Why Stoicism Is Relevant Today
Is it possible that what the Stoics taught and practiced in times of gladiators is still relevant today?
Hell yeah, as it turns out. Studying Stoicism and practicing its ideas can be immensely useful in today’s demanding world.
The wisdom of this ancient philosophy is timeless, and its value in the quest for a happy and meaningful life is undeniable.
We must overcome our prejudices, however, to see for ourselves that Stoic philosophy is relevant for the modern leaders, workers, and parents who are fully engaged in life. It’s not at all reserved for some grey old men in academic endeavor.
It’s for you and me alike in the pursuit of a happy and meaningful life.
(Stoic) Philosophy: We’re in as much need of it today as we ever were
Stoic philosophy answers questions to life traditional schooling doesn’t even bother talking about.
In more than fifteen years of school and university I learned to solve math problems, distinguish between adverbs and adjectives, what water molecules looks like, or how Hitler made it into the history books.
But how to deal with life’s challenges? Nope.
How to face my fears and struggles? What to do about my depressive thoughts and feelings? How to deal effectively with a friend’s death? What to do with my anger? How to be more confident?
I somehow must have missed all those classes on how to live.
Such questions were often discussed in schools of philosophy in the ancient world, where they taught you how to live and deal with life’s challenges. And even though those schools don’t exist anymore, you and I and most people are in as much need of a philosophy that teaches us how to live today as we ever were.
It’s obvious. Just look at yourself and your daily struggles. And look around – do you see the older generations?
It sounds harsh, but many of them didn’t get much more than wrinkles, broken backs, and (sigh of relief) children and grandchildren from growing older.
And it’s not their fault. They sure enough worked hard and tried their best. They just played by the wrong set of rules: Society taught them that if they want to be happy, they just need to work hard and become successful.
But somehow the hard work didn’t pay off. Neither the sweat and tears nor the Porsche and the walk-in wardrobe made them any happier.
People grow older, not happier. They’re still struggling with the same problems in their eighties as they were in their twenties. They stroll through life lacking clear direction, repeatedly make the same mistakes, and don’t get any closer to a happy and meaningful life.
And because our society’s education won’t teach us how to live effectively, why not seek it somewhere else?
This is where philosophy enters the game.
A different approach: Your character is what matters
Stoic philosophy offers a vastly different approach to the traditional work hard, become successful, and then you’ll be happy scheme.
It focuses on inward happiness rather than outward success. The focus lies on you as a person and the actions you take.
Who you are and what you do matters more than anything else in Stoicism.
“He who studies with a philosopher,” Stoic philosopher Seneca says, “should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or in the way to become sounder.”
Being a philosopher actually means being a “lover of wisdom,” that’s the direct translation from its Ancient Greek origin philosophos. How beautiful is that? Don’t we all want to be lovers of wisdom?
Studying and practicing Stoicism today helps you improve yourself and become a sounder person. It teaches desirable values such as courage, patience, self-discipline, serenity, perseverance, forgiveness, kindness, and humility.
All those values make our character and are displayed in our chosen actions. Which are under our own control.
Stoicism makes us focus on what we control
Stoic philosophy preaches to accept what happens, which often is not within our control, and then focus on what to do with the given situation, which is within our control.
There’s no sense in lamenting the rainy weather, the driver in front of us, or a broken glass. These things already are, and fighting with them is fighting with reality.
If you see a woman trying to move a two-ton rock with her bare hands you think she’s nuts. But that’s what we all do when we complain about what already is.
We can’t change what is, we can only change our reaction to it. What we do with the given circumstance lies within our control. And that’s where we shall lay our focus on.
That’s where true power is hidden.
Stoicism makes us responsible for our own lives
The Stoics recognized that the good life depends on the cultivation of one’s character, on one’s choices and actions rather than on what happens in the uncontrollable world around us.
What matters lies not in the outside circumstance, but in what we do with it.
This is at the root of a tough and at the same time attractive aspect of Stoicism: It makes us responsible and deprives us of any excuses for not living a happy and meaningful life.
