The philosophy of ancient stoics

The philosophy of the ancient stoics has a lot to offer us today, says Italian-American philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. Accepting that not everything is within your power helps you on your way to a happy and meaningful life.

You yourself have become a Stoic. What makes this 2,000-year-old philosophy so attractive to you?

“This question actually requires a different question to precede it, namely: Do you need to have a life philosophy? I think you do. And we actually don’t have a choice. By that I mean that you always have a philosophy of life, whether you realize it or not. You have an idea about how the world works, you have an ethic that leads you to do some things well and others less well, and you have ideas about how to live a good life.

People used to accept the life philosophy of their religion. Now it’s parents, friends and society that give you ideas or exert certain pressures. I myself grew up in Rome in Italy, and I was brought up Catholic, but in high school I lost my faith. I ventured into humanism and Buddhism and eventually arrived at Stoicism. The Stoic philosophy originated in Greece around 300 BC, but was best known through its later Roman Stoics such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Their texts are easy to read and accessible to everyone, even if you don’t have a background in philosophy. What’s more, they are practical; they’re about daily life, about friendship and love. But what I like most about Stoicism is its central tenet: Some things are within your power and others are not. And that really helps you on your way to leading a happy and meaningful life.”

Can you tell us more about that central tenet?

“It comes from Epictetus, who started life as a slave and later, after he obtained his freedom, became a philosopher. According to him, everything that exists can be divided into two categories: One is within our reach, the other is not. So some things can be controlled by you and others can’t. If you truly accept this fundamental distinction and act accordingly, you’ll have no fear of anything and you will live a happy life.

Things you can control, according to Epictetus, are your own judgments, your values and your decisions. In short, anything that takes place in your own head and body. All other things can be influenced by you, but not controlled. The outcome depends not only on you, but on all kinds of external circumstances. Here’s an example: You have the opportunity to be promoted at your work. You can put together your best resume, work hard and show your boss that you are suitable for it in every way you can think of.

But in the end your boss decides. And that decision depends on a lot of factors—the competition from colleagues, whether your boss likes you, whether they had a fight with their partner that morning which put them in a bad mood—it could be anything. The Stoic idea is that you do not focus on the result, but on your inner goal: Your attitude and the way you deal with situations and events. Those things are within your reach. If you know that you’ve done everything you can, it is not essentially important whether you reach the goal or not.”

  • The full story ‘Do what you can; accept what you cannot’ can be found in Issue 25.

Text Sjoukje van de Kolk Illustration Valesca van Waveren

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