Dealing with a downturn: Is Stoicism a relevant option?


Stoicism first started in Greece around 300 B.C.E The creation of Stoicism is credited to Zeno of Citium (Cypress).  Zeno is reputed to have been shipwrecked whilst sailing across the Mediterranean and rescued by the Athenians.  Whilst in Athens, Zeno came across the teachings of Socrates and resolved to learn all that he could about Philosophy and the concept of living a flourishing life (eudaimonia). At the time, there were a variety of schools of philosophy such as the “Cynics” so named because they taught in the Gymnasium (Greek: Cynosarges). The founder of the Cynics was Antisthenes who had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno studied with them and eventually started teaching his own students. He taught at the Stoa Poikile (The Painted Porch) from which Stoicism derives its name. Sadly, none of his written work survived but his ideas and concepts were passed down in oral tradition through his followers. Some of the notable Stoics that came after Zeno were Cleanthes (330 BC – 230 BC), Chrysippus (279 – 206 BC), Diogenes (Approx 150 BC), Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), Seneca (4AD – 65AD), Epictetus (50 AD – 135 AD) & Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). With many modern-day figures being influenced by Stoicism such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

Key concepts

The word stoic comes from the Greek word Stoa for porch or hallway/colonnade. When most people think about a stoic they will think of a warrior with no emotions or feelings like a statue, it suggests an individual who isn’t quite connected to the inherent highs and lows endemic to each of our lives. Somehow, not aware of his or her circumstances and as such missing out on many of the important aspects of life. However, after researching into stoicism I realise that it is so much more, and that the modern definition falls far too short of what stoicism is really about. Stoicism was developed in ancient Greece and practised by almost everyone rich and poor, emperors like Marcus Aurelius to slaves like Epictetus. Unlike other philosophies, Stoicism doesn’t have any scriptures that one can follow but instead has some key principles that people can follow in the hope of improving one’s life.

Stoicism realises that it is our thoughts that dictate our state of mind and it is in our power to change these. Stoics can accept that the world is changing and be at peace of mind when it does, which allows them to be happy regardless of external factors.

Stoics believe that one should have a set of moral principles that he or she should never break and can always rely on. This is so when we come upon a problem we can fall back on our morals and act accordingly, however this also can have its draw backs as this can often make Stoics seem stubborn and arrogant. we can use the Example that Epictetus gives us

“come Epictetus, shave off your beard.

– If I am a philosopher I will not shave it off.

But I will cut off your head.

– If that will do you any good, then cut it off” (Epictetus of Human Freedom),

This shows how strongly stoics believe that one should stick to ones morals. We can get these morals from anywhere and everywhere, even from people that are exhibiting the opposite of ideal behaviours. Everything is a learning opportunity for the stoic. And they can learn equally from good behaviours as they can from negative behaviours. Marcus Aurelius at the beginning of his book, thanks everyone he is indebted to for allowing him to get his morals. For example, he thanks “The literary critic Alexander” for teaching him not to constantly correct people.

Stoics believe we should not be attached to materialistic things such as money, objects or even your own body as even though it may bring initial pleasure it doesn’t make you a happier person overall, on top of this a stoic would believe that pleasures of the mind are greater than the pleasures of the body similarly to John Stuart Mills idea of utilitarianism.

Stoics emphasise that we have to accept things that aren’t in our control. And if we don’t we will never be truly happy. We can’t control how other people will perceive or evaluate our performance. Those things are outside our control. Thus, the Stoic should focus on what he’s doing and therefore what’s in his control rather than focusing on the elements outside his control. To express this, Epictetus gives us the Example of how musicians are not nervous practising alone, but when they are performing in front of an audience they are drenched in fear and anxiety. However, if they had spent the time practising their art and even learning what an audience expects, then they may be more confident performing.

If an artist is confident in his ability and in the effort, that he has put in to achieving his standard then he has no reason to be nervous. His focus will be on hitting the right notes and performing faultlessly so that he will evaluate himself by that standard and what others may think will be irrelevant. Thus, if we don’t care about being well received we will not be nervous as Epictetus said: “an expert needs no validation from an amateur”.

On top of this, we should not subscribe words to things such as good and bad as they affect our emotional state however if we see things as they are we do not get so attached and therefore can stay in control of our emotional state.

