How a 2000-year-old Roman Emporer can help you with Pandemic woes
Marcus Aurelius had a big year last year. The Stoic philosopher was everywhere 2,000 years after his death and reign as Roman emperor, including a vacation I took with friends on which one of them brought Ryan Holiday’s 2016 book The Daily Stoic, which applies ancient wisdom to modern life. When I asked about it, one answered, “I read it every day.” “It’s the kind of difficult love I’ve been looking for since my marriage breakdown.” I met someone a few weeks later who told me that they began each day by writing in Holiday’s Daily Stoic Journal.
One of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations’ most repeated sentences has to be: “You have control over your mind, not circumstances outside of it. If you realize this, you will gain strength.” Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy that evolved later in the Roman Empire that advocates for bearing pain and suffering without becoming unduly emotional or complaining about it. Fear and envy, as well as the passionate attachments of sexual attraction and romantic love, were rooted in “false judgments,” according to the Stoics. These human foibles were so low, according to the Stoics, that the sage (someone who had attained moral and intellectual perfection) would not even think about them, let alone experience them: no joy, no grief.
Jess*, a 33-year-old single woman who didn’t want her real name used, says she has drawn to Holiday’s books about Stoicism in especially during the coronavirus outbreak because relying on the philosophy has helped her to be “less hot-headed.”
“ The Stoic philosophy of letting go of fear is what I find most useful,” she explains. Reading about them has helped me to investigate my worries and concerns, to figure out why I’m feeling that way, and then to confront it.” She cites an example of a phrase from the Roman Stoic Seneca that has particularly resonated with her: “We are more often terrified than harmed, and we suffer more from imagination than actuality.”
Jess, like my vacationing buddy, is aiming for “resilience,” as she describes it. She believes that the Stoic philosophy of perseverance has aided her in her desire to become more resilient as a single woman navigating economic uncertainties while simultaneously dating and possibly finding a mate in the midst of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis.
As we face the devastation wreaked by COVID-19, it’s no surprise that some people are turning to the concepts of Stoicism, especially when they’re packaged so nicely by Holiday in his books.
“ Stoicism is about learning to roll with the punches and be the best version of yourself — to do the right thing — regardless of what’s going on around us.
Amy, a 33-year-old former social media professional, agrees that this year she “certainly felt the need to build resilience.” During and after the first lockdown, she and her partner were both made redundant. They also lost all of their money from their wedding, which had to be canceled, and she suffered her “first arthritic flare-up in three years.”
“I feel like under normal circumstances I’d be entitled to have a complete breakdown over just one of those things,” Amy continues, “but because of everything going on in the world, I definitely feel a self-imposed obligation to be okay about it all — to get on with it.” This, I suppose, is Stoicism!”
Holiday, who is also in his early 30s, released a new companion book to The Daily Stoic, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, just before shutdown 2.0 in 2020. His narrative is fascinating on its own. In a previous life, he was the public relations expert who guided American Apparel through the Dov Charney-related debacle. Holiday has written a book called Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator on it as well.
It’s worth mentioning that the Stoics were, for the most part, prosperous men. Seneca, for example, was so wealthy that the loans he made to the Roman Empire’s British colony accounted for almost the whole British economy at the time. That isn’t to say that their writings aren’t valuable, but we can’t overlook the fact that what they created is essentially the ancient counterpart of the British stiff upper lip, which arose in the households of the affluent landed aristocracy. There must be room for us (especially young women who are more likely to have lost their jobs or be working in low-wage jobs on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak in hospitals or nurseries) to be sensitive and feel the emotions that are being triggered by the reality that so many of our lives are being turned inside out).
Holiday also points out that the Stoics evolved their philosophy among “the ups and downs of the ancient world: tyrants, exiles, wars, and loss.” He observes that “During the Antonine Plague, Marcus Aurelius was writing and ruling. It should come as no surprise that [his works] is still relevant today. Stoicism is about learning to roll with the punches and be the best version of yourself — to do the right thing — no matter what is going on around us. It’s fortunate that people are focusing on that right now.”
We’ve all gone through a lot in the last year, personally, professionally, and politically, in different ways. In the previous week alone, far-right Trump fans stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, killing people in front of live TV cameras, the UK went into its third lockdown, and Britain exited the European Union. When you factor in the strain on all of our relationships — with friends, family, and significant others — it’s easy to see why anyone would be struggling and looking for support, calm, and clarity.
For some people, Stoicism appears to be a wellspring of all of that. Is there a risk, though, that the demand to be stoic — to be tough and perseverant — will be added to the various external pressures we face? Jess revealed to me during our conversation that she has started to see her feelings as “a sign of weakness,” which isn’t good. Allowing our emotions to govern our life must be balanced with realizing that they are an inevitable component of the human experience.
Dr. Nihara Krause is a clinical psychologist consultant and lecturer who specializes in adolescent and adult mental health. She says that when psychological traits like resilience or beliefs like Stoicism become trendy, there is always a risk. “The issue with ‘buzzwords,’ she explains, is that they can be misread and misunderstood.” “If people think of resilience as a’super barrier’ that protects them from sadness or despair, they may ‘beat themselves up’ because it feeds into a false sense of being ‘weak.’”
“If people can comprehend the true definition of the term and view it as a tool kit of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions they can acquire and build on, as well as learn that sometimes, no matter what tools you have, things go wrong and the challenge is to find a way through, they won’t have to see not being resilient as something to beat themselves up [about], they won’t have to see not being resilient as something to beat themselves up [about].”
When I ask Dr. Krause how we may learn from the Stoics and build resilience while still treating some of their concepts with a healthy dose of skepticism, she answers, “Adaptation is the crucial word here and in modern society when describing resilience, the phrase is used to generally represent the ability to act flexibly and effectively through reacting to threats.”
She goes on to say that she prefers to utilize the phrase “bounce not break” in her practice. “This is something I say while teaching resilience skills, and it’s now been adopted by stem4, the teen mental health organization I established. Some people conflate resilience with toughness, keeping a “stiff upper lip,” or surviving, and while these traits can provide the appearance of strength, they aren’t long-lasting and don’t assist an individual to adapt. Learning to thrive is the essence of true resilience.”
So go ahead and learn about the Stoics. Take notes from them. If you want to stop sweating the small thing, Seneca’s On The Shortness Of Life is a fantastic place to start. “We are not given a short life, but we make it short,” he says, “and we are not ill-supplied, but we waste it.” However, keep in mind that you can’t be stoic all of the time. Because hard items are brittle and break when they strike the ground, shutting down your emotions will yield little benefit. It’s normal to be upset when major life events occur, such as a funeral, a breakup, or a job loss.
In addition, Dr. Krause raises a crucial point regarding taking on too much when things go rough. “It will also depend on the contact someone has with the various systems around them — for example, family, friends, educational organization, or even the country they live in,” she observes. How resilient you can be is determined by how difficult those interactions are, so it’s critical to build strong and supportive structures as well.”