Since Freud, we have become used to the dictum that the mind is a frightening place, a deep foreign sea of surfacing traumatic memories – a wellspring of hidden alien desires; however, this conception is not the only way to picture the psyche, others have thought of the mind as a source of stability, comfort, rationality, and even tranquillity.
‘When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly’, these words might seem counterintuitive to our desire to meet the day with a positive mental attitude, it might seem as if we have woken up on the wrong side of the bed and are setting ourselves up for failure. Although Roman Emperor turned philosopher, Marcus Aurelius continues in his journal, later titled The Meditations:
‘They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil and have recognised that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own… And so, none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.’
Here Marcus Aurelius is not articulating a pessimistic outlook for the coming day; he is reminding himself that he will, inevitably, meet people who rub him up the wrong way or act out of anger. His response to that negativity is not to rise to it or 'obstruct' it. But he is to be psychologically resilient in the face of that routine challenge and achieve a harmonious relationship with the offender. Marcus is using a Stoic thought exercise of premeditation; he is internally pre-empting and resolving the potential sources of stress to maintain the psychological fortitude to act, unlike the hypothetical 'wrongdoer'.
Stoicism, not to be confused with the lower-case stoic, is an ancient Greek philosophy that promoted the art of living in accordance with what they considered to be Nature. The central node of the discipline is, as philosopher Pierre Hadot wrote in his book The Inner Citadel, that of an 'inner discourse', because the followers of the Stoicism stressed the utmost role of cognition and judgements, and their optional potential for either emotional pain or peace – a theme later taken up by Shakespeare in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”.
In their attempt to live harmoniously with the rationality of Nature and to avoid internal disturbances and destructive action, the Stoics developed an early hybrid form of philosophy/psychology. More recently, this ancient paradigm for living has heavily influenced the development of modern cognitive psychotherapy and has lately become increasingly more popular with people inspired by its message and its framework for a considered life.
- See also: 'Wild horses inside: Anxiety and Freedom from a psychoanalytic perspective'
- See also: 'You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy'
The unshakeable philosopher’s path towards the tranquil mind
Marcus Aurelius is often thought of as the coming of the ‘philosopher-king’ envisioned by Plato in his political dialogue, Republic. Although, The Meditations was not a Stoic philosophical treatise written for wider publication but was a form of personal guidance and self-admonition. He was, in essence, repeating affirmations, but not the sort of affirmations that are found in the pages of bestselling self-help books, written by self-appointed positive vibe gurus.
In actuality, the affirmations that permeate the pages of the journal speak as much about the depressive transience of life as much as they do about positive moral action. In Stoic philosophy, what is termed as ‘memento mori’ – remember you are mortal, is used to remind the philosopher to treat each day as a gift, to not waste time on the trivial, to remain present, and to live life with some sort of purpose.
As Marcus writes: ‘Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already or is impossible to see. The span we live is small— small as the corner of the earth in which we live it.’
Rather than implying a nihilistic inconsequential meaningless to life, the characterisation of life as small implies for the Stoics a sense of urgency to live a life of meaning, ‘if you don’t… free yourself it will be gone and will never return.’
The ancient Greeks described individuals who lived well and flourished throughout their lives as enjoying eudaimonia, or good (eu) spirit (daimōn). The concept is often translated as happiness or welfare, although a more accurate proposed translation has been human flourishing or the condition of living well in accordance with Nature’s web of cause and effect.
Unlike the earlier philosophy of Aristotle, the Stoics disregarded external fortune as endangering the path towards achieving eudaimonia, believing that everyone was capable of flourishing as long as their actions were guided by reason (logos). The natural order of reason for the Stoics was the paradigm to which they aspired to live in accordance with, but in order to live in harmony with the active reason pervading and animating the Universe, the philosopher had to first psychologically master himself.
If Marcus Aurelius can be termed the 'philosopher-king', then his intellectual inspiration, Epictetus, should be termed the 'philosopher-slave'. Epictetus, born a slave and later a freeman, illustrated that Stoicism wasn’t elitist, for everyone is thought to have the human capacity for reason. Epictetus’ contribution to Stoicism was more far-reaching than Marcus Aurelius’, and one of his famous pieces of guidance that he offered in the Enchiridion is commonly known as the ‘Stoic fork’, the fork representing the division between things that are ‘up to us’ and in our control, and those that are not.
