefly on Marcus’s own role. He sometimes talks about himself in the first person, but often in the second, and when he does the “you” whom he admonishes and advises is always himself. About 300 of the 488 entries, spread over twelve notebooks, refer explicitly or implicitly to himself in this way, and the rest enunciate general principles or rules of life, still for himself alone. He is not telling anyone else what to do or how to live. In fact, there are many indications that the book was not intended for publication, especially when he refers to people and events that no one but he could know about. Communication was not his aim in writing, and since his only audience was himself, there was no point in dissimulation. The book is utterly sincere.

In the first of the notebooks, Marcus thanks the people who were, he felt, the main influences on him when he was young, detailing in each case what he felt he gained from each of them. In the sixth entry of this notebook he thanks one of his teachers, a man with the Greek name of Diognetus, for, among other things, turning him on to philosophy. The immediately following entry, in which he thanks another of his teachers, Quintus Junius Rusticus, makes it clear that the particular philosophy that Marcus found attractive was Stoicism: Rusticus lent Marcus his personal copy of Epictetus’s Discourses, and the former slave Epictetus, who had died not many years previously, was recognized as a profound and brilliant exponent of Stoicism.

Stoicism is named after the Painted Stoa of Athens – a large colonnade in the Agora where, at the end of the fourth and beginning of the third century BCE, the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus, modern Larnaka), used to meet his students and discourse on philosophy. A couple of centuries later, Stoicism was taken up by members of the educated and ruling classes of Rome from the end of the Republic and into the imperial era. The toughness of Stoic moral discipline appealed to the robust and militaristic Roman ethos, and it allowed and even encouraged a man to pursue a public career, as many upper-class Romans expected to. A Stoic had, above all, a duty to himself, to make himself a man of virtue, but an aspect of that was being good to others, and this might well entail a public career.

Stoics saw a person’s responsibilities in terms of ever-increasing concentric circles: from preservation of the self to care for family, for extended family, for fellow citizens, for fellow countrymen, and finally for the whole human race. This was certainly one reason why Marcus was attracted to Stoicism: it allowed him to try to reconcile his twin aims of being a good man and a good emperor. But he was not drawn to it because he was emperor, any more than, in the previous generation, Epictetus had been drawn to it because he was a slave. In both cases, it would be closer to the mark to say they found Stoicism despite their statuses. It was Stoicism that seemed to have the potential to answer their most personal and profound questions; for them it was Stoicism, just as for others it is Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, humanism, or whatever. As a Stoic would put it, slaves and emperors are equal if they can accept the roles destiny has assigned them and do the best they can within those roles, especially toward their fellow men.

However, in Marcus’s time, there was no Stoic school as such – no particular teacher recognized as the head of the school, or particular city where one went to study this brand of philosophy – so his education in Stoicism was somewhat haphazard. His commitment to Stoic principles is clear, but he was an amateur philosopher. He was introduced to it in his youth by Rusticus and others, but once his education was over, although he was able to attend occasional lectures, he had to rely largely on reading and regularly checking that he was on what he considered the true path.

This habit of self-checking and self-admonishment helps to explain the nature of many of the entries in Meditations, and in particular the way that Marcus comes back again and again to the same core topics, such as controlling his temper, not seeking fame, and not fearing death. This is not just a result of the fact that he was jotting ideas down as they occurred to him over the course of many years. It is also an essential feature of this kind of writing. Writing things down is always a good way to fix them in your mind, and that is what Marcus was doing. Writing them down again and again fixes them even better, and was a practice that was encouraged within Stoicism. In an exercise he learned from Epictetus, Marcus frequently urges himself to have his core precepts readily available for consultation, and to keep them pithy and memorable, so that they can strike his mind with their original force. For example: “Clear your mind; control your impulses; extinguish desire; see that your command center retains its self-mastery” (9.7).

This is what really explains the stylistic details of Meditations: the great majority of the entries, especially the brief ones, are, above all, Marcus’s way of “dyeing his mind” (5.16) with the ideas and teachings that could help him be a better person and a better emperor. The entries are fragments of a kind of dialogue between teacher and pupil, where Marcus simultaneously plays both parts. For Marcus, the notebooks and their entries were designed to reinforce and revive, if necessary, the moral precepts he had come to accept as true, as a way of helping him to put them into practice.

