From Ancient Athens to Now: Stoicism’s Role in the 21st Century

March 14, 2024 (3mo ago)

To be alive today means to be constantly bombarded by things screaming for your emotional attention. Social media algorithms are built to trick you into doomscrolling, notifications on phones constantly remind you there is a dopamine hit waiting just a few clicks away, and everything in the news is salacious and designed to make you feel a certain way. Anger, loneliness, drug use, addiction, and suicide statistics have all skyrocketed in the past few years, especially among our youth, particularly males.

People's emotions and anxieties make many interactions, both online and in the real world, feel like walking on eggshells. This is why stoicism is needed now more than ever. If the teachings of stoicism could be summed up in one word, it would be “Resilience”. Let's now cover some of the ways this ancient worldview and philosophy could be used to tackle even the toughest struggles of this modern era.

What Stoicism Is and Isn't

What stoicism is, is quite simple. It is a philosophy, or in other words, a certain way of looking at the world, first created back in ancient Greece. The overall concept is about not being a slave to your emotions and only worrying about how you react to things going on around you and your own self-virtue. This is practiced through emotional regulation, self-discipline both in mind and body, and understanding what is under our control in our lives. The teachings themselves can be used by anyone anywhere in all of life's situations, as we are emotional creatures by nature.

Now, let's discuss what stoicism isn’t. Stoicism itself has gotten a bad rap for a while now in how it is used. You will hear a lot of people act emotionally distant or dodge accountability and use being “stoic” as the reason as to why they couldn't open up about something or why they keep things bottled up. Being stoic does not mean that you don't have emotions or hide them; in fact, it is quite the opposite. True stoics feel all the same emotions as anyone else, they just have the practices in place to conquer what they are feeling and act with logic instead of a knee-jerk emotional response.

Being stoic or practicing stoicism is not something you just “are” or have ever mastered. Just as people grow, evolve, and change as our lives go on, so will the things we feel, and so our stoic ideals will be tested until the end. But know in all of this, that perfection is not expected nor possible, just knowing you are more resilient and able to live a stronger and happier life is truly what stoicism is all about.

Confidence Through Understanding

“The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one.” But would you admit anything if no one was listening? In this modern day, actual true communication between anyone is at an all-time low. People stay inside and alone more than ever. Mental health help and services often face criticism in the USA, and the fear of being hastily prescribed medication deters people from seeking help. Despair, combined with a lack of purpose and no one to talk to, leads to people who will not want to discuss what they are suffering from, especially among men, but that is a topic for a different blog soon.

This issue, however, is where stoicism shines in its teachings. When I mentioned resilience before, this is what I meant. Self-reliance on being a master of control over the one and only thing you ever truly have control of in your life; yourself. Marcus Aurelius preaches it in much of what he says. It's the idea that once someone realizes that, outside of physical harm, what people say or do does not actually have any effect on you. Being offended, saddened, angered, triggered, whatever it may be, is at the end of the day something you control. In understanding this concept, it allows a person to gain some control over their lives and start analyzing why they are feeling these things that are so disruptive to their happiness. And with this understanding, comes the confidence to start admitting that there is something wrong, and doing what is needed to overcome.

Stoicism in Practice Today

As someone who has had to overcome his share of adversity in his life, with a fateful night of random gang violence at the age of 21 ending with me having a gunshot wound to the head. And the PTSD and body dysmorphia from many post-survival surgeries led me to an eight-year-long relationship with alcohol. Once I stopped drinking 6 years ago, though, a whole different battle began with having to process emotions now.

This was not easy, and the support system was light. Leaning on my family and friends only hurt our relationship as even though they tried, none of them were built to be therapists on what I needed. And this is where stoicism came in. The philosophy is truly built around the idea of self-resilience against anything life throws at you. When I started recovery, my nervous system and body were so stressed from the new life of non-substance, and my mind was still recovering from the brain damage caused by 8 years of consistent drinking. As great as my life choice was, I did not feel strong at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

I was as fragile and emotionally vulnerable as one could be. I tried to be happy, upbeat, and virtuous in what I presented, but deep down I was lonely and still felt lost, and the amount of self-thought up judgment I felt others around me were showing was destroying my chances at happiness or sobriety. All the sympathy I craved when I was struggling with alcohol still clung to me, reminiscent of the lingering scent on a smoker's jacket. No matter how much I tried, without any help, I was lost. Not drinking again, but not happy with life.

Then I stumbled upon stoicism. I have always loved the history around ancient civilizations, especially Greece. Stoicism is from that time, and in some of my readings, I came across it and the idea that one did not need to be a slave to their emotions, and the only things in life that can hurt you are the ones you let do so. As I started practicing the teachings and as I learned more about it, I saw stark changes in my life. PTSD triggers became less, the crippling anxiety was down, and confidence flooded back in, and the victim that I once was now gone forever.

I learned to harness my emotions, not let PTSD and its demons run my life, and started to grow and thrive. I started lifting more, even got into competitive powerlifting. As I got into better shape both mentally and physically, I got the confidence to put myself out there in the dating world for the first time in a decade, and after a long while, and not letting the not-so-great dates, or relationships that just ended poorly not get me down, I met my current girlfriend who's amazing and the love of my life. It's funny because she, too, practices stoicism as a recovering alcoholic.

Being at a point that a decade ago I never would have thought was possible is something I still must remain humble about and remember how I got here. Hard work, practice, and when going through emotional situations, consistently asking myself the ultimate stoic question; “Is this necessary?”

Final Thoughts

Is stoicism for everyone? No, nothing is for everyone. I, however, am just a guy who's been through some pretty insane stuff, lived to tell the tale, and overcame the cost of surviving such things. It hasn't been easy, and honestly, I think my life would have been much different in positive ways if I had been taught the things I know now about this philosophy earlier in life.

I wish I had the resilience I have now, then. When I was so ashamed of the physical jarring scars covering my body from all the surgeries. I wish I had the mindset that only focusing on what I have control over in my life instead of things I don't, then I wouldn't have let the stupid comments about my disabilities and scars from ignorant coworkers and people at bars get to me so much. I wish I had the discipline instilled by stoicism to go to the gym and get stronger from the start of all of this. Then, possibly, all those times where I was terrified by past trauma about getting hurt by someone randomly when just going out in public wouldn't have happened.

All in all, everything about stoicism would have been a benefit in some form or another during my hardest times, and I believe that it can be for others as well. Now more so than ever, as the core pieces of what make us human, our emotions and bonds with others, are being tested like no other time in history. Luckily, this ancient belief that looked at the individual and their inner resilience against anything they may come up against is making its comeback, and I plan on being an arbiter in its message. And if can prevent others from going through what I had to go through, so alone and without resources, then all of this will have been worth it. Thank you.