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OpinionJan 31, 2024

Why it makes more sense to wish people a 'Stoical' rather than a 'Happy' New Year

Richard Smith has had an illustrious career in medicine, publishing, broadcasting and, more recently, as a climate change campaigner. In the first of an occasional series of opinion columns for PhysioUpdate, he explains why readers might like to consider whether the philosophy of the Stoics has particular relevance in today's challenging world.

Traditionally we wish each other a Happy New Year as each one begins, but who can have written that this year and not thought it a hollow wish with wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the planet burning? I’ve been wishing people a Stoical New Year, and below I explain why. Stoicism is an ancient but very practical philosophy that seems well suited to our turbulent times.

Much of what follows I’ve taken from Reasons Not to Worry: How to be Stoic in Chaotic Times by the Australian journalist Brigid Delaney. She writes: ‘Stoicism, for me, bridged the realms of the intellectual, the emotions and the spirit.’ She does a good job of capturing the essence of Stoicism – using many quotes from the philosophers themselves – and you might, or might not, enjoy reading how she relates the thinking to her own life. The Stoics helped her get through multiple and prolonged lockdowns during the pandemic.

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Recognising the inevitability and value of death was central to Stoicism, Richard explains

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Who were the Stoics?

Stoicism’s origins lie in third century BCE, but the three best known Stoic philosophers are Seneca (c 4 BCE–CE 65), Epictetus (CE c 50–c 135) and Marcus Aurelius (CE 121–180). Epictetus was born a slave. Seneca was one of the wealthiest men in Rome – a playwright and an adviser to the Emperor Nero (a job that probably required a Stoic). Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome, and his book Meditations is enjoyed today. None of them believed in an afterlife.

Delaney is not the only person to have recognised the usefulness of the Stoic philosophy, and she uses at the start of her book a crash introduction to the philosophy by quoting ‘five principles for living like a Stoic from Exeter University’.

Five principles for living like a Stoic

  • acknowledge that you can’t control much of what goes on in your life
  • see that your emotions are the product of how you think about the world
  • accept that bad things are bound to happen to you from time to time, just as they do to everyone else
  • see yourself as part of a larger whole, not an isolated individual; part of the human race, part of nature
  • think of everything you have as not your own, but simply on loan, that one day will be taken back

Accept that we are a part not masters of nature

Recognising that you cannot control much of what happens in the world and in your own life is central to Stoic philosphy, but I want to begin with how the Stoics recognised the importance of our relationship with nature, a recognition that we seem to have lost but must regain if we are to survive as a species for a little longer.

Zeno of Citium, one of the first Stoics, said: ‘All things are parts of one single system, which is called nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with nature.’

Early Stoics thought that world would regularly be destroyed by fire (Ekpyrosis) as preparation for renewal. The fire would begin, writes Delaney, ‘when civilisation was at its very height of sophistication and complexity’. This is our world now, and Ekpyrosis – which might have seemed an exaggerated idea 150 years ago – seems plausible now. ‘Stoics believed that when the intact and perfect balance of nature called Gaia was interfered with, then collapse was inevitable.’

Seneca believed Ekpyrosis would be a flood not a fire, and in his play Thyestes, the chorus asks: ‘Is nature capable of even greater horrors?’ The messenger replies: ‘You think no worse is possible? This is the prelude.’ That’s exactly our position now – with floods, severe storms, and wildfires occurring ever more frequently but becoming even more common and severe if we can’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop our destruction of nature.

Recognise what you can and can’t control

The control test, as I’ve said, is at the centre of the Stoic philosophy. Epictetus wrote: ‘Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.’ He warned: ‘There is only one way to happiness [this translation may be poor as the Stoics were sceptical about happiness – see below] and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.’ Struggling to control what we cannot control is the source of much grief, disappointment, and powerlessness.

Delaney interprets from her reading of the Stoics that we can control only three things

  • our character
  • our reactions (and in some cases our actions, but not their outcomes)
  • how we treat others

The idea that we ignore or accept what we cannot control is one of the major criticisms of Stoicism. If you live within a repressive regime, as many do, should you just accept it because you cannot control it? Should we accept the climate crisis because each of us as an individual can do so little? Stoicism can seem like a passive philosophy, but Delaney points out that Stoics lived in turbulent times and that many of them were men (sadly, they were all men) of action.

Consider climate change. I cannot alone make any impact on global emissions of greenhouse gases, but I can reduce my own emissions and I can work with others to influence organisations, cities, nations, and COPs (the annual global meetings on climate change). It seems to me to make sense to act on what I can control but accept my limitations and what I cannot control. A friend of a friend killed himself because of his horror of what we were doing to the planet. Was his action sensible or right?

Stoics did recognise the concept of partial control. A ship’s captain can control his ship but not the weather. We have some control over our bodies and appearance, but far from complete control.

