Sometimes it seems that we are living in exceptionally difficult and uncertain times. Sometimes adversity knocks on our door and it’s hard not to hit bottom emotionally. Sometimes everything seems so dark and confusing that we can’t find our way out. In those situations, when there are plenty of reasons for discouragement and life overwhelms us, Stoic philosophy can be of great help.
Today like yesterday, history repeats itself
Stoic philosophers outlined a way of seeing life and facing the world. They left us very valid advice on how to adjust our perception in the midst of the storm to prevent it from dragging us down and lead a fuller life. Founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC, Stoicism arose precisely in a historical period marked by profound changes that generated great concern, both socially and personally.
After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek polis were subsumed into larger political entities run by professional bureaucrats. Where before there were free men and democratic city-states, now great impersonal empires were erected where people were mere pieces that had to obey orders.
These were not easy times, but within that era of existential despair, Stoicism blossomed into a philosophy that promoted self-sufficiency, calm, and almost an indifference to pain or poverty. This attitude towards life, according to Stoic philosophy, leads to eudaimonia; that is, a state of equanimous happiness.
A little because of the coincidences in the historical periods and a little because of its valuable messages, today Stoic philosophy resonates like never before and its wisdom continues to be fully topical to find strength when everything seems to be going wrong.
Stoicism, short quotes to face adversity with perspective and equanimity
1. “Things do not touch the soul, for they are external to its movement, but your anguish only comes from judgments within” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism helps us develop the right relationship with events. It teaches us to differentiate what we can control from situations that are beyond our control. Zeno’s contemporaries could not control social changes but, as Marcus Aurelius explained, many events are external and immovable and, as such, we should not let them touch our souls causing useless suffering.
When we worry unnecessarily about events that are beyond our control, we waste precious energy that we could allocate to those things that we can really control and that can bring more satisfaction to our lives. Therefore, we must realize that much of our distress does not come from external events but from our interpretation of them. As Epictetus said: “There is only one form of peace of mind and happiness, and it consists in not taking external things to heart.”
2. “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality” – Seneca
Many times we fall into the trap of external and immovable events that Marcus Aurelius referred to. Our catastrophic thinking kicks in and we exaggerate the results by imagining the worst.
In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca warns his interlocutor, Lucilio, that this catastrophizing is useless. It only causes us suffering before the crisis, assuming that it actually occurs. Instead, it encourages us to keep that anticipatory anxiety under control, an idea also shared by Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in The Meditations: “Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must necessarily be unhappy.”
Neither Seneca nor Marcus Aurelius promise us that we will never feel pain, regret, stress, anger, or other negative emotions. External events, as well as our internal struggles, generate these feelings naturally, but they warn us that the art of living consists precisely in being able to manage these thoughts and emotions to prevent them from taking on a life of their own and from overwhelming, anguish and stress us unnecessarily.
3. “As wood is to the carpenter, and bronze to the sculptor, so are our own lives the proper material in the art of living.” – Epictetus
The Stoic philosophers did not pretend that we live outside of what happens or that we become leaves blown by the winds of circumstances. Quite the opposite. Stoicism encourages us to understand and use our power to change what can be changed.
In the same way that a carpenter shapes wood, Epictetus warns us that we are responsible for the “art of living”. That means that we are the creators of our lives and that we must pay attention to our thoughts, emotions and decisions.
This phrase from the Stoics urges us to focus on our personal development and act according to our principles. Regardless of the circumstances, we always have the power to decide our reaction. That power is what shapes our lives, just as the sculptor shapes the statue. Therefore, we need to focus more on perfecting those skills that allow us to build the life we want, instead of regretting the circumstances.
4. “How does lamenting our problems help us?” – Seneca
Stoicism preached a balanced and minimalist lifestyle. These philosophers were convinced that complaints and regrets were uselessly wasted energy. For that reason, Seneca encourages us to ask ourselves: what is the use of complaining? Can complaints help us in any way to solve the problem?
Without a doubt, sometimes life puts us on the ropes. But often we increase our suffering by clinging to problems and amplifying them through complaints. Each lament puts us in the position of victim and moves our locus of control outward a little more, robbing us of our strength.
Wallowing in the mud of self-pity or blaming the world for our misfortune does not solve nothing. That attitude ties us to the past and drags us into the waters of our own misery. For that reason, the Stoic philosophers encourage us to look adversity in the face, discover what we can learn from it, take responsibility for our growth, and move on.
5. “What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out?” – Epictetus
This teaching from Epictetus tells us that while difficult times are often difficult to manage, they can also be a means for growth and self-improvement. In The Discourses he makes reference to the fact that if Hercules had not faced those 12 labors, he would not have become the legendary character.
Something similar happened to the Greeks during the Hellenistic period. While it was a time of great social and political movement, it also represented a cultural renaissance that gave rise to new forms of thought and expression. New forms of art, music and literature arose. Science and invention reached new heights with thinkers like Euclid and Archimedes.
Epictetus is not telling us to seek out lions and hydras simply to introduce suffering into our lives, but neither are we to fight inevitable suffering just because it is difficult, painful, or we’re likely to fail, since many of life’s greatest achievements and most valuable skills are developed precisely during that fight. Therefore, we need to learn to see adversity with different eyes, looking for in it what we can take advantage of.
6. “You become what you pay attention to” – Epictetus
Among all the Stoic quotes, this is probably one of the most valuable life lessons. When we are in the midst of adversity, it is easy for problems to cloud our vision and we are not able to see beyond them. Obstacles raise a smoke screen that keeps us going around in the same place.
Instead, Epictetus encourages us to look beyond, advice he shares with Marcus Aurelius, who also warned us: “It is essential that you remember that the attention you give to any action must be proportional to its value.”
These Stoic philosophers warn us that our attention is a very valuable resource, so that what we put it on will grow. If we focus too much on adversity, it will be more painful, bringing us nothing but suffering. Instead, if we pay more attention to what we can do to solve the problem, we will adopt a proactive attitude that will allow us to feel better.
7. “A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it” – Marcus Aurelius
“Your happiness depends on the quality of your thoughts; therefore, act accordingly and be careful not to entertain yourself in notions unsuitable for virtue and reasonable nature”, is one of the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius.
“Remember that everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. All we see is a perspective, it is not the truth […] If you are afflicted by something external, that pain is not due to the event itself, but to the meaning you give it, and you have the power to eliminate it at any time […] You have power over your mind, not over events. Realize this and you will find strength,” he added.
Stoic philosophy advocated self-knowledge as a way to achieve happiness. These philosophers remind us that much of our unhappiness and frustration is self-inflicted because we don’t usually react to events, but to the idea we form of them. Therefore, we must learn to separate the facts from our expectations to build the life we want.
Dickinson, K. (2023) 5 Stoic quotes to help you through difficult times. In: Big Think.