Stoics encourage us to make the best out of every situation, when we wake we should subject everything we see to close study so we can gain from other people’s mishaps. For example, when you are being accused you can use this to your advantage by showing your true nature and outdoing yourself in calmness and serenity, we should be happy when we are being tested. (Marcus Aurelius’ meditations)

Stoics say that we should not fear death as life is fleeting. We are just bits of bone, blood and breath. The important thing is to control our, we should not let them be slaves to selfish passion, quarrel with fate or be anxious about the present, or afraid of the future. If we can control our minds then we can be free. “Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire but by eliminating it” (Epictetus book XIII of human freedom).

Marcus Aurelius tells us that we should be mindful of the little things in life, like the cracks in bread or the texture of olives, as they have charm as well. furthermore, we should not gossip. Instead talk only of the things that you would not be ashamed of if they were found out. Be sincere and cheerful, pursue justice, temperance, fortitude and rationality, ever reaching for the good in life. If our minds are peaceful and serene we can always find solitude there.

As a means of having appreciation for what you have, the Stoics emphasise that you should imagine loosing everything that you have so that you revaluate the things in your life that you’ve taken for granted. They call this “negative visualisation”. The thing that the Stoics are trying to counter is something that the modern psychologists called “Hedonic adaptation”. Hedonic adaptation is where we quickly adapt to the gains in our lives and start taking them for granted so that our level of happiness goes back to where it was before those gains. In essence, we reset the goal post for happiness so that being happy is short lived as we move on to the next thing. The Epictetus in Enchiridion writes “Hold death and exile and all that seems dreadful before your eyes every day, but most of all death: and you will never think of anything bad or desire anything too much”. Thus in essence, Epictetus encourages us to imagine the worst so that we appreciate what we have.

Do good but do not ask for payment or gratitude but be satisfied with doing the work itself. we should not beg people or complain, accept our fate and be tolerant and even-tempered, this way you will be happy. Stoicism is a pursuit of happiness achieved through an “ease of mind that comes from living a life of virtue in accordance with reason and nature.” (the daily stoic)

What Seneca says in the moral letter is, we know what is “good” and what the virtues are (Wisdom, Courage, Justice & Temperance), because we observe human behaviour to see what types of behaviours humans truly admire. And then, compare and contrast that against behaviour that seems to make people inherently unhappy. Using our empirical observations, along with applying reason to these observations, we come to the conclusion that the virtues are the ideal behaviours of humans. (Seneca – moral letters to lucilius/letter 120)

My Generation

My generation is referred to as the post-millennials, generation Z or the iGen generation. In essence, people born around the turn of the century, the 21st century. We’ve grown up into a recession (2008) that followed an extended period of prosperity (1991-2008).

My generation, by all accounts, provides quite a departure from the previous generation, the “Millennials”. In summary, the Millennials were often described as “entitled” and “narcissistic” as well as “self-obsessed” and “easily bored”. They had liberal views, but didn’t believe in God. Most likely, of any generation, to be entrepreneurs who typically needed a lot of positive reinforcement and compliments. They embraced technology and struggled to understand people that hadn’t or couldn’t. They valued the rights of the individual over the system and had high expectations.

Those of us born after the Millennials appear to have strayed from the stereotype depicted above. Technology was a part of our lives from the beginning. It meant that information was available on everything and everyone all the time. We don’t need to go out and find out what’s happening – its been tweeted. If somebody is having a party, it’s on Facebook. What to do, what to wear, where to meet. If there’s a school information update, it’s on your Mac. If you want to watch a movie, you download it from the net. You can even watch the school play “live” from home. It has been that way for almost as long as I can remember. We have shorter attention spans because of the need to prioritise relevant and important information over trivial inconsequential data.

According to Vivek Pandit, “technology has levelled the playing field across generations and around the world”. He sees this generations as having a new level of freedom that has opened up new boundaries for those willing to seize it so that increasingly “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself” as anything that you want to be. You can pretend to be anything that you want to be in cyberspace and put your best image forwards.

According to Jean M. Twenge PhD the technology also feeds our insecurities. On Facebook everybody’s life in perfect. They look great, they go to all the best parties, their holidays are in the most expensive places with the best people and they don’t appear to have any problems.

