How the Stoics can help today

From Summer Times 2021/2022, 9:13 am on 4 January 2021

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that came about in ancient Greece. But thousands of years later - it can still be used to help us manage disappointment, and misfortune. 

William B Irvine is a philosopher, who's written about how it can help in modern day life. 

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of history's most well-known stoics.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of history's most well-known stoics. Photo: Wikipedia / PierreSelim

Irvine tells Summer Times there’s a misconception that a stoic is someone who glumly takes whatever life throws at them.

“The truth is actually the opposite. Stoics aren’t anti-emotion, stoics are anti-negative emotions, with some of the classic negative emotions being feelings of anger, feelings of anxiety, feelings of envy, feelings of dread.

“They have nothing against positive emotions like feelings of delight, the experience of awe, the feeling of joy. In fact, they came up with strategies for decreasing the number of negative emotions we experience and increasing the number of positive emotions we experience.”

He says a lot of ancient stoics had reputations for being cheerful and happy people.

“It’s just the opposite of what people would think when they hear the word stoic.”

Many will be familiar with the feeling of lying in bed and feeling angry or upset about an event in the past – and angry or upset about the fact we’re thinking about it. Irvine says stoicism can help us with that. He describes a coping mechanism conceived by Roman stoics in around 100AD.

“They came up with this notion of frames; when something happens to you, you may not have had any control over what happened, but you have a lot of control over how you psychologically frame it.”

He says one of thinking about it is if someone deliberately hurt or insulted you, you could either be the victim of that person, or the target of that person.

“If you play the role of target then you have this other way of thinking of it; that this person is out to wreck my day, and I’m not going to let that happen, I’m going to fight back and I’m not going to take it in a personal, victimised way – I refuse to play the role of victim.”

Irvine says if there was an official motto for stoicism it would be “you do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

“If you’ve done that, you’re blameless because what else could you have done. So, when life presents you with a challenge, you think of it in those terms."