Stoicism: The Ancient Remedy to the Modern Age
How the Ancient Greeks can help us navigate cyberspace
“It's time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
One can just as easily be blinded by light as by darkness. And that is the situation we now find ourselves in. We suffer not from a lack of information but from a surplus of it. We’re lost in a blizzard of ideas that obscures our way.
There is a cure to this blindness, but, perhaps necessarily, it wasn't produced in our confused age. The cure is known as Stoicism, and though you’ll certainly have heard of it, you’re unlikely to know the degree to which this ancient philosophy can help us navigate the chaos of the information age.
Stoicism was founded in Athens in the 4th century BCE by the shipwrecked merchant, Zeno of Citium, and over the next few centuries it would be refined by many others to become the most influential philosophy in the Greco-Roman world.
Today, there are three Stoic philosophers whose work has survived most intact, and from whom we get most of our knowledge of Stoicism: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Each had their own struggles: Seneca was a Roman playwright and statesman who had the misfortune of having to tutor the infamous emperor Nero. Epictetus was a Greek slave who suffered harsh torture that left him with a permanent limp. Marcus Aurelius, meanwhile, was emperor of Rome during its golden age.
The Stoics, despite having very different stations in life, all saw value in the same ideas, and through these they influenced each other. Marcus Aurelius even mentions Epictetus in his private journal, Meditations. Think of it: the philosophy of a slave shaped the philosophy of the most powerful man in the world. The ideas they shared were universal.
So universal, in fact, that Stoicism has since been adopted by diverse figures throughout the centuries: US Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were followers of Stoicism, Nelson Mandela used it to endure his years in prison, while Vietnam POW James Stockdale used it to withstand torture at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” and Stoic ideas have formed the basis of several notable approaches to psychotherapy, such as Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Today, Stoic practices are popular in high-stress environments like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
What is it about Stoicism that has given it such widespread appeal throughout history, and which makes it a powerful solution to the problems of the digital age?
Stoicism is a complex philosophy that spans ethics, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and more. But as a guide to living, it can be described as the art of identifying and avoiding distractions. In the information age we’re being constantly barraged with stimuli that lead us astray. Stoicism helps us to see through the barrage and focus on what matters.
The Stoics believed that our most valuable resource is time, because it’s required for everything, and it’s the only thing we can’t make more of. And yet we fritter time away like it’s our least valuable resource.
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
According to Seneca, wasting time is why we feel we don't have enough time.
“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”
Seneca believed that people were not really living while they were wasting time.
“You are scared of dying, but tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?”
So how do we avoid wasting time, how do we begin to live?
The Stoics believed that in order to make the most of our time, we need to avoid distractions. The biggest class of distraction is the things we can’t control. Since such things cannot be affected by our attention on them, our attention is wasted.
Almost everything in the external world is constantly changing according to forces beyond our control, and yet we invest our hopes into them as though they’re fixed and permanent. We seek validation in other’s opinions of us, which are as fickle as the wind. We pour our pride in garments that are always falling out of fashion, and in beauty that is always fading. We judge our worth by our cars and homes, which are crumbling atom by atom, and in trinkets that are always losing their luster. We base our moods on the weather, or the stock market, or the success of our favorite football team, all of which follow a fate we can’t comprehend. We seek our happiness in the momentary, and thus our happiness becomes momentary.
Basing our happiness on things we can’t preserve puts us at the mercy of fate, and prevents us from owning our own well-being. By focusing on what we can’t control, we lose control.
“The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”
To find lasting peace in an unpredictable world, we have but one option, to seek our validation in the only thing we have complete control over: our character.
The Stoics frequently used the metaphor of the arrow: an archer can control how well she aims and shoots, but not the wind, which can lead the arrow astray. Therefore, the only worthwhile thing for the archer to focus on is aiming and shooting as well as possible, not on what happens after the arrow is loosed.
For the Stoics, our salvation lies not in the outside world, which we can’t control, but in the internal one, which we can.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
We can’t control the fates of our loved ones, or the physical decay of our own bodies, but we can control how we feel about such things, by changing the way we think about them.