Because we don’t go out as much, because we are less confidant we also date less. Mike, 18, writes “Nope. I ain’t got no game. It was a lack of confidence in myself which brought upon a female famine during high school”. The enduring perception is that there is a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how we perceive others. And we when we compare ourselves, we find ourselves wanting.

Added to that, there is belief that with the huge income inequalities between generations that we will become a part of the “have nots” instead of the “haves”. The barriers to entry for success seem to be increasingly unobtainable and there is a fear and an anxiety that we will never succeed. Also, growing up in the shadow of the last recession, we are apparently less narcissistic and expect less. We are willing to work hard and much less likely to question the accuracy of our grades than the last generation. We are less sure of our opinions and more frightened of saying the wrong thing.

We are more mentally fragile, more risk averse, less promiscuous and spend much more time on our phones than previous generations. Many of us are leaving school never having had a paying job, had a date, driven a car or got drunk, which is a departure from previous generations.  There is in iGen a pervasive fear of not being good enough, and being inadequate. These things combined means that we mature slower and grown up into adulthood later.

Our parents, exposed to 24 hr news believe wrongly that the risks out there of harm are higher than they’ve ever been. They tend to be over-protective, as a consequence, and we share some of that fear. They drive us to school, they drive us to activities and home is increasingly regarded, on a subliminal level, as the only safe harbour.

If you were to show, super-imposed, the graphs for the growth in depressive symptoms and the graph for the growth in smartphone sales you would see a marked correlation because “spending more on social media and less time in-person social interaction is strongly correlated with depression”.

According to the research, “iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. The trend for our generation is according to the research remarkably consistent: loneliness, depressive symptoms, major depressive episodes, anxiety, self-injury, and suicide are all on the rise, mostly since 2011 – iGen is crying out for help and we (as a society) need to listen”.

The nature of how we live our lives, interreact and communicate is going through a seismic change and the scientists are telling us that we’re not coping with the change or the pace very well at all.

The difference between stoics and us

One of the main differences between a Stoic and the igen generations is that Stoics thought that their opinion was more important than anyone else’s. Stoics believed that their behaviour should be contrasted against their values and beliefs in order to ascertain the relative rightness or wrongness of their actions when considering their own lives.  “Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves; what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?” Seneca. Whereas, the people of my generation evaluate their relative worth in terms of how many “thumbs up” we get on Facebook. Or how many people endorse the way I look or the places I’ve been. So when we post a picture of ourselves, we’ve used an app or photoshop to edit out the blemishes or the flaws. So that even if many of our contemporaries approve of us we know deep down that that isn’t even the real us. Thus, even relative social success is tainted by fakery and illusion. And, when we put our faith in the opinion of the hundreds of friends we have on social media we subject ourselves to all the things that colour their judgement. Do they feel better than us? Do they feel worse? Are they resentful? And we evaluate ourselves by the feedback that they provide.

The stoics considered their philosophy to be a way of life and consequentially were constantly considering their every action hoping to perpetuate their own human flourishment. The mark of success would be self-evaluated and measured against the ability to maintain our integrity regardless of what life through at us. Which is in contrast to recent generations who just live their lives, often never thoroughly investigating or even considering such things. Our generation wouldn’t generally consider whether or not social media was a bad thing. It just is a way of life, our generation however would be looked down upon by the Stoics and research and surveys has given us the reasons why. People are not as happy as they once were. And this ability to manipulate our presence on the world wide web appears to be at the heart of it.

Modern day stoics

According to Irvine, Stoic influences can be found in in the nineteenth Century in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer; his essays on “Wisdom of Life” have distinctly Stoic overtones. In America Henry David Thoreau in Walden has some distinct Stoic concepts. In his Journals, he writes “Zeno the Stoic stood in precisely the same relation to the world that I do now!”.

Stephen Covey says “by centring our lives on correct principles, we created a solid foundation”. “Principles don’t react to anything, they don’t get mad or treat us differently. They don’t depend on the behaviour of other, the environment or the current fad for their validity”. When he states that people should live their lives from a “Principle Centre” he echos the Stoic values that have come to us through the centuries.

There are a multitude of people who have either credited Stoicism or displayed Stoic virtues under fire. Stoicism permeates much of our heritage and aspects of it can be seen in contemporary culture. An example of this might be the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr as early as 1934:

“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference”.

