We may not be able to control what happens in life, but we do have control over our reaction to it. Here, author and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist Donald Robertson shares six examples of Stoicism to help us cope with these uncertain times.
Marcus Aurelius once said: “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” An empowering sentiment for these uncertain times, it also happens to be the definition of Stoic philosophy, something Donald Robertson writes about in his fascinating and instructive book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Here, he recommends further reading to help us build emotional resilience and better cope with adversity.
Stoicism is, well, ancient. It’s a school of Greek philosophy that was founded in 301 BC by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium. Stoic philosophy flourished, first in Athens and later Rome, from Zeno’s time until the death of the last famous Stoic of antiquity, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 180 AD. That’s nearly five centuries. However, it’s popular again today. In fact, it’s been growing in popularity since around the 1960s and then went through a major resurgence over the past decade or so. My recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, explains how Stoic philosophy inspired modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and how it can help us improve our lives today, drawing on examples from the life of Marcus Aurelius.
Although the ancient Stoics wrote many books – probably well over a thousand – only a handful of their writings survive today. The best-known are the letters and essays of Seneca, the Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus, and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. However, there are now also many excellent modern books on Stoicism. Here are some of my favourites from six very different authors: a marketing strategist who worked for American Apparel, a fighter pilot who ran in the US as a vice presidential candidate, an acclaimed American novelist, a prison counselor, a famous British illusionist, and a former Revlon model and MTV host. Each one has a unique perspective on applying Stoicism today. —Donald Robertson
This is one of the bestselling modern books on Stoicism, or rather it’s a book influenced by Stoicism, about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage. It’s actually the first part of a trilogy, which includes Ego Is the Enemy and Stillness Is the Key. Ryan Holiday, a US born marketer and entrepreneur, also co-authored, with Stephen Hanselman, a book consisting of selections from ancient Stoic authors with his commentary, called The Daily Stoic. Indeed, the title of The Obstacle Is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” It gives many examples of famous figures who overcame setbacks such as Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommel, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama. This is the book that I’m most often told introduced people to Stoicism – it’s a good starting point, especially combined with The Daily Stoic.
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Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by Jim Stockdale
James (Jim) Stockdale was flying a fighter plane over North Vietnam when he was shot down. He was captured, beaten, and imprisoned in the notorious Hanoi Hilton torture camp for the rest of the Vietnam War. However, Stockdale had read the ancient Stoics. He later said that the thought flashed through his mind as he ejected from his cockpit that he was about to leave the modern world and enter the world of Epictetus. He was tortured over and over again, and spent years in solitary confinement. After the war ended and he was finally released, Stockdale, who reached the rank of vice admiral, would lecture on the value of Stoic philosophy as a way of coping with extreme stress. He described Stoicism as “the proper philosophy for the military arts as I practiced them.” In 1992, he had a somewhat ill-fated run for vice president on the same independent ticket as Ross Perot. However, his talks have inspired many people because of the gritty way he depicts Stoicism as a life-saving philosophy in a dire situation, as a means of coping resiliently even with brutal torture.
A Man in Full: A Novel by Tom Wolfe
This is the only work of fiction on my list. Tom Wolfe is well-known as the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, etc., but he also wrote a novel about Stoicism. Stoicism doesn’t appear properly until roughly halfway through but from that point onward it’s one of the main themes of the story. One of the characters, called Conrad Hensley, reads a book about Stoicism in prison and thereby discovers the teachings of Epictetus. Wolfe has said that he got the idea of incorporating references to Stoicism when he was doing research for The Right Stuff and read about James Stockdale. When asked if he considers himself a Stoic, the character Conrad replies “I’m just reading about it but I wish that there was someone around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus. Today people think of Stoics – like, you know, like they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering. But that’s not it at all. What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them.”
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The Epictetus Club: Lessons from "The Walls" by Jeff Traylor
Traylor is a counselor who has worked at the Ohio Penitentiary and other correctional facilities. This is a fictional account of Stoicism being taught in prison, based on his experience. It’s about a group of inmates who meet weekly to study the teachings of Epictetus, a figure they can identify with because he was a former slave. The sessions are led by an inmate, and former professional boxer, called Zeno. Readers get to imagine sitting in on their discussions about “thinking skills” inspired by Stoic philosophy, and how these help them cope with the moral and psychological challenges they face.
Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine by Derren Brown
Brown is a household name in the United Kingdom, where he’s known from television as a talented and highly creative modern illusionist/mentalist. He’s also known for debunking paranormal claims, his interest in the power of suggestion leading him to view the supernatural with skepticism. In this book he sets out to provide a surprisingly nuanced discussion of his personal reflections on self-improvement. Brown is critical of New Age approaches to self-help such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Instead, like many scientific skeptics, he’s drawn to the more rational and philosophical worldview of the Stoics. Happy covers a wide range of interrelated subjects but it concludes with an interesting and balanced discussion of Stoicism. Although it’s not as focused on Stoicism as some of the other titles on my list, it’s a fascinating read and what it does say about the philosophy is very thoughtful and interesting.
Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain without Turning into One by Karen Duffy
Backbone is a very engaging and humorous book about not allowing chronic pain or illness to get you down. Duffy is a former MTV presenter, Revlon model, and actress. (She’s in Dumb and Dumber.) However, in her early thirties, she developed an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. Now she writes and speaks about coping with chronic pain and illness. Backbone contains a chapter dedicated to the philosophy of Stoicism, which Duffy stumbled across and found very consistent with her own outlook. Her basic attitude that “happiness is a byproduct of being useful,” that it comes from what we give rather than what we get, is pure Stoicism. She carries a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in her purse and says “The Stoics inspired me to meet the everyday challenges of my life and showed me how to deal with inevitable losses, disappointments, and grief… I find Stoicism a great resource that fills me with resilience and vigor.” I always recommend this book to friends who are struggling to cope with chronic pain or illness because it’s so engaging and inspirational that I’m confident they’ll benefit from reading it.
This article was originally published on March 19, 2020.