'All is as thinking makes it so'*
Stoicism was one of the major schools of philosophy in the world of ancient Greece and Rome, and was one which focused less on abstract concepts and more on the experience of daily life and how we might reduce the suffering, anxiety, and stress that seems intrinsic to the human condition. The main way it suggested doing this was to develop what in modern psychological terms we might call an ‘internal locus of control’. The central argument here was that it is our thoughts or judgements about external events, rather than the events in and of themselves, which generates our experience of suffering and anxiety. It’s a point of view which recognises a complexity in the external world which is ever changing and almost always out of our control. Better then to not attach our sense of well-being to external events, but to accept the constant flow and flux of life, being grateful for the good things that come along, and accepting their loss when they leave.
'In those things which conduce to the comfort of life….to enjoy them without pride or apology either, so no routine acceptance of their presence or regret in their absence'*
Stoicism as a philosophy of daily life continues to influence our modern thinking about psychology, most prominently in the form of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Albert Ellis, the originator of ‘Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy’ and someone who siginifcantly contributed to the development of CBT as it is now practiced spoke explicitly of his interest in Stoicism. He saw in Stoicism a valuable insight into how our minds interpret and frame events in such a way as to self-generate much of the anxiety and emotional suffering we experience, and that if we could bring this process more into our conscious awareness we may be able to alter the way we think about ourselves and the world and greatly improve our sense of inner peace and well-being.
Some of the central tenets of Stoicism include:
- Acceptance of that which we cannot control
- There is a complex reason and order to the universe and all events which occur within it which we can never hope to fully comprehend
- Everything is in a process of constant change;
'Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still'*
- Death, loss, and decay are a natural and inevitable part of the constant transformation of all things in the universe.
- Our experience of the world is coloured by our thoughts and judgements about it. If we can learn to master our thinking mind, we can learn to live in peace and with authenticity.
- Everything is part of one organic whole
'Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all'*
Understanding and integrating the insights of Stoicism (or its modern variant in CBT) can be a helpful way to reduce our anxiety and navigate through the world with greater peace and tranquillity. For further information on Stoicism and its relevance to modern psychology, see the links below:
Donald Robertson - Cognitive psychotherapist and author of many books on Stoicism
* All quotes from ‘Meditations’, by Marcus Aurelius.