This quote encapsulates the core a Stoic principle and has the added accolade of being at the heart of Alcoholic Anonymous’s 12 step program. Thus, informing generations of people since its creation in 1935.

Further, there is evidence that Mohandas Gandhi was influenced by Stoic philosophy.  According to Richard Sorabji in “Gandhi & the Stoics” Gandhi came in contact with Stoicism whilst in Yeravada jail where he was recorded in 1922 to 1924 as having been exposed to the Stoics Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius by his secretary Mahadev Desai who stated that “his ideals were sometimes remarkably similar to theirs”. Both Stoics and Gandhi sought to practice emotional detachment. And their concerns for humanity, took them towards exploring personal human duties rather than toward human rights.

When considering Mohandas Gandhi’s life, it is striking to see how his values overlapped with Stoicism. He believed in living humbly and often wore the clothes of a peasant in an attempt to avoid developing any pretences. He would fast regularly and even went on hunger strike to try to stop the various faction in India from fighting in the time of Indian  partition. According to his Wikipedia entry, he committed himself to truthfulness, temperance, chastity and vegetarianism which echo some of the fundamental Stoic values. He also felt that “the most important battle to fight was overcoming his own demons, fears and insecurities”.

Soradji maintains that Gandhi sought to practice most of the Stoic pursuits, and he did so in a wealth of instances with almost daily commentary, discussion, explanation, and answers to criticism, all within living memory and preserved in writing for posterity. He showed how Stoic ideals might fare if put into practice. Soradji does not say that Gandhi always lived up to these ideals, but, given their difficulty, the extent to which he did was remarkable. (page 3).

In terms of applying Stoic principles to the most arduous of situations, in the modern era, there are few examples as compelling as the case of Vice-Admiral James Stockdale.

He came to Stoicism at Stanford University quite by accident while studying International Relations. He was exposed to philosophers from Socrates to Descartes through to Dostoyevsky and Camus but resonated the most with Epectitus and Enchiridion.(page 4)

After Stanford, James Stockdale was posted as a Wing-Commander in the US Navy and sent to Vietnam flying supersonic jets. He was the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men. On his second tour of duty, he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner with a badly broken leg. “After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed…And so help me, I whispered to myself; ‘Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”.

As a prisoner, he was tortured 15 times and kept in solitary confinement for four years. He was kept in the infamous Hoa Lo prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. Many of his fellow prisoners tormented themselves with false hope of an early release but Stockdale’s Stoic attitude and principles, gleamed from  Enchiridion helped him confront his situation without succumbing to despair or depression.

After a stint in chains and solitary confinement, David Hatcher a fellow prisoner that shared his values passed him a note at great personal risk, in an attempt to lift his spirits, with nothing but these four lines:

It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.

Which is the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus.

In his book, courage under fire, he says that he looked over the brink and saw the bottom of the pit and realised the truth of that linchpin of Stoic thought: that the thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame!”

Though there is much more to say on James Stockdale I think that it is fair to summarise by saying that Stoicism saved his life under the most difficult of circumstances and enduring suffering. And that Stoicism when tested, in the modern era, to breaking point – won the day.

Sooooooo (Why is Stoicism Good for my Generation)

With less people believing in God than ever most people in western society have to find their morals from elsewhere. Their parents, their peers and society. However these do not always set the best examples. Athletes turn out to be cheats, politician turn out to be corrupt and business leaders turn out to be un-ethical. Most people, it seems, tend to be situational ethicists. Their view of right and wrong is governed by their self-interest. If it is advantageous to me then it is the right thing to do. Whereas a Stoic would do the right thing, regardless of the consequences to himself. If Stoicism was adopted by a larger proportion of our society people would, in my view, lead much more fulfilled and happy lives.

Stoic ideals such as trying to lead a non-materialistic frugal lifestyle may help my generation to stop being so caught up the cult of wealth and in the lure of consumerism. Being satisfied with what we have and enjoying things in the moment as opposed to craving more and more novelty is more likely to promote happiness as we step off the treadmill of buying more of the things that we do not need and very often, don’t even have the time to use.

