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Stoicism: the crib sheet

Who were the Stoics?

- Stoicism rst arose in 300 BC in Athens. The founder was Zeno of Citium.
- Stoics were very inuenced by Socrates, who had died a century earlier. Like Socrates,
they believed that virtue is sufcient for happiness - in other words, you can always nd
happiness and contentment within, no matter how difcult the external situation.
- Stoicism was and is an incredibly practical philosophy, which was meant to be not just
studied, but practiced and lived.
- It was designed as a sort of therapy for the emotions, which would help people cope with
suffering and adversity.
- It was the main inspiration for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is the most
evidence-based form of therapy, and which you can get for free in the NHS if youre
suffering from depression, anxiety or other emotional problems. Through CBT, Stoic
ideas have helped millions of people to overcome emotional problems.
- Stoics used to teach in the agora or marketplace of Athens, to whoever wanted to listen.
The name Stoicism comes the painted colonnade or stoa poikile underneath which they
- When the Roman Empire conquered the Greek city-states, Roman culture became very
inuenced by Greek culture. Stoicism, in particular, was very popular with the Roman
elite, and most of the surviving books of ancient Stoicism are by Roman Stoics.
- The three most famous Roman Stoics were:
Epictetus - he was a slave in the time of Nero, who
was then granted his freedom and became a famous
philosopher. He was often in trouble with the Roman
authorities because he was so independent-minded,
and was exiled twice from Rome. Today, you can read
his Discourses, which are brief talks he gave to his
Seneca the Elder - he was tutor to the emperor Nero
and became the top politician in Rome, before falling
out with Nero (who was mad) and being forced to
commit suicide. He wrote several Stoic essays,
including On Anger and On the Shortness of Life, as
well as a series of Stoic letters to a young friend who
was interested in philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius - he was emperor of the Rome, the
most powerful man in the world. This was a difcult
Marcus Aurelius
job, and Marcus spent the last ten years of his life ghting the
rebellious barbarians at the border of his empire (you can see
him doing this in the lm, Gladiator). During that time, he kept a
philosophical journal, which survives today as the Meditations,
one of the most beautiful books of philosophy.
Stoicism Today
Stoicism has always attracted fans and followers, because its
such a useful and practical life-philosophy. Today, more and
more people are rediscovering it and using it in their life.
Famous modern fans of Stoicism include the magician Derren
Brown, former president Bill Clinton, and Doctor Whos
assistant Clara Oswald, who is fond of quoting Marcus
So how can we practice Stoicism today?
Here are eight great ideas from Stoicism that you can try out.
1) Its not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events (Epictetus)
People often think Stoic means suppressing your emotions behind a stiff upper lip. This is not
what ancient Stoicism meant. The Stoics thought we could transform emotions by understanding
how theyre connected to our beliefs and attitudes.
Often what causes us suffering is not a particular adverse event, but our opinion about it. Notice
how sometimes we have a very strong emotional reaction to an event, and then we change our
perspective on it, and this changes how we feel about it. Our emotions are connected to how we
interpret events, and we can change our interpretation. This gives us some control over how we feel.
2) Our automatic interpretations of events are not always true. We can learn to be more
detached from them, and to question them.
Every day, were making interpretations of events, but
were not always conscious of these interpretations. They
often happen rapidly and automatically, through
something called self-talk, which is like a running
commentary going through our minds.
We dont usually notice our self-talk, or question it. We
assume that our automatic judgements about the world are
always 100% accurate and true. But its not. Its more like
a lazy, prejudiced and slightly hysterical newscaster, who
always jumps to conclusions and never checks its facts -
sort of like an inner Daily Mail. Imagine if you had an
inner Daily Mail which you always believed - youd end
up very disturbed, frightened and angry!
CBT has identied some of the ways we can misinterpret
situations, which can cause us unnecessary emotional
suffering. For example, we might catastrophize, which
means jumping to the worst possible conclusion about a
situation. We might mind-read, which means thinking we know exactly what another person
thinks about us, based on not very much evidence. We might fortune-tell, which means thinking
that because a situation is difcult now, it will always be that difcult. We might personalize -
taking things very personally, like if someone is a bit grumpy we might take it as a direct personal
We can learn to examine our unconscious assumptions and interpretations, by becoming more
mindful, and by asking ourselves questions. This is what Socrates tried to teach people, and its
what the Stoics try to teach as well. Epictetus told his students: do not allow yourself to be carried
away by the intensity [of your impression]: but say, 'Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see
what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.'
We can ask, for example:
- is this denitely the correct interpretation? might I be misinterpreting it?
- wheres the evidence for it?
- is this way of looking at the situation helpful?
- if my interpretation is accurate, what practical steps can I take to deal with it?
