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What does Stoicism offer the modern world?

24 Nov 2014 | Patrick Ussher

Epictetus Quote

The Stoics thought that we are built for action and contemplation.

Through contemplation, we can reflect on the virtues, those qualities of character that allow us to meet life's challenges successfully: moderation, courage, temperance and justice in our dealings with others.

Through action, we put these qualities into practice and, in the process, become strong amidst the whirlwind of experience. One Stoic writer, Seneca, described this process as becoming like a sturdy oak tree, the roots of which grow all the deeper for the many storms it has successfully lived through.

But this is not a question of endurance. On the contrary, Stoicism is a philosophy of proactive action: it is about meeting the events of life well and not allowing them to crush you.

Another Stoic, the ex-slave Epictetus, used the analogy of dice: you can't control the way the die have been cast, but you can focus on playing each round well.

Our focus in life should be on what is 'up to us', the areas of our life which fall into our 'ethical domain of action', and therefore, within this domain of action, on putting into practice the qualities that any given situation demands.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor (161-180 AD), put this beautifully when he wrote:

"Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts."
(Meditations, 2.5.)

Marcus's focus on human sympathy and benevolence tells us something else crucial about Stoicism: its ideal of affection for the whole community of humankind.

For the Stoics, we are all limbs of one body of humanity, in which cultivating care and concern for one another fulfills our natural sociability. There is no happiness, in Stoic thinking, without relationships, and taking an active part in the welfare of others.

Which brings us to Stoic Week, which starts today (24th November) and is a chance to join a large community of those interested in what Stoicism still has to offer the modern world.

Organized by a team of psychotherapists (Stoicism was one of the main influences on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and academics, it offers the chance to follow a day-by-day course of modernized Stoic advice, complete with the key precepts, morning and evening meditations and with original Stoic passages for reflection.

Last year, around 2400 people took part and it was found that in one week Stoicism had a 14% improvement in life satisfaction, a 9% increase in positive emotions (with joy increasing most of all) and an 11% decrease in negative emotions.

So, if the idea of seeing what this ancient philosophy of inner strength and outer excellence might offer you appeals, don't miss the opportunity to take part in Stoic Week 2014.

Stoicism Today

Patrick Ussher is part of the Stoicism Today team involved in organising the major Stoic Week event in London on 29 November.

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