A 2,300-year-old philosophy is making a comeback, finding popularity among Silicon Valley and sports teams. Brunswick’s Edward Stephens reports
As he stood watching his supposedly fireproof factory go up in flames along with much of his life’s work, Thomas Edison reportedly turned his son and said, “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
Calculating, stiff upper lip, seeing beauty where others might see only despair – the very definition of the word “stoic.” Right? Well, maybe. When any good word passes into popular usage, there’s opportunity for nuance to get lost. If 2,300 years of history has taught us anything about the enduring philosophy of Stoicism, it is that it’s easy to get it wrong.
Stoicism dates back to the third century B.C., but it found its greatest influence during the decline of the Roman empire, around the first century A.D., when it became the guiding philosophy of emperors and statesmen.
Any attempt to succinctly define or describe Stoicism tends to be met with opposition – even Stoics themselves don’t always agree on what it means to be called an adherent – but broadly speaking, Stoics look to answer, “How do you live a virtuous, good life?” According to Ryan Holiday, a bestselling author and high-profile consultant to coaches, celebrities, and Silicon Valley leaders, a crucial component of the Stoic response is: “You don’t control the world around you, you only control your response to that world.”
This sounds simple. But the implications are immense and time-consuming – taking inventory of all that can be controlled, while remaining mindful of all that can’t, and then taking action, to change things that can be changed, and enduring those that can’t.
Far from being an obsolete and outdated guide to living, Holiday wrote in 2016 that “nothing could be more necessary for our times than a good dose of Stoic philosophy.”
Increasingly, people seem to agree with him, and the ancient philosophy is making something of a comeback. Big banks, tech companies, and even the US military are paying speakers to come in and teach Stoic precepts and practices. Olympic athletes and Super Bowl-winning coaches are publicly lauding Stoicism’s benefits. A host of popular books have been published on the subject and people around the world travel to events to learn how to apply the philosophy to their life – two of the most popular are “Stoic week” and “Stoicon.” Today, you can join a group on LinkedIn called “The Stoic Professional” and multiple Stoic communities on Facebook, the largest of which boasts more than 21,000 members.
Three Stoic thinkers and writers, all of whom lived and wrote roughly 2,000 years ago, remain the best-known and most-quoted: Epictetus, a Greek slave turned philosopher; Seneca, a Roman statesman; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor. Many are attracted to not just what these men wrote, but also to how they wrote it. Consider a quote from each:
Seneca the Younger: “Complaining away about one’s sufferings after they are over is something I think should be banned. Even if all this is true, it is history. What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then?”
Epictetus: “All philosophy lies in two words: sustain and abstain.”
Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”