Moderating how we feel is core to Stoicism, because, of all the distractions we can do something about, the greatest is unwelcome emotions, which the Stoics called “the passions.” They recognized that our feelings about things often harm us more than the things themselves. Fear is often more crippling than that which is feared, rage more maddening than that which enrages, hate more toxic than that which is hated.
“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our judgements about them.”
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
In particular, three passions needlessly fill our lives with stress: desire, anger, and anxiety. Each of these emotions has become a particular problem in the digital age, and each is addressed by Stoicism.
Let's consider each of these emotions and how the Stoics dealt with them, beginning with desire.
Human life is gradually turning from a struggle against starvation into a struggle against addiction. We’re constantly being pampered with new comforts and conveniences, and before we can begin to appreciate one we're offered another.
The online ecosystem controls us mostly by hijacking our dopamine reward pathways. It's built largely on the psychological principles of the Skinner box; essentially you can make rats spend their lives pulling a lever if you occasionally reward such behavior with a treat.
Similarly, the web makes us endlessly click on buttons by convincing us to want things and then making us chase them. On almost every page we’re greeted with ads, or clickbait headlines, or deviously tailored recommendations, or videos daring us to see what happens next, or demagogues offering us easy answers, or promises of momentary social approval if only we type a few words and hit “send.”
We’re easily led to desire distractions because we desire distraction itself. It helps us to forget life’s troubles. But in doing so, it also prevents us from fixing them.
If we allow our attention to be stolen by anything that seems interesting, we’ll take so many detours through life that we’ll never live the life we really wanted. We can’t pursue anything if we’re pursuing everything.
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Thus, of all the emotions that plague us today, we must control desire most, because it determines what we pursue, and hence our life’s trajectory. Desire is destiny.
So how do we stop our lives from being joyridden by our appetites? How do we stop ourselves from going everywhere and nowhere?
The key is to first recognize that we’re made to desire things we don’t actually need, things that don’t actually make us happier or help us in any way.
Obtaining what we crave never feels as good as we think it will while we’re craving it; desire doesn’t make us happy for acquiring things as much as it makes us unhappy for being denied them. Further, the more we desire, the more we submit ourselves to the mercy of external forces that can snatch away the objects of our desire at any moment. Thus, the more we desire, the more we open ourselves up to frustration and disappointment.
The Stoics understood that the ultimate source of our contentment lies not in anything the fickle external world can offer us, but in our perceptions. Marcus Aurelius, the wealthiest man in the world, wrote to himself:
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
His fellow Stoics concurred:
“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves too much, who is poor.”
“Wealth consists not in having many possessions, but in having few wants.”
One of the four Stoic virtues is temperance (sophrosyne). The Stoics, unlike the rival Epicureans, did not let loose their appetites, because they knew that it’s only when we abstain from the things we think we crave that we discover we don’t need them.
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
This is a particular problem of our age. We aimlessly watch YouTube videos or scroll our Twitter feeds for no reason other than that we can. If we didn’t have the ability to engage in such automated behaviors, our lives would not be any poorer (and would in fact be much richer).
What the Stoics advocate, then, is to evaluate the things we’re being lured toward, and ask ourselves if we genuinely need them or are simply being made to feel like we need them. You may feel the urge to watch another cat video on YouTube, but ask yourself, is it really going to make you happier or improve your life? No? Then your desire for it is a distraction and should be ignored; it’ll be forgotten before long.
One way the Stoics reduced their wants was by appreciating what they already had. Often we chase new things because we forget the value of old things, so if we focus on rediscovering and re-enjoying what we’ve begun to take for granted—the simple, essential things like our health, homes, and loved ones—then we fill the void in our hearts that would otherwise lead us to endlessly chase dopamine hits.
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
― Marcus Aurelius
Gratitude for what you have can cure desire for what you have not. And when you’re no longer wasting time and attention pursuing things that won’t make you happy, you can focus on all the things that will.
