OPINION - The snowflake generation could do with a good dose of this philosophy


One of the oddest features of the culture right now is that the philosophy of Stoicism is a big thing. There’s a group called Modern Stoicism which runs a Stoic Week, that asks participants to live like a Stoic — and it turns out that it makes them feel good. In fact, living like a Stoic for a month is even better. There’s a Daily Stoic podcast by the American, Ryan Holiday. There’s an annual gathering called Stoicon for modern Stoics. There are several popular and short guides to Stoicism. And today there’s the launch of the second series of the podcast Brave New World, presented by this paper’s proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, with an opening episode on Stoicism. It features the US academic, Bill Irvine; it’ll be followed by an interview with Ryan Holiday.

It’s hard, on the face of it, to think of anything less like the spirit of the age than Stoicism. It’s the opposite of snowflakery, and the cult of being perpetually offended by other people’s speech and the general embrace of victimhood. Because the essence of Stoicism is that nothing external to you can adversely affect you. Not really. What matters is your judgement, how you respond to things. And the equable, rational mind accepts things as they are — with the proviso that you can do your bit to make things as they are.

Seneca, who had the world’s worst job as tutor to the emperor Nero, translated the philosophy into practice

Lots of us will think of being stoical as being a little soldier when you fall and hurt yourself, maintaining that vanished bit of physiognomy, the stiff upper lip, when things go wrong. And that acceptance of adversity is certainly part of it. But at the heart of the philosophy is the acceptance that what is, is the best of all possible outcomes, or, as Hamlet put it, “there’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

It’s not coincidence that Shakespeare sounds like a Stoic; the philosophy became embedded in the European mindset from very early on; early Christianity was enthusiastic about Stoicism (Protestants less so) and one of the most famous handbooks of Stoicism, Epictetus’ Manual, was on educated people’s bookshelves for centuries.

It might seem strange that we should be so profoundly influenced by a philosophy that emerged from Greece in the fourth century BC — except that most of our big philosophical ideas come from ancient Greece. The original Stoic was Zeno: the name comes from the columns he taught his students under. He didn’t leave written work, but his follower Epictetus had his Boswell, Arrian, who transcribed his teaching. Epictetus was a freed slave, who knew what it was to be under others’ control. It makes his insistence on the freedom of the will even more striking.

“Don’t ask that events should happen as you wish but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.” It sounds glib, but for him the universe is in God’s hands and divine providence works things out for the best.

The best known Stoics were Romans. Seneca, who had the world’s worst job as tutor to the emperor Nero and ended up committing suicide at his behest, translated the philosophy into the practice of knowing yourself and transforming yourself. He used daily reflections and examinations of his own actions to chart his progress: the Catholic daily examination of conscience comes indirectly from him. And I’m sorry to say that the cult of self-help manuals and those logbooks of personal development you can buy in Paperchase, monitoring your goals, may do too.

Lots of us will think of being stoical as being a little soldier when you fall and hurt yourself — it’s more

Marcus Aurelius is one of the best known Stoics, a) because he was an emperor, so people like Bill Clinton relate to him and b) because his Meditations, a series of reflections, are nice and short so make a handy slim paperback. His image of the inner citadel of the mind that we can retreat into in times of adversity (he knew a lot about that) is a striking way of expressing the inner serenity of the rational soul.

But he also had a useful insistence on the present moment — and yes, it does sound like mindfulness — whereby the past is behind us, the future impossible to manage, leaving just the here and now under our control. It’s useful, that.

Actually in lots of ways, Stoicism has a lot to offer in the 21st century. One thing it doesn’t square with is the self-indulgent emotionalism that characterises a lot of the culture. So let’s all be more Stoic. It’ll make a nice change.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist