What Happens When You Go Full Stoic

Bust of Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius against a background of a crowd of people going up stairs.
Bust of Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius against a background of a crowd of people going up stairs.
Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Image sources: Araldo de Luca/Yiu Yu Hoi/Getty Images

I’ve never felt less stoic.

I’m essentially a walking raw nerve. I’ve just gotten divorced, ejecting from a 15-year marriage straight into a global pandemic, a combination of facts that’s so theatrical and bizarre, it makes me laugh. The news is terrifying and relentless and there is no plot.

“This is a lot,” I sagely tell my children. “This is a lot, and so no wonder if you feel strange.” Then I go to bed and lie there sleeplessly and ponder my main philosophical query these days: What the actual fuck?

I need something like religion at this point. Because this really is a lot. It’s too much. Existential situations require reaching beyond your go-to comforts. Meditation, yoga, and Netflix binges are no longer going to cut it. I need something more transformative.

Here at Forge, where I’m an editor, many of our most popular stories are about an ancient but resurgent philosophy: Stoicism.

It’s everywhere. Just ask the 326k+ members of the r/Stoicism Reddit community, or the 81k+ members of the Stoicism Facebook group. Joe Rogan’s into it. Athletes, like the New England Patriots! Billionaires, like Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban! Probably those guys dopamine-fasting in Silicon Valley!

But I’ve never really gravitated toward this most macho of philosophies. What could it possibly have to teach me, a Brooklyn mom who loves tea and novels and feelings?

It was in late May, as I was reading this story by one of the most vocal proponents of Modern Stoicism (and one of Forge’s most popular writers), Ryan Holiday, that I asked myself the question that anyone who’s ever joined a cult asks, right before heading over to the “get-to-know-us” mixer: “Why not?”

After all, Zadie Smith knocked out of a book of essays inspired by reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations during quarantine — if it’s working for her, why not for me? Why not look toward something that feels alien in a time when everything feels so weird? So in lieu of attending a drive-in megachurch service, I began exploring Stoicism.

At first, I dabbled in the pop-Stoicism so popular today. And then I went deeper, examining its roots in ancient philosophy, and discovered Stoicism is so much more than mere stoicism. That it can help you navigate what is likely the weirdest time any of us will live through. Even if — maybe especially if — you approach it with some skepticism at first, and look at where it came from. For me, understanding its origins ended up unlocking a simple, transformative idea.

And then I became a believer.

The current state of Stoicism

In recent years, the rather unsexy ancient philosophy of Stoicism has been reborn into a shiny internet phenomenon. From dozens of new (and new editions of really old) books to the thousands of would-be Senecas who participate in Donald Robertson’s Stoic Week and Stoicon every year, to the Stoicism Facebook group (where a beautiful community of curmudgeons meme-ify quotes), the ancient philosophy is having an extended modern moment.

As Matthew Sharpe writes in The Conversation, “few people could have expected today’s rise of a global movement of self-describing Stoic online communities numbering over 100,000 participants.” By way of explanation, he points to the extreme usefulness of “Epictetus’ simple call to people to always distinguish between what is, and is not in our control. There is, at some basic level, no rational point in being unhappy about the things we can’t change.”

Back in March, a hundred years ago, when we were all fresh-faced new quarantiners jauntily jigsaw-puzzling the nights away, Ryan Holiday wrote about Stoicism in pandemic times for Forge: “The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t […] What better opportunity to practice this ‘chief task in life’ than during the global pandemic we’re currently facing?”

Holiday runs a very useful website called the Daily Stoic that offers, among other things, Stoicism merch. The objects struck me as totally silly, but I immediately paid $26 for the medallion imprinted with what Holiday considers the four virtues of Stoicism: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom.

Soon I was carrying it around in my pocket, hefting it my hand whenever I had a stressful conversation with my ex, or read another Covid daily death count. It’s sitting beside my laptop as I type this.

The medallion is with me when I begin my “Stoic Week.” Stoic Week is a “follow along at home” program developed by Donald Robertson, a key figure in the Modern Stoicism community. Robertson is the author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor and his Stoic Week is an online event that occurs each fall (the next one is October 19–25), and promises “an opportunity to join thousands of other participants around the world as they learn to apply Stoic concepts and techniques in their daily lives.”

