Stoicism is enjoying a renaissance. So what is it about this ancient Greek philosophy that is appealing to entrepreneurs, CEOs, and Super Bowl-winning coaches alike? Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy and author of ‘How to Be a Stoic’, explains why Stoicism is still relevant today and how it can help us navigate modern life.
A few years ago, when he was having a ‘classic midlife crisis’, Massimo Pigliucci didn’t buy a Porsche or start an affair with a younger woman. Rather, he turned to Ancient Greek philosophy in order to provide his life with a ‘moral’ compass. This is less surprising than it sounds, as Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. “I needed more than just a list of ideas I agreed with to structure my life,” he explains. Pigliucci soon decided that the answer to his quest for meaning would be found in Greco-Roman ‘virtue ethics’. These focus not on whether individual actions are right or wrong, but rather on how one should live a eudaemonic life – that is, a life worth living.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. The term Stoicism comes from Stoa Poikile, a building in Athens where the early Stoics would meet and discuss their ideas. With its strong focus on living in the present, Stoicism is considered a highly practical philosophy and follows the belief that we can control very little in our lives other than ourselves; our actions and our emotions. Stoics therefore believe that through clear judgement and inner calm, self-control can be learned as a way of overcoming negative emotions that can cause suffering. The most famous proponents of Stoicism are the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the philosophers Epictetus and Seneca.
He read the standard texts on the topic, particularly Aristotle and Epicurus. “While these confirmed that I was in the right ballpark, neither really clicked.” Then, one day, he read a tweet about celebrating ‘Stoic Week’ and signed up. “I was immediately hooked, and have studied and practised Stoicism ever since.” Perhaps surprisingly, Pigliucci was bang on trend here. Stoicism is enjoying a renaissance.
What was once the preserve of academics and philosophers is now finding a receptive audience in boardrooms, locker rooms, and living rooms around the world. It’s particularly popular in Silicon Valley and the gung-ho self-help guru Tim Ferriss has described it as “an operating system for making better decisions and being less emotionally reactive”. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that Stoicism can help us deal with the stresses of everyday life. In a 2013 study conducted by Exeter University, those who spent a little time each day practising Stoic techniques reported a 14 per cent increase in life satisfaction and an 18 per cent increase in optimism.
We caught up with Professor Pigliucci recently and asked him how this ancient philosophy can help us succeed in the modern world.
What makes stoicism relevant today?
“Stoicism is still relevant because human nature hasn’t changed that much in the last two and a half millennia. If you read Seneca, one of the most important Stoic writers, you can feel a close kinship with a human being who lived 2000 years ago. He’s got the same problems we do. Some of these are big issues, like how to deal with our own mortality or how to cultivate friendship. Others are everyday problems, like what to do if your neighbour is too noisy, or how to stay reasonably sober while everyone else gets drunk at a party. Stoicism can also help us deal with moments when we feel major changes are happening, either in our own lives or in society as a whole. Major changes we don’t control can cause dread or existential anxiety. I’m pretty sure we are living through such a period of humanity’s history.”
How can stoicism help us live a better life?
“The Stoics thought that a life worth living is one in which we are engaged in our community, pursuing what they called ‘virtue’, which really means excellence of character. Becoming better individuals and being helpful to society, in their view, is the natural thing to do for human beings, because we are social animals capable of reason. So, applying reason to better social living is particularly satisfactory for us – it gives meaning to our lives. This may sound rather Pollyanna-ish, but there is quite a bit of evidence from modern social psychology to support it.”
What are the principles of stoicism when it comes to helping us live better lives?
"Perhaps the most important is the dichotomy of control which was first expressed by Epictetus, who wrote:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.
What Epictetus was saying is that the only things completely in our control are our judgements, opinions, adopted values, and decisions to act. Everything else, we may be able to influence, but it is not, ultimately, under our control. This can be used in a very powerful way in pretty much everything we do, because it implies that we should work towards internalising our goals.
You want a new job? That is not the right attitude, since that is not under your control. But you do control how well you prepare for the interview and how you put together your CV. You want your partner to love you? That’s not the right attitude, since that is not under your control. But you do control your own behaviour towards her or him, so act in a loving way and see what happens. You want to retire in comfort? Again, that is not the right attitude, since that is not under your control. But you do control whether and how to plan for it, where to invest, and so on.
The basic idea is that we are going to be serene if we just internalise the notion that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, and that the only thing that is truly ours to do is to play the best game of which we are capable, under all circumstances. That is where our focus should be.
This article is a part of the ’Shifting Lifestyles’ series, in which we observe how ageing populations and extended longevity are altering global lifestyles.