Does Stoicism hold the answer to life in these chaotic times?
Ryan Holiday, co-author of Lives of the Stoics, says the ancient Greek philosophy is straightforward, and can help, even if it isn’t the easiest to follow.
Self-mastery is the secret to dealing with this chaotic world. That’s what the Stoics believed.
Their ancient school of thought and its relevance in our times are the focus of a new book co-authored by American thinker, scholar and strategist Ryan Holiday and publisher Stephen Hanselman. Lives of The Stoics was released in September by Profile Books, and is published in India by Hachette.
Stoicism comes to us from Ancient Greece. Its founder was the Greek philosopher Zeno (334 BCE to 262 BCE), and its most famous proponent, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 CE to 180 CE).
The foundation of the philosophy lies in two core tenets. First, through history, every generation has faced crises — wars, famine, flood, sickness, economic collapse, political upheaval; in our times, we’ve added nuclear build-up and climate change. Second, given the first principle, there is no point in either railing against adverse circumstances or giving up the fight. Instead, you must train your mind to remain unperturbed, by following a path defined by the four principles of courage, justice, wisdom and discipline.
“Stoicism is for difficult times. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, life is demanding that you live by those ideals now,” Holiday told Wknd. “It’s not easy, but it is at least straightforward.”
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was leading a nation during a spell of the plague that lasted 14 years and was still spreading and killing when he died. Zeno turned to philosophy after a shipwreck left him penniless.
“We have this caricature of philosophers being totally out of touch with real world,” Holiday says. “The truth is that the ancients live moments just like this one.”
Here then are four tips on making it through the pandemic, the Stoic way.
Identify your areas of control: Stoicism, according to Zeno, depended on the twin pillars of logic and ethics. If you can’t change your world, change your corner of it. If you can’t change your corner of it, start with yourself. Begin by identifying the things you would like to alter, then focus on the ones you can actually change.
Focus on your quality of life: What can you do to make yourself happier? How can you alter your circumstances within the choices available to you? This could be something as simple as using your break time to talk to a friend rather than doomscroll.
Differentiate between rational and irrational fears: The Stoics called irrational fears “passions”. Set aside the flights of fancy. Identify the real dangers in your life. Then see steps 1 and 2 above.
Don’t expect perfection: You can’t be a Stoic 24x7. “Who’s perfect? Especially lately,” Holiday says. “The pandemic has tested all of us. Such is life. We’ll get through it because we don’t have a choice. We can use this as a chance to grow and improve and rise to the challenge. I’m not always as good as I’d like to be about it, but I am trying.”
Attempt the mortality test: Being born means that you will die. Try and arrive at some sense of comfort with that fact. As the book puts it: “Stoics instruct us wisely not only in how to live, but on how to face the scariest part of life: the end.”