Transcript of Video
Hello and welcome. My name is Donald Robertson and this is my five-minute introduction to Stoic philosophy. I first became interested in Stoicism myself in 1996, after doing my philosophy degree. Later, as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, I found it helpful to incorporate Stoicism into my work with clients. In 2005, I published an article on Stoicism in a British counseling journal. Then a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, comparing all the psychological strategies found in ancient Stoicism to ones used in modern psychotherapy. I also wrote a self-help book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, explaining in plain English how ancient Stoicism can be applied to modern living. In the video you’re watching I’m going to try to explain who the Stoics were, what Stoicism is, and to describe two of Stoicism’s most beneficial psychological exercises.
Where does Stoicism come from?
Today the word “stoicism” (with a small s) denotes a personality trait that involves remaining calm in the face of adversity, or having a stiff upper lip. That’s not the same thing as capital S “Stoicism”, the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which teaches a whole way of life and set of ethical values. Stoicism was founded at Athens, in 301 BC, by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, who was influenced mainly by Socrates and the Cynic philosophers. The early Stoics wrote over a thousand books but only fragments survive today. Interest in Stoicism later spread from Greece to Rome. Most of the writings we have come from three Stoics who lived under the Roman Empire: Seneca, who was speechwriter to Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a freed slave who became a famous teacher; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors. After his death we hear virtually nothing more about Stoicism; Christianity gradually eclipsed pagan philosophy. However, the ancient Stoic school was therefore active for nearly 500 years.
What is Stoicism?
The central doctrine of Stoicism is that the goal of life is virtue, and that virtue is the only true good. “Virtue” is the conventional translation of the Greek arete, which actually means “excellence of character”. The Stoics argued that, understood correctly, what’s healthy or in our self-interest as rational beings coincides perfectly with what’s honourable or genuinely praiseworthy. They also expressed the goal as “living in agreement with nature”, by fulfilling our natural potential, much as a seed does by growing into a tree and bearing fruit. For Stoics, virtue applies to three main areas of life. 1. Our own mind: as animals with the capacity for reason, we should try to fulfil our potential by living rationally and wisely. 2. Other people: as social beings, who naturally care about each other, we should try to live in harmony with other people, in a way that’s conducive to the common welfare of mankind. And 3. The Universe: as citizens of the vast cosmos, we should live in harmony with Nature, calmly accepting the external events that befall us and responding to them wisely.
The Handbook of Epictetus contains a simplified guide, to living in accord with Stoic philosophy. It opens with the words: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” This mindfulness of our sphere of control is the cornerstone of Stoic resilience. It’s often compared to the famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.” Another well-known quote from the Handbook has long been taught to clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgements about events.”
What do Stoics do?
The Stoics also used many contemplative exercises. One involves picturing events from high overhead, like the gods atop Mount Olympus. Modern scholars call it “The View From Above.” This helps people to see distressing events as temporary or to place them within a broader context, in a way that can moderate strong emotions. For the Stoics this is also a more realistic perspective because it’s more complete. Psychologists know that when people are anxious their field of attention automatically narrows down. We focus on perceived threats, taking things out of their wider context, and that tends to amplify our feelings. When we pause and encourage ourselves to look at the bigger picture, in terms of both time and space, it can help us remain more composed.
The Stoics also advised us frequently to imagine the worst things that could happen in life as if they were already happening, to practice mentally preparing for them. Therapists today call this “De-catastrophising”. The ancient Stoics would imagine poverty, famine, exile, and plague befalling them. Every day they’d rehearse ways of coping with them, responding with courage, self-discipline, and wisdom. Psychological research has now shown that the modern fad for “positive thinking” can easily turn into an unhealthy form of avoidance. Cognitive therapists therefore encourage clients to visualize upsetting events, and practice building resilience through emotional fire-drills. Negative is the new positive. Or rather it can be healthy to confront negative thoughts patiently, in the right way.
To sum up, what I think appeals most to people about Stoicism is the fact that it provides a guide to life that’s rational, and based on philosophical reasoning rather than one resting on faith or tradition. It’s down-to-earth philosophy, for the man or woman in the street. And it gives us a powerful toolbox of psychological techniques, which are similar to ones now proven to be effective by modern research in psychology. People are also drawn to the beauty of the writings. Indeed, Seneca is one of the finest writers of antiquity; it’s almost as if we could read a cognitive therapy or self-help book that was written by Shakespeare. For example, Seneca once said: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” So what next? Well, I’ve put some extra bonus resources on the following pages to help you learn more about Stoicism… I hope you find them helpful, and please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions...