Andy Zaltzman spends a week living by the rules of the Stoic school of philosophy to explore if the teachings of the ancient Greeks can be applied to 21st-century problems.
Andy Zaltzman, the comedian, cricket fanatic and lapsed classics student will be spending a week living by the teachings of three ancient schools of philosophy. This week he'll mostly be being stoic.
Stoicism is being hailed as the new Mindfulness in their quest for a modern day answer to the eternal question of how to live a good life. The trouble is centuries of misunderstanding have left us with glaring misconceptions about what these philosophies really are: Stoicism is nothing about keeping a stiff upper lip and suppressing my emotions. The great attraction of stoicism is what it tells us about resilience and how to deal with life's vicissitudes. Founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC, Premiership rugby club Saracens hold weekly classes in it, special forces recruits are taught its insights - the value of virtue for its own sake and how to make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens - and politicians and business leaders are attracted by the works of famous Stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Every week Andy will be given a set of tasks to confront to teach him a philosophical lesson. His guide and task master is Jules Evans, author of "Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations." Andy will also meet the famous mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown who's also a follower of Stoicism.
Producer: Phil Pegum.
A Brief Guide to Stoicism
What's Stoicism then?
It's a philosophy that first appeared in ancient Greece in 300 BC. Philosophers taught Stoicism in the streets of Athens, under the Stoa Poikile or painted colonnade, hence the name 'Stoic'. It became popular in Roman culture and most of the surviving Stoic books we have are by ancient Romans, like Seneca, Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Doesn't Stoic mean you repress your emotions beneath a 'stiff upper lip'?
No. That's what it's come to mean in modern English, but the ancient Stoics tried to help people transform their emotions, not bury them. In fact, they were constantly talking about emotions and how to transform them - they were the pioneers of what today we'd call psychotherapy (a word which comes from the Greek for 'care of the soul'). In fact, Stoicism is the principal influence on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which the British government has put over £1 billion into making available for the treatment of emotional disorders.
So how can I practice Stoicism?
The first Stoic, Zeno of Citium, said Stoicism means 'living according to nature'. That doesn't mean living like a wild beast. The Stoics thought humans are blessed with a rational, moral nature, and being true to our humanity means learning to develop our inherent capacity for wisdom so we think right and act right. When we think and act virtuously, we will naturally be happy. They agreed with Socrates' remarkable claim that 'virtue is sufficient for happiness'.
All I need to be happy is to be virtuous?
Yes. We can use reason and wisdom to respond wisely to anything that life throws at us – even imprisonment or torture - and still be content. As the psychologist Viktor Frankl learned in a Nazi concentration camp: 'Everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose our response.'
How do I respond to adversity wisely?
The trick is to understand how our thoughts and opinions cause our emotions. As Epictetus put it: 'Men suffer not because of events, but because of their opinion about events.' We put labels on the things that happen to us, like 'this is catastrophic', 'this is intolerable' and so on, and this guides our emotional reactions. We can learn to change our emotions by changing our thoughts, and asking ourselves questions like 'Is this really so intolerable, so out-of-the-ordinary? Can I learn to endure it?' Seneca said: 'All
adversity is training.. the obstacle becomes the way', while Epictetus said: 'Difficulties reveal men's characters.' Psychology suggests that humans can cope with all kinds of adversity if they have a strong enough reason to do so.
Why should I accept external things?
Ancient Stoicism was in fact a sort of philosophical religion - they believed the universe was guided by a pantheistic intelligence they called the Logos, through which everything ultimately turned out for the best. Later Stoics, like Seneca, were a bit more agnostic, but they still recognized the wisdom of accepting the limit of our control over the universe.
But doesn't this acceptance make you into a doormat for others to tread on?
Not necessarily. The ancient Stoics were very involved in politics - Cato the Younger gave his life resisting Julius Caesar, Seneca gave his life standing up to the emperor Nero, while Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome. The Stoics believed in doing the right thing, even if that meant you lose your life - doing the right thing is more important than longevity. This made them quite difficult people to manipulate or threaten. Epictetus, for example, was banished not once but twice from Rome.
It all sounds very individualistic. What about our relationships with other people?
The Stoics believed that all rational beings are connected through the Logos. We all have reason, so we're all brothers and sisters, citizens together in the great 'city of god' (or cosmopolis). We have a duty to treat each other with dignity, and this duty extends to all humanity, not just to our family, race or nation. This radical idea was influential on later universalist philosophies like Christianity and liberalism.
Are there still Stoics today?
There are indeed. Academic philosophy more or less ignored Stoicism for most of the 20th century, but it has always attracted people as a life-philosophy. In the early 20th century, it was a key influence on self-help writers like Dale Carnegie. And In the last
decade, the internet has enabled more and more people to learn about Stoicism and self-identify as Stoic. It's particularly popular with people in the military, due to the influence of Admiral James Stockdale, an American who used Stoicism to cope with being imprisoned and tortured in the Vietnam War. It's also popular with sportspeople - in the US, the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (that's him in the photo) reportedly used Stoic ideas to coach the Patriots to their 2015 and 2017 Superbowl triumphs. You can find out more about modern Stoicism at sites like modernstoicism.com
What criticisms could we lob at Stoicism?
In practice, most Stoics are men - it seems to appeal less to women. It could be criticized as being over-rational and over-serious, and ignoring the more intuitive, erotic or ecstatic side of life. Historically, there's never been much of a Stoic community (compared to, say, Christianity). Some neuroscientists might say it's over-optimistic in its claim that we can consciously re-programme our habitual thoughts and beliefs.
How can I practice Stoicism in my daily life?
The Stoics had various 'spiritual exercises' they practiced regularly to transform their psyches. One technique was to use a diary to keep track of their thoughts and actions each day, to see whether they were making progress at strengthening good habits and weakening bad habits. Another was to memorize and repeat philosophical maxims. They also practiced various visualization techniques to put things in perspective, such as imagining seeing their life from the perspective of space, or imagining their death.
What are some useful Stoic maxims?
'Your mind becomes dyed with the colour of its habitual thoughts. Therefore soak your mind in these ideas. '
'Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.'
'The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.'
'Vex yourself not at the course of things. They don't care about your vexation.
Perhaps the desire of the thing called fame torments you. See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of its domain, and be quiet at last.
It is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. For there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man’s own soul.
'What should we have ready at hand in a situation like this? The knowledge of what is mine and what is not mine, what I can and cannot do.'
'‘But the tyrant will chain –’ What will he chain? Your leg. ‘He will chop off –’ What? Your head. What he will never chain or chop off is your integrity.'
'Progress is achieved not by luck or accident, but by working on yourself every day.
'Practice, for heaven's sake, in little things, and then proceed to greater.'
When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.
If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’
'We suffer more in imagination than in reality. '
'Happy he who learns to bear what he cannot change.'
'God, grant me the strength to change the things I can change, the courage to accept the things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference.' The Serenity Prayer
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Julia Annas, Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000)
R. W. Sharples, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy (Routledge, 1996)
T. Irwin, Classical Thought (Oxford, 1989)
Julia Annas (ed.), Voices of Ancient Philosophy: An Introductory Reader (Oxford, 2001)
Prof Jules Evans Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford, 2009)
John Sellars, Stoicism (Acumen, 2006)
Moses Hadas (ed.), Essential Works of Stoicism (Bantam, 1961)