How ancient philosophy can help us cope with the modern world
I think we can all agree there’s something wrong with the modern world. Some of us are paying to queue in a warehouse for hours for the privilege of taking photos of ourselves standing in a fake bathtub surrounded by a hundred rubber ducks — just so that we can share it with our “friends”. We’ve surely lost all sense of perspective. I can remember when a fake smile was considered something quite abhorrent. Now it’s a way of life on social media and everyone’s started “doing it for the gram”.
However, there’s a growing reaction against the vapidity of modern life. In the midst of all this a number of young Canadians have become disillusioned with the relentless march of social media, celebrity culture, consumerism, and other potentially soul-destroying forces. Many of them are turning to a surprising source of help and consolation: the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
Canada is consistently among the countries with the largest percentage of Stoics, according to data compiled by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization based in the United Kingdom. Not only that but Canada also has the largest local meetup group for Stoicism in the world, with well over 1,500 members in Toronto who meet regularly to talk philosophy. Stoicism originated in Athens around 300 BC. However, a century and a half later it was introduced to Rome where it immediately struck a chord with the younger generation, much like today in Toronto and other parts of Canada.
The most famous Stoics were three Romans: Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Today they’re the inspiration for self-improvement authors such as Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, who have acted as ambassadors for ancient philosophy among the Silicon Valley elite. Their influence has spread far and wide but still appears to be particularly strong among millenials working in the tech industry.
The philosophy of “Stoicism” (capital S) has nevertheless suffered from a PR problem because it’s often confused with the modern concept of “stoicism” (lower case), a coping style that involves having a stiff upper lip. That’s unfortunate because modern psychological research shows that trying to suppress or conceal our painful feelings can often be counterproductive if not downright harmful. Fortunately, the Greek philosophy of Stoicism had a much more sophisticated view of emotion. It’s about realizing that our emotions are caused by certain underlying beliefs: value judgments that hold something out as being very good or very bad. As Epictetus put it: “It’s not events that upset us but rather our judgments about them.”
Over the past few decades there’s been reason to take this philosophy more seriously as an approach to building psychological resilience because it happens to have provided the premise for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Large volumes of scientific evidence now show that CBT can be very effective for a range of emotional issues and this arguably lends some indirect support to its distant ancestor, Stoic philosophy. Why are young people reading books on Stoicism rather than CBT, though?
Adam Piercey managed a team testing neurosurgical robots in Toronto. He became drawn to Stoic philosophy as a way of understanding the stresses and challenges of modern life. He says:
Reading books on Stoicism allows us to see real world applications of its philosophy, with examples from major historical figures. Rather than the academic understanding of CBT, Stoicism gives us tangible examples of people like Cato, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. That is the sort of real-world context that makes it easy to read, understand and apply Stoicism in our daily lives.
Stoicism is a vast and complex philosophy encompassing a sophisticated approach to psychological therapy. The starting point according to Epictetus was expressed, though, in the maxim: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” Modern Stoics call this foundation stone the “Dichotomy of Control”. Stoics learn, in other words, to make a clear distinction between their own actions and the external events that befall them. By bearing this in mind we can reduce the frustration and emotional distress we experience in any difficult situation.
However, the Stoic mindset requires learning the virtues of patience, tolerance, and acceptance in the grip even of intense physical discomfort. Maybe our harsh winters have prepared Canadians for this. Diogenes the Cynic, a famous precursor of the Stoics, used to strip naked and embrace frozen statues in winter to train himself to patiently endure the cold. Modern Stoics have replaced this with the practice of taking cold showers in the morning, something far less likely to get you arrested.
Epictetus thought that we should learn another lesson from the long winter months, though. Only a madman seeks fresh figs in winter, he said, and it’s madness to crave things that are out of season. We have to learn to be patient sometimes and accept those parts of our environment that are beyond our control. The first people of Canada surely learned similar lessons from nature. However, today as we surf the Internet we have the whole world lies at our fingertips, or so it seems.
The Stoics would have known this is an illusion. At any moment control can be wrested from us by our Internet connection going down. We’re never completely in control of external events anyway. There are always other factors influencing the outcome. The Stoics saw the hand of cosmic Fate in the outcome of battles or how one fared when travelling by sea. Today complex algorithms shape the search results we’re allowed to see and the advertisements that appear before our eyes. In a word, said Epictetus, it’s only our own actions that are ever really up to us: how we choose to respond to the situations we face, as opposed to what happens to us.
“What, then, is to be done?”, said Epictetus, “To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”