The Thistle - An E-Newsletter of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia

Being Stoic

Stoicism is a branch of philosophy which dates back 2400 years to ancient Athens. There is much to like about it. The name comes from 'Stoia', the Greek term for the central market-place where they would meet to discuss ideas. They wanted to be in the middle of people, and they wanted to talk to people and be in their lives and make those lives better. I like the practicality of that approach.

The Stoics have been mistakenly identified with the idea of suffering in silence, with life as some grim experience to be endured. This is a long way from the truth. They recognised that life was short and death was unpredictable, but this was to be taken as motivation to make the most of what precious life is given to us. As Epictetus said, "Don't worry about death; worry about lunch." By this, he meant that we should make the most of the now because this is the only way we can influence the future.

The dichotomy of control – that there are some things that are up to us and other things which are not – is instructional for us today in recognising the nature of life. It was this line of thought which Viktor Frankl drew upon when he wrote about choosing how to respond to the horror of life in an extermination camp. The Stoics used the metaphor of the archer: you can control which equipment you use, how much you practice, how hard you concentrate and where you aim, but once you let go of that arrow, it is outside of your control to do anything. A gust of wind may push your shot off-target; the target itself may move. So, what do you do? According to Cicero, you should not attach self-esteem to the outcome, but to the process. This – your attempt – is under your control.

There is much more to like about Stoicism – about leading a good and useful life, about kindness, integrity and serving others – and I shall return to it in future articles. I see it as an increasingly relevant philosophy for us in the modern world. It has particular relevance for us at Scotch:

  • Mindfulness is stoicism in action. It is an awareness of what is going on around us without judging that; accepting things for what they are and working from there. Mindfulness is about recognising the reality of life and making the most of it. We continue to seek ways to embed mindfulness in our students' lives;
  • Marching is a quirky yet powerful tradition in the Senior School. Marching is mindfulness in action, as a wise person once pointed out to me. It means forgetting about your past failures and your future problems and focusing on the moment and staying in time, listening to the beat and watching the rows. It is all about being in the moment. It is all about being with others, and being a part of something larger than simply you. It epitomizes the stoic tradition.

One of the most famous Stoics was Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome from 161-180AD. He was an impressive man, perhaps most famous for the collection of thoughts he wrote and kept for himself. A true philosopher-king, he took time to write down what was important in terms of living a good life – to remind himself of how humans should behave. In  Marcus Aurelius's Meditations he has an argument with himself in the opening of Book 5. It's clearly an argument he's had with himself many times, on many mornings — as have many of us: he knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain there. As Emperor of Rome, Marcus didn't actually have to get out of bed. He didn't really have to do anything. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work.

Resilience is built upon a series of small victories: encouraging your son to get up and make his bed in the morning is a simple example of this. By doing so, he will have accomplished something and established just a little bit of order and control over his world before he steps out of the house. A small win. And even if he has a terrible day (which occasionally he will), when he comes home, it will be to a nice and neat bed. Winning the morning is the key to winning the day. This then becomes a habit. A day well-begun is half-won.


The Daily Stoic website

Massimo Pigliucci (TEDxAthens)