Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy

Members of a brainy movement across the pond are reviving ancient stoic thought and coupling it with modern psychology to strengthen mental resilience. Their ideas hold fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems in a turbulent, post-recession slump.

This week, leaders of the movement sponsored what they dubbed “Stoic Week,” showcasing how emperors and warriors of bygone eras offer compelling, timeless principles that today’s leaders can use to remain calm in the throes of adversity—or in the midst of wild success.

Conde Nast CEO Jonathan Newhouse swears stoic philosophy is key to his inner stability amidst industries heavily focused on external appearance. Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan says stoicism empowered him out of depression after a skiing accident left him quadriplegic. Former president Bill Clinton (who indulged in some rather un-stoic passions) reportedly sought stoic wisdom throughout his presidency.

Prominent business thinker Nassim Nicholas Taleb praises stoic philosophy in his Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, a book that Stoic Week organizer Donald Robertson says nudged many curious readers toward stoicism. Robertson, a Scottish-born therapist and classics enthusiast, led workshops on psychological resilience for managers at oil giant Shell called “How to think like a Roman Emperor,” based on the life of stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius’ life embodied these five core stoic ideals:

1. Immediately Recognize What Is Out Of Your Control.

A stoic leader realizes that only his thoughts and intentions are truly within his sphere of control; everything else is ultimately uncontrollable.

“Anyone in a leadership role must come to terms quickly with the paradox of their position: that leaders must wield power but that often so much that happens lies outside of their control,” Robertson told Forbes. “How do we accept the limits of our power without slumping into passivity?”

Robertson said people sometimes confuse stoicism with submissiveness, but calls this “a very superficial misunderstanding.” Students of ancient stoicism tended to be sons from wealthy, cosmopolitan families. Many went on to rule empires or advise great leaders in commerce and war.

“Can you point to a single historical stoic who sat on his hands?” quips Robertson, whose forthcoming book, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: A Teach Yourself Guide, is due early next year. “It’s just not in the nature of their philosophy to be doormats or stay-at-home types.”

Robertson gave an analogy by Cato of Utica that a stoic is like an archer who diligently and confidently notches his arrow and draws his bow but must accept that once his arrow has flown it could be blown off course or its target could move.

Stoic managers take great pains to aim well but must accept what happens with total equanimity.

2. Fear, Anger And Other Emotions Are Personal Choices, Regardless Of Outer Circumstances.  

Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James Stockdale i...

Rear Adm. James Stockdale, stoic Navy pilot

In a Harvard Business Review article called “Building Resilience,” psychologist Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania discusses his concept of “learned helplessness,” when people subjected to stressful environments eventually collapse into complete passivity. Learned helplessness is the antithesis of stoic belief in inner power.

Trapped in a Vietnamese torture camp, American James Stockdale’s antagonizers wrenched his shoulders from their sockets, shattered his leg twice and broke his back. Shot down from his Navy plane, Stockdale’s captors held him seven years: more than four years in solitary confinement and two years shackled in irons.

Though his body lay captive in Hanoi prison cells, Stockdale later recounted that his mind was free and his spirit unbroken. Through clandestine channels, Stockdale, a high-ranking officer, maintained chain of command among his fellow captured pilots—75 initially, growing to more than 460—issuing orders and boosting morale. Released at war’s end, Stockdale later won the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award, and served as president of the Naval War College.

Before his capture, Stockdale mentally bulwarked himself for hardship after graduate studies at Stanford University, where a philosophy professor introduced him to the stoics, particularly Epictetus.

“Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of another,” Stockdale later wrote. “You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind.”

A stoic manager understands that no matter what chaotic circumstances surround her, she has total power over her own emotions and the richness of her inner life.

3. Live A Life Centered On Principles, Not Wealth, Awards, Family or Power.

For a stoic leader, the ends do not justify the means. Stoic leaders hunger for and build their lives around four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. If a leader builds his life around anything else—a central theme in business guru Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People –he could be disappointed because everything except these virtues is ephemeral.