Robertson tells me about his version of Stoic life: “I gave away most of my belongings years ago and now everything I own fits in a couple of boxes in storage and a small suitcase that I carry with me. I don’t own a home or a car. I have enough clothes for a week — one jacket and one pair of shoes... I eat cheap and simple food — salad and porridge mostly. I drink black coffee and water with a couple of drops of vinegar. I walk and jump rope for exercise. I take cold showers every morning. I do intermittent fasting — I usually fast about 2 days a week, although I often only eat every second day. I spend most of my time studying Stoicism. I don’t drink or take drugs. I practice Stoic contemplative exercises each day. I contemplate my own mortality each day, which is something I think more people now do due to the pandemic.”

I decide to do all of that, except I get to keep my belongings and also eat English muffins with jelly.

My own personal Stoic Week

I dive into the Stoic Week curriculum, which is mostly about reading and meditating upon a Stoic virtue at night, and again in the morning. Midday you take a moment to reflect on ways you could specifically address this virtue/value in your own life. This will complete a “learning cycle.” You keep a record of your thoughts and experiences. As a lifelong journaler, the idea that you could uncover some truths by tracking yourself feels extremely right to me.

One evening my passage is from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. “Some day will you be satisfied and want for nothing?” Marcus writes, addressing himself. He reminds his reader that “all you have comes from the gods, and that all that is pleasing to them is well for you.”

The follow-up the next morning is that old Stoic chestnut: There is nothing “in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage.” I already know that, from my medallion! Marcus reminds us that power, wealth, and pleasure will never give us the lasting satisfaction of virtuous living.

I’m not an emperor, and I’ve never been obsessed with wealth or power. But then I click from my Stoic Week PDF onto another tab on my computer containing a spreadsheet of publicity efforts for my next book. I really hope the book does well, is appreciated with attention and good reviews, maybe even makes some money (order today!)… and a sick anxiety starts to whirl in my stomach when I realize what I’ve just done.

Shit, Stoicism is right! I’ve fallen right into the trap of worrying about wealth and power, literally one minute after meditating upon their uselessness.

As Epictetus writes, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” I’ve done my work in writing the book, and I don’t actually control how many people buy the thing, read it, like it, review it, or say nice things about it.

I close the spreadsheet. Stoicism wins.

A couple days into my Stoic Week, I reluctantly admit that this flattened-out, super practical Modern Stoicism is helpful: Do your best, don’t spin out about what you can’t control, remember what really matters.

But there has to be more than this.

Were the ancient rock stars of Stoicism — Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cato, etc. — really so into… chillness? Not exactly, says the writer Lindsay Lerman, who has a PhD in philosophy.

She tells me that while the modern Stoics “are taking Stoicism to mean something like: having a large amount of self-control, not letting ourselves feel intense emotions, understanding that we have control over one thing and one thing only (ourselves and how we feel), Stoicism is about so much more than just this.”

Good, because the idea of a philosophy that’s focused on controlling yourself and not letting intense emotions take the reins feels so… limp. Even if this overpriced medallion actually does provide me with some measure of strength when I need it.

It’s time to go deeper.

Stoicism was built for times like these

As I delve into the origins of Stoicism, it becomes clear that a major reason this school of philosophy is resonating right now is because it sprung from a time when the world was in turmoil.

Stoicism is, at its core, a philosophy for troubled times, notes Vanderbilt University lecturer Chiara Sulprizio in this Medium post. Here’s the basic history:

Stoicism started around 304 B.C. — a year defined by “political and social upheaval” and widespread corruption, Sulprizio explains — when a shipwrecked merchant named Zeno made his way to Athens and had an Eat, Pray, Love kind of epiphany with some philosophers he met there. He started hosting gatherings, and eventually amassing some disciples, on the Stoa Poikile, literally meaning “painted porch.” (Stoa… stoics! They were essentially dudes shooting the shit on a porch.) After Zeno, the major figures of ancient Stoicism were:

Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher whose Meditations is a key text of Stoicism (and, annoyingly, one of my ex’s favorite books), who lived through the death of his children, the stresses of war, and—wait for it! — a pandemic.

Seneca, a philosopher who believed it was his duty to be involved with politics, and wrote tons of letters and plays.

Epictetus, a former slave who wrote a lot about the lack of control we have over our lives. He said, “Life is a play and we’re not the playwrights, we’re just the actors — you don’t choose your role but you play your part.”

Turns out my daily email-friendly version of Stoicism ignores a lot of what ancient Stoicism was all about. “There are some big differences between ancient Stoicism, which had heavy-duty theoretical underpinnings, and modern revivals, which focus on practical applications divorced from the theoretical underpinnings,” says Susan Sauvé Meyer, professor of philosophy and undergraduate chair at the University of Pennsylvania. (I don’t tell her about my Stoicism medallion.)

Meyer points out that Modern Stoicism elides one of the most distinctive features of what originally was Stoicism, namely: “The Stoics think that virtue is the only good. So the only bad thing that can happen to you is if you become or are a bad person. The reason why they say we should not be upset at something like a pandemic or about being cooped up at home and losing our jobs is that these things are not, in fact, bad.”

So it’s not really just about managing your responses and internalizing that idea of controlling only what you can control. The deeper idea — that nothing in and of itself is really good or bad or belongs to us at all — is hard to swallow.

But it’s a key element of Stoicism. Epictetus writes in The Enchiridion that we shouldn’t assign feelings like desire or aversion to things that are out of our control. “For the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed,” he tells me, a newly single woman. Thanks, I hate it. (Also he writes “Avoid swearing.” Fork off, Epictetus!)

Here is where things get a little intense: “With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things,” Epictetus writes. “If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.”

The cup I get. But the child…

“It takes time, patience, and some philosophical sophistication to understand Stoicism,” Beloit College philosophy professor Matthew Tedesco tells me. Tedesco reiterates what I’m starting to understand: “The punchline, for this pop-culture sensibility, is something like: It’s a crazy world with all kinds of stuff I can’t control, but I control me. This view fails to recognize the radical ways in which I am subject to the world. The kind of control we have under those conditions is a lot less, I think, than [most of us] realize.”

So basically, say you’ve tried to take care of your children as best as you can, but they die. You aren’t supposed to dwell on whether you achieved your goal, which was to keep your children alive, because it was always up to the divine plan of the universe, and not really to you at all. While our actions are in our control, whether we achieve the objective of our actions is not up to us, but up to the divine reason that governs the universe. But look, you can rest assured that you played your part. You were virtuous and did your best.

I also found out that the best part of Stoicism is something Modern Stoics ignore. Part of the reason the ancient Stoics believed we should relinquish our idea of control was that they were “substance monists.” Steven Gambardella broke this down recently for Forge, explaining that substance monists believe “that the universe is made of one substance that manifests in a plurality of ways, such as fire, water, earth, and flesh.” He adds, “I don’t believe that a divine logic animates the universe as the Stoics did. That’s one reason I’m not a Stoic and, chances are, neither are you.”

But substance monism sounds amazing to me. It’s like The Force made physical. It’s in my brain. It’s in every word I’m typing right now. It’s in my medallion. It’s one thing that connects every one of us, no matter how much we seem disconnected.

Can this be my religion?

How Stoicism can address public problems…

As I’m writing this, the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. has surpassed 180,000. How, I wonder, when stuff like this is happening, can you adopt a Stoic attitude, can you trust in the divine logic, without some degree of callousness? Black Lives Matter protests erupt in cities across America in response to police brutality, and the protests are greeted with more police brutality.

I get that I should be more chill about what I can’t control in my personal life. But on a larger scale? Am I really supposed to not care, because according to Stoicism this was all fated?

Well, no. Stoicism has actually always been inextricably tied to politics and engagement with the world. Robertson tells me, “Historically, ancient Stoics were often political and military leaders who were extremely committed to justice and risked their lives opposing political tyrants. (Look up the Stoic Opposition, for example.) Stoicism emphasizes virtue, which includes social virtues such as justice, fairness, and kindness.”

After all, Marcus Aurelius, one of the key figures of Stoicism, was himself a fairly high-profile politician — an emperor, no less! And one of the major themes of his Meditations is caring about mankind, including his enemy, even in times of war (or, hello, pandemic).

