What Stoicism Still Has to Teach Us

Cato’s Suicide, by Charles Le Brun.

Stoicism’s surprising influence on religion, politics, and mental healthcare.

In the Classical World, the old religion privileged ritual over doctrine, and educated people turned instead to philosophy for guidance and consolation. In the imperial period, Stoicism rose into the foremost philosophy among the Roman elite. It was, in a sense, the real religion of ruling Romans, including, under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor himself.

From this highpoint, Stoicism gradually lost ground to Christianity, but at the same time worked its way into the incipient religion. Paul the Apostle had met some Stoics while in Athens, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks [sic.], encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say?” Early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen were steeped in Stoicism, as were, two centuries later, Ambrose and Augustine.

The influence of Stoic philosophy is felt even in the Bible. For instance, the Gospel of John opens with the verse, “In the beginning was the Word [Greek, Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The logos, according to the Stoics, consists of creative fire, or pneuma [“spirit”], the ancestor, perhaps, of the Holy Spirit.

Broader points of parallel between Christianity and Stoicism include that God is a benevolent creator, that each of us has a divine element, and that we ought to pursue virtue and love one another. The resemblances are such that, in the sixteenth century, the Flemish Catholic philosopher Justus Lipsius, who lived in a time of great strife and schism, sought to harmonize Christianity with Stoicism to create a more secular ethics—inaugurating the Stoic revival known as Neostoicism.

It is tempting to ask why Christianity eclipsed Stoicism at all. In addition to the more philosophical elements, Christianity offered mythology and mysticism, including the promise of an afterlife, which enabled it to speak to many more people. With its broad appeal, Christianity also served to repair a split in society by bringing the people and their leaders back under the banner of a single creed.

This ties up with a criticism of Stoicism, namely, that it is elitist. A philosophy that is all about ruling oneself probably speaks more to the ruling classes. On the other hand, the great Stoic teacher Epictetus began life as a slave, and, by Stoicism, rose into an elite. If Stoicism is elitist, it is more because it appeals to temperaments that are already of a certain disposition, to Catos more than to Caesars, and to Senecas more than to Neros. As Seneca says, “Philosophy shines for all. Socrates was no patrician; Cleanthes hauled water… Plato did not come to philosophy a nobleman but was ennobled by it… Everyone has the same number of ancestors. There is no one whose origins lie anywhere but in oblivion.”

Politics and ideas

Today, Stoicism also appeals most often to men, especially young men, in search of a masculine ideal of composure, resilience, self-sufficiency, and so on. But Stoicism is “virile” only in that mastery has historically been associated with men. There is, despite the obvious potential, very little about “manliness” in the primary Stoic sources, and the Stoics were remarkably egalitarian for their age.

People concerned with virility tend to the right of the political spectrum. While Spartanism has long been associated with the far right, Stoicism has not shared in the same fate, probably on account of its strong cosmopolitan strand—which might even have endeared it to the left, had it not been for its dogmatic disregard for a person’s external circumstances.

Outside of the Church, Stoicism also exerted an important influence on the history of ideas, including on the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill, who, in On Liberty (1859), hailed the Meditationsof Marcus Aurelius as “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”

The few failings which are attributed to him, were all on the side of indulgence: while his writings, the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly, if they differ at all, from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. (On Liberty, II)

Despite its influence and importance, the study of Stoicism has long been left out of university curricula, perhaps because its more theoretical texts have all been lost, or, more likely, out of academic snobbery for a philosophy that is practical and accessible, and tainted by the “unimaginative” Romans.

In politics and government, the shining example of Cato inspired the American revolutionaries to fight for their own Republic, which they created in the image of Cato’s—even debating whether the executive branch would not be better represented by two consuls, rather than the president that they finally settled for. George Washington staged a play about Cato at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War. When he died, Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his bedside table. 

The freedoms that we in the West have come to enjoy—and that many people, in Russia, in China, and elsewhere, still do not—owe in no small part to the mark left by Cato and his fervent defense of the Roman Republic.

Over the past two thousand years, humanity has made a great deal of progress in science and technology, but very little in politics. The world, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still crying out, American included, for fail-safe systems of government. That, surely, is not beyond us.

Mental healthcare

In the field of mental health, Stoicism inspired what has become the most common form of talking treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)—showing that people can derive some benefit from “elitist” Stoic principles without needing to be familiar with the underlying philosophy.

Aaron Beck (d. 2021), the father of CBT, wrote that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.” Albert Ellis (d. 2007), the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy, a precursor to CBT, frequently cited the Stoics, and was especially taken by a line from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them.”

But CBT is only a form of firefighting, and hardly fulfils the true promise of Stoicism, which is for integral mental health and more.

Other forms of talking treatment often involve “looking in,” sometimes to the point of navel-gazing, but Stoicism, like Eastern philosophy, suggests that the answer lies rather in looking out, or looking in only insofar as it can help to look out and dissolve the boundary between in and out.

The relentless positive thinking that pervades popular self-help books is similarly unhelpful, serving only to tide us to the next crisis, for which it lays the ground.

Long-term mental health relies instead on coming to terms with reality, including that of our own mortality. It is only by coming to terms with reality that we can, ourselves, become real.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.


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