It’s difficult to practice these values in rough-and-tumble marketplaces like Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But a stoic businessman recognizes that if his ambition is tethered to anything but the cardinal virtues, he’s in the words of stoic Cleanthes, “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.”

This doesn’t mean that stoics don’t enjoy pleasurable things like acclaim, love and monetary success; it means that they “prefer” them, but they don’t “require” them to be happy. A true philosopher, in the words of Crates of Thebes, is one who’s “looking on generals and donkey-drivers in the same light.”

The journey of life is more important than any material goal because the journey is life. If you feel trapped in a work environment that demands unethical behavior, a stoic guru would advise, it’s better to quit than stay in a place that erodes your commitment to principle.

A stoic leader does everything in her power to succeed but will not compromise her principles in pursuit of fleeting success.

4. People Who Misbehave Do Not Deserve An Emotional Reaction From You.  

In today’s lexicon, say the word “stoic” and you’ll conjure up images of a cold, harsh Scrooge-like figure. But ironically, stoicism can lead to even greater empathy for others who aren’t stoic because they’re not fortunate enough to live a principle-centered life. Someone who treats a stoic unkindly or deviously is merely demonstrating that he or she is behaving like one of Cleanthes’ tethered creatures. And since a stoic has complete control over his response to a negative stimulus, he chooses to emotionally disengage when someone picks a fight.

“The challenge for stoics has always been to live in a society full of people who ultimately suffer because they value material things or social status, without seeming unsympathetic to their plight,” says Robertson, who’s written on the connection between modern cognitive behavioral therapy and stoicism. “Most modern therapists see a great deal of self-inflicted human suffering but have to maintain an attitude of empathic understanding, even when their clients appear to be their own worst enemies.”

Stoicism is a deterministic philosophy, which means its practitioners believe that every external action is the uncontrollable result of circumstances leading up to that action. So if a person behaves rudely it’s because of something dysfunctional inside them that triggers that behavior; this is out of the stoic’s control. However, things get dicey in questions of crime and punishment.

“A criminal justice system should treat criminals as if they’re foolishly mistaken about the most important things in life,” Robertson says.  “It should seek mainly to rehabilitate and educate them, or perhaps to deter them, but not to punish for the sake of retribution, which the Stoics would see as a foolish and vicious response to those who commit wrongs.  It makes us as bad as them.”

A stoic leader remains unflappable in the face of others’ irrational misdeeds. He does not overreact, and if it’s his job, any punitive action he takes against a perpetrator seeks to remedy dysfunction behind the misdeed rather than meting out blind punishment.

5. Meditate Daily To Revive Your Commitment To A Principle-Centered Life   

Each day’s a fresh start, and a stoic clears his mind through reading or pondering stoic thought, a process that some call “cognitive hygiene,” or catharsis. Each morning this rejuvenates and reminds him of stoic principles. Each night it helps him identify mistakes and feel healthy pride in worthy accomplishments.

What’s fascinating about this new push to revive stoicism from the dusts of antiquity is that it wrenches stoicism from theoretical realms into the real world. It’s by design, since Epictetus and other stoic sages taught that philosophy is a way of life, not just an academic exercise.

Emperor Aurelius visualized a stoic “as boxer, not fencer. The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist.”

Stoicism doesn’t require pomp and circumstance, so it can be practiced quickly and simply. Through daily practice it develops men and women whose mental defenses are self-sufficient and instinctual. source

More on Stoicism…..

Want An Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy

What is Stoicism? A Definition & Stoic Exercises To Get You Started

9 Principles of Stoicism which will Improve your Life

A Complete Guide to Stoicism: How You Can Use this Ancient Philosophy to Live a Better Life

Stoicism, Virtue, and Mental Health

The Stoic Man – Indifference is a power – Stoicism 101

What is Stoicism and How Can it Turn your Life to Solid Gold?

Stoic Quotes on Control – The Absolute Man