Note the exact time and date of when you were last angry, or afraid, and write down the event. What was the actual situation you faced? What were the exact emotions and desires you experienced during the event? What were the thoughts that went through your head? Were some of these reactions within our control? Were parts of the event beyond your control? And what did you actually do? Did your actions help you or not?
This is part of a self-monitoring Stoic exercise, which thousands of people over the summer, and each year for Stoic Week (this year Oct. 19–25), participate as part of an experiment to determine if living like a Stoic has any benefits.
These lessons have proved useful during the pandemic; over the summer, the organization Modern Stoicism launched a free four-week course on Stoicism in the UK with 2,500 signups, with participants afterward reporting increases in resilience, life satisfaction, and positive emotions, and decreases in negative emotions.
The Practical Philosophy
Donald Robertson was a teenager when he began looking into philosophy; the death of his father spurred a search for a new way of life. He became interested in meditation and Buddhism, and continued to study philosophy for his undergraduate degree. It wasn’t until graduate school that he encountered Stoicism—then a seemingly little-known school considered not so important in the field of philosophy. He wondered why.
“There’s some irony in it,” said Robertson, who co-runs Stoic Week. Philosophers would say what the Stoics really did was to find practical applications for existing philosophy, such as that of Socrates. In other words, Stoicism was too practical to be interesting philosophy.
Robertson found it applicable and beneficial not just in his personal life, but also in his work as a psychotherapist. He realized Stoicism was really the inspiration behind cognitive behavioral therapy, and this practical philosophy helped many of his clients as well. That was 25 years ago, and Stoicism has since become a popular and growing self-help movement.
“It wasn’t popular back then; I gave talks at conferences to psychotherapists, and I never realized the general public was so interested,” Robertson said.
His writing about the parallels between cognitive behavioral therapy and Stoicism led to him recording the instructions for one of the concepts, “View from Above,” so listeners can go through the meditation and focus on gaining perspective. This got him involved with a project at Exeter University with professor Chris Gill, who had a group of people trying to find modern practical relevance to ancient classical texts—they had already tried a “Live Like Galen” week, and “View from Above” inspired the idea to create a course that could help modern people “live like a Stoic.” That’s how Stoic Week was born.
There is a misconception about what Stoicism is largely because “stoicism” is a word that has a very different definition from that of the ancient philosophy of “Stoicism.” The distinction is important because one is healthy and the other is not, said Robertson, also the author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.”
“Lower case” stoicism is about enduring pain or hardship without complaint or display of feelings, that “stiff upper lip” image, and is actually considered psychologically unhealthy. Stoic Week is changing the misunderstanding about what the school of thought is. “Zest,” surprisingly, was the trait most positively correlated with Stoicism after the most recent course, Robertson said.
“Stoic philosophy is about achieving eudaimonia or happiness in the true and original sense of the word, i.e., actually flourishing. In modern therapy we say there’s a big difference between ‘feeling better’ and actually ‘getting better,'” Robertson said. “There’s a huge difference between ‘feeling happy’ and actually ‘being happy,’ in the sense of flourishing rather than being hapless. The Stoics claim that the key to flourishing is moral wisdom and excellence of character, roughly translated as virtue (arete).”
Since 2013, Robertson and psychologist Tim LeBon have run Stoic Week (Learn.ModernStoicism.com). Some 20,000 people have participated since then, with consistently positive feedback. It includes a handbook and a series of self-guided courses to help participants understand and adapt Stoic principles and do Stoic exercises.
The exercises and questionnaires help participants determine whether they’ve experienced beneficial changes. The benefits might be educational, psychological (in gaining resilience and happiness), or even moral if the week helps develop their ethics, or they may find that Stoicism isn’t for them at all, in which case they will still have learned something valuable about themselves, the guide explains.
The day’s exercises begin and end with morning and evening meditations, and there is a daily lunchtime mindfulness exercise as well. Some reflective questions or text by relevant ancient philosophers accompany each exercise: Epictetus, Seneca, Zeno, and others are the guides.
What Can the Stoics Teach Us?
Stoicism has much to do with judgment, and for Stoic Week there is a focus on three central ideas—value, emotions, and community.
“The Stoics argued that the most important thing in life and the only thing with real value is ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence of character,’” according to the guide. As the argument goes, an excellent mental state is a prerequisite for happiness. Focusing inward to develop a virtuous character allows one to interact with the world in a better, kinder, and more positive way.
With emotions, while “lower case” stoicism may give the impression that Stoics push aside or deny emotions, Stoicism actually holds the idea that “emotions are ultimately the product of judgments we make.” Perhaps anger is the result of misjudging a situation and fearing something that will not happen, or didn’t actually happen. Stoics separate emotions within our control and involuntary reflex-like aspects of emotion, such as stammering or being startled. Here, too, there is excellence to aim for: the “good desires” or emotions are joy, discretion, and willing to do what is truly good for the well-being of others.
Third, Stoics saw themselves as part of something greater; one of the better-known principles of Stoicism is living in harmony with “Nature,” which was understood not just as the world around us but as a living cosmos, with all things being part of an organic whole to be embraced. This extends to other people as well, as humans are social creatures and by nature exist in communities. To work collaboratively with others is in fact to better your own nature.
There are also aspects of Stoicism that have little relevance today, Robertson added, like its original adherence to Zeus as the creator. The original Stoics believed Zeus created all of nature including rational human beings, and wished to follow Zeus’s will; it was a religion in that sense, but even in ancient times, there were people who adapted Stoicism’s principles without taking it as a religion.
Some of the texts and sources about Stoicism used today are by Cicero or Plutarch, Robertson said, who weren’t Stoics themselves. Plutarch was a critic of it, and both thinkers aligned with the rivaling Platonic school of thought, but they expounded on aspects of Stoicism in a way that is useful to modern-day readers.
Stoicism has really gained a community in the past decade, Robertson said, and it’s largely due to the internet.
He remembers with the advent of Facebook, discovering that half a million people had listed Marcus Aurelius as one of their favorite writers (and he is still a best seller)—it’s just that these people had previously nowhere to go to talk about “Meditations” or Stoicism with others.
Now that there are plenty of communities, classical wisdom may be more accessible than ever.