Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Donald Robertson’s latest book is How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Recently, a bartender in Nova Scotia showed me a quote from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius tattooed on his forearm. “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be,” it said, “just be one.”

We live in an age when social media bombards everyone, especially the young, with advice about every aspect of their lives. Stoic philosophy, of which Marcus Aurelius was history’s most famous proponent, taught its followers not to waste time on diversions that don’t actually improve their character.

Story continues below advertisement

In recent decades, Stoicism has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity, especially among millennials. There has been a spate of popular self-help books that helped to spread the word. One of the best known is Ryan Holiday and Steven Hanselman’s The Daily Stoic, which introduced a whole new generation to the concept of philosophy, based on the classics, as a way of life. It has fuelled interest among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. So has endorsement from self-improvement guru Tim Ferriss who describes Stoicism as the “ideal operating system for thriving in high-stress environments.”

Why should the thoughts of a Roman emperor who died nearly 2,000 years ago seem particularly relevant today, though? What’s driving this rebirth of Stoicism?

It is likely that what we are witnessing is not a fad but an enduring movement. Stoicism offers rational solutions to human problems but it is especially effective in troubled times. Its offer is attractive: It doesn’t matter how crazy the world is, how “bad” others are, you can always keep your cool and flourish. Such a promise is always enticing to be sure, but it becomes a lifeline in a world that is confusing.

There are local meetups for people interested in Stoicism popping up everywhere. The Stoic Fellowship maintains details of about 50 such groups around the world, including ones in Winnipeg, Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver. However, the largest in the world by far is the Stoicism Toronto meetup, which currently boasts more than 1,000 members.

People are looking for answers on how to live a good life and are turning to philosophy to find them. There is something about the Stoic philosophy that resonates with Canadians. Maybe it’s just the cold winters but there is a palpable hunger here for deep and meaningful conversations.

So what do Stoics believe? One of the most famous practical doctrines of Stoicism is the idea that we have to carefully distinguish between things that are under our control and things that are not. We should learn to take more responsibility for things we do and to be less disturbed by events that happen to us. The basic notion has been neatly captured in the Serenity Prayer, popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous, which says “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Another famous Stoic teaching is that it’s not things that upset us but rather our judgments about them. That idea became the basis of modern cognitive therapy, which teaches us to become more aware of the role our thinking, or cognition, can play in shaping our emotions.

Story continues below advertisement

However, cognitive therapy is remedial – it’s a treatment for specific problems from which someone is already suffering. It arrives late on the scene. The Holy Grail of mental health is prevention because as we all know prevention is better than cure. Stoicism holds out the promise of building what psychologists call long-term emotional resilience. It goes beyond therapy or self-help. Ordinary people can identify with it as a philosophy of life, deeply enough in some cases to get its words of wisdom tattooed on their bodies.

Stoic acceptance does not mean passivity, though. The ancient Stoics sought to reconcile emotional calm with deliberate action for the common welfare of mankind. It’s this service to a higher and more fundamental goal that gives Stoicism’s adherents a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

For instance, former mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, has brought this aspect of Stoicism into Canadian politics. You might not have heard about his philosophical influences, though, because rather than preaching the Stoic gospel he sought to exemplify it in his own character.

“Stoicism is more about your actions and the way you live,” he says. “It’s not a religion that you could proselytize. I never really talked about philosophy as such.”

However, Mr. Sullivan, whose disability-rights advocacy earned him the Order of Canada in 2005, doesn’t hesitate to credit the Stoics for helping him cope with the challenges he has faced over the years in life and in the political arena.

In 2008, when Mr. Sullivan lost the vote to run for a second term as mayor, he put his setback in perspective by reminding himself that it was trivial compared with the misfortunes faced by others throughout history, such as his hero, the philosopher Socrates. The Stoic wisdom, which says that even though we cannot ultimately control the misfortunes that befall us, we can control how we respond to them, sustained him through tough times.

Story continues below advertisement

Many people today are worried about terrorism, climate change, political corruption and other big issues that can seem both undeniably important and yet far beyond their ability to control as individuals. The real message of Stoicism, for Mr. Sullivan and others, is that we can remain committed to improving the world around us without having to become distressed when things fall short of our expectations.

That’s what we mean when we speak of someone maintaining a “philosophical attitude” in the face of adversity.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies