You may be familiar with the word “stoic”; it refers to emotionless people who can endure hardship without complaint. This word has roots in Stoicism – a school of Hellenistic philosophy which was popular for 480 years since about 300 BC. It was founded in Athens Greece, by Zeno of Citium, and it later spread to Rome and became popular among persons across different spectrums of society. Such persons included Seneca (the wealthy adviser of Nero), Epictetus (a former slave) and Marcus Aurelius (a Roman Emperor).
The Principles of Stoicism
Stoicism teaches that happiness can only be gained by accepting our circumstances, regardless of our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain. Because we have no control over external factors, self-reliance and self-control are the ultimate goals of stoicism. We therefore must use logic (instead of our reflexive senses) to understand and react to the world. For Stoics, we each have a role to play in nature’s plan, so we should treat each other fairly and justly. Stoicism relies on the adage that “actions speak louder than words” when it comes to understanding the virtues and intentions of others.
Exercises in Stoicism
Early Stoics did not believe in endless philosophical debates, so they practiced “spiritual exercises” to build their mental strength:
• Practice Misfortune: Seneca suggested that people practice misfortune. This does not mean to think about what poverty will be like, but spend a few days per month with little food, your worst clothes, and away from the comfort of a home. By practicing misfortune, you will understand how persons in the situation feel, and you will also learn how to handle dire situations if you were in one. Early Stoics believed that hope leads to an eventual fall, and that by practicing the Stoicism exercises, persons will be able to avoid their anxieties about failure.
• “Turn the obstacle upside down”: Another exercise involved training your mind to see the positive in everything. Any obstacle in your way teaches you a virtue, whether it be patience, understanding, fortitude, or the like. Everything in your way should be considered an opportunity; it’s all about how you perceive it. For example, Stoics believed that anger is unnatural; that it only occurs when people have the wrong ideas about life. They purport that persons get angry because they are unable to see the opportunities that arise from betrayals or disappointments.
• Recognise that everything is fleeting: Stoics were hyper-aware that nothing is permanent. Stoicism forces us to remember how small we are in the world, and that our achievements and possessions will only last a short time. It asserts that we must always be humble and aware, because we never know when something will be taken away from us, or when we will be taken over by it.
Usefulness of Stoicism
Although Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, it is still useful in our everyday lives. It teaches us how to prevent or overcome destructive emotions, and to be in control of ourselves and our thoughts. It is quite similar to the principle of mindfulness which is taught in Buddhism and Zen. Stoicism helps us to become unbiased thinkers who can look beyond our own perceptions and see the bigger picture. With a strong focus on ethics and moral well-being, Stoicism acts as a guidebook for living a good life and becoming better people.