• Matthew Emerson

The Stoics Were Really Ancient Psychologists


This makes me want to watch Hercules again.

So here at Chapter of the Day we've begun a sort of series on helpful ideas from the ancient world (see Dan's Spartan post,). Today, I want to introduce another great set of ancient people whose influence on modern thought goes relatively unnoticed. So move over, Aristotle and Socrates. These impressive lads are the stoics.


The stoics are not a sub-culture of Greece like the Spartans (who lived in a single city state), but a school of philosophy that captivated the minds of many thinkers across the ancient Mediterranean world. Stoicism, in a nutshell, is the belief that virtue is the highest good, and the cultivation of right reason will help you grow in virtue. Within the popular imagination, the term "stoic" has come to be associated with those who can endure great pain without showing emotion. This is definitely connected to ideals set out by the Stoics. Their goal was to become master of the self.


Pretty sweet goal.


Stoicism originated in Greece but has been widely popularized by the work entitled Meditations written by Marcus Aurelius, the famed Philosopher-King of Rome (which is just an amazing title). Below are a couple famous phrases of the stoics. While ancient literature might not be a substitute for professional counseling, there is definitely some life-changing wisdom in these proverbs.


1. Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been. This may seem like an ignorant phrase. What if someone says something insulting to you? Be it a slur, rude comment, passive aggressive quip, whatever it is, it seems naive of a Roman emperor to dismiss hurtful comments by pushing the responsibility of getting hurt by them into the hands of the receiver, but is he all that wrong? While it may be hard, at the end of the day, it is our choice to be offended, or remain offended by someone's words. This proverb is here to help us put control back into our hands, instead of letting the insult or anger control us. We have control over our emotions, it's not the other way around.


This baby understands the Stoic notion of self-control. Do you?

2. It’s time you realized that you have something inside you more powerful and miraculous than the things that make you dance like a puppet. This is one of the best dunks on determinism I've read in a while. It's not a dismissal of external circumstances. There are A LOT of pressures that beat down on us on a regularly basis, and they do make certain choices harder than others. We do have a choice, though. Even if not in action, in belief. Viktor Frankl, the great holocaust survivor and existential psychologist argued that even when your freedom of action is taken away, you still have the freedom to decide how you feel about the situation. What you will do with that freedom of thought is up to you. Embrace the power of the human spirit.


3. External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. The abstractions of overly paid professors and crazed ideologues are not the problem, it's the people who listen to them. What makes ideologies dangerous is when people incorporate them into their minds, lives, and souls. So be aware. You have personal control of what you read, watch, and listen to. It is your responsibility to warden the garden of your mind. Don't be surprised if your behavior becomes toxic after devouring poison. But don't be surprised if your mind flourishes after tending it properly! (See, it's not all doom and gloom :)) Read the classics. Find an introductory philosophy book. Penny Dreadfuls are all well and good (far better than what we have now), but they aren't enough to live on.


Today, the stoic's ideas have now been codified into one of the most popular schools of psychological thought of the 20th Century: Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT for short).


REBT was created by Albert Ellis, and its essential maxim is that "it is largely our thinking about events that leads to emotional and behavioral upset." Sounds Stoic right? REBT counseling focuses on the present and what the client has immediate control over--the self. It wouldn't hurt modern psychologists to pick up a copy of The Meditations to look over. It might provide them with an old, yet still relevant understanding of the human person.


At the end of the day, only you have control over what goes on in you and around you. Stoicism, simply put, wants to give control of the self back to yourself. Take a minute and think about something that is bothering you that shouldn't, start there.


After all, that's quite manageable, isn't it?


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