‘Some things are up to us, and others are not', wrote Epictetus. He argued that we should only concern ourselves with the things that are in our control – towards everything else, we should be indifferent. He lists the things that are in our control as our opinions, intentions, desires, and actions. In contrast, the things not in our control are our property, status, what people think of us, others behaviour, and anything external.
When we invest in something external to us, and it doesn’t act or end in the way that we desire, we, of course, feel frustrated or anxious or even depressed. Although much like in Marcus’ morning premeditation, the actions of others that we meet during our day are not in our control to determine. Any attempt to influence their behaviour is only setting ourselves up for further frustration.
Essentially for the Stoics, only what we think and do are worthy of our attention. Although we might preface that statement, as for example, we may work diligently in the hope of securing a promotion or practice hard for an upcoming football match, we, however, are not in control of whether our boss realises our ability or how many goals the other team will score. Moreover, if we fixate on the thought 'I will get the promotion', or 'I must win the game', we will most likely set ourselves up for a crushing failure. Therefore, for the Stoics, these judgements would be thought of as misguided as they have the potential to lead to disappointment and distress.
Another related central Stoic tenet that was touched on earlier is that it is not what happens to individuals that are the cause of their distress but how individuals perceive what happens to them that determines their effect, as Marcus Aurelius puts it ‘the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts’ and ‘choose not to be harmed – and you won’t be harmed’, and Epictetus ‘it is not things that trouble us but our judgement about things’.
Epictetus and Marcus are saying here that our inner discourse is the primary cause of our distress, rather than the external causes themselves. We might initially think that they are victim blaming or are glibly dismissing the pain caused by others. However, the message is that whatever happens to you, your thoughts don’t need to become ‘dyed’ – it doesn't need to affect you psychologically; you can control your perception of the external and, in turn, be liberated from your negative judgements.
As Pierre Hadot explained, for the Stoics: ‘Things cannot trouble us, because they do not touch our ego… they do not touch the guiding principle within us. They remain at the threshold’. Marcus and Epictetus are saying that as our thoughts are under our control, we are responsible for how we respond to outside pressures. If, for example, we don’t get that promotion or we lose that game, we should reframe the judgement that has set ourselves up for disappointment into something more productive, such as ‘I will do my best to…’ while accepting that the outcome is outside our control.
What comes from viewing troubles as existing on the threshold of the self is the formation of a psychological tranquillity, robustness, and resilience to take on those challenges – a mastering of one’s own inner discourse, in Marcus’ words:
‘To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
The philosophical foundations of CBT
Stoic thought dominated the ancient world, only to fade with the advent of Christianity, although elements of Stoicism would survive in the new faith and consequentially in the later philosophies of early modern Europe.
Epictetus said that ‘the philosopher’s school is a doctor’s clinic’, and from the 1950s onwards, psychotherapeutic clinics began to rediscover Stoicism through the writing of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, founders of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), respectively. Both psychotherapists explicitly acknowledged Stoicism as the philosophical precursor to their revolutionary approaches to treatment.
Aaron Beck clearly referenced 'the philosophical origins' of CBT in his book Cognitive Therapy of Depression: ‘The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers, particularly… Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus wrote in The Enchiridion, “Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them” … Control of most intense feelings may be achieved by changing one’s ideas.’
CBT is the predominant style of modern evidence-based therapy. As its name implies, the style examines the role of cognitive activity on behaviour and how this activity can be modified to promote desired behavioural changes. Stoicism’s influence on CBT is especially evident through both the Stoic fork and the principle of positively transforming our attitudes and actions towards outside events.
The philosophical core of Stoic teaching finding new life within the therapeutic space, a reasonably natural transition, as Stoicism is similarly concerned with the goal of promoting a tranquil and resilient psyche and in transforming our thoughts regarding external causes of distress.
The classical philosophy’s influence has also not only been restricted to psychotherapy, as it has been a source of comfort for the powerless and the powerful alike – famously for Nelson Mandela during his 27 years of imprisonment, Admiral James Stockdale while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and the 42nd President Bill Clinton during his tenure.
- See also: 'Rules for living - what is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?'
- See also: 'EMDR: the “hyperspace” of processing traumatic memories'
Modern Stoicism – “preventative medicine”
The renaissance and return of Stoic thought in the 20th century brought about Modern Stoicism as an intellectual and popular movement aimed at reviving the philosophical tradition, modified to the modern zeitgeist and challenges. Doctor John Sellars, Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway and author of Lessons in Stoicism, spoke with Mental Health Today about why this classical philosophy has particular resonance and appeal in modernity, and why interest has “exploded over the last decade”.
‘Who do you want to be?’ As square-eyed consumers, this is a question that advertisements routinely answer for us. The product stands in and tells the story of who we are or want to be – the stylish camera promises to demonstrate our adventurousness, or a car our desire to break free; we are told that we can discover our 'true selves' on the high street.
Although, it never feels enough, as the commodity can never satisfy our insatiable appetite for fulfilment and rarely ever enhances our inner experience. In this landscape, people are constantly searching for a framework to understand what is important and what they ought to be pursuing in life.
“In late capitalism, what the hell am I supposed to know? All I'm being told is, ‘I should buy more stuff that will make me happy’, but I bought lots of stuff, and I'm still not happy – people are looking for some kind of framework to guide their life.”
Dr Sellars continued: “Stoicism offers a whole framework – ‘these are the things we think are important’, ‘these are the things you ought to be pursuing in your life’. It offers a wider ethical framework, which I think people find attractive, particularly in a broadly secular society, where people that no longer have that kind of religious framework.”
The Stoics appear to remedy the insecurity of ‘age of anxiety’ and can direct us in our search for fulfilment. And rather than relying on psychotherapeutic spaces to provide the solution for our internal problem, Dr Sellars said that Stoicism is being used as a “preventative medicine”.
“In a moment of crisis, you're already in a mess, and you need to be fixed. A therapist will intervene to fix that one problem and then leave you on your own. Someone who becomes interested in Stoicism and connects with these ideas on a regular basis, they're developing resilience before they experienced any crisis, there's a sense in which it is preventative medicine.”
He continued: “There's a strong interest these days in what you might call the psychotherapeutic aspect of Stoicism. So, dealing with adversity would be one. The Stoics don't think that we're caught in some kind of internal psychological battle between reason and emotions. They think that our emotions are the product of the judgments that we make about things.”
“If someone judges that something really dangerous is coming, then they're going to experience the emotion of fear, and they're going to generate that emotion. But the emotion is going to be the product of that value judgment they've made that something dangerous is coming. And so, the Stoics think that if you attend to those judgments you're making, you can transform your emotional life.”
Recently, during the first Covid-19 lockdown in May 2020, thousands of people took part in Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT), a four-week e-learning programme developed by the Modern Stoicism team.
Participants studied ideas and followed practices taken from the ancient school of philosophy to see if they might improve their daily lives and, in particular, improve their emotional resilience. By the end of the month, participants reported an average 13% increase in resilience, along with an increase in life satisfaction of 14%, and an increase in positive emotions (11%) and a decrease in negative emotions (15%).
The course quantified the therapeutic benefits of Stoic philosophy as a preventative therapy and demonstrated that the discipline could be used to lay the groundwork for psychological resilience. The study also strikingly had excellent retention rates, the results suggesting that the longer the course was followed, the more robust the benefits, comparative to Marcus Aurelius' constant repetitive daily reaffirmation of Stoic doctrine.
What can we learn from Stoicism?
The philosophy teaches us that targeted emotional indifference can help us to endure the inevitable pains of life and that one small reframing of your mindset can cascade into larger, more impactful changes later down the line. It also teaches us that meaning comes from acting well in the world, to treat others with respect even if they act negatively and that our psychological tranquillity is not only for others to provide – fundamentally, it is our own responsibility.
Notably, Stoicism also tells us something that is often neglected in modern Western culture, that the mind can be a source of tranquillity and nourishment as much as it can be a source of disturbance. The key to the ‘inner citadel’ comes with constantly reinforcing our psyches and through not treating the outside world as an extension of ourselves – and ultimately, by understanding that the true source of stability and serenity comes from within.
In Marcus’ words: ‘People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.’