I could say a lot about Stoicism – its history, its core ideals, its achievements.
Instead, I’ll say this:
It’s one of the few philosophies that’s worth a damn.
Most philosophies are curious ways to think about the world. Or they’re useful in some contexts but not others. Stoicism is always useful and there doesn’t seem to be a law of diminishing returns.
The more you and everyone else embrace it, the better.
What other philosophy could have made Marcus Aurelius such a wise and effective emperor?
What other philosophy could have freed Epictetus – a crippled slave – first in his mind, then literally?
Other philosophies are toy notions. Stoicism gets real results and provides spiritual liberation.
It’s useful – nay, vital – in everyday life.
It’s especially handy in a crisis.
Here are a few ideals of Stoicism. Let’s see how well we’re using them in the current crisis.
Stoicism: Take Responsibility. In a health crisis, you are responsible for your own well-being. Your needs might be different to the person’s next to you. You might be able to help others. You might need extra help. That’s okay – do everything you can to preserve your wellness on your own. If that’s not enough, reach out.
Society: Abdicate Responsibility. Only large corporations and the government can help you. Your health isn’t your responsibility – you need outside assistance to stay alive, no matter how young or vital you are.
Stoicism: Observe Dispassionately. Learn to see the truth with your own senses. Don’t let your perceptions be distorted by your imagination or the delusions of others.
Society: A disease with a +99% survival rate will definitely kill you. It’s reasonable to go to any extremes, no matter how damaging, to slow its spread. Feel intense levels of panic about it.
Stoicism: Feel Mindfully. If your house is on fire, then feel fear. That’s appropriate and useful. Once you’re safe, let go of the fear. By all means, take action to prevent it from happening again, but act from reason and compassion, not from lingering panic.
Society: There are no Soviets nearby? Fear them anyway. Terrorism is on decline? Fear it anyway. Someone sneezed in Madagascar? Fear, fear, fear!
It’s your civic duty to watch the news – that way, you can stay in heightened states of anger and panic all the time. If you don’t watch the news, that’s okay – that’s what social media is for.
Stoicism: Serve. You have gifts and powers. It’s your moral obligation to use them to leave the world better than when you entered it.
Society: Languish. Put all of your projects on hold, don’t work and don’t contribute (feel free to consume, though).
Stoicism: Accept That You Can Only Change Yourself. All other people and many circumstances are beyond your control. Accept that and focus your energies on what you can change. Complaining damages your character – take action if you can, accept it if you can’t.
Society: Pretend That You Can Force Other People To Change. Other people should change their language patterns on the fly. You have the right to not feel offended, even if you choose to be offended by trivial things. Anyone who violates these shifting, arbitrary and contradictory guidelines deserves to have their voice silenced and income halted.
Stoicism: Feel Compassion. People hurt you because they themselves are hurting. No one is evil, even when they do evil things. Hate no one, even if you have to remove them from your life. Every human being is worthy of respect, so give it.
Society: Feel Rage. People who hurt you aren’t even real people. They’re NPCs. If you can make them suffer, then do so. Demand respect from everyone but give it out sparingly in return.
Stoicism: Have Character. Stand up for what’s right and think for yourself.
Society: Have Obedience. Any deviation from the standard narrative makes you a crazy weirdo fanatical alt-right <everything>-phobic Nazi hate-criminal science-hating scumbag.
Stoicism: Accept Your Mortality. Meditate on your death daily, so you are prepared when it comes. Until then, you will live a life of substance.
Society: Deny Your Mortality. Distract yourself with video games, TV, alcohol, adult entertainment and yelling at strangers online. Know that a <1% of dying is far too high and be prepared to surrender all freedoms to fight it.
Stoicism arose in a brutal world.
Back then, infant mortality was practically a coin-flip. Disease and malnutrition would probably kill you, unless violence beat them to it.
Today, even poor people have comforts that an emperor of old would surrender half their kingdom for. Cheap heating that doesn’t fill your village with smoke? Entertainment on demand? Food that’s not only varied but safe to eat?
I’d rather be here in 2021 than an emperor at Rome’s peak.
So why are so many of us struggling?
Because we might be technologically superior to the Stoics, but we’re philosophically poorer.
That’s great news. It’s easier to rediscover Stoicism than it is to invent electricity, so you have the edge.
Even better – a small dose of Stoicism goes a long way.
Take anxiety, for example.
The first Stoic step is to accept it. Don’t deny it and don’t write it off as a ‘quirk’… but don’t hate yourself for having it either. Accept it intellectually and emotionally.
Step Two: ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about that.
Step Three: answer ‘yep’.
Then the fourth step is to take action.
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