‘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.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome
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 at 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 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 willful 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 largely 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.
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.