Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance in popularity. This arguably started because it provided the philosophical inspiration for the pioneers of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, CBT had become the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy. However, around the start of the 21st century more and more self-help books influenced by Stoic philosophy began to hit the shelves.
My background is in both academic philosophy and CBT. I was among the first wave of authors to begin writing popular books on Stoicism. I focused on self-help techniques that combined ancient Stoic philosophy with modern research-based psychology. The Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome contained a system of psychological therapy but there was also much more to it. It’s grounded in a philosophical worldview and a set of core ethical principles — what we call today a “virtue ethic”. However, even in the ancient world, people were often drawn to Stoicism initially because it held out the promise of relieving their emotional suffering and helping them to build greater mental resilience.
Although Stoicism is more popular now than ever, many people are still unsure how they’re supposed to practice the philosophy in daily life. “How exactly,” they ask, “does it promise to relieve our suffering?” I recently created a short email course to explain six of the most important psychological practices derived from ancient Stoicism. In this article, I’ll summarize and describe them for you…
How Marcus Aurelius was Initiated into the Cult of Demeter
For I made a vow, when the war began to blaze highest, that I too would be initiated… —Marcus Aurelius, quoted in Cassius Dio
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) is best-known today as the author of The Meditations, a collection of personal reflections on ethics and self-improvement inspired by Stoic philosophy. While researching my recent book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I visited several locations associated with key events in his life. One was Carnuntum, in Austria, the legionary fortress where he stationed himself while fighting the Marcomannic War, and where part of The Meditations was written. Another was the Greek town of Elefsina, just outside Athens, which was known in antiquity as Eleusis, the home of the famous Eleusinian mystery religion, based upon the myth and rites of the goddess Demeter. Marcus became a patron of Eleusis and was initiated there toward the end of his life.
Persons like ourselves would do well to say: “If you are studying philosophy, it is well.” For this is just what “being well” means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly.
Online courses are all too often 5–10 minute diluted versions of the thing you want to know about, especially the free ones. In most cases, the info is not only watered-down but basic knowledge you already possessed. However, watching Brian Johnson’s FREE Stoicism 101 Master Class had me feeling as if I’d gotten away with theft! So-much-solid-content! (See the end of this article, incidentally, for more information about the Optimize Coach program — including a special offer.)
Warrior of the Mind
Brian Johnson is CEO and founder of Optimize, a massive community built around his love of wisdom. He’s also the author of Philosopher’s Notes, a fun and inspiring collection of his personal reflections on sages through the ages. This inspiration feeds into his master classes and coaching program. It seems his courses are meant to help you become a high-functioning optimist equipped with the wisdom to accomplish anything you set out to do.
Want a sneak preview of a scene from our forthcoming graphic novel on the life, adventures, and Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius? Click the arrows to advance the Instagram slides below… (And follow our new Instagram page @verissimusgraphicnovel if you want to learn when the book’s coming out.)
Some more sample artwork from Verissimus…
The first colour printout of the pages from the book…
This is a story about a filthy dog… Over two thousand years ago, in ancient Greece, there lived a very controversial philosopher, who upset a lot of people. At first everyone hated him, sneered at him, and called him The Dog. But by the time he died, the people loved and admired him so much that they built a beautiful pillar, in his honour, made from white marble, with a statue of a little dog on top. His real name was Diogenes of Sinope and for over five hundred years he and his followers were known as the Cynics or Dogs. I’m going to tell you how he became one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy.
Words of advice for young people? I’m a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and the author of several books on Stoic philosophy. I’m always giving talks and workshops on self-improvement, or talking to people about ways we can help ourselves grow more emotionally resilient. There’s a perennial question that keeps coming up in these sort of conversations whenever a good idea emerges — why isn’t this being taught in schools?
There are a lot of important things we don’t teach young people, for some reason. Probably far too many to list here. (Although we’re well into the 21st century now, most of the time they’re still not even being taught proper sex education!) So I’ve set myself the more modest goal of explaining three basic lessons from Stoic philosophy, which might be of particular interest to younger people.
Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm… — Epictetus, Fragment
In recent decades, there’s been a revolution in the way cognitive-behavioural psychotherapists treat emotional disorders. A “third wave” of evidence-based therapies evolved that focus more on mindfulness of thoughts and acceptance of unpleasant feelings, rather than disputing our beliefs in order to change our emotions. This sea change emerged from a growing body of research, which converged on the finding that people with severe anxiety and depression already tend to be trying too hard to think their way out of their problems and struggling too much to control their feelings.
However, acceptance of uncomfortable emotions had already long been taught by many earlier forms of psychotherapy, e.g., the Gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls and others, which developed in the 1950s. Indeed, even the original forms of behaviour therapy and cognitive therapy had, sometimes, taught emotional acceptance. In his recently-revised manual for the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders, Aaron T. Beck, one of the pioneers of cognitive therapy, clearly states that his objective is not to teach people how to “control their anxiety”.
Instead cognitive therapy focuses on helping individuals develop a more “accepting attitude” toward anxiety rather than a “combative (i.e., controlling) attitude.” When thoughts like “I can’t let these anxious feelings continue” are replaced with “I can allow myself to feel anxious because I know I’m exaggerating the threat and danger,” then the intensity and persistence of anxiety are greatly diminished. — Clark & Beck, 2010, p. 195
The Stoic philosophy, which originally inspired cognitive therapy, had also endorsed a similar acceptance of unpleasant emotions, although this is often forgotten today. When people speak of “being stoic” today (lower-case) they typically mean “having a stiff upper-lip”, i.e., suppressing or concealing unpleasant and painful emotions. Several modern research studies have shown that this is often an unhealthy way of coping, though. Lower-case stoicism tends to do the opposite what people believe by making us more emotionally vulnerable in the long-run rather than more resilient — it’s really a sign, in most cases, of weakness not strength. In contrast, Stoic philosophy led to cognitive therapy, and modern evidence-based protocols for psychological resilience training, which many studies have shown to be healthy and effective.
Indeed, the Stoics make a more nuanced distinction between aspects of emotion that are involuntary and those that are voluntary. We should accept the former, as natural and inevitable, but take greater responsibility for the latter. When we’re caught in a threatening situation, they said, like being in a ship during a storm at sea, even a seasoned sailor will often turn pale and tremble, if his life is in imminent danger. We shouldn’t struggle against those feelings or view them as bad. However, we don’t need to make things worse either by worrying or ruminating about events afterwards, or complaining excessively about them.
Three Simple Ways that Stoicism can Change your Mindset
The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of the most cherished and widely-read self-help classics of all time. His personal reflections contain a lot of good advice based on the ancient Stoic philosophy that he followed.
I’ve been researching Stoicism for nearly a quarter of a century, from my early days as a student of academic philosophy to my later career as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist deeply engaged with psychological-resilience training. I’m the author of several books on Stoicism, including a recent one on Marcus Aurelius called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Over the years, I’ve observed that although people love The Meditations they often struggle to know how to put Marcus’ psychological wisdom into practice. Below, I’ve outlined three of the most simple and practical Stoic exercises that you’ll find within the pages of The Meditations.