It was by chance that I became interested in Stoicism around 2018 – because by the time the pandemic hit, I really needed it.
“Comes the hour, comes the woman!” I said, Epietcus Enchiridion in hand, as the borders closed in March 2020 and friends began asking me for Stoic advice. “Inject that stoicism into my veins!” they would text.
Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one in which you find yourself at this moment.”
It’s true. When life began to change rapidly – and fear was in the air – the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy proved to be a remarkably useful tool. Even if there hadn’t been a pandemic, stoicism saved my ass every day: from managing FOMO to the cost-of-living crisis; from missing a job, to the climate crisis, to grief and loss. Everything had a pattern from the Stoics – or at least had been deeply considered by them. And much of their advice is as fresh today as it was in ancient times.
But where do you start? And how can you apply it to your own everyday life?
1. Determine what is under your control
A cornerstone of Stoicism is the “test of control”, as found in the Enchiridion – and during the early waves of the pandemic, the test of control was invaluable to me. I still use it daily to make an assessment of what I should and shouldn’t be worried about, and to see where I can best take action and direct my energy.
Epictetus – whose manual was published around 125 CE – wrote: “In our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion and, in a word, all that is of our doing; our body, our property, our reputation, our function, and, in a word, all that is not of our doing, are not in our power.
Essentially, our field of control consists of our own actions and reactions, our desires, our character, and how we treat others. The rest – including our bodies, the actions of others, our reputation and our fortunes (personal and financial) – are beyond our control.
Instant lockout means you can’t go to work? Out of your control, but you can work on how you deal with it. Virus circulating in the community when there is no vaccine? Beyond your control, but your actions can help protect you and others. A stressed friend gets too drunk and blames her loneliness? What she does is out of your control, but not your reaction.
For every problem, there’s a Stoic solution – and control testing is often the most elegant and easiest way to figure it out.
2. You don’t have to judge everything
We make judgments quickly, often without adequate information – and sometimes when no judgment is needed. Much of what we call “good” or “bad” is actually neutral, but our judgments are powerful and largely dictate how we respond.
I can apply for a rental I really want and miss out – so I apply the judgment of “bad” to that. But is it always bad if, the following week, a better or cheaper place comes on the market?
If we treat most events neutrally, we are less likely to be upset by events that occur.
3. Money, health and reputation are out of your control
According to the control test, money, health and reputation are all basically beyond our control. If we can cultivate indifference towards them, we are less likely to get angry and waste energy trying to control them.
Without any fault or action on your part, you could lose your reputation, then your job, then your money – then your home, and possibly your marriage. You will almost certainly lose your appearance as you age. If you live long enough, you risk losing your mobility, cognitive abilities, and other aspects of your health.
Accidents and illnesses also happen all the time – also beyond your control. You can be as careful as you want, but it’s not entirely up to you. You could get hit by a bus!
The Stoics warned against double suffering: that is, the suffering of an illness or injury, and a second suffering which is the anger or anxiety that surrounds becoming ill or to get hurt. It can happen to anyone, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t happen to you – and death does eventually come for all of us anyway.
In order to avoid being too pained by these piling up losses, it is best to practice indifference to what you have in the first place.
4. Practice the conditions you fear
I make it easy – but how does it actually work? In order to get used to the suffering that awaits us all, the Stoics practiced voluntary ordeal.
Seneca advised his friend Lucilius to fast in case one day he could not eat: “Plan a certain number of days, during which you will content yourself with the leanest and cheapest food, with course and coarse bearing, saying to you the while: ‘Is this the condition I feared?’”
Often it’s not as bad as we fear – and we’re stronger than we think.
5. Practice imagining death
The Stoics believed in mourning for loved ones while they are still alive. In fact, they advised you to think about their death frequently while they are still alive, in order to prepare yourself.
You’re less likely to hold grudges if you imagine your friend may die suddenly – and you’ll be more likely to make the most of the time you have. “Let us greedily take advantage of our friends”, said Seneca, as we must also take advantage of our children, “because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours”.
The same goes for our own death; you can’t control it, but you can control how you think about it. Stoics seek to demystify it by frequently reminding themselves that they are going to die, which helps shed light on the only thing that matters: the present moment.
As Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death – but at least I can escape its fear.”
6. Don’t worry about other people’s reactions
Worrying about upsetting others is generally considered a positive trait, but it can also lead to people-liking or excessive worrying. One of the most important things for a Stoic is to recognize that your character is one of the only things you can control. The four Stoic virtues are wisdom, justice, courage and moderation; if you act with them, then you exercise an essential component of life which is under your control.
But the reaction of others is out of your control. You can try to persuade or influence them, but ultimately their actions and reactions are up to them.
Worrying about what others think or their reaction is a waste of time. Just worry about how you have behaved, and your own character.
7. Moderation is a virtue
Like us, the Roman Stoics lived in a world awash with excess and alcohol. They advised moderation in wine, but not to make a big deal out of it.
From Epictetus: “When a man drinks water, or does anything for the sake of practice (discipline), whenever there is an opportunity, he says it to all: ‘I drink water .’ Is that why you drink water, for the purpose of drinking water? Man, if it is good for you to drink, drink; but otherwise you are acting ridiculous.
A Stoic would treat alcohol, especially expensive wine, with indifference. She would be aware that addiction is dangerous because it alters reason. She would also be aware that insisting on abstinence is boring.
8. Give without expecting a return
So many gifts in our society are unconsciously transactional. Say I invited you for a nice dinner; in a corner of my mind, I might expect you to return the favor. But if I apply the test of control, I will remember that I have no power over anyone acting the way I want them to act. It is better to give freely, without conditions or warnings, and without expecting anything in return. That way, I won’t be disappointed if a favor is never repaid.
“We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers,” wrote Seneca.
9. Say no to FOMO
The more Stoicism I read, the more I realized that the fear of missing something has always existed, and that Stoics – of course! – had ways to handle it.
If you weren’t invited to something, they saw it as a character test not to be bitter or unhappy. Epictetus advised, “If these things are good, you should be glad he got them; and if they are bad, do not grieve that you do not have them.
Then they pointed out the compromise. Let’s say you didn’t get tickets to a sold-out festival; rather think about what you have won. Maybe you’ll have another experience this weekend – you’ll definitely have an extra $200 to play.
10. Try to relax
Unlike the modern usage of the word “Stoic”, the original Stoics did not have a stiff upper lip – nor were they repressed. Instead, they sought to maximize joy and minimize pain – and they strove to be as relaxed as possible. In this quiet state, it was harder to inflame anger, get upset, or be anxious about things they couldn’t control.
“Never let the future trouble you,” wrote Aurèle. “You will face it, if necessary, with the same weapons of reason that arm you today against the present.”