The word “stoic” (from the Greek stoa) has come to mean a few things in popular parlance, most of them related directly to the ancient Greek, then Roman, philosophy from which the term derives. Stoic people seem unmovable. They stay cool in a crisis and “keep calm and carry on” when others lose their heads. For several, perhaps obvious, reasons, these qualities of “calm, resilience, and emotional stability” are particularly needed in a time like ours, says Alain de Botton in his School of Life video above.
But how do we acquire these qualities, according to the Stoics? And what philosophers should we consult to learn about them? One of the most prolific of Stoic philosophers, the Roman writer and statesman Seneca, advised a typical course of action. In a letter to his friend Lucilius, who feared a potentially career-ending lawsuit, Seneca counseled that rather than resting in hopes of a happy outcome, his friend should assume that the worst will come to pass, and that, no matter what, he can survive it.
The goal is not to make Debbie Downers of us all, but to convince us that we are stronger than we think—that even our worst fears needn’t mean the end of the world. Seneca’s stoicism is a thoroughgoing realism that asks us to account for the entire range of possible outcomes—even the absolute worst we can imagine—rather than only those things we want or have previously experienced. In this way, we will not be caught off-guard when bad things come to pass, because we have already made a certain peace with them.
Rather than a pessimistic philosophy, Seneca’s thought seems entirely practical, a means of piercing our pleasant illusions and comfortable bubbles of self-regard, and considering ourselves just as subject to misfortune as anyone else in the world, and just as capable of enduring it as well.
To partake of Seneca’s wisdom yourself, consider reading this online three-volume collection of his letters, The Tao of Seneca. And for a longer list of Stoic thinkers, ancient and modern, see this post from Ryan Holiday of the Daily Stoic, a blog that offers useful Stoic advice for contemporary people.