‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.
We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome
Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca (AD 4-65); and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 to 180). Their works remain highly readable and deeply consoling, ideal for sleepless nights, those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.
Stoicism can help us with four problems in particular:
At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to cheer us up when we’re mired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal…
But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood.
To regain calm, what we need to do is systematically and intelligently crush every last vestige of hope. Rather than appease ourselves with sunny tales, it is far better – the Stoics proposed – to courageously come to terms with the very worst possibilities – and then make ourselves entirely at home with them. When we look our fears in the face and imagine what life might be like if they came true, we stand to come to a crucial realisation: we will cope. We will cope even if we had to go to prison, even if we lost all our money, even if we were publicly shamed, even if our loved ones left us, and even if the growth turned out to be malignant (the Stoics were firm believers in suicide).
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
We generally don’t dare do more than glimpse the horrible eventualities through clenched eyelids, and therefore they maintain a constant sadistic grip on us. Instead, as Seneca put it: ‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’ To a friend wracked with terror he might be sent to prison, Seneca replied bluntly: ‘Prison can always be endured by someone who has correctly understood existence.’
The Stoics suggested we take time off to practice worst-case scenarios. We should, for example, mark out a week a year where we eat only stale bread and sleep on the kitchen floor with only one blanket, so we stop being so squeamish about being sacked or imprisoned.
We will then realise, as Marcus Aurelius says, ‘that very little is needed to make a happy life.’
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860
Each morning, a good Stoic will undertake a praemeditatio, a premeditation on all the appalling things that might occur in the hours ahead. In Marcus Aurelius’s stiffening words: ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’
Stoicism is nothing less than an elegant, intelligent dress rehearsal for catastrophe.
We get angry – especially with our partners, our children, and politicians. We smash things up and hurt others. The Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, but most of all, a piece of stupidity, for in their analysis, angry outbursts are only ever caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence. They are the bitter fruits of naivety.
John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1888
Anger is, in the Stoic analysis, caused by the violent collision of hope and reality. We don’t shout every time something sad happens to us, only when it is sad and unexpected. To be calmer, we must, therefore, learn to expect far less from life. Of course our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will lie to us… None of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad. It must never – if we are Stoics – make us angry.
The wise person should aim to reach a state where simply nothing could suddenly disturb their peace of mind. Every tragedy should already be priced in. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ asked Seneca, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.’
It is easy to think we’ve been singled out for terrible things. We wonder why it has happened to us. We tear ourselves apart with blame or direct bitter venom at the world.
The Stoics want us to do neither: it may neither be our, nor anyone else’s, fault. Though not religious, the Stoics were fascinated by the Roman Goddess of fortune, known as Fortuna, whom they took to be the perfect metaphor for destiny. Fortuna, who had shrines to her all over the Empire, was popularly held to control the fate of humans, and was judged to be a terrifying mixture of the generous and the randomly wilful and spiteful. She was no meritocrat. She was represented holding a cornucopia filled with goodies (money, love etc.) in one hand, and a tiller, for changing the course of life in the other. Depending on her mood, she might throw you down a perfect job or a beautiful relationship, and then the next minute, simply because she felt like it, watch you choke to death on a fishbone.
Statue of the goddess Fortuna
It is an urgent priority for a Stoic to respect just how much of life will always be in the hands of this demented character. ‘There is nothing which Fortuna does not dare,’ warned Seneca.
Understanding this ahead of time should make us both suspicious of success and gentle on ourselves around failure. In every sense, much of what we get, we don’t deserve.
The task of the wise person is therefore never to believe in the gifts of Fortune: fame, money, power, love, health – these are never our own. Our grip on them must at all times be light and deeply wary.
4. Loss of Perspective
We naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. And so we get stressed and panicked, we curse and throw things across the room.
To regain composure, we must regularly be reduced in our own eyes. We must give up on the very normal but very disturbing illusion that it really matters what we do and who we are.
The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.
Nothing that happens to us, or that we do, is – blessedly – of any consequence whatsoever from the cosmic perspective.
We need the Stoics more than ever. Every day confronts us with situations that they understood and wanted to prepare us for.
Their teachings are dark and sobering yet at the same time, profoundly consoling and at points even rather funny.
They invite us to feel heroic and defiant in the face of our many troubles.
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Seneca, 1773
As Seneca reminded us, ‘Look at your wrists. There – at any time – lies freedom.’
To counterbalance the enragingly cheerful and naive optimism of our times, there is nothing better than the bitter-sweet calming wisdom of these ancient sages.