What we can learn from the Stoics.
The belief that we can control our feelings by controlling our thoughts is both the most simple and also the most radical premise on which most modern therapeutic models rest. The promise of sovereignty over our minds is a highly attractive one, and even more strongly so in times of radical uncertainty and rapid change. But the dream of being master in our own house is much older than we may think.
The idea first emerged in ancient Greece around 300 BCE among the philosophers of the Stoa. Stoicism flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds until the third century CE. We now tend to associate the Stoics with the repression of the emotions and imagine them to have been cold and heartless types lacking empathy and a sense of humor. But this is a misconception. Rather than arguing that we should put a lid on our emotions, the Stoics believed we should evaluate them rationally and ultimately reason ourselves out of upsetting emotional states. Their method was essentially a “working-through” maneuver, but one that was purely analytical in spirit. Reason, not repression, was their solution to all emotional challenges.
In that, and in many other respects, Stoic thought is strikingly modern. Stoics such as Seneca (c. 2 BCE–65 CE), Epictetus (c. 55–135 CE), and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) believed that all suffering is in our minds, being caused not by external events but by our reactions to those events – that is, by faulty judgments and unrealistic expectations. The Stoics also held fantastically pragmatic views about how we should spend our mental energies. Given that most external events are beyond our control, they believed that it is absolutely pointless to worry about them. Our evaluations of these events, by contrast, are completely within our control, for we are ultimately rational animals. Therefore, they recommend that we should not attach significance to any external phenomena or circumstance. Instead, all our mental energies should be directed inwards, with a view to controlling our minds.
A modern Christian version of Stoic principles can be found in Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer – a core mantra in twelve-step programs such as AA: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” CBT, with its emphasis on disempowering our negative thoughts and limiting beliefs by confronting them with more rational and objective assessments, is also based on quintessentially Stoic principles. Stoicism’s rich afterlife also finds expression in the modern notion of resilience. Resilience is based on the idea that if we cannot change our circumstances, we should concentrate on building up our inner resources instead so that we can cope more effectively with adversity. Resilience is essentially about “bouncing back better” after we have been thrown off our horses.
How can Stoic thought help us in the COVID-19 world? “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” writes Seneca, a view later made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He adds: “We are attracted by wealth, pleasures, good looks, political advancement and various other welcoming and enticing prospects: we are repelled by exertion, death, pain, disgrace and limited means. It follows that we need to train ourselves not to crave for the former and not to be afraid of the latter.” To be immune to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet puts it, and to cope with the frailty of human existence, the Stoics recommend that we refuse to allow anything that goes badly for us to affect us emotionally. By carrying all our valuables within us – in the form of attitudes, beliefs, and cognitive skills – nothing and nobody can take them away from us.
Practicing this kind of hard-core Stoicism in daily life is no doubt well beyond most of us. And nor would it be desirable in this extreme form. It is simply human to be afraid of the radical and sudden changes we are currently experiencing, to mourn for loved ones, as well as missing our pre-pandemic way of life. We can, however, benefit from aspects of Seneca’s advice. We may simply wish to reflect on what is and what is not within our control right now. There is much (all too much, really) over which we have no agency, but there are some things we can do to improve our own wellbeing and that of others. We cannot will schools, shops, and restaurants to reopen. We might not be able to keep our jobs and houses, or to avoid our businesses going under. We or our loved ones may fall ill and even die.
But we can try to put a smile on our kids and our partners’ faces. We can try to put this time of collective wintering to its best possible use, whatever form that may take. Clarity on the boundary between that which we can and cannot control right now will remove a huge burden from our shoulders. It will give us more focus, and allow us to project our energies into areas in which they can make a difference right now. So bake, learn, sing, dance. Breathe, run, Zoom your heart out. Reflect. Get prison-fit. In short, whatever works for us, as long as it is an activity rather than a passivity. For while the Stoics may seem to argue for a form of passivity in the face of life’s challenges, that is not in fact their message.
Viktor E. Frankl wrote, “In times of crisis, people reach for meaning. Meaning is strength. Our survival may depend on our seeking and finding it.” Our single most essential task right now is to find new meaning when many of the things that gave our lives meaning are being denied to us. And to do that means to focus above all on the things that we can control.