Contemporary stoicism for volatile times

Por: MA. Clara Franco Yáñez
Master en Asuntos Internacionales, por el Instituto de Posgrados en Estudios Internacionales y del Desarrollo en Ginebra, Suiza

Share This:

It could appear strange that podcasts and articles about “stoicism” as a way of life, or the “principles of stoic philosophy” have been increasing in popularity. Now many famous people from diverse walks of life begin to talk about “following stoic principles”. But what exactly this all about?...

To be “a stoic” or to “act stoically” has probably been quite misunderstood – mistaken for simple emotional coldness, or understood as the mere repression of emotion. Or at times it seems to be taken as the idea of exposing ourselves to needless suffering, physical or psychological; often mistaken for “indifference”. That’s indeed a misguided interpretation. In times of turmoil (and these times have brought nothing if not turmoil, especially since March 2020) many are now rediscovering what could seem like an extremely simple philosophy – simple to the point of seeming obvious. However, the writings of authors from ancient times: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and a few others, have long inspired men and women from incredibly diverse societies and socio-economic backgrounds, with seemingly simple teachings about the acceptance of life’s events as they come.

And indeed a lot has been coming in recent months, increasing the feelings of hopelessness among many. A freshly started war in Ukraine, pandemics, and impending climate disaster seem like fertile grounds for despair, or for responses verging on madness and on the acceleration of our own self-destruction: intense consumerism, surrendered hedonism or an even stronger pursuit of misguided, short-term goals. Stoicism focuses on principles of acceptance, the upholding of virtue, moderation and, interestingly enough, the constant reminder of our own mortality and finite time in the world (the famous “memento mori”), as pillars for a smoother navigation of our life’s troubles.

A supposed interest in “objectivity” in rational thought is another important stoic principle – one that social scientists can call into question as well. And this is a valid criticism of some stoic principles, too: recognition of the fact that true “objectivity” is impossible, as all of us look at the world through a lens that is invariably tainted by previous experience, our ways to define the world, a language that carries ideas and baggage, and pre-conceived notions about almost anything. Stoicism therefore cannot erase the fact that our emotional experiences are as real as any physical, professional or whatever else kind of tangible experience or event – but it does allow us to put things into perspective when confronted with chaos around us. Constant reminders that our time in the world is finite, can have marvelous effects on this, putting into a much larger, often generous perspective the things that might annoy us today.

Stoicism especially shouldn’t be mistaken for indifference for social issues: on the contrary, the early writings of stoic philosophers strongly focused on the importance of caring for a just, cosmopolitan world. Though the philosophy in itself isn’t a social policy, it may help many others to rediscover clear-headed thinking in a tumultuous world, where self-help guides or meditation techniques can also be successfully complemented by the wisdom of ancient philosophies.