3) We cant control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we interpret it
Epictetus was a slave in the Roman Empire, which meant he had very little control over his external
life. Yet he discovered a way to stay resilient even in chaotic situations. He divided all of human life
into two zones - Zone 2 are the things in life over which we dont have complete control. Zone 1 are
the things in life over which we do have complete control.
What things in life are beyond our complete control? The government? The economy?
Other people? Our bodies? Our reputation?
Epictetus thought all external things are beyond our complete control. We have some
control over them, but theyre all subject to changing circumstances.
The only thing that is in our complete control is our own beliefs, our attitudes.
We cause ourselves needless suffering when we get disturbed about things that are
beyond our control, and when we try to force the world to be exactly like we want it to be.
We also cause ourselves suffering when we fail to take responsibility for our own beliefs.
The way to stay resilient, Epictetus believed, was to focus on whats in our control, while
accepting the things that are beyond our control.
Zone 2 - things in life over which we
dont have complete control
Zone 1 - things
in life over which
we do have
4) See the bigger picture
We are like lm directors. We can choose how we perceive events, whether to zoom in
and do a close up on them, or whether to zoom out and do a wide-angle long-shot. We
can choose how long we focus on an event. We can choose what to focus on. All of this
gives us some control over how we feel.
You know the expression to make a mountain out of a mole-hill? That happens when we
focus really closely on an event and catastrophize about it, making it a really big deal
when perhaps its not worth the bother.
The Stoics believed we can train ourselves to do the opposite, by widening our
perspective, seeing the bigger picture, getting a perspective on things. Is it so bad? Will it
be like that forever or is it temporary? Can we accept it and focus our attention on
something more positive?
They practiced an exercise called The View From Above, where they zoomed out their
perspective further and further, until they saw their life from the perspective of the
universe. Suddenly, their own particular problems didnt seem such a big deal. Our minds
are capable of comprehending the cosmos, and this can be a useful perspective to take if
were feeling a bit stressed or anxious - take a trip into space!
Alternately, we can choose to distract ourselves, stop ruminating on something thats
disturbing us, and just focus on something else - go for a walk, play a game, see some
friends. Its up to you - youre the director.
5) The importance of good habits
Humans are creatures of habit. Most of our thinking and behaviour happens automatically,
through habits. So if were going to change ourselves, we need to change our habits. This
takes practice. A thought becomes a habit through repetition, and through actually acting
on it.
Here are some ways the Stoics turned their philosophy into habits:
- Maxims
Stoics used maxims as a way to turn a thought into a habit. A
maxim is a saying or proverb which is easy to remember. For
example, Marcus Aurelius wrote maxims like: Life itself is but
what you deem it, or Waste no more time arguing what a good
man should be. Be One. An example of a modern Stoic maxim
is Keep Calm and Carry On. We can repeat these maxims to
ourselves, stick them up as posters in our bedroom, or write
them down in a little handbook that we carry around. The more
we repeat them, the more they become stored in our memory
and part of our automatic self-talk. Marcus Aurelius wrote: Our
mind becomes dyed with the colour of its habitual thoughts.
Soak your mind, therefore, in these ideas.
- Keep a journal
We often sleepwalk through the day, on automatic pilot. How do we know what weve
done, and if were making progress in weakening bad habits and strengthening good
habits? The journal is a good way of doing that - the Stoics kept journals 2,000 years ago,
and today modern psychotherapy often recommends using one as well.
Epictetus said that if were trying to get rid of a bad temper, for example, we should count
the number of days weve managed not to lose our temper. And if we manage to go 30
days without losing our rag, then we know were beginning to make progress.
- Find role-models
The Stoics often used role-models as a way to teach virtues, and also to warn of vices.
This could be inspiring gures from history or from ction, who act in a way we want to
emulate. The more we soak our imagination in their example, the more we might embody
their virtues. Who are your great role-models, and what virtue do they excel at?
- Get out of the classroom and practice!
Epictetus said: We might be uent in the lecture-room, but drag us out into practice and
were miserably shipwrecked. The real test of your philosophical ability is not an essay or
an exam, but how you actually behave in real-life examples. Do you over-react if
something doesnt go your way? Do you treat people with consideration and respect?
The best way to change our habits of thinking is to change our habits of behaviour. If
youre nervous about public speaking, for example, the best way to conquer this fear is
through practice. Then, eventually, the fear is reduced as we become desensitized to the
experience and realize its not so bad. And if a particular talk goes badly, so what? No big
deal. Who cares what the audience thinks anyway!
7) Virtue enables us to ourish even in adversity
All the previous main points are quite instrumental
and value-neutral thats why CBT has taken
them up and turned them into a scientic therapy.
But Stoicism wasnt just a feel-good therapy, it
was an ethics, with a specic denition of the
good life: we ourish as human beings when we
live in accordance with virtue.
They believed if you found the good life not in
transient externals like wealth or power but in
doing the right thing, then youd always ourish
and be at peace, because doing the right thing is
always in your power.
Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He had
very little control over his situation, but he decided: Everything can be taken from a man but one
thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose ones attitude in any given circumstances. He
chose not to be broken or dragged down by the barbarism of the Nazis, but to try and be a good
person and to assert his moral freedom. His time in Auschwitz actually became a time of moral
growth. Often the most difcult times in our life are the times when we discover the greatest moral
strength within ourselves.
What is your moral purpose in life? The more you focus on that higher purpose, the more youll be
able to cope with the everyday ups and downs of life. Keep focused on your higher goals, just like a
sailor navigating through rough seas by focusing on a star.
8) Widen your circle of concern to include all
The Stoics pioneered the theory of cosmopolitanism
the idea that we have ethical obligations not just to our
friends and family, but to our wider community, and
even to the community of humanity.
Being a cosmopolitan means being a citizen not just of
your city or country, but of humanity as a whole. Were
connected to all humans because we all have
consciousness - perhaps were connected to all beings as
well (this is what Buddhists think). They are members of
our family, so we should treat them well, even if they
look or behave differently to us. A useful exercise here,
as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, is the Stoic exercise
of the widening circles, imagining all the different
wider communities that were a part of.
Philosophy club
Here are some things your class or philosophy club could discuss. Remember to be respectful and
try to give reasons for your view-point!
Can philosophy really change us and help us live better and happier lives?
Do you agree with the Stoics that we have some control over our emotions?
Have you ever changed your perspective on a situation, and has that changed how you felt about it?
Have you ever changed a deep-seated bad habit?
Is Stoicism a bit too pessimistic about how much we can control external events?
Are there times when we shouldnt accept external things, but should instead struggle to change
them? Can one be a Stoic political activist?
Do you think you can live a good life even in a bad society? To what extent is individual ourishing
connected to a ourishing society?
Stoicism is a very rational philosophy, but are there some important things it leaves out, which
arent so rational? For example, what about dancing, music, poetry, love? We value these things but
theyre not exactly rational, are they?
Stoicism was eclipsed by Christianity. Why was that? What things did Christianity take from
Stoicism? And what things did it add, which Stoicism left out?

Finally, here is an exercise your class might like to try out. I call it Bias Bingo - on
the rst page is a list of typical cognitive biases which can cause us suffering.
Then, in Socrates Case-book, see if you can notice these biases in the peoples

1) Catastrophising: This is a total disaster
2) Fortune-tellers error: Ill never have any friends and
will always be this miserable
3) Maximization / minimization: Everyone elses life is
perfect while theres absolutely nothing good about mine
4) Emotional reasoning: I feel terrified therefore this
really is a terrifying situation.
5) Mind-readers error: She hates me, I just know it
6) Focusing on the negative / disqualifying the positive:
Getting the job was a fluke, I bet I mess it up soon.
7) Personalizing: Why does it always rain on me?
8) Labeling: Im a loser. Always have been, always will
9) Focusing on whats out of your control: Ill never be
happy, because of my awful childhood.
10) Musturbating: I must do this presentation perfectly,
because my boss must approve of me.
Dear Socrates
Why wont he call? I sent
him an email suggesting
the cinema hours ago.
He clearly doesnt value
me at all. Ill never nd a
husband and will
probably die alone and
miserable. All my friends
are so happily married,
Im the only one left on
the shelf!
This presentation is going to be a
disaster, and then Ill get red. The
audience can tell how incredibly
nervous I am. I must pull myself
together, I must be impeccable, or
else Im a total loser.
I mustnt show people how bad Im
feeling inside, otherwise theyll think
Im a total weirdo, and Ill end up
getting the sack. Everyone else
seems ne at work - its just me
whos the screw-up. And Ill always
be a screw-up. Everythings been
ruined since Susan left.
Further reading
Primary texts:
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Epictetus, Discourses,
Seneca, Letters to a Young Stoic
On the Shortness of Life
On Anger
Secondary texts:
Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life
John Sellars, Stoicism
Donald Robertson, The Philosophy of CBT
Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
Patrick Ussher, Stoicism Today
Useful blog links:
The Stoicism Today blog has lots of useful interviews and personal stories. For example:
The Stoic Mayor, about Sam Sullivan, who used Stoicism to cope with an accident that left
him paralysed as a teenager, and went on to become mayor of Vancouver.
How the US Army is using Stoic philosophy to teach its soldiers resilience:
A TED talk on Stoic philosophy helped me overcome PTSD when I was in my early
In terms of seeing the bigger picture, your class might enjoy this video interview with the
astronaut Edgar Mitchell:
For another practical exercise, students might want to follow the Stoic Week
manual, trying out the exercises every day, and then sharing on a blog or YouTube,
how Stoicism helped them (or didnt!), using the hashtag #Stoicweek