Skip to main content

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.

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.

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.

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.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe