Is it time to bring back Stoicism?

The philosophy of Stoicism is enjoying a renaissance. After a lifetime of hearing virtually nothing about it, this school of thought has been in the news since the pandemic lockdowns.

Stoicism, as you may know, is a school of philosophy founded in ancient Greece in the third century B.C. by Zeno of Citium. Famous adherents include Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

In modern parlance, to be a stoic is to be unemotional, like having one’s emotions botoxed. But according to the Daily Stoic, “Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for ’emotionlessness.'”

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Stoicism is based on the principle of knowing what is within your control vs. what is outside your control. At its core, Stoicism is a survival strategy, a way to overcome destructive emotions and protect one’s sanity in the face of often horrific difficulties. In addition to offering nine exercises to develop Stoicism, this website explains how we cannot control or rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. The philosophy is a lot more complicated than that, but you get the gist.

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from A.D. 161 to 180, spent the last 14 years of his life enduring a virulent plague that killed millions (and eventually killed him). Yet during this time he penned his famous “Meditations” on how Stoicism allowed him to cope.

If you’re noticing similarities to the Serenity Prayer, you’d be correct. Here is the Serenity Prayer in its entirety: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.”

The concept of “It’s not how you feel, it’s how you behave” is a new and possibly difficult philosophy for many people to abide by. Our modern society teaches that emotions and feeeeelings are paramount. Every little perceived micro-aggression must be treated as earth-shattering and personal. The government is literally enshrining emotions (hurt feeeeeelings) into law.

Interestingly, Stoicism apparently is the basis of modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy. It teaches patients not to dwell on the past, but to focus on making healthier decisions in the present, thereby creating a better future.

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In this article, it points out how “Stoics reflect on character strengths such as wisdom, patience and self-discipline, which potentially make them more resilient in the face of adversity. They try to exemplify these virtues and bring them to bear on the challenges they face in daily life, during a crisis like the pandemic. They learn from how other people cope.”

Since Stoicism has survived the test of time, clearly there’s something to it. Take the issue of anger management. According to this article, “Seneca thought that anger is a temporary madness, and that even when justified, we should never act on the basis of it because, though ‘other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.'”

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” (In other words, anger is a choice.) The author recommends behaving like a rock when insulted. “Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” This way, the insulter can be “livid with rage” while the insultee can retain his serenity. (This author also offers tips on how to keep from getting angry.)

Another modern enthusiast named Kevin Koenig observes that Stoicism “teaches to soberly decide what is the best course of action in a given moment, exercise that action to its fullest, and trust that the sum of these minute decisions, made again and again and again and again, will result in the best life one can hope to lead.”

(As an aside, I’ve always said the secret to a simple life is to make good choices. This bolsters that claim.)

Right now, we have a daughter in the Navy. With the outbreak of war in the Middle East, naturally I’m concerned she may be deployed to a hot zone. But – and this is the critical part – there is nothing we can do about it. I must learn to differentiate what is within my control and what isn’t. Based on this – and the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer – I can consign our daughter’s safety into God’s hands and get on with things.

“Your mind creates your reality, and your mind can be trained,” writes Koenig. “Fate exists and is beyond our control. Events both good and bad will unfurl in our lives. And our greatest power resides in the moment we choose how to respond. … Embracing Stoicism helped me dig out of a hole made mostly of my mind’s creation.”

The rekindled interest in Stoicism is no accident. The original philosophy developed during a time of enormous and fracturing changes in the ancient Greek world. We are facing similar issues in our modern times.

I know someone who is literally worrying himself into an early grave by obsessing over the state of the world, something entirely out of his control. He’s a good man and I hate to see him constantly anxious. How much could this friend – and many of the rest of us – benefit by practicing Stoicism and embracing the Serenity Prayer?

We can’t change anything around us. We can only change how we react. Those are words to live by.

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