Be indifferent to many things good and bad

Related to the concept of control is the concept of indifferents, things that affect us but which we should be indifferent to. ‘Preferred indifferents’ – things it would be nice to have but we often can’t – include ‘life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good reputation and noble birth’. Dispreferred indifferents are things we may have but prefer not to, and include ‘death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low repute and ignoble birth’.

Recognise the inevitability and value of death

Recognising the inevitability and value of death was central to Stoicism. ‘Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back’, wrote Marcus Aurelius. ‘Life, it is thanks to Death that I hold thee so dear. Think how great a blessing is a timely death, how many have been injured by living longer than they ought,’ wrote Seneca, who would probably be horrified by visits to care homes and intensive care units.

Relationships and communities are central to life

Also central to Stoicism was recognising our interdependence and the importance of relationships and community, things we don’t recognise today as well as we once did. ‘People exist for one another,’ wrote Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics believed our nature as humans is fundamentally good and that we are social and communal beings who are meant to live together harmoniously.

Seneca, expanding on this notion, wrote: ‘Mankind is born for mutual assistance, anger for mutual ruin: the former loves society, the latter estrangement. The one loves to do good, the other to do harm; the one to help even strangers, the other to attack even its dearest friends. The one is ready even to sacrifice itself for the good of others, the other to plunge into peril provided it drags others with it.’

Hierocles, another Greek Stoic, thought that individuals live in a series of concentric circles of mind, immediate family, extended family, community, neighbouring communities, country. He should, I think, have had nature as the outer circle. Our task, according to Hierocles, was to draw the circles in towards the centre, transferring people to the inner circles, making all human beings part of our concern.

Ataraxia (tranquillity) is a better state than happiness

The Stoics did not pursue happiness but ataraxia, which is best translated as tranquillity. Delaney defines ataraxia as a ‘state of contentment or peace where the world can be falling in around your ears, but your equilibrium is undisturbed’. I think of Kipling’s famous lines about meeting and treating both the same those imposters triumph and disaster. The Victorians were keen on the Stoics and created the notion of the ‘stiff upper lip’, which has got Stoicism something of a poor reputation in age when displaying your emotions is seen as virtuous. Indeed, the idea of treating triumph and disaster both the same seems discordant with our times when triumphs are ‘incredible, amazing and awesome’ and disasters are a time for weeping in the street and placing flowers outside Buckingham Palace.

But we will all have our triumphs (often small) and our disasters (often large), and nobody is helped by us falling apart in response. I have faced my disasters (one of them huge), and I’ve sometimes felt guilty that I wasn’t more emotional, but I’ve reflected that nobody would have been helped by me being overcome by emotion. (Indeed, as I read Delaney’s book, I sometimes thought that I was a ‘natural Stoic’. Perhaps many of us are, reflecting the practicality of the philosophy and how it is rooted not in the divine but in humanity and nature).

While advocating ataraxia, the Stoics were suspicious of happiness, a fleeting state that often overexcites and usually quickly passes. People make the mistake of being dissatisfied with ataraxia and pursue something more – let’s call it happiness – through fame, money, the liking of others, or other forms of external validation. None of these is reliable and all can quickly be gone.

Beware of anger and hope

As you might have gathered from the Seneca quote above, the Stoics had no time for anger. ‘No plague has cost the human race more dearly than anger,’ wrote Seneca. Anger, a state far removed from ataraxia, creates wars and grief. The angry boxer loses. How, the Stoics ask, does it help to be angry about troubles? It doesn’t.

We live in an angry age, and we are encouraged to hope. The terminally ill must never have hope taken away – despite hope leading to poor decisions on the best way to cope with the illness. The Stoics disapproved of hope, ‘seeing it as a form of wishful thinking – and a denying of reality and true clarity’. Hope and fear go together. ‘Cease to hope and you will cease to fear,’ wrote Seneca. Hope creates distress because ‘you are placing your happiness in something that is outside your control. You can be let down terribly.’ You might then arrive at hope’s twin, hopelessness, the most abject of human emotions.

Study Stoicism further

There is more to Stoicism, but this article, derived from Delaney’s book, captures the rudiments. If you want to learn more about Stoicism there is no better way than to follow millions and read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The book has the wisdom of philosophy and the beauty of poetry: ‘In the life of a man his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.’ What then should a man do? Marcus Aurelius’s immediate answer is study philosophy, but elsewhere he offers this excellent advice: ‘Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.’

Richard Smith is chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and was editor of The BMJ from 1991-2004. To follow UKHACC on X (formerly Twitter): @UKHealthClimate

To read Richard’s PhysioUpdate column on the need for action on climate change, click  To read some of Richard’s blogs for The BMJ, click 

 

Author: Richard Smith
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