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.
Good thoughts on Stoicism, except for the woman trying to move that two ton truck. In the scenarios that ran through my mind, she’s probably dealing with the situation as best she can. Perhaps I should help her, was one of my first thoughts. Regardless, I enjoyed this excerpt from your upcoming book.
Perhaps you’re right, it isn’t the best example. She could have her reasons.
The point I was trying to make is this: Just like a person can’t move such a heavy rock with their bare hands, we can’t change what already is. So there’s no sense in complaining about what’s too late to change. But try to make the best with the given situation.
Love your book.
I am a grey haired (bald actually) old man of 82 and I agree that many of my contemporaries live in the materialistic world,I was lucky that a fair share of adversity came my way which I was fortunate to process without bitterness,Ijust wish that I had been aware of stoicism earlier in my life as the journey would have been less turbulent,however there is no truth in the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!
love that you’re reading online articles and leave comments. That’s awesome 🙂
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and kind words.
Glad you’re still learning new tricks.
As a follower of Stoicism for the last 2 years, it’s great to see another perspective on this great school of philosophy. It is, as you rightly say, so relevant for the world we live in today. A world dominated by social media and it’s instant gratification. Where people base their self-worth on how many likes they get from others (external sources) and where material goods are used as a basis to display success. I could go on but I’m enjoying your articles and looking forward to reading your book.
You’re right. We must (re-)learn to get our gratification from ourselves, from our chosen actions and intentions, rather than from external sources.
I am in the middle of reading your book and I find it very informative, interesting and, as you so persuasively argue, highly relevant to the way we can live our lives today. I’d be very interested in knowing whether you are familiar with Mindfulness meditation. (I recognize it’s all the rage today and am referring to Mindfulness in the way it has been taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn and many others who have followed in his footsteps. See, for example, https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/.) I find the similarities between Stoicism and Mindfulness – awareness, acceptance of things as they are if we cannot change them, suffering being about how we react to what is, shifting our experience in any moment from being neutral to good or bad, the cardinal virtues, the pause between action and response, being in the present moment, the impermanence of things, including the concept we call self, non-judgment and many others – fascinating. I suspect that the original Stoics and their Buddhist counterparts learned much from each other. I actually find the parallels with Mindfulness mor compelling than with Positive Psychology. Mindfulness practice has made a difference in the way I relate to the world around me and, perhaps more importantly, the way I relate to myself, which is not to say that I don’t fall into old patterns regularly; noticing that I am doing so then becomes a part of the practice part of the practice (I love a practice where what might otherwise be characterized as failure simply :-)). I think I can benefit tremendously from learning more about Stoicism and adopting the practices in your book. I could do much worse than adopting the Virtues as a guide to how I live my life. Thank you for making this philosophy so accessible. If you have looked at Stoicism’s similarities to Mindfulness, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Thanks so much for your thoughts.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Stoic philosophy has a lot to do with being mindful. Mindfulness is almost a prerequiste if you want to practice seriously. If you’re not aware of your thoughts and emotions, and how they influence your immediate action, then how can you change?
There’s a short passage in the book where I write about mindfulness – that we have to be mindful like a hawk, and watch every step we take, like we do when we walk barefoot where it’s full of sherds.
Stoic teacher Epictetus says it’s not possible to be faultless, but we can try and “we must be content if by never remitting this attention we shall escape at least a few errors.”
This is part of rule 3 in this article
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
I’m in the middle of reading your book, and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve been following Ryan Holiday for a while and reading the Daily Stoic, and your writing adds quite a lot to my learning in making it slightly more understandable and achievable. Thank you!
Thank you, Joanna.
Glad you’re enjoying the book and it’s helping you understand more.
As you might know, I’ve been influenced by Ryan Holiday’s writings 🙂
I agree with the many principles of Mindfulness and applied mindfulness therapy. If you follow it like I am trying to do today and every day it offers valuable insight into our present-day psyche.
Much of today’s society is in conflict when it comes to being seen as successful influencers/gurus/celebrities. Materialism and empty success messes with our self-esteem and self-worth. Our sense of grounded values is overshadowed by society’s greed.
Stoicism is one further step towards identifying with the truth of our very own existence. I’m looking forward to reading your book Jonas.
The most rewarding thing for me has come from living in the present moment and understanding that the past is gone and the future is something we cannot control; it is uncertain, unpredictable. That with each day I appreciate every finite moment. That I can only do so much in one day and the rest will follow. Not to get upset by things I could not achieve today but could be solved another day. All this brings peace and calms my life. My ultimate Nirvana in life is CONTENTMENT.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tania.
Love how you put this:
“The most rewarding thing for me has come from living in the present moment and understanding that the past is gone and the future is something we cannot control; it is uncertain, unpredictable.”
It’s similar for me. I try to “love what is” and take each moment as it comes. In his book Comedy Sex God, Pete Holmes shares his strategy to watch his life story unfold. He’s watching and trying to enjoy it – whatever happens. He’s the observer, the witness, and is excited to find out what happens next in his life. And always trying to do the best with it 🙂
Much needed in 2020.i am attuned to stoicism.it resonates alot to “karma” -“Nishkam karm”-to live in present moment,mindfulness,do your hardwork dont worry about the fruits.(In addition i believe in miracles :p)developing values and building your character definately helps building inner personality.
Thank you for beautiful heartfelt insights.
Thank you, Deepa.
Yes, you’re right. It’s about awareness and trying to do the right thing, no matter the outcome 🙂
I’m 72 and discovered Stoicism about four years ago, and discovered you just last week! I love Stoicism because it is logical and inspiring. There is so much clutter going on in the world, and Stoicism help me clear my mind.
Hi Lorraine 🙂
Thank you for your support.
You’re right. There’s a lot going on and it can be challenging to gain clarity on what’s important and true. Glad Stoicism helps you with that. It helps me, too 🙂
Keep it up!
Hey Jonas, Your routine emails (i call it love letters) and article’s like this always make me peaceful and stronger than a moment just before. keep going:) Feel very lucky to meet you. Take care. Hi from Turkey 🙂
Hey Gokce and hi from Switzerland 🙂
“Love letters,” that’s wonderful and I feel honored. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying our emails and articles. Also, always good to be find peace and grow stronger.
Teşekkürler for your support, Gokce.
Awesome. ” Steer your own boat as my Dad used to say” (He was a sailor and a wonderful, kind, warm hearted man.
Steer your own boat. And think for yourself. We all should 🙂
Thank you, Billy. And thanks to your Dad.