Although the Stoic school was not united on every point of philosophy, there was enough of a common core to legitimate talk of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Marcus was basically an orthodox Stoic and it is impossible to understand where he is coming from without some knowledge of Stoicism. This is not to deny that many readers profit from the book without knowing much about Stoicism. Marcus addresses general life issues that strike chords with any reader. But Marcus’s own mindset and frame of reference was basically Stoicism, and the book takes Stoic principles for granted on every page.

However, no reader of Marcus needs to know all there is to know about Stoicism. The Stoics divided philosophy into three branches: logic, physics, and ethics. Logic covered not only the rules of correct argumentation, but grammar, linguistics, rhetorical theory, epistemology, and all the tools that might be needed to discover the truth of any matter. Physics was concerned with the nature of the world and the laws that govern it, and so included ontology and theology as well as what we would recognize as physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Ethics was concerned with how to achieve happiness, or how to live a fulfilled and flourishing life as a human being.

Some Stoics held that all three branches were of equal importance, but others, while acknowledging their interdependence, held that logic and physics were subordinate to ethics. They came up with nice images to express this. If logic is the wall and physics the orchard protected by the wall, ethics is the fruit. Or, if logic is the human skeleton and muscles, and physics flesh and blood, ethics is the soul. It is clear that Marcus belonged among those who prioritized ethics. At the very end of the first notebook he thanks the gods for the fact that “I did not shut myself away and study history, or analyze arguments, or occupy my time with the study of celestial phenomena.” At 7.67 he says:

You may have resigned yourself to never being good at logic or physics, but don’t on that account despair of being self-reliant, modest, focused on the common good, and obedient to God.

His relative ignorance of Stoic logic and physics was, in his opinion, no impediment to his being a good person. Again we see that what he found attractive about Stoicism was what it could do for him personally.  

However, Marcus was familiar enough with aspects of physics and logic to ground and give a Stoic flavor to his ethics. For instance, he frequently remarks on how the four elements recognized by Stoicism (earth, water, air, fire) are constantly being recycled by the death and disintegration of things. It is one of his consolations in the face of death: it is a natural process that happens to everything. But it is also clear that he was not very interested in either logic or physics in themselves. He was more interested in their implications for the daily practice of self-improvement.

There are no extended discussions of logical or physical matters in Meditations, as there occasionally are of ethical matters. You can believe in the perfection of the universe, say, and the importance of that for you personally, without holding a theory about how exactly it came to be so. You trust the greater intellects that have handed down the idea. At 10.16 he scorns philosophizing even about ethical matters: “No more abstract discussions about what a good man is like: just be one!” He committed himself to the therapeutic practice of Stoicism, but not so much to its theory. His concern was to be a good emperor, not a professional philosopher.

Ancient philosophy was considerably different from its modern cousin. Modern philosophy is pursued in classrooms, seminars, and the written word, and much of it consists of the analysis of abstract concepts and arguments, but much ancient philosophy, and especially Marcus’s kind of Stoicism, was philosophy to live by and practice daily. It was supposed to purge you from your base attachments and make you a better person, and the ideal was to be a master of this art, a Stoic sage. The therapeutic purpose of philosophy attracted Marcus:

A person’s lifetime is a moment, his existence a flowing stream, his perception dull, the entire fabric of his body readily subject to decay, his soul an aimless wanderer, his fortune erratic, his fame uncertain. In short: the body is nothing but a river; the soul is dream and delusion; life is war and a sojourn in a strange land; and oblivion is all there is to posthumous fame. What, then, can escort us safely on our way? Only one thing: philosophy. (2.17)

If you had both a stepmother and a mother, you’d do your duty by your stepmother, and yet you’d constantly return to your mother. That’s how you stand today in relation to the imperial court and philosophy. Return, then, at frequent intervals to philosophy and lean on it for rest. With its help, even court business seems tolerable to you, and you become tolerable while attending to it. (6.12)

It is no exaggeration to say that each entry in the notebooks is, as it were, a dose of self-administered therapeutic medicine.

