What the Stoics can teach us

Personal Growth

Sifting through the news sites on the weekend there was one that finally caught my eye. An article by Donald Robertson about how Stoicism can help us in times of a Pandemic.

A couple of decades ago, studying for my arts degree in Melbourne, I took some classes in Philosophy and Classics, the study of Ancient Greek and Roman culture. I have vague memories of coming across the Stoic Philosophers then and loving some of the ideas and quotes from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius so I found this recent article really interesting and wanted to share some insights with you.


What is Stoicism


Stoicism originated around the 300 BC mark and originated from Athens in Greece. It was largely forgotten for a very long time in history but fortunately the texts survived and it lives on today via the works of some amazing writers.

The three most notable stoic writers and philosophers were Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of Rome and during his life he endured a plague of extreme proportions. The Antonine Plague (small pox) is estimated to have killed 5 million people, decimating entire villages and towns.

This is possibly the backdrop for a book that Marcus Aurelius wrote called The Meditations which speaks to the psychological process he used to deal with such uncertain times. As Donaldson writes; “It’s no stretch of the imagination to view The Meditations as a manual for developing precisely the mental resilience skills required to cope with a pandemic.”

You will probably notice that some of these ideas you’ve heard before as they’ve been carried and shaped by various streams of thought over time. Their relevance at this time I believe is particularly important.


Some of the Stoic Ideas that can help us right now;

Live in agreement with nature


This doesn’t mean go live in the bush, hunt & forage. It refers to our nature as humans and specifically our ability to apply logic and reasoning to how we view something before we take action. Stoics differentiate human thinking from animals that tend to react from instinct. They encourage a considerate, rational approach to decision making.

Focus on what you can control


All we really have control over is our thoughts, our judgments and the actions we choose to take. If we fixate on all that is outside our control such as where the COVID19 clusters are, how many new cases and deaths there are, when will a vaccine be ready, what if a person I come into contact has it, we could send ourselves spiralling into a state of anxiety. We must learn to let go of everything outside our control.

Practice misfortune or face your fears


This involves facing your fear head on and following it down the rabbit hole. Choose one thing you are afraid of and be willing to talk or write it out to the worst case scenario – If this happens…….Then step two is to add an action you could take at each juncture that will downgrade or alleviate some of your fear. Check out Tim Ferris’ TED talk on Fear for further ideas. The idea is once you’ve really looked at it, it’s not as scary as you once imagined and you’ll realise there are things you can do to avoid it.

Take action but let go of the outcome


Your own actions are within your control, the outcome of those actions are not. Don’t let this stop you from taking action but know that things may not always go to plan and learn to be okay with making necessary adjustments to plans and goals as you go.

Allow obstacles to be opportunities


More often than not, the hard things, the trials and challenges we face end up giving us the greatest opportunities in life. There are gifts in failure and new doors to open when others have slammed shut. The Stoics believe as I do that life happens FOR you rather than TO you.


Develop awareness, learn to be mindful


The Stoics recognised that if you don’t act in full awareness of your thoughts you risk acting from emotion. Being swept up in emotion doesn’t contribute to the kind of grounded, sensible decision making that moves us towards our goals. We’ve all acted out of fear and found the results probably weren’t great. Learning and practicing mindfulness offers you a better outcome. It doesn’t mean we don’t have and don’t feel our emotions, it just means we aren’t controlled by them.


Be responsible for yourself and role model, don’t preach


I hope I’ve interpreted this correctly but as I understand it, Stoics are always thinking of their fellow humans and the greater good of their society. They also believed that taking responsibility for your own actions is key and that others are duly responsible for theirs. This means they don’t consider the actions of others to be within their sphere of control and what happens to you cannot be blamed on the actions of another. Take self-responsibility seriously, act for the greater good and role model virtue to others but whatever they do is not up to us.

If this is of interest to you, check out Donald Robertson’s “How to Think like a Roman Emperor”, and this TED talk by Tim Ferris on Why your should define you Fear.