“Learning to live with less will create space in your life for the things that truly matter to you.”
Oftentimes, even if you don’t desire to see something, the web shows it to you anyway. You may need to find out today’s weather forecast, but in doing so you’re forced to see a news story about a massacre.
Negativity bias, which stems from our need to pay more attention to bad news than good because it constitutes an existential threat, incentivizes people who wish for attention to produce bad news. As a result, doom and tragedy can be found everywhere online.
The result of seeing constant bad news makes us feel anxious, and this too is by design; when we’re worried about, say, terrorism, we’re more likely to click on articles about terrorism. Negativity is a positive feedback loop.
We all know the world is a brutal place. Bad news is happening all the time. The Stoics recognized how overwhelming the world’s troubles are:
“What need is there to weep over parts of life, when the whole of it calls for tears?”
In a world where things are always going against your wishes, letting yourself be worried by things not going your way will ensure your life is one of continuous misery, a tapestry of tragedies.
The Stoics believed negative emotions harm us more than the things that evoke them, and this includes anxiety, which does nothing to solve a problem, but only increases its impact.
“How does it help...to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?”
If we wish to avoid making our troubles heavier by worrying about them, we must take charge of our reactions. This begins by recognizing that we’re under no obligation to judge things we can’t control. We don’t need to appraise them as good or bad, or compare them to what could’ve been.
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
— Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics spoke of amor fati—the love of fate—which means that instead of judging events beyond our control as good or bad, we should view them as necessary, and in so doing embrace them as facts of life.
None of this is to say that we should be passive. We should seek to solve the problems that we can, but we won’t do it by worrying about them, only by accepting them, preparing for them and facing them when they come.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
Instead of worrying about the future, focus on what you can do in the present. Anxiety is a product of your thoughts. So, to end anxiety, change your thoughts.
“Everything hangs on one’s thinking. A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”
A helpful trick I’ve discovered is to distinguish your feelings from reality by inserting “I think” or “I feel” before your sentiments. So, instead of “it’s a horrible day,” tell yourself “I think it’s a horrible day.” This changes the nature of the problem. Now the problem is not the day, but your perception of it. Changing your perception is much easier than changing the world.
Marcus Aurelius, who, as Emperor of Rome, was constantly having to deal with war, plague, flood, famine, and treachery, wrote to himself:
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions, not outside.”
Stoicism can be a solution to anxiety and desire. But how does it fare against the third emotion mass-produced to distract us in the digital age, the most unruly of them all: outrage?
Rage is one of the dominant passions we're goaded into feeling online. Not only do we have to contend with people deliberately trying to anger us in order to control us—demagogues with agitprop, journalists with ragebait, trolls with trolling—but we must also deal with legions of people being unintentionally infuriating, whether by lying, being ignorant, or simply by being rude.
As with all passions, the Stoics believed that anger is more harmful to us than the thing that causes it; it’s like an acid that corrodes its own container. Anger is not a pleasant feeling, so it causes us to suffer. It also diverts our attention, stealing our time as well as our peace of mind. Furthermore, anger compels us to lash out, which often makes the situation worse, particularly online. If you react to a troll’s obnoxious remark by “giving as good as you get,” you’ll soon be engaged in a pointless slanging match that steals even more of your time and peace of mind.
Seneca saw the need to “get even” as absurd.
“Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?”
Epictetus recognized that not only does anger cause us to suffer unnecessarily, but it also allows us to be easily controlled and manipulated.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master.”
To stop ourselves from being goaded by all the provocations that pervade our age, we must recognize that those who hijack our time and peace of mind can do so only with our permission, because we are the ultimate gatekeepers of our own feelings.
“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”
Like all vampires, time-vampires can only enter your life by invitation.
So how do we revoke the invitation?
We must first understand that people will act infuriatingly regardless of how we feel.
“When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.”
The Stoics had a concept known as futurorum malorum præmeditatio, which today is known in cognitive behavioral therapy as “negative visualization.” The idea requires us to temper our expectations of the world by imagining the worst case scenario, so that we become ready for it.