You and I, we’re responsible for our own flourishing, we’re responsible for not letting our happiness depend on external circumstances – we shouldn’t let the rain, annoying strangers, or a leaking washing machine decide upon our wellbeing.
Otherwise we become helpless victims of life circumstances out of our control.
As a modern Stoic student you learn that only you can ruin your life and only you can refuse to let your inner self be conquered by whatever nasty challenge life throws at you.
Stoicism offers guidance and meaning to life
Stoic philosophy teaches us to live by a set of values that contribute to emotional resilience, calm confidence, and a clear direction in life.
Just like an old reliable walking stick, it’s a guide to life based on reason rather than faith that supports us in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom.
Its goal is to make us better human beings who are able to deal effectively with life’s challenges.
It might be surprising, but whatever we’re going through, there’s advice from the Stoics that can help. Despite the philosophy’s age, its wisdom often feels modern and fresh.
Stoicism can help us become emotionally resilient so we won’t get jerked around by outside events including other people trying to push our buttons.
It can help us build stamina and strength to stay calm despite those two-ton rocks landing in front of our feet. And it will help us make the right decisions and not lose our direction.
Stoicism can improve your life in good times, but it’s in bad times when its efficacy becomes most apparent.
It can be the light showing you the way through pitch-black depressive moments. It can be your step stool to reach that tranquility you need when you’re knee-deep in shit. It can be your strong backbone when you need to act courageously even when you’re shaking like a leaf.
No matter what you’re going through, there’s valuable advice from the Stoics, still highly relevant today.
Stoicism is for everyone
Now, don’t think this philosophy is for mentally strong people only. It’s not.
It’s for you and me alike.
In fact, Stoic philosophy made the good life a reachable goal for everybody, cutting through social classes: Whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, well-educated or not, it makes no difference to your ability to live the good life.
The Stoics were living proof that it’s possible for someone to be exiled to a desert island and still be happier than someone living in a palace. They understood very well that there’s only a loose connection between external circumstances and our happiness.
Stoicism is science-friendly
Luckily, many of its psychological techniques are almost identical to ones now proven to be effective by modern research in Positive Psychology.
I don’t want to accuse the researchers of theft, but the exercises in Positive Psychology really look suspiciously similar to the ones the Stoics used more than two thousand years ago.
And this fact that modern research often goes hand in hand with what the Stoics taught makes the philosophy even more appealing.
Yet it’s no hard-core philosophy. On the contrary, Stoicism isn’t rigid but open and looking for the truth. As a Latin saying goes: “Zeno [founder of Stoicism] is our friend but truth is an even greater friend.”
The Stoics were in search for the truth and always open to change their mind if it was reasonable.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best of yourself?”
This is what Stoic teacher Epictetus asked himself.
He also reminded himself that he’s no longer a child but a full-grown person, and yet he’s still procrastinating. “You will not notice that you are making no progress but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.”
From now on, he warned himself and all of us, we should live like mature human beings and never set aside what we think is best to do. And whenever we encounter anything difficult, let’s remember that the contest has already begun and we cannot wait any longer.
We don’t have the luxury of postponing our training, because the contest we participate in every day – life – has already begun. Life is right now, so it’s about time to start our training.
The training in philosophy, this training in how to live well doesn’t pose a risk but it offers a massive chance. There’s no risk and much to gain.
It should really be a no-brainer for many of us to adopt a philosophy of life that offers guidance, direction, and a larger meaning to life. Without that compass, there’s a danger that despite all our well-intentioned actions we’ll run in circles, chase worthless things, and end up living an unfulfilling life full of emotional suffering, regrets, and frustration.
And since it doesn’t take much effort to give Stoicism a chance as your guiding philosophy of life, there’s really nothing to lose and much to gain.
In short: Stoicism not only shows you the way but also hands you the key to the good life. All you need to do is walk the path, turn the key, and enter.
I believe we can all become a little wiser and happier by practicing this wonderful philosophy.
It’s time to dive in. Today.
This article contains excerpts from my new book The Little Book of Stoicism. This practical book will teach you the philosophy's core ideas and how to put it from book page into action in your own life. Find out more about it here.