What is Stoicism? The ancient philosophy enjoys a revival

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Many people are unfamiliar with the writings of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, but their philosophy of stoicism is currently enjoying a resurgence. They were especially relevant in times of hardship and trial; great leaders sought their guidance during the Civil War, the American Revolution, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire  The central message of the Stoics was to focus less on the external and more on the internal. In other words, less focus on what we cannot change in our lives and more on cultivating our own virtues. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with media columnist, author and renowned modern-day stoic Ryan Holiday who sheds some light on the lives of the ancient Roman sages and explains why their philosophy on life resonates so much today.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Tell us about the origins of Stoicism, some of the well known Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, who was he and why was he important? 

Ryan Holiday: “When I talk to audiences that don't know anything about philosophy, I usually point to the old guy in the movie ‘Gladiator’ that's Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome. The most powerful man in the world was a philosopher and it was philosophy that guided him as the Emperor but you need to go back many hundreds of years to the origin of stoicism as a philosophy, as it begins with a guy named Zeno. Zeno is a merchant, who suffers and loses everything in a shipwreck and eventually he washes up in Athens and it's actually in a bookstore that he comes upon the writings of the philosophers and creates a school known as stoicism. 

In between, Zeno and Marcus Aurelius —, - I like the Z to A- ness of it —- but in between, you have stoics who are politicians, generals, playwrights, and who are real people in the real world struggling to do what we're all struggling to do, which is, to control our tempers, control our urges, navigate stress, navigate fear and most of all every stoic is struggling with the reality of our mortality. So stoicism is really a philosophy that's designed to help you live a good life and hopefully die a good death.”

Where does the word “stoic” come from? We often use it to describe someone who is unemotional, unaffected, so how did that term become so associated with the Stoics?

Holiday: “Stoicism starts in the Athenian Agora on a stoa which just means porch. So I think it's fitting that stoicism is a practical down-to-earth philosophy that would begin on a guy's porch, but that's all that still means. What we call ‘“stoicism’” the lowercase word in English means to show no emotions but that's about as far from the truth of the philosophy as epicureanism and hedonism have to do with each other. It's just a weird quirk of how the language has developed but stoicism as a philosophy has really nothing to do with this idea stuffing your emotions down, or being affected by nothing, feeling nothing, being a robot that's not what the stoics talked about. 

In fact, in one of the most beautiful passages in Marcus Aurelius he says, he learns from one of his philosophical mentors that the key is to be free of passions, yes, but full of love. So it's not that the stoics feel nothing, it’s that they try not to be ruled by anger or fear or doubt or jealousy or lust or any of these sort of toxic emotions that lead us to a dark place. They want to feel love and acceptance and gratitude; positive emotions that are primarily in one's control.”

What defines the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and how did he put that into practice?

Holiday: “My sort of working definition of stoicism is this idea that we don't control what happens, but we control how we respond. There's a beautiful passage that Marcus writes to himself in the middle of the Antonine Plague , a terrible pandemic, in which he says that it's unfortunate that this happened and then he corrects himself and goes on and says ‘no, it's fortunate that this happened to me’ as not everyone would have been able to survive it the way that I am, not everyone would have been able to do what I'm able to do with it. To me that really encapsulates who Marcus Aurelius was. My book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is based on another observation for Marcus, where he says ‘what stands in the way, becomes the way. The impediment to action advances action,’the point being, to Marcus and to all the stoics, what life throws at us is fuel for us. The obstacles that we face are the opportunities to rise to the occasion, to exhibit our philosophical principles, to become better people.  

So I think if you're trying to get to the core of who Marcus Aurelius is, even as the Emperor he understands that there are so many things that he's powerless over so he wants to focus all of his energy on responding well, to the situations that life puts in front of him.” 

As anybody that has seen a therapist, this seems to be the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy,, understanding things that we cannot control. 

Holiday: “Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of cognitive behavioral therapy, sort of credits Epictetus with this idea. The other idea from Epictetus that’s interesting, is that he says that it's not things that upset us, it's our judgment about things. 

A few years ago, I gave a talk to the Pittsburgh Pirates at their spring training in Bradenton, Florida. They had this quote on the wall not credited to Epictetus but it just said, “it's not things that upset us, it's our opinion about things.” That really is the core breakthrough of the psychology of stoicism. It's also a core principle of Buddhism and most philosophical schools, that just because we feel something about something, just because we think something about something, doesn't mean that it's actually true. 

And the ability to question our own thoughts, to disrupt those patterns, is really from the stoics. It was about getting to this place of ataraxia, the idea of being free of disturbance, being free of misery and not being at the whim of external things. And a key way to get there is to realize that this thing that I'm upset about is not up to me; I don't control what my parents do, I don't control what this driver in front of me in traffic is doing, I don't control the weather, I don't control the economy, I don't control this pandemic but I do control the choices that I make in response to that and I control the person I'm going to be within this larger thing that I'm powerless over.”



  • Ryan Holiday - speaker, writer and host of The Daily Stoic podcast. Author of several booking including “Stillness is the Key” and “Courage is Calling” and most recently “Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self Control” - @RyanHoliday


Andrea Brody