If you ask most modern philosophers “What’s the meaning of life?” they’ll probably just shrug and say that’s an unanswerable question. However, the major schools of ancient philosophy basically each proposed a different answer to that question. In a nutshell, the Stoics said that the goal (telos, “end” or “purpose”) of life is consistently to live in harmony and agreement with the nature of the universe, and to do this by excelling with regard to our own essential nature as rational and social beings. This is also described as “living according to virtue” or aretê, although as you’ll see it’s best to think of this as meaning excellence in a broader sense than the word “virtue” normally implies – something I’ll explain later.
The word “stoic” (small “s”) is still used today to mean being calm or self-controlled in the face of adversity. Curiously, the adjective “philosophical” is used to mean more or less the same thing, e.g., “He developed a serious illness but remained philosophical about events.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following, virtually identical, definitions:
philosophical. adj. Calm in adversity.
stoical. adj. Having or showing great self-control in adversity.
Isn’t that striking? It’s as though, when it comes to actually living philosophically, rather than just talking philosophy, these two words have come to be almost synonymous and interchangeable.
However, to the majority of non-philosophers, the word “stoical” also means being “unemotional” or “having a stiff upper-lip” in the crude sense of repressing their feelings, and that’s definitely not what it originally meant. In other words, it’s not what “Stoicism” (with a capital “S”) means.
As we’ll see, Stoicism, like most ancient Western philosophies, assumed that the goal of life was Happiness (eudaimonia), which Stoics believed to coincide both with rational self-love and an attitude of friendship and affection toward others, sometimes described as Stoic “philanthropy,” or love of mankind. For instance, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, writing in his journal, repeatedly advises himself to “love humanity from the bottom of your heart” while rejoicing in doing good to others for its own sake and treating virtue as its own reward (Meditations, 7.13).
We might say that a central paradox of Stoicism is therefore its assumption that, far from being heartless, the ideal wise man, called the “Sage,” will both love others and yet be undisturbed by the inevitable losses and misfortunes that life inflicts on him. He has natural emotions and desires but is not overwhelmed by them, but remains guided by reason.
In fact, Stoicism provides a rich armamentarium of strategies and techniques for developing psychological resilience, by changing our feelings rationally and naturally rather than simply trying to block them out by force. In a sense, ancient Stoicism was the granddaddy of all “self-help” and its ideas and techniques have inspired many modern approaches to both personal development and psychological therapy.
It’s generally accepted that the modern psychotherapy that most resembles ancient Stoic “remedies” for emotional problems is Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and its precursor Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) (Robertson, 2010). Indeed, the founder of REBT, Albert Ellis, and the founder of cognitive therapy, Aaron T. Beck, both cite Stoicism as the main philosophical inspiration for their respective approaches.
In the first major textbook on cognitive therapy, for instance, Beck and his colleagues wrote: “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers” (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979, p. 8). Although CBT is mainly remedial in nature, dealing with clinical anxiety and depression, it has also been adapted for use as a preventative approach, for generic psychological “resilience-building” (Robertson, 2012; Reivich & Shatté, 2002).
Ancient Stoic “therapy” was arguably more of a general resilience-building approach, although it also set out to remedy extreme distress where necessary. CBT also happens to have the strongest evidence-base, the strongest scientific support, of any modern form of psychological therapy (Roth & Fonagy, 2005). So we’re looking at an ancient philosophical system, employed for emotional resilience-building, which has inspired a hugely successful modern therapy with a scientifically proven track record.
This post is an excerpt from Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, by Donald Robertson.
Donald Robertson is a trainer and author, with over twenty years’ experience. He’s a specialist in teaching evidence-based psychological skills, and known as an expert on the relationship between modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. He’s the author of five books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.