Over the centuries before Marcus’s time, philosophy had in effect gone in two directions. High philosophy, as we may call it, was the impersonal presentation of often very subtle ideas and arguments; some of the work of the Stoics, for instance, on logic and epistemology is as challenging as philosophical work of any era. Low philosophy, on the other hand, was the attempt to make philosophy practical and accessible to the common man and woman. Hence professional philosophers generally presented a public image that stressed poverty, or at least frugality, as a way of advertising the success of their teaching: they had moved beyond the superficial values of the world, and they could teach others to do so as well. The pupils they wanted were those who already felt somewhat at odds with the world. To judge by Marcus’s frequent complaints in Meditations about the world and the people around him, he was a perfect candidate.

Marcus was originally drawn to the Stoic way by its austerity and by the quality he perceived in those of his teachers who were already on the path, but an aspect of Stoicism that he stresses in Meditations, especially when contrasting it with Epicureanism, is the orderliness of its universe. It is not just that everything has its place in the hierarchical order of things, but that the whole world was created by a benign deity and is maintained by the providential care of that deity. Every one of a person’s experiences, therefore, has been specifically designed for him alone; his world is thus full of meaning. Epicureans, by contrast, saw the world as a randomly generated conglomeration of atoms, indivisible lumps of matter; they denied the existence of gods, except as special formations of atoms, which in their view exercised no care for human beings or any other aspect of the world. And they denied that it was natural for human beings to care for others.

Although there was plenty of common ground between Stoics and Epicureans – their thorough-going materialism, the dominance of reason in the human soul, the quest for peace of mind – it was clearly Marcus’s view that the Epicureans had built the wrong kind of edifice on these foundations. He preferred Stoic self-discipline to their notion that pleasure, in some form, constituted the human good; the virtues promoted by Stoicism seemed to him closer to traditional Roman virtues. He could see no point in living in a world without gods, and whereas the Epicureans believed that peace of mind could come only by withdrawing from the world, the Stoics believed that it came from engaging with the world in the right way, and especially from recognizing that all the thoughts and feelings that disrupt tranquility are generated by one’s own mind, and can therefore be dispelled by one’s own mind. Nothing is bad unless you think it so. Stoicism puts all responsibility for one’s moral life and character squarely on the individual himself or herself and, aware that there was room for personal improvement, Marcus took up the challenge.

Robin Waterfield is the editor and translator of Meditations: The Annotated Edition, which will be published by Basic Books on April 6, 2021. You can find out more about Robin’s work at his website, robinwaterfield.com.

THE STOIC – April 2021

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 QUESTIONS’. 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…

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Were there two Faustinas?
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Are we meant to cooperate?
  • SHARON LEBELL. Are we wise … or playful?
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. What is living ‘purposefully’?
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. What does a Stoic give up?
  • KAI WHITING. How religious were the Stoics?
  • ELBERT HUBBARD. What was Marcus Aurelius’ childhood like?

PLUS

  • STOIC FELLOWSHIP groups around the world.
  • STOIC QUOTES for everyday of the month
  • STOIC BOOKS
  • And much more!

Stoicism, Sports, and Fandom – An Exchange by Tim Lebon and Greg Sadler

My friend and colleague, Tim Lebon and I had a recent exchange of emails over the last several weeks – we’re going to call them “letters” here – having to do with a topic that some portion of our readers will easily relate to, that is, being a sports fan and trying to reconcile that with practicing Stoicism. We plan (fate willing) to pick this exchange back up and continue it in the coming months as well, since there’s likely a good bit more to be said about the matters we discuss below.

Letter 1

Hi Greg

I remember you wrote about Stoicism and sport a while ago and something happened that made me think we might usefully dialogue about  it.

My soccer team, Spurs, suffered a humiliating defeat last night. They were 2-0 up and in the second leg lost 3-0 away to Dynamo Zagrieb, a team they would be expected to beat. This means they are out of the Europa Cup and their season effectively over. To make matters worse, the opposition manager was put in prison for fraud a couple of days before the match,  so we should really have had the upper hand!

I wasn’t quite as upset as usual, and I am wondering if my Stoicism helped. But I am still somewhat affected.
What would Marcus Aurelius say about this?

  • That it is just 11 grown men kicking a piece of dead animal (or whatever) around for 90 minutes?
  • That the match will all be forgotten in a few years?
  • That at that very time people are starving, getting tortured, dying and so it really isn’t important?
  • That the result doesn’t really affect me, because it doesn’t affect my ability to be virtuous?
  • That the result  might even be good as it is a Stoic challenge, for me to respond with magnanimity – the better team did win on the night, and for them it must be a miracle night!

All of this. 

I like the magnanimity idea best – through Croatian eyes, the performance must be wonderful!

So maybe I should stop watching sports? Isn’t it a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t I be better off reading Marcus, or talking to my friends or family? Or doing the gardening or dishes? Maybe.

But sports happens to be the way I bond with a lot of male friends – and my son too – even though he supports a different team!

How does a Stoic bond with others? Maybe they bond with other Stoics through Stoicism? Maybe I should just bond with other Stoics? The Epicureans had their Garden, maybe we should have one?

What about family then, do they come second?  Isn’t it good to connect with Non-Stoics so we connect with alternative views and the “real world?”

Perhaps the best policy is to treating my team winning as a preferred indifferent and to be  moderate in my watching of sports.

So maybe as a good Stoic my policy should be as follows: “I prefer my team to win, but even if they don’t I ecan njoy the spectacle and see the big picture – such as genuinely being pleased for the opposition’s joy. I watch my sports in moderation.”

I am sure this is very wise. But it goes against the tribal aspect of watching sports. Would I change allegiance just because a team had a more ethical policy or a more attractive style of play? My sporting friends would be aghast if I made such a switch.

Won’t  I enjoy the highs less if I take this rational approach to watching sports? Maybe, but the counter-argument that is all for the best. The highs aren’t worth the risk of reducing my tranquillity and leading me astray in the pursuit of virtue – watching sports is in this way like getting addicted to a drug.

So the discipline of desire requires me to adjust my attitude and behaviour with regards to sports. Any thoughts?

Kind regards,
Tim

Letter 2

Dear Tim,

I can definitely commiserate with you.  One of the characteristics of the “classic” Green Bay Packers team that I grew up rooting for as a kid in the 70s and 80s is managing to lose to teams that one would think they ought to beat!  That happened again this year in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl.  The Packers had home field advantage, hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau field in the middle of a Wisconsin Winter.  They were given about 66% odds of winning the game, and had they done so, we would have seen a historic repeat of the very first Super Bowl, when the Packers played the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Packers managed to lose 31-26.

These sorts of outcomes can be galling.  But I suppose they really ought to be expected.  There’s rarely any sure things, and any given game, where there are multiple players on a team, there’s so many things outside of the control of any given player, right?  And as fans, we’re really just along for the ride, watching, perhaps cheering, most likely allowing our desires and aversions, a wide range of our emotions, perhaps even a sense of duties (we’re fans after all) get involved with the outcome of a game.  And, as the game progresses, with each part and portion of the game as well.

I don’t know that – if we are really fans and intend to remain so – the Marcus “breakdown” or “deconstruction” is really going to be all that helpful.  Analogous to the examples he chooses – a nice and well plated meal is just dead stuff, sex is just rubbing with some fluids – telling ourselves that the game our favorite teams play is “just. . . .”, well that’s more a strategy for someone who needs to break an addiction, an obsession, a weakness for something.  It strikes me as the sort of thing the people who ostentatiously display themselves as above it all by calling things “sportsball” might find more congenial.

The reality is that, yes, we can break these sporting events down into less meaningful components that are less likely to suck us in or lure us with temptations into the wrong sorts of emotional attachments and investments.  That could be useful for some aspects.  But there can be some positive aspects to sports fandom, understood and managed in the right Stoic manners, and we don’t want to throw those away.

I think that one of the key features of the other potential Marcus-responses you suggest is maintaining a sense of proportion. And that, to me, seems like something very closely connected with the virtue of prudence, as well as with justice.  So that seems a productive line to explore. 

  • How much value ought we to assign to sports, and to what aspects of it precisely? 
  • How much time should we take away from other things, like reading, gardening, or spending time with (not-interested-in-sports) family? 
  • How emotionally invested ought we to be? 

