The Stoics believed that by controlling our minds, we can control our world and ultimately our destiny – not unlike the law of attraction that has gained so many followers today. For the 3rd century BC Stoics, negative emotions were a result of wrong thinking. Distress was the result of being of the opinion that something is bad and that the only possible response is feeling distressed. When we feel that the world has done us a disservice, it is not uncommon for our inner monologue to imagine explaining our distress to others : in this way we justify our sorrow and indignation to ourselves. Stoicism taught self- control and reason with the aim of being free from rage, jealousy and depression. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd century and a follower of stoicism. In his meditations he says:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”
Clear-thinking and a philosophy of virtuous living is the basis for all philosophies and religions, but it is the Stoics’ aversion to self-pity that makes stoicism timeless. Marcus Aurelius echoes Byron Katie’s epiphany when she woke up from her years of depression in 1986 in advising : get rid of the thought I am hurt, and you get rid of the hurt itself. Attitude is therefore everything.
Stoicism is often maligned as being about emotional detachment and self-obsession, the stiff upper lip which engenders insensitivity to others. What is less known is that they advocated the cultivation of happiness and benevolence towards their fellow men. The real self-denial of a Stoic is denying oneself destructive thoughts and attitudes. They advocated enjoying pleasures without being dependent on them (“mastery of passion”), feeling joy in our relationships to others without the fear of loss and overcoming mistreatment by others through practical techniques, so that we may be sick yet happy, in disgrace and yet at peace. The Stoic Epictetus said, “Men are not disturbed by events, but by their opinion about events.” Wallowing was a reflex they subjected to personal will. Exercising will power was, to them, like exercising a muscle – the more we use it the stronger it gets. Physical and mental self-control was the key to a successful life.
The principles of stoicism have been adapted to modern-day cognitive behavioural therapy, which treats patients with depression and trauma. History is full of individuals who applied these principles to overcome suffering – captured soldiers in times of war, people born with a disability, those facing famine or epidemics or natural disaster. If we have faced adversity in our lives, and bounced back, we are a modern-day stoic.
Adversity is nothing more than an opportunity for greatness. Overcoming stressful situations can actually promote health. Stoicism is not a dry, joyless antiquated ideology; it has much to offer for the foundations of a successful, long life.