As Robertson puts it, “The central teaching of Stoicism, in plain English, is that we should care about the world, but not in such a way that we become upset about it in an excessive, irrational, or unhealthy way. For example, justice is one of the central virtues of Stoicism. Justice requires caring about society and other people, though. Not caring at all about other people would be a vice in Stoicism.”

It isn’t merely a useful psychological trick to treat anxiety — it’s also, like any system of ethics, a blueprint for a beautiful world. If every person focused on behaving in the most virtuous, courageous, temperate, and just way, we’d be in a pretty good place. Stoicism medallions for all!

… and very personal ones

The greatest test of my newfound Stoicism comes when I am overcome with dread about a phone call I have to make. I have to talk to my ex-husband about some health care reimbursements for the kids, and I’m worried he’ll pick a fight, or make me feel stupid or like I’ve done something wrong.

Because I am totally a Stoic, I heft my medallion in my hand and take a deep breath. I don’t, after all, have any control over how he will react. I’m not, actually, helping anything by expecting a bad response.

First of all, I need some temperance: Instead of spinning out into anxiety, I’ll be better served by a calm and measured approach, in which I deal with only the task at hand — the phone call — and not an entire history of exchanges that I wish had gone differently.

Next, I’m going to need some wisdom. I’m a grown-ass lady, and I know that we can figure out this bureaucratic bother. What’s more, when I take a step back, I know that my ex and I actually want the same result from this phone call.

And another thing I’m going to need is some courage. What’s the worst that’s going to happen — it turns out I’ve made a mistake and I feel stupid about it? We exchange some icy words? That’s actually all survivable. The two of us are going to need to communicate about a lot of boring and sometimes unpleasant things in our next several decades of co-parenting, and we are both capable of doing it in service of our children.

You know what? It works. The phone call is so uneventful as to render all my stress faintly ridiculous. I don’t get emotional, and neither does he. (Of course he doesn’t — he read Marcus Aurelius like five years ago!) We figure out the thing. It’s all totally fine.

I write my findings afterward in my Stoic daily log: My anticipatory stress was the worst part.

Ryan Holiday tells me that he thinks the most important daily practice for the Stoic life is tracking small revelations like that. When I email him for guidance on applying Stoicism to my daily life, he quotes Epictetus: “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”

So I keep tracking those moments of emotional distress and picking apart how much control I have or don’t have — and that truly is, and remains, helpful.

Having spent some time living with these ancient texts and modern reimaginings, I have a new appreciation for how helpful this way of thinking is. It’s possible I’ll even admit to my ex that it’s not as boring as I thought it was, but I’m not sure I’m that advanced yet. I realize that I feel a kinship with the online Stoic community (Shout-out Daily Stoic newsletter!).

In the end, we’re all seekers, looking for guidelines, whether we’re into Stoicism or Zen, self-help or astrology. We may find our answers in different places, but how beautiful, really, to be here alive together, to be asking the same questions.

At its heart, philosophy is about finding a good way to live. Stoicism is saying that when you’ve determined what is real, you will have a happy life. And what is real is what is good, and what is good is only what is always good — so not wealth, health, beauty, pleasure, all the things that are sometimes good and sometimes literally the worst. Instead: prudence, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

It’s a kind of mantra: What is real is what is always good.

Today’s Stoicism is a school of thought that welcomes skeptics. There’s no dogma to adopt, no single text or leader you’re required to buy into. Unless you’re like me, the only living substance monist, there’s nothing particularly spiritual or woo-woo about it. It’s incredibly practical, almost relentlessly useful. Yes, the leading figures in Modern Stoicism seem to be mostly white men. But when you consider the philosophy on its own terms, separate from the people driving its modern resurrection, there is something about it so accessible that it could work for most anyone.

Stoicism seemed depressing to me at first, because I didn’t understand that it was indeed about getting to a place of happiness. Its reputation for being anti-emotion signaled to me that it elided happiness completely. But Stoicism — the modern version and its way cooler (IMHO) antecedent — is about trying to find a more deep and sustainable kind of happiness, something more akin, actually, to a state of grace.

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