Getting caught up in the multi-media comparison game whilst sitting alone in our rooms feeling envious and aspiring to a vacuous lifestyle of style over content where we value people on how thin they are and how pretty and how wealthy whilst completely ignoring the content of their character and their values. Stoic would teach us that their values and the content of their character is the only worthwhile thing to value.

If we could realise this, and see through the illusions presented on multi-media we might find happiness elsewhere. We might find contentment is valuing what we have and appreciating things such as nature. And studies have show that people living in the present spending less time on their devices are happier overall. (Source?)

Lastly, there is a sense that we are lonelier home alone on our devices. We have the illusion of being more connected but in fact, as the evidence provided shows, we are less connected, more depressed and substantially more miserable. With Stoic philosophy in mind we can see that we need to reconnect with people on a individual and on a group basis so that we develop meaningful interactions and connections between people. As Marcus Aurelius says “being disconnected from humanity is like cutting off one of your own limbs” (meditations).

However (Arguments against)

Stoicism in many ways almost disappeared over the last two thousand years. If it was such a wonderful set of principles then why did it get superseded?

William Irvine argued that increasing corruption and depravity of Roman Society made Stoicism – which, as we have seen, calls for considerable self control – unattractive to many Romans. Also, the lack of charismatic teachers, after the deaths of Musonius and Epictetus who embodied the doctrine contributed to its demise.

From a political point of view Stoics are not easy to control. In fact philosopher were expelled from Greece and the Roman Empire a number of times. They asked Socrates to take hemlock, they asked Seneca to kill himself and they regularly expelled Philosophers like Cicero. Because they measure themselves by their own value system and principles, Stoics are, by nature, contrarians. They are more likely to galvanise opinion against a tyrant and they are less likely to do as they are told through fear and intimidation.

Stoic Principle are often a little vague and require some study to understand them fully. Without clear writings, lineage and rules perhaps Stoicism appears too complex and austere on cursory inspection.

“Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire but by eliminating it”. In our generation, people may say that now that most people in modern western society have everything they need and want there is no need for eliminating desire, we can have all that we want. But that, in my view, misses the point. Unabated greed and indulging your every desire is exactly what the Stoic would say makes you unhappy for trying to fill every need will lead you away from eudaimonia – the good life.

Lastly, Irvine claims that the rise of Christianity contributed to the demise of the Stoic. Christianity made claims similar to those made by Stoics. The Stoics claimed, for example, that God gave humans a divine element: Reason. Whereas the Christians claimed that God did indeed give humanity a divine element: A soul. Both competing factions encouraged people to overcome base desires to pursue virtue. But Christianity had an ace with the promise of an afterlife. So that if you behaved in a virtuous way whilst on earth, then in the Kingdom of God your soul would be infinitely satisfied for eternity. This also meant that Christians would be more likely to tolerate injustice and oppression because their reward would come after. One area where Christianity and Stoicism differ is in the attitude to suicide. Christians consider suicide to be a sin. They believe that you should endure regardless of the situation until the Lord deems it appropriate to take your soul. Whereas Stoics always see suicide and death as a favourable option when faced with a situation that would compromise their values. Lastly, Christianity have both the carrot and the stick providing consequences for not following the stated principles which would result in eternal damnation to hell – And fear is a powerful motivator. Thus, Emperor Constantine gradually replaced both the Roman gods and Stoicism in the Roman Empire with Christianity and the promise of eternal life.


In conclusion, overall, I think that Stoicism is an extremely practical philosophy with huge benefits to all of its practitioners. I believe that Stoicism transcends time due to its ubiquitous principles that help people to lead more fulfilled lives. These principles work because instead of trying to counteract small petty human problems it tackles our major issues by suggesting concepts that would serve as universal human truths.

Christianity and the rules in the bible have managed to contain generations of people throughout the centuries. However, the tide is turning with fewer and fewer people believing in the dogma. But in the void created by this lose of faith people need, now more than ever, a new way to be, and a new belief system. Stoicism could well fill this void. Many of the concept that I’ve been exposed to have, in many ways, made me re-evaluated my beliefs and have increasingly encouraged me to identify and define what a good life might be for me. Thus, as a consequence of what I’ve read, being a Stoic appears to be, the only viable way for a human being to be.

Jamie Abbot-Davies











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