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The ancient guide for uncertain times
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While we might be able to plan for trouble ahead, there is still only so much we can do, according to the Stoics (Credit: Alex Walker/Getty Images)
For many people, the world is in a state of upheaval that can feel difficult to cope with, but can the teachings of the Stoics help in these troubling times?
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It was a life of difficulty. Born into slavery, at one point his master broke his leg, leaving him disabled. Eventually freed, he spent the next 25 years pursuing his calling – only for his career to be outlawed by the dictator in charge. He fled abroad, an exile and in poverty.

These sketchy biographical details are almost all that we know of the life of the philosopher Epictetus, born around AD55. While some of them are contested – we can't be sure if he was born a slave, or simply became a slave young – it's clear that he didn't have it easy. Nor was his world one that was placid and predictable, either: if he came to Rome from his birthplace in modern-day Turkey sometime around AD65, as some believe, then he would have had a turbulent childhood. He may have witnessed both the fire that torched two-thirds of the city and lived through a single year so politically turbulent it saw four different emperors, two murdered and one who killed himself. 

And yet Epictetus had everything he needed. After all, he said – according, at least, to a student who painstakingly wrote down his teachings – that "it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them". 

This idea is one of the pillars of the philosophical school known as Stoicism, founded by the philosopher Zeno in Athens during the upheaval, crises and violence of 4th Century BC. It's also one of many teachings from the school that we can still learn from – which may be why we see its echoes in so much psychology, self-help literature and even religion today.

Whether it's war or a pandemic, our health or finances, no matter how challenging our lives might feel, the Stoics tell us, we still can thrive. They should know: Stoicism was a school that was "built for hard times", writes Kare Anderson, seeking to give people a guide to the good life even when the world around them was unpredictable and troubled. Here are some of the main takeaways the Stoics can offer for uncertain times:

Recognise what you can (and can't) control

As Epictetus said, for Stoics, it isn't the thing itself that causes turmoil. It's how you think about it. And few things cause more distress than fighting against circumstances outside of our control, or getting attached to an outcome that isn't in our power.

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The first hurdle – one so important that Epictetus called it "our chief task in life" – is to identify what is outside of your control to begin with, aspects the Stoics call "externals". Luckily, the Stoics made this rather simple: it's everything other than your own thoughts, choices and actions. Take health, for example. You may choose to eat five-a-day and exercise (your choices), but that doesn't mean you won't ever suffer any health issues (an external). And if you think it does, you're not just deluding yourself. You're setting yourself up for real disappointment.

The teachings of the Stoic philosophers were intended to help guide people through troubled and challenging times (Credit: Peter J. Hatcher/Alamy)

The teachings of the Stoic philosophers were intended to help guide people through troubled and challenging times (Credit: Peter J. Hatcher/Alamy)

Because it's so easy for us to mistake what we can and can't control, Epictetus recommended undertaking this mental habit: "In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is a ceramic cup you like, for instance, say, 'I am fond of a ceramic cup. When it breaks, then you won't be as disconcerted," he advised. "When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, 'I am kissing a mortal'. Then you won't be distraught if they are taken from you." (Famously, he also said that, when kissing your child, you should tell yourself "Tomorrow, you may be dead" – advice seen as rather morbid in his time, and in ours).

Controversially, the Stoics went even further. While we might prefer to be healthy, or for our loved one to live, such externals aren't "good" or "bad" on their own. Indeed, they argued, pursuing them can sometimes bring us to worse circumstances. Sure, they admitted, striving for these things was part of being human. But if you came to understand that any particular external wasn't meant for you, you had to accept it and let it go.

"It's something like going on an ocean voyage," Epictetus said. "What can I do? Pick the captain, the boat, the date, and the best time to sail. But then a storm hits. Well, it's no longer my business; I have done everything I could. It's somebody else's problem now – namely the captain's."

Because you can't control these externals, Stoics went on, there's also no use feeling distraught over them. After all, none of these "indifferents" are really necessary to our happiness – all that matters is, ultimately, how we conduct ourselves in the fact of them.

If this sounds familiar today, it's because it's been echoed in various mantras and forms of self-help for years – whether Byron Katie's (not uncontroversial) teachings on "loving what is" or simply the modern cliché "it is what it is".

You always choose how to respond

Which brings us to a second key tenet of Stoicism. Accepting circumstances outside of your control doesn't mean being passive, because you're always in control of something crucial: yourself.

"If you are doing your proper duty, let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to 'make the best move you can'," wrote Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor-philosopher, in his diaries known as the Meditations.

To be lucky all the time and to go through life without mental distress is to remain ignorant of half of the natural world – Seneca

In particular, the Stoics recommended meeting every challenge with justice, self-control, and reason. While they understood that these were natural human emotions that were likely to arise, they had little time for "passions" like anger or grief, seeing these as signs of getting too attached to an outcome out of your control.

Seneca, another of Stoicism's best-known advocates, had particularly cutting words for the Roman senator Cicero, who "had neither peace in prosperity nor patience in adversity". At one low point, Seneca wrote, Cicero wrote a letter in which he bewailed his past, whined about the present, and despaired of the future.

"Cicero called himself a semi-prisoner, but really and truly the wise man will never go so far as to use such an abject term," Seneca admonished. "He will never be a semi-prisoner, but will always enjoy freedom which is solid and complete, at liberty to be his own master and higher than all others." 

See every challenge as a learning opportunity – and a test

Not only is it possible to remain calm in the face of a dire situation, but those challenges are exactly how we learn to be calm, so much so that they should be welcomed – an idea that lives on in the modern-day aphorism "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger".

It may even be a sign of the gods' favour, suggested Seneca: after all, the gods want "good men" to be as outstanding as they can possibly be, so it makes sense that they send trials to those people in particular.

Such challenges also allow us to better understand life in general. "To be lucky all the time and to go through life without mental distress is to remain ignorant of half of the natural world," Seneca wrote.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented change to the lives of many people around the world (Credit: Aditya Irawan/Getty Images)

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented change to the lives of many people around the world (Credit: Aditya Irawan/Getty Images)

Then there's the unpredictability of how everything may turn out: we need to remember that even the worst circumstances, Seneca and other Stoics believed, may somehow be good for us in the end.

Remember that change (and loss) are constants

It seems impossible to not be disturbed by externals like the death of a loved one. But the Stoics were in favour of radically embracing reality. And reality, they taught, means constant change, loss, and hardship. 

"Is someone afraid of change? Well, what can ever come to be without change?" asked Marcus Aurelius. "Can you yourself take your bath, if the wood that heats it is not changed? Can you be fed, unless what you eat changes? Can any other of the benefits of life be achieved without change? Do you not see then that for you to be changed is equal, and equally necessary to the nature of the Whole?"

Rehearse for the worst

As much as they advocated accepting reality, far from resigning themselves to tough situations, the Stoics liked to prepare for them. They particularly guarded against falling into the all-too-human trap of "that would never happen to me". Humans, after all, tend to be rosy when thinking about the future: we won't be touched by natural disaster, disease or war, while a business venture or romantic relationship will of course go well. 

But if you've ever seen it happen to anyone else, it absolutely can happen to you, Seneca warned. "Should it surprise me if the perils which have always roamed around me should some day reach me?"

And yet many people refuse to think about, or plan for, such outcomes. "A great number of people plan a sea voyage with no thought of a storm," he wrote. "It is too late for the mind to equip itself to endure dangers once they are already there. 'I didn't think it would happen' and 'Would you ever have believed it would turn out so?' Why ever not? Know, then, that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you too."

By running through the worst potential outcomes, we feel more emotionally prepared to meet them when they arrive

According to the Stoics, these kinds of blinkers set us up for huge disappointment. By running through the worst potential outcomes, we feel more emotionally prepared to meet them when they arrive. Of course, we're likely to then prepare practically, too – likely to make things a little easier if disaster does indeed occur. An exercise still adopted in board offices and government buildings around the world today, it's often called a "premortem". 

In ancient times, it had more of a ring to it: it was a premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).

But don't spin your wheels worrying

Plan for the future, yes, but don't get stuck there. Be confident in your own ability to meet any circumstance thrown at you – the same way you always have. "Do not let the future trouble you. You will come to it, if that is what you must, possessed of the same reason that you apply now to the present," wrote Marcus Aurelius. 

Instead, focus on the present moment. That includes practising gratitude for what we have right now, not focusing on what we would like to have (or avoid) in the future.

Keep it to the simple facts

He also warned against adding any additional assumptions to anything you see. "Do not elaborate to yourself beyond what your initial impressions report," he wrote. "I see that my little boy is ill. That is what I see: I do not see that he is in danger."

Consider it an ancient warning against catastrophising, one of the "distortions" cognitive behavioural therapists help patients guard against.

Help others, and ask for help – but protect yourself emotionally

Like the Platonists, the Stoics held that our main goal in life is to excel at being human. And human nature is, they believed, social – so much so that justice (which, in ancient philosophy, goes beyond the concept of "fairness" to include our obligations to other people and to our communities) was one of the foremost virtues.

Helping others was, therefore, important. But so was guarding against adopting someone else's grief or anger as passionately as if it were your own. By all means, sympathise with someone who is upset, wrote Epictetus. "But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul."

There are few things more distressing than being caught up in events that are outside of our control (Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

There are few things more distressing than being caught up in events that are outside of our control (Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

Have no shame about asking for help, either, wrote Marcus Aurelius: sometimes, it's the only way that you can fulfil your life's "main task" – playing your part to contribute in the best way you can.

Don't distract yourself from difficult feelings

Despite their disdain for "the passions" like grief and their advice for not getting sucked in by them, the Stoics understood very well that, for most of us, these feelings would still arise. And, in the same way that modern speakers like Brené Brown advise against "numbing" negative emotions, the Stoics argued that we shouldn't try to "cheat" feelings like sadness or anger. Taking a vacation, or throwing yourself into work, drives them away only temporarily. When they return, they're likely to come back even stronger.

"It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it," Seneca wrote. But how? Today, psychotherapists might suggest "feeling the feelings", processing them and talking about them. Tara Brach, a well-known clinical psychologist and mindfulness guide, suggests the "sacred pause" – taking a moment to simply stop and tune into our emotions, even in the midst of a fit of anger or sorrow. For Seneca, the solution to simply study philosophy.  

Take the long view and remember that this, too, shall pass

One exercise Marcus Aurelius suggested was to imagine you are looking down on the Earth, seeing everything as it happens. Then imagine the long timeline of history: the people who lived long before you, and those who will live after. (It's like the ancient version of the Grand Canyon visualisation that some therapists recommend).

"Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?"

After all: "Every ocean is a drop in the Universe," he wrote.

"The whole of present time is a pin-prick of eternity."

* Amanda Ruggeri is a senior journalist for BBC Future. You can find her at @amanda_ruggeri on Twitter

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