These are just a few of the questions this matter raises – and those strike me as in no way unique to sports for the Stoic, but rather the same sorts of questions that can be asked of any interest or activity.

I think the magnanimity aspect is well worth exploring, and I see that as tied into the approach you suggest of treating winning – or even just playing well – as a preferred indifferent.  I’d also point out that for the classical Stoics, magnanimity is one main sub-virtue of the virtue of courage or fortitude, and that seems like an area full of potential.

There is a lot more that could be said about all of this, and I’m hoping in our dialogue we’ll explore a good bit more of that ground that can be covered (or uncovered) – maybe get up the field into scoring position, eh!  Thanks very much for writing me about this, and spurring me to think a bit more about this interesting, frustrating, and perhaps paradoxical commitment we both share with respect to our favorite teams.

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 3

Hi Greg

Thank you for your commiserations. Anyone out there with knowledge of both American and English football and our respective teams (Green Bay Packers and Spurs) to let us know who deserves the most sympathy?

To recap: After my team (Spurs) were humiliated last week, I suggested a number of things that might help:

  • Marcus Aurelius’s deconstruction (“it’s only a game”)
  • magnanimity (“well played the opposition”)
  • treating the result as a preferred indifferent (“I would like my team to win but it’s not the end of the world if they do not”)
  • and understanding that this is a signal that I need to do more work on the discipline of desire and aversion (“let’s get my priorities in life straight ….”).

You agreed with many of my concerns – stressing that we sports fans need to keep a sense of proportion but that we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which perhaps might be the result of taking Marcus’s method of  deconstruction too far.

One way of approaching this is by us exploring the attitudes and behaviours of the Stoic sage.  Would the sage take any interest in sports? 

Marcus has this to say 

From my governor, [I learnt] to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

Meditations, 1.5  translated by George Long

The sage would, I take it,  be concerned with higher things. He (or she) would support neither Spurs nor the Packers.  But now I worry that the sage might be a little over-serious, a little dull. What do you think, Greg?

Finally for today, I would like  to return to your suggestions regarding the way forward. I think we are agreed that some kind of Stoic Values Clarification -which is clearly related to the discipline of desire and to the theory of preferred indifferent- is a good idea so we can get our priorities right. So too is the cultivation of Stoic virtues, including all of the cardinal virtues as well as magnanimity. 

Over the next week I will be especially mindful of how I invest my time and how virtuous (or otherwise) I am when watching or taking part in sports and games. So the next time  I watch Spurs play, I could set myself the task of admiring every example of good play, regardless of who makes it, being particularly appreciative of sporting behaviour.  In this way I could use my interest in sports as an opportunity both to prioritise my time well and to progress in my development of the virtues – “the obstacle is the way”.

Spurs aren’t playing for a week or two, so I may have to try this out with a different activity.

Whilst I am “in the dock” I would also like to confess to a strong interest in the game of contract bridge. I am playing on-line with my partner in a tournament tonight.  I will report back on how I get on – not in the tournament itself, but in my attempt to be a good Stoic.

Do you face any such Stoic challenges – or opportunities – in the next week, Greg?

I hope you have a good week

Kind regards
Tim

Letter 4

Dear Tim,

I don’t know that the sage would not be a fan of any team.  It would depend very much on what “being a fan” means, wouldn’t it?  Certainly the rabid, partisan, violence-prone fanaticism that was apparently characteristic of the gladiatorial games and chariot races in ancient Rome – that kind of fandom would be incompatible with sagehood. But I don’t see why a well-proportioned perspective of rational fandom – supporting one’s team as part of a community – wouldn’t be compatible with sagehood. 

After all, we read in summaries of Stoic doctrines (like that of Arius Didymus) that the legendary sage is erotikos  (“a lover”) and sumpotikos (convivial – literally someone who you can drink with), among other things. So it would seem that there ought to be a properly Stoic way to be both a sage and a sports fan.  Or even – since I’m not remotely close to sagehood! – just to be a decent prokopton while also remaining a fan of my teams and of their sports.

There are some questions that this does open up for us.

One of the questions we could ask is what a rational fan should do in relation to the largely irrational words, actions, desires, and decisions of other fans, particularly when these involve something like injustice towards others. 

