Stoicism and why you should care about it

What do boxers, political figures, and that guy who’s addicted to Reddit all have in common?

They’ve probably employed the techniques of stoicismIt’s an ancient Greek philosophy that offers to answer that million dollar question, what is the best life we can live?

Hard work, altruism, prayer or relationships don’t take the top dog spot for the stoic. Instead, they zoom out and divide the world (if you’ll forgive the simplicity) into black and white: what you can control and what you can’t.

It’s the lemonade school of philosophy. The central tenet being:

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Stoics believe that everything around us operates according to the law of cause and effect, creating a rational structure of the universe called logos. This structure meant that something as awful as all your worldly possessions sinking into the ocean (Zeno of Cyprus), or as annoying as missing the last bus by a quarter of a minute, don’t make your life any worse. Your life remains as it is, nothing more, nothing less.

If you suffer, you suffer because of the judgements you’ve made about them. The ideal life where that didn’t happen is a fantasy, and there’s no point focusing on it. Just expect that pain, grief, disappointment and injustice are going to happen. It’s what you do in response to them that counts.

This philosophy was founded by said Zeno, who preached the virtues of tolerance and self control on a stone colonnade called the stoa poikile. It’s where stoicism found its name. It flourished in the Roman empire, with one of its most famous students being the emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius. Fragments of his personal writing survive in Meditations, revealing counsel remarkably humble and chastising for a man of his power.

Stoicism on emotion

Emotion presents an opportunity. There’s a reactive, immediate response, like blaming others when you feel ashamed, or panicking when you feel anxious. But there is a better reaction the stoics aim for. It matches the degree of impact, is appropriate for the context, is rationally sound, and in line with a good character.

Being angry at your partner for forgetting to put away the dishes isn’t the same as being angry at an oppressive government for torturing its citizens. But if it’s the emotion you focus on, all your good intentions aren’t guaranteed to stop you from messing up. After all, the red haze is formidable.

By practising this “slow thinking” and making it a habit, you can cultivate the same self discipline to develop virtues like courage and justice. It’s these that will ultimately give your life meaning.

For others, emotions are more like the weather. It rains and it shines, and you just deal with it.

Stoicism assumes that focusing on control and analysing emotion is how virtues are forged. But some critics, including philosopher Martha Nussbaum, say that approach misses a fundamental part of being human. After all, control is transient too. Emotions – loving and caring for someone or something to such an extent that losing it devastates you – doesn’t make you less human. It’s part of being human in the first place.

Other critics say that it leads to apathy, something collective political action can’t afford. Sandy Grant, philosopher at University of Cambridge, says stoicism’s “control fantasy” is ridiculous in our interdependent, globalised world. “It is no longer a matter of ‘What can I control?’ but rather of ‘Given that I, as all others, am implicated, what should I do?”

Controlling emotion to navigate through life cautiously may not be desirable to you. But it is easy to see how channelling stoicism in certain situations can help us manage life’s unfortunate moments – whether they be missing the bus or something more harrowing.

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