Stoicism as a Toolkit for Modern Life

bust of Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca ca. 4 BC – AD 65.

This is the first in a series of posts focusing on positive techniques for keeping our heads screwed on straight in troubled times. Growing food, doing stuff with your hands, drinking homebrew with friends–all these kinds of things help keep us grounded and hopeful. But sometimes you need a little more help. Maybe we’ll call these posts “When chickens aren’t enough.”

Whether the world is ending or not, it’s important to have a tool kit for dealing with stress and anxiety. Stoicism, an ancient form of philosophy which has not been too popular of late, but which did have a profound influence on Western thought, and which is refreshingly practical and straightforward, is an excellent addition to your own personal tool kit. I like it so much, I’m calling for a revival!

You might remember this Stoic flowchart below from an earlier post of ours. It’s an oversimplification, of course, but it gives you the gist:

flowchart

Wish we could credit this properly, but we got it off of Boing Boing.

I was introduced to stoicism by Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan (nothing to do with the movie!). Taleb says, “My idea of the modern stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” The stoic learns from mistakes and practices tranquility of mind in the face of chaos.

Stoicism originates with the Greek philosopher Zeno around 308 B.C., but its two most readable proponents are Romans: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. While most contemporary academic philosophers churn out impenetrable, naval gazing prose, the stoics, in contrast, are eminently approachable. Seneca, in particular, is a great read. His Letters From a Stoic and Moral Essays Volumes I and II, are eloquent and practical guides to how to live a rewarding life. And they are a great comfort in times of distress or uncertainty.

Stoicism is often misunderstood as being a cold or glum. This is far from the case. Taleb says,

Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results. No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word…..There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions—we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability…..stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means…..The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks.

Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion and is, in my opinion, compatible with all faiths (Seneca, in particular, influenced early Christian thought) as well as being suitable for atheists and agnostics. And in some ways stoicism resembles a Western form of Buddhism.

Let’s give the last word on stoicism to Seneca himself. Whether we face a long emergency, sudden collapse or many more years of prosperity, I can think of no better guidance than the wisdom of the stoics. Seneca says,

True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.

In this age of me-centric Facebook updates, we we have a lot to learn from Seneca’s wisdom.

If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor, if you live according  what others think, you will never be rich.

Suggested Reading
I recommend beginning with Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic--short concise essays that offer a great introduction to stoicism All of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are available online for free, but I’m partial to the Loeb Classical Library editions. They are beautiful little books which feature the original Latin on one side and English on the other. I also recommend Seneca’s Moral Essays Volumes I and II.

Philosophy professor William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is also a nice introduction to the practical application of stoicism to modern life.

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11 Comments

  1. I just read Williams’ book and greatly enjoyed it. I have a Marcus Aurelius book somewhere and will have to pull that out and re-read it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations Erik,

    I read the Letters upon your first recommendation. I ordered the Essays just now. I have to say that it was an impressive book and a lot of helpful information. Of course there is a fine line between acceptance and resignation to the status quo. The trick is to strive while maintaining peace and awareness with your current surroundings and time.

    • One of the things I like most about stoicism is that it encourages action on the things that we can all have an impact on. I see more resignation when it comes to conversations about hopeless causes. Better to act locally, IMHO.

  3. Thanks for this. I had that “stiff upper-lip” understanding of stoicism; the real explanation is so much more interesting. I’m a self-described agnostic and this stoicism stuff really makes sense. I’m off to library to check out those books!

  4. I think too often people are encouraged to be stoic when they are suffering. Most of the time it encourages inaction and stagnation. Of course, the person who is encouraging stoicism is often an abuser or one who does not want the person the flourish.

    I know someone who just resigns herself to conditions she should try to change for her own good. No one is pressing this, just her trying to be brave.

    • The way we use stoic or stoical nowadays is not actually reflective of the actual Stoic philosophy. The term has come to mean someone who puts up with suffering. That was not the goal of the Stoics.

    • Hey PP, Always good to hear from you. It’s my hope with this post to help dispel this notion about stoicism. It’s never right to “grin and bear it” or to blame the victim. We have to change the things we can change.

  5. This thinking is for people who put their heads in the sand.Terrible idea…Philosophy in general is circular logic.And round and round she goes, and nobody know wheres she goes….get it.

    • Mousey–I’m glad you brought this up. There is a common misconception about stoicism that it is about ignoring problems. Quite to the contrary, stoics such as Seneca emphasize that we must be engaged with the world–when, that is, our engagement is effective. The head in the sand thinking that I see is all the cocktail party conversations about far off problems that can’t be solved by individuals or at the community level. To those complaining (either from the left or the right) about what’s going on in Washington DC I would ask, “what have you done locally?”

      Certain branches of philosophy (particularly contemporary academics) are indeed circular. Stoicism, in contrast, is both practical and readable.

  6. Adam Smith considered himself a Stoic, and there’s a pretty good overview of Stoicism (and Hedonism) in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here’s just a bit:

    VII.II.28

    Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance, or of what is vulgarly understood to be chance. In such games the stake is commonly a trifle, and the whole pleasure of the game arises from playing well, from playing fairly, and playing skilfully. If notwithstanding all his skill, however, the good player should, by the influence of chance, happen to lose, the loss ought to be a matter, rather of merriment, than of serious sorrow. He has made no false stroke; he has done nothing which he ought to be ashamed of; he has enjoyed completely the whole pleasure of the game.

    Or, as Bill Hicks put it 200 years or so later “It’s just a ride”

  7. I view stoicism exactly as you titled this post: as a toolkit for modern life. I don’t enjoy philosophy which delves into metaphysics “what is the meaning of meaning?” kind of thing, I enjoy philosophy which questions what are we doing here and what are we supposed to do. Stoicism resonates with me as the main tool which helps ask and answer that kind of question.

    I read and enjoyed Irvine’s book, and I consider Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be a must in understanding what life is about. I love Seneca and everything I have read by him has been valuable – have your read his book on benefits? It is amazingly perceptive and relevant.

    I also consider Ecclesiastes a book which, though not stoic, resonates with many similar principles. As a practicing Christian I haven’t found any real conflict between being a stoic and a Christian and as you said, Seneca did influence Christian thinking all the way through to the enlightenment.

    As the world has become more materialist and hedonistic, fewer and fewer try to address the fundamental questions of life – I find stoics to be the exceptions, and it’s good to know there are others like me out there.

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