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A timeless tonic for our modern malaise? Stoicism may be the way forward

The core disciplines of the ancient and enduring tradition are focused on the cultivation of strength. John Mueller

A timeless tonic for our modern malaise? Stoicism may be the way forward

What would bring together a geologist from Utah, an 80-year-old carpenter from Serbia, a self-described workaholic with Asperger’s syndrome living in Costa Rica, a German biochemist and a first-year technology student from Ho Chi Minh City? They are all participants in Stoic Week (November 2-8), an internet forum currently being hosted by the University of Exeter in England.

Now in its fourth year, Stoic Week 2015 has drawn well over 3,000 registrations worldwide, and its growing numbers testify to the continuing relevance of this ancient classical tradition of philosophy.

“Stoic”, an ancient word that has remained in our everyday vocabulary, is associated with stern self-discipline in harsh circumstances. Yet the widespread appeal of Stoic Week – which bills itself as “an opportunity for you to see whether Stoic philosophy can help you lead a better life” – suggests that stoicism has something really effective to offer in the 21st century. Participation is voluntary, and free of charge.

Anyone can register by completing the forms on the site. This will enable them to download the handbook, and contribute to the forums, which explore how people can cultivate the stoic qualities of steadfastness, fortitude, emotional restraint and mental clarity.

Imaginary portrait of Epictetus. Engraved frontispiece of Edward Ivie’s Latin translation (or versification) of Epictetus’ Enchiridon, printed in Oxford in 1751. Wikimedia Commons

Among those who have registered are many people who are dealing with forms of personal ordeal, and many more who are professionally concerned with critical situations, as therapists or medical professionals.

The academic team behind Stoic Week includes psychologists and social scientists who are interested in how stoic practices may work as a mode of resilience training in contemporary everyday life. Donald Robertson, the program convener, is a psychotherapist with research interests in the application of stoicism as a form of cognitive behaviour therapy.

A key strategy, taken from the writings of Epictetus (55–135 AD), is that of distinguishing between those things which are under your control and those which are not. “This takes training to do well,” as the handbook advises.

Indeed, a modern reader might spot that there is something missing from the Epictetus formula, and it is to be found in the so-called “serenity prayer” recited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

As cognitive behavioural training, this focus on “knowing the difference” can assist in gaining awareness of – and control over – one’s emotional reactions to situations.

Steven Spielberg’s recently released film Bridge of Spies (2015) presents a portrait of the stoic in its two central characters of the spy (Mark Rylance) and the lawyer (Tom Hanks).

Three times in the film, the lawyer asks his client at a critical moment, “Aren’t you worried?” And the reply is, “Would it help?”. In stoic terms, it will not help to invest emotional response of any kind in a situation where the outcome is not up to us – as, in this case, at the moment where the spy, Rudolf Abel, is waiting to be released on a prisoner exchange deal that may fall through at the last minute.

If the situation is not in your control, the most effective thing to do is to focus your strength on maintaining your own psychological composure. That will contribute to mental clarity, which as the film shows, can be effective in actually turning the situation to your advantage.

A focus on how to live takes priority in stoicism over abstract arguments and interpretations. The stoics were nothing if not pragmatic, and leading stoics have never shied away from the compromises of realpolitik.

Seneca was deeply involved in government affairs in Rome during the first century AD, when regime change was a frequent and violent business. Marcus Aurelius, author of a collection of Meditations on stoic principles, was Emperor of Rome in the second century.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, Glyptothek (Munich). Wikimedia Commons

Passages from the Meditations in the Stoic Week handbook acknowledge the insecurities of public office, the difficulties of dealing with treacherous people, and the challenges of brokering agreement amongst conflicting parties. Much of what Marcus Aurelius wrote would make sense to Angela Merkel, Barack Obama or Ban Ki-moon.

While in obvious ways modern leaders inhabit a world vastly different from that of second-century Rome, Marcus Aurelius would have insisted on the continuities. In his writings, he persisted in reminding himself that life on Earth is a cycle of natural processes, repeated through “the abyss of endless time” on a planet that is a mere point in space.

Change is a constant, though with the stoic’s macroscopic vision, it is the constancy you learn to see, along with the relative insignificance of whatever challenges and crises you may be facing in your own life.

Marcus Aurelius may have been Emperor of Rome, but he asserted that he was first and foremost a citizen of the world. As the scale of the refugee crisis threatens to destabilise European nations, that priority resonates with overwhelming urgency.

Perhaps the most striking achievement of Stoic Week is its extraordinary international reach.

There are participants from 73 countries across Europe, Central and South East Asia, Australasia, Africa, South America, China and Russia, and from 27 states in the US. The 120 Australians are from all around the country, in every state capital and in regional areas from Coolgardie to Rockhampton. This convergence of interest is surely a striking endorsement of the stoic principle that we are all citizens of the world.

It may also be an indicator of a form of quiet revolution at work in our culture. Are we seeing a turn away from the cultivation of self-affirmation, in a culture where being a high achiever is the first principle of life management?

It should be acknowledged that self-assertion is a strategy that has often been promoted in the cause of equity and positive discrimination. Too often, people from oppressed groups are taught to be complicit in their own disadvantage by quietly accepting it. But that is fatalism rather than stoicism.

The core disciplines of the ancient and enduring tradition are focused on the cultivation of strength – mental, physical and emotional. Along with this goes a steadfast commitment to the promotion of general wellbeing, civic harmony, and the health of the social fabric.

If those things are what the stoic turn has to offer us, bring it on.