For example, while the Packers have on the whole a decently-behaved fanbase, let’s say I’m at Lambeau Field for a late-season game against their division rivals, the Bears – a game that matters – and let’s say that after a hard-played game that the Bears win in the last minutes, some of the frustrated (and likely drunk) Packers fans get aggressive with some of the the Bears fans, pushing them around, calling them names, trying to “start stuff”. 

Should I say “well, not within the sphere of my concern!”?  Should I jump right in and intervene within a conflict between people I don’t know at all?  Or should I perhaps say something – if this is possible – to my fellow fans, reminding them of our longstanding reputation for and commitment to hospitality? (Of course, I would probably phrase it in a more earthy manner!)

Or what should we do when we see our fellow fans – perhaps friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – making some heavy emotional investments in matters that are by their very nature entirely out of their control?  Should we remind them that despite all the pageantry surrounding professional sports, the massive amounts of money being spent on them in myriad ways, the flood of information about every aspect of the team, the sport, and so on. . . it’s just a game?  Or while it’s going on, should we take the advice Epictetus gives about what to do during festivals – when the children come clapping their hands, clap your hands as well, rather than being a spoilsport? 

As I think about it, many other questions come to mind, but in the interests of continuing the exchange, and sticking a bit more closely to the topics you’ve brought up, let me steer myself over to those!

I wonder if there isn’t an important distinction to be made, between watching someone else engage in playing a game, and playing a game oneself.  Watching your Spurs play is you as a spectator, perhaps involving some actions on your part – cheering, for instance – but it’s really their game to play, for better or for worse.  Actually being the participant in the game – you being the player in the bridge tournament – that’s much more active, right?  Some of the same basic Stoic principles would be involved, but you do have a lot more, if not control, at least influence or involvement in what happens in the game you’re playing.

Your suggestion about deliberately refocusing upon instances of “good play” and “sporting behavior” – that’s an excellent one, I think.  I can say that for [my wife] Andi and I, as we’ve gradually done more of that in recent years, it has made watching the game more enjoyable for both of us. And it’s a good lesson on the multi-sidedness of events  (or as the Stoics would say, “appearances” or “impressions”).  A play can result in a touchdown for the other team, which might wake winning the game that much harder for ours, or even render it impossible for our team to win, and we can feel disappointment about that.  But that same play might also display the athleticism of the other team’s players, the strategy of their coaches, the cohesiveness of their team – and we can appreciate that regardless of which team fosters those.

I’ll close by saying that my “Stoic challenges” in this week and in the weeks ahead don’t have too much to do with sports.  Instead they have to do with juggling my academic classes (I’m teaching a heavy load this term), my work with clients (I’ve got more than usual), my content production (videos, podcast episodes, etc.), and all my other commitments. One of the aspects of Stoic courage is perseverance – sticking to and seeing through work – and that’s my biggest struggle right now.  I’m trying to do enough work day-in day-out each day, so that I can get myself to the point when I can taper off a bit!

Sincerely, Greg

Letter 5

Dear Greg


Thank you for your latest.. I agree with your thoughts the idea of how to spend our time wisely is broader than just indulging in “trivial pursuits”. Of course Seneca had some wise things to say on all this in On the Shortness of Life. He definitely would have cautioned me to not fritter my life away playing bridge or watching football.   I think too the Victorians, for all our complaints of their distorting Stoicism, are to be commended for their attempts to inculcate virtue into young people through sport – notably cricket.  Kipling’s If is also a good example of the Victorian attempt to adopt this Stoic attitude to life in general  this, as in

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

This conversation has brought up many interesting points. For me, perhaps the main lesson is that Stoicism isn’t just something we do when reading books or making big moral decisions – Stoicism is for all of life.

I have just re-read your Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom and find myself agreeing with most everything you say there. I am still concerned that  watching sports is a gateway to a misuse of time and a contamination of virtue. Yet it can also be viewed as part of a rounded, good life, and an opportunity for plenty of Stoic Tests. Especially if you are a Spurs fan!

Kind regards
Tim

Tim LeBon is part of the Modern Stoicism team, focusing on research and assessment. He is also a senior CBT psychotherapist in the NHS and a CBT therapist and  Stoic Life Coach in private practice.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

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.

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!