Every morning Marcus Aurelius engaged in negative visualization by picturing himself encountering infuriating people.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”
Expecting to meet people who’ll test our patience can make us more patient, because we come to see infuriating behavior for what it really is: not an aberration of nature but an inevitability. Anticipating an emotion can dull its power over us.
Instead of focusing your energy on “fixing” those who anger you, which is impossible, instead focus on fixing yourself.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
The best revenge is to be a Stoic.
But how does one do that, exactly?
The Stoic Life
We've explored how a Stoic thinks. But how does a Stoic live in the digital age?
The Stoics believed that self-improvement comes not from monumental shifts in behavior but from small, consistent increments over years. As such, they believed it was necessary to cultivate productive habits.
A core idea of Stoicism is that you become what you consistently expose yourself to.
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
“You become what you give your attention to ... If you yourself don't choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.”
Therefore, to shape your mind, shape your stimuli.
“Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind.”
This is crucial in an age in which we’re being flooded with images and ideas. More now than ever, we must take charge of what we expose ourselves to, or become slaves to our environments, ragdolled by the tides.
Fortunately we also have more ways than ever to select our stimuli, such as curating our information feeds, and choosing the people we allow into our minds.
“The key is to keep company only with those who uplift you, who bring forth your best.”
But Stoicism is not just about avoiding distraction, it’s also about focusing on what matters. And for the Stoics, what matters most is your character.
So how does one focus on one’s character?
The Stoics engaged in regular self-examination. This was achieved primarily through journalling, which involved writing for a few minutes each day. During this time, they'd ask themselves questions about themselves.
“Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?”
Other useful questions a Stoic could ask would be “What will I do tomorrow?” “How well did I accomplish yesterday's goals?” “What matters to me?” “What am I grateful for?” “What do I hope to achieve by the end of the year?” “What do I fear most?” “If I act every day as I did today, where will I be in 10 years?”
Asking ourselves questions like these each day helps us to understand and take charge of our thoughts, feelings and actions. It also allows us to plan ahead, to design our days instead of being passively blown around like a leaf in the wind.
Marcus Aurelius preferred to journal first thing in the morning so he could set his agenda for the day. (His journal, Meditations, is freely available to read.) He used journalling to get to know himself, and to set the day’s goals and the steps he’d take to meet them. Try this instead of doing what most people do when they awake—opening social media—which only allows strangers to set your agenda for you.
Regularly spending time alone with your thoughts is more crucial now than ever because we spend so much of our time focused outwards, at flickering screens, that we become estranged from our own minds. We can’t stop ourselves being distracted if we’re distracted even from ourselves.
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”
Interrogating ourselves by journalling allows us to chart our trajectory and gauge our progress. And when we become focused on our progress, the hardships we face cease to be meaningless tragedies, and instead become opportunities to test ourselves and assess the advances in our life’s work: our character.
“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘this is misfortune,’ but ‘to bear this worthily is good fortune’.”
The ancient Stoics couldn’t have begun to comprehend the world we live in today. And yet the philosophy they devised two millennia ago is now more relevant than ever. Our overstimulated minds are constantly being goaded by desire, anxiety and outrage, leading us away from our goals, turning our lives into a series of reflex reactions. Stoicism allows us to reclaim our agency, filter out the interruptions, and focus on what matters. It allows us to understand who we are and become who we wish to be in a world that is always trying to pull us away from ourselves. That is why I’m a Stoic, and why I think you should be one too.
You're distracting me. I subscribed to your substack so you could do so. It was a goal that I be increasingly more distracted by Gurwinder, and less distracted by others, until there is no one but Gurwinders populating my social media feed. I am making progress. Stoicism feels within reach. I'll keep polishing.
I’ve been a pupil of Stoicism for years now, and this is the best introduction I’ve come across. Now whenever someone asks me what Stoicism’s all about, I’ll point them here. Thank you.