Stoicism, Socrates and Epictetus

For many people, the world is in a state of upheaval that can feel difficult to cope with, but can the teachings of the Stoics help in these troubling times?

Excerpted from the BBC:  The Ancient Guide for Uncertain Times

The teachings of the Stoic philosophers were intended to help guide people through troubled and challenging times 

(Credit: Peter J. Hatcher/Alamy)

It was a life of difficulty. Born into slavery, at one point his master broke his leg, leaving him disabled. Eventually freed, he spent the next 25 years pursuing his calling – only for his career to be outlawed by the dictator in charge. He fled abroad, an exile and in poverty.

These sketchy biographical details are almost all that we know of the life of the philosopher Epictetus, born around AD55. While some of them are contested – we can't be sure if he was born a slave, or simply became a slave young – it's clear that he didn't have it easy. 


Nor was his world one that was placid and predictable, either: if he came to Rome from his birthplace in modern-day Turkey sometime around AD65, then he would have had a turbulent childhood. He may have witnessed both the fire that torched two-thirds of the city and lived through a single year so politically turbulent it saw four different emperors, two murdered and one who killed himself. 


And yet Epictetus had everything he needed. After all, he said - according, at least, to a student who painstakingly wrote down his teachings - that "it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them". 


This idea is one of the pillars of the philosophical school known as Stoicism, founded by the philosopher Zeno in Athens during the upheaval, crises and violence of 4th Century BC.

It's also one of many teachings from the school that we can still learn from – which may be why we see its echoes in so much psychologyself-help literature and even religion today.


Whether it's war or a pandemic, our health or finances, no matter how challenging our lives might feel, the Stoics tell us, we still can thrive. They should know: Stoicism was a school that was "built for hard times", writes Kare Anderson, seeking to give people a guide to the good life even when the world around them was unpredictable and troubled. Here are some of the main takeaways the Stoics can offer for uncertain times:


Recognise what you can (and can't) control


As Epictetus said, for Stoics, it isn't the thing itself that causes turmoil. It's how you think about it. And few things cause more distress than fighting against circumstances outside of our control, or getting attached to an outcome that isn't in our power.


The first hurdle – one so important that Epictetus called it "our chief task in life" – is to identify what is outside of your control to begin with, aspects the Stoics call "externals". Luckily, the Stoics made this rather simple: it's everything other than your own thoughts, choices and actions. 

Take health, for example. You may choose to eat five-a-day and exercise (your choices), but that doesn't mean you won't ever suffer any health issues (an external). And if you think it does, you're not just deluding yourself. You're setting yourself up for real disappointment.

I have essays on  STOICISM  and  SOCRATES.

A well known, most pertinent statement in Stoicism is The Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change

the courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,

enjoying one moment at a time.

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.

Taking the sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.

by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971