Stoicism: an ancient remedy for very modern problems

Updated: Jan 9

Stoicism is a school of philosophy dating back to ancient Greece. Its founder, Zeno of Citium lived from 334-262 BC, and started what was to become the dominant philosophy of the Hellenistic period. This school gave birth to three particularly notable philosophers who were, somewhat remarkably, spread over a rather large time in history. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, usually referred to simply as Seneca, was the first, living from 4 BC to 65 AD, Epictetus was born in 50 AD and died in 135 AD, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius 121-180 AD. Each contributed much to wider philosophy, and much of the Stoic school of thought was critical in underpinning the Christian faith as it slowly became the majority religion of the Roman empire.

Whilst philosophy might be considered, and not without reason, to be unduly dry and somewhat irrelevant by many, the Stoics had a knack for articulating things in a digestible and implementable manner. From Seneca's "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." to Marcus Aurelius's "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one." and a vast array in between, there is a quote for almost every occasion. Don't let the soundbite nature of these thoughts belie the underlying rationale; it is both simple, and highly effective.

What are the key principles?

You could, and many have, debate for hours on end what the best, or most relevant, quotes and ideas to come out of Stoicism are. I will outline a few of my favourite ideas, and why I think they remain so valuable today.

Momento Mori

Simply translated, this means "Remember Death". I believe so much in this, I had it tattooed, along with the skull that commonly accompanies it, on the back of my hand to remind me daily. This phrase is often misunderstood as morbid, when in practice, it is anything but. It reminds us that we are temporary; that nothing we say or do will last forever, no pain, no joy, no sensation is permanent. We very often concern ourselves over the gravity of our situations when they overwhelm us in the present, forgetting that they will, in the fullness of time, be a mere blip on the radar. This helps give a sense of perspective, and underpins the mentality of living each day as if it's your last.

The Momento Mori coin from the Daily Stoic website [click to visit] is carried by many as a reminder

The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.

This Marcus Aurelius quote may be something of a shock coming from an emperor of Rome, but he did more than say or write it, he lived it. He was known to pardon, on more than one occasion, people who conspired to kill or overthrow him, He ruled Rome for 19 years, and his demise was seen as the start of the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is little wonder that philosophy such as this influenced the Christian doctrine of turning the other cheek. Meaning much more than not taking revenge, this is a call to learn from the errors we see in others, not just those we see in ourselves. In a world where rioting, looting and violence is met with a response in the same vein, and where political one upmanship is the norm, we could all take a moment to remember this ancient wisdom.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

This line from Epictetus and his Enchiridion can be seen echoed today in the serenity prayer, heard at alcoholics anonymous meetings around the world "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.", and also underpins the widely used psychological model of the concentric circles of control, influence and concern. This notion is a great example of how we currently judge the longitudinal relevance of philosophical concepts; do they stand up to current best practice and research tests in psychology? As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff pointed out in their 2018 Book "The Coddling of the American Mind" this is putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Since this has formed the foundation of a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) model, we can safely say that it has passed the test.

"Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears."

Possibly my favourite of all, this Marcus Aurelius quote works on multiple levels. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines in his 2012 book of the same title, we are "Antifragile." Whilst this may seem a complex concept, its diluted form is very simple; we grow stronger from difficult experiences, from stress and stimuli of the right level. This is the principle by which lifting weights works, by which vaccines work, and by which comfort in extreme climates comes from gradual exposure. It is what Ross Edgley describes as habituating stress, and can be tenuously linked to my own phrase "normalise the abnormal". Whilst all of this branches out from the central concept, at its foundation, this means that we only choose to be offended, sad, upset and so on, and that we can choose not to be. Now this is very simple, but that certainly doesn't mean easy. This very concept undergirds many psychological practices, with the first step being acceptance that changing our thoughts is something over which we have agency. To put this all into modern, and familiar terms, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

All of this sounds great, but what does any of it have to do with fitness? Well, for as long as I have coached fitness, I have coached health. Mental health is not only an integral part of health when viewed holistically, but is also positively affected by the same things that affect our physical health, namely exercise, a good diet, and solid sleep. The step beyond that, is that when we work to improve our mental health, we often see an increase in not only our physical health, but also our energy levels and motivation, making working out just that bit more attractive. All told, whilst we are taught to view mental and physical health as entirely separate entities, they are in fact part of the same system; us!

In a world where we are too quick to be offended, keen to adopt a victim label, and all too willing to avoid any suffering in favour of comfort, these quotes may shine a little light. When we seek to label difference, and magnify experience, when we are bombarded with negativity at a rate only possible through social media, and where our very health is being put at risk more than ever, these few lines help to identify what is common to us all - our humanity - and suggest ways to care for it.

Where to start?

You'll be surprised to know that my two book recommendations are incredibly short! Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, is a collection of notes from his private journal, and give fascinating insights and inspire self reflection and analysis. Enchiridion by Epictetus is a manual that I believe every adult should own. The version I bought online consists of just 24 pages, of which every line is immensely valuable. I implore anyone, especially those who find these ideas at odds with their own philosophy, to give these a read. If you are of a differing opinion, I will leave you with these words from John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty":

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

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