How Stoicism Works


Stoicism for Today

So how does Stoicism — born on a porch in ancient Athens, now all over the internet — fit into a world where reason, introspection and self-control seem as foreign to many as ... well, as Spock himself?

Some, it's important to note, say that it doesn't fit at all. Stoicism had its critics, even in its heyday. Cicero, who lived from 106-43 B.C.E., believed that Stoic philosophy was too harsh and threatened the passion and emotion that is part of being human.

"What? A Stoic rouse enthusiasm?" Cicero wrote. "He is much more likely to extinguish any enthusiasm the student may have had to begin with" [source: How to Be a Stoic].

It's a shot that still stings Stoics today.

Still, Stoicism remains popular with many who embrace the idea that God alone is in control of their lives, and that God and the universe are one, and that it's folly to let anything — love, wealth, poverty, hate, envy, jealousy, that bad haircut — get in the way of the pursuit of a virtuous, thoughtful life. It's better, modern Stoics reason, to strive to be the best, most virtuous person possible, to live a life honoring God and being kind to others, than to get caught up in all that doesn't matter.

So, how do you get there? Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci wrote in the New York Times about his daily Stoic practices. First, he starts his day with meditation. "Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how," he said. Pigliucci also meditates on the sayings of a famous Stoic. Another exercise he does consists of visualizing some kind of misfortune happening to him (like losing his job) and seeing it as "'dispreferred indifferent,' meaning that it would be better if it didn't happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one's worth and moral value."

Throughout the rest of the day, Pigliucci tries to be mindful and recognize that every decision he makes has a moral dimension, whether it's how he treats colleagues or how he shops for food. In the evening, he does another mediation where he writes in his diary about his challenges of the day.

Stoics may also practice their beliefs by joining others in a Meetup group. Here's a description from a Brooklyn Stoicism June 2017 meeting: "At this meetup, we will continue our year of Epictetus by continuing our reading of The Discourses, which are the most detailed surviving notes of Epictetus' teachings written by his student Arrian ... To prepare for this meetup, please read Discourses 3.21... While reading, note any comments or questions you may have for the group to bring up during the meetup." 

And if that piques your interest you may also wish to sign up for Stoic Camp.

Author's Note: How Stoicism Works

I've spent a lot of my career interviewing professional athletes, many of whom sound positively Stoic — capital S — when claiming they don't care about things they can't control. Coaches' decisions. Fans' wrath. The bounce of the ball. Injuries. Still, it's often just a line; they do care. They want acceptance. Validation. Adoration. Admiration. There, I think, is the ultimate challenge of Stoicism. It's easy to say that you won't let the world get to you, that a greater good lies beyond the mess of everyday living. But that mess, let's not forget, makes us human.

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Sources

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  • College of Stoic Philosophers. "Stoic Quotes Poster." (May 22, 2017) http://collegeofstoicphilosophers.org/show_book/PDF/StoicQuotesPoster01
  • Daily Stoic. "Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism." (May 26, 2017) https://dailystoic.com/zeno/
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