What is stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of thought that dates back to ancient Greece, but which is still used today by those seeking to find harmony in a hectic, metropolitan, 21st century environment.
As Massimo Pigliucci explains in the first chapters of his book, stoicism is often perceived a passive philosophy, whereby you remain emotionless in all situations, untouched by any external factors. Stoicism is actually very different – it is all about emotion.
Stoics take emotion very seriously. They acknowledge their emotions and take time to reflect on them. They ask themselves: Why am I feeling or reacting this way? How can I use my emotions to generate the best outcome?
Stoicism is the practice of separating what is under our control from what isn’t. In this way, it grounds us in reality while helping us to make mindful decisions.
Stoicism can be summed up by the popular mantra: ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’
It can be divided into three main disciplines: Desire, Action, and Assent.
- Understanding what we can desire, and what we cannot desire
- Understanding what is in our power, and what is not in our power
- Understanding our place in the universe
- Putting material objects and external factors in perspective
- How to tackle challenging situations
- How to behave in day to day life
- How to deal with emotion
- How to react to external factors
How can we apply it in our daily lives?
In his book, How to be a Stoic, Pigliucci gives the example of his lifelong struggle with his weight. Due to his genetics and his eating habits as a young child, he was overweight into his teenage years. Knowing that weight is highly dependent on these two factors, he could have felt helpless and have decided to give up on any dream of being healthy. Instead, he started to exercise and eat in moderation, changing his physique and achieving a healthy weight. His stoic practices taught him that he was in control of himself and could decide his fate.
He will never have a perfect, model-like physique, but he has accepted this. He knows that perfection is up to external factors, like his genes and early experiences, which he cannot control. He writes, ‘I have now internalized the Stoic attitude that I have control over some things (what I eat, whether to exercise), but not others… so the outcome – the body that I have, the degree of health that I enjoy – is to be accepted with equanimity.’
Stoicism can also be applied to professional life. Pigliucci uses the example of someone who is going to find out if they get a promotion tomorrow. Let’s call her Chiara.
If Chiara does not practice stoicism, her confidence and self-esteem depends on the promotion. She stay up all night worrying, obsessing over everything she has done right or wrong recently, letting her future happiness rest on someone else’s decision.
If Chiara is a stoic, on the other hand, she gets a good night’s sleep. She knows she is a good worker and that she has a good relationship with the people in her office. She also knows that this decision is largely out of her control, depending on many external factors. She gains confidence from the knowledge that she has done her absolute best.
Stoics know that material objects, or their lack, are not the be-all and end-all of life. They do not grow too attached to objects, remembering their impermanence.
If you get your expensive phone stolen on the tube, for example, instead of becoming upset, think stoically about the situation. Why are you upset? Does this object really matter? Remember that all material things can be replaced, and that letting your emotions ruin your day will not bring them back.
Feelings of regret
One of the key practitioners of stoicism, Epictetus, whom Pigliucci regularly refers to throughout his book, believed that ‘regret is a waste of our emotional energy.’ Spending time wanting to change the past is useless. It is important to accept the past, which you cannot control, and focus on the future, which you can control.
Stoicism is key to achieving good mental health because of the way it teaches us to deal with our emotions. Stoics often check in with their emotions and evaluate them, monitoring their mental state. This practice is key to achieving a balanced mind.
The practice of stoicism can be especially helpful to those suffering from permanent physical disabilities. The feeling of a lack of physical agency can lead people to believe they have lost all control over their lives. Stoicism can teach people with disabilities to accept their condition and recalibrate their life goals. Instead of focusing on what we cannot do, stoicism teaches us to consider what we can do.
The stoic Marcus Aurelius followed this principle: ‘The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star.’
Meditating by looking at the sky helps to remind us of our position in the infinite cosmos, putting our daily lives into perspective.