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.

What we can learn from Stoicism’s most striking image.

Hercules the Archer, by Antoine Bourdelle (1909).

The metaphor of the archer features in Cicero’s On the Ends of Good and Evil, a Socratic dialogue dedicated to Brutus, murderer of Caesar, in which Cicero, through a number of mouthpieces, expounds and critiques the central tenets of the three main philosophies of his day: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and a version of Platonism.

Cicero puts the metaphor of the Stoic archer in the mouth of his contemporary and ally, the Stoic statesman Cato the Younger (although it is, in fact, older than both of these men):

Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought. (On Ends, III, 22)


The metaphor encapsulates the essence of Stoic action. The archer does everything he can to shoot accurately: his bow is well strung, his arrows are carefully calibrated, and he has taken full account of the prevailing wind and other variables.

Even so, the arrow may not hit the bullseye, or even the target. As soon as it leaves him, the arrow, and with it the success of his action, is no longer within the control of the archer, but subject to outside forces such as a sudden change in wind speed or direction.

Similarly, having decided upon the optimal course of action, the good Stoic carries it out to the best of her ability. But whether the enterprise is ultimately successful is subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable external factors (or “externals,” as the Stoics called them). Thus, the good Stoic bases her self-worth and happiness not on the success of her actions, but on their correctness.

In the words of Seneca:

The wise person considers intention, rather than outcome, in every situation. The beginnings are in our power; the results are judged by fortune, to which I grant no jurisdiction over myself… Death at the hands of a robber is not a condemnation. (Letters to Lucilius, 14).

This is not quite saying that we must do the right thing, but that the right thing is the most that we can do—and is therefore all we need concern ourselves with.

In conclusion

Chance, says Seneca, has a great deal of power in our lives, “necessarily so, since it is by chance that we are alive.” When it comes to things over which we do not have complete control, we play our part, we do our best, like the Stoic archer, but we do not fret over the outcome—which, if we have done our best, is no reflection on us.

Thus, we seek to be loveable, not to be loved, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not. Or, we seek to write well, not to become a bestselling author, because the one is within our control whereas the other is not.

So long as we focus on the things that are within our control, we will be calm and happy. But if we start concerning ourselves with things that are outside our control, we will become anxious and angry and miserable, and all on false grounds.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories, which features an archer on the cover.

The Stoics argued that, like ants and bees, human beings are profoundly social animals.

As the author of a book on Stoicism, I am always asked, “What’s the difference between ancient Stoicism (with a capital ‘S’) and modern stoicism?” The difference matters because people ordinarily assimilate the two, and dismiss the first on account of the second.

At the heart of ancient Stoicism is the notion that human beings ought to act in accord with their nature, which means two things. 

First, we are social animals designed to work together “like hands, feet, or eyelids.” “Human nature,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius (d. 95 CE), “is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone; it perishes when isolated. Indeed, it is intent on performing the common task of members of its species—to work and act together with other bees.”

When we behave with naked selfishness, we are no longer being human—and it is only by being human, that is, by cooperating for the greater good, that we can be happy and fulfilled.

Second, while ants and bees, and maybe even wolves, may be more social than human beings, we are by a country mile the most rational of all animals, so that reason might be said to be our distinctive or defining function. Just as leopards ought to excel at running if they are to count as good leopards, so human beings ought to excel at reasoning if they are to count as good human beings.

If we aim instead to excel at running or swimming or making money, we have not adequately understood what it means to be a human being. Thus, of one who boasted of his diving, Aristippus asked, “Are you not ashamed to be proud of that which a dolphin can do?”

As human beings, we ought at every moment to be rational and social. Unfortunately, we are all too readily waylaid by unwise attachments and the destructive emotions to which they give rise. These attachments dangle the promise of pleasure or happiness but really offer only slavery—whereas, if only we could see it, nothing leads to pleasure and happiness as surely as reason and self-control.

Today, most people’s conception of Stoicism is coloured by modern stoicism, that is, the simple suppression or closeting of emotions. This misleading modern derivation originated in the sixteenth century and should not be confused with the much older philosophical movement. The Stoic is not without emotions, but, ideally, without painful or unhelpful emotions such as anger, envy, and greed.  

To be without emotion, were that even possible, would be to be reduced to the inanimate state of a tree or a rock, whereas the Stoic seeks, on the contrary, to exist and excel as a human being. Thus, the Stoics invited positive and prosocial emotions such as compassion, friendship, and gratitude, which pour out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Already in Book 1, Marcus praises his tutor Sextus of Chaeronea for being “free from passion and yet full of love.”

Today, those familiar with Stoicism often came to it in a crisis but soon discovered that it is about much more than firefighting or even longer-term resilience building.

While I was writing Stoic Stories, a buttoned-up surgeon put me on the spot by asking how stoicism, the modern disposition, differs from Stoicism, the ancient philosophical movement. I ventured in reply: “Modern stoicism is about maintaining a stiff upper lip, whereas ancient Stoicism is about seeking to maintain the ultimate perspective on everything, which then raises many interesting questions.”

Unlike many modern interventions, Stoicism is not merely about feeling better, but about being better—which is, all considered, the surest way of feeling better, and not just better but better than ever before.