The Intricacies of Stoic Thought

An essential philosophy for tumultuous times

by Kathy Do / Garnet & Black

“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.”

This message could belong to any number of self-help books. You could find it in the teachings of a popular influencer or public figure. You may not, however, expect to find the quote written in the meditations of a king and war general nearly 2,000 years ago.  

When Ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius jotted down his thoughts in a journal in the early 170s CE, it is doubtful he would have realized the scope his philosophy would grow to influence individuals living in the 21st century. His writings have been archived, among those of Seneca and Epictetus, to comprise the early works of Stoic thought—a philosophy that emphasizes mental fortitude.

According to Andrew Berns, University of South Carolina associate professor of history, Stoicism is a philosophical doctrine that arose in classical antiquity. It stresses self-reliance and non-reactivity, urging people to accept what the universe gives them without lamenting or combatting that fate. 

Berns explained that with the onslaught of negative messages from the media, Stoicism can be a useful way to find acceptance.

“The world is really upsetting from transphobia to climate change to genocide to war to Elon Musk,” he said. “And I think that people’s reaction to that is understandably very panicked and tense, and Stoicism gives you tools to find that peace and equanimity in a stormy world."

A study conducted by Springer Nature explored that same idea of stress management. The study found that Stoic training reduced ruminating thoughts and anxiety.

Susan Burbage, a counselor at Rosewood Elementary School in Columbia, SC, corroborates this notion. In social emotional learning classes, Burbage teaches self-regulation that aligns with the Stoic teachings of mind over matter. 

“I think it definitely increases your personal emotional well-being and helps with anxiety and worrying about things to be able to calm your emotions and practice mindfulness,” Burbage said. 

For classical thinkers like Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism was a way to live the fullest life possible; it keeps impulses in balance while maximizing human potential. In modern society, it takes a different form. Stoicism finds its way into pop culture through depictions of unfeeling, unresponsive characters such as Stoick the Vast from "How to Train Your Dragon" or even Sherlock Holmes. 

Stoick the Vast expresses a modern interpretation of Stoicism: be tough and nothing can hurt you. He tried to explain his philosophy to his son, Hiccup, who didn’t embody what Stoick considered the proper amount of strength, both physical and mental. 

“When I was a boy, my father told me to bang my head against a rock, and I did it,” Stoick said. “I thought it was crazy, but I didn’t question him. And do you know what happened? That rock split in two.”  

On the other hand, characters like detective Sherlock Holmes embody a different aspect of Stoicism: mindful observation without judgment. Holmes is strictly analytical, and even as the stakes of the case become heightened, the detective remains objective and unemotional, allowing him to solve mystery after mystery. 

Holmes’ tendency to value rationality over emotion, however, creates an extreme case of uncaring.

“Love is an emotional thing,” Holmes said in the novel "The Sign of Four" by Arthur Conan Doyle. “And whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.” 

While these extremes lend themselves well to creating characters in the media, two-dimensional interpretations of Stoicism reduce this nuanced philosophy into cold calculation and stubbornness. 

No matter how stoic the individual, it is impossible to be eternally in charge of one’s emotions. 

“Reason has its limits,” Berns said. “Fundamentally, to me, feelings lie beneath reason, in the archeology of our brains and souls.”

Marcus Aurelius describes emotions with the metaphor of a chariot being pulled in all directions by a group of wild horses who are corralled by reason, which holds the reins. In this metaphor, emotions and impulses are portrayed as dangerous and volatile if left unchecked. 

This internal chaos creates the perfect breeding ground for Stoicism. According to Berns, Marcus Aurelius’s Stoic philosophy branched from an understanding that political instability lurks beneath the surface of every structural organization—whether it be a regime in Ancient Rome or a university in South Carolina. 

 “I think [there] was also an awareness that life sucks sometimes and soldiers die and wives die and friends betray you and provinces rebel,” Berns said. “I think awareness of that disconnect between the smoothness of appearances on the one hand, and the fragmentation underlying them is one of the things that generates Stoic thought.”

On the other hand, freshman Gabrielle Dissinger believes a Stoic’s desire to control all emotional responses can result in negative outcomes. 

“In a way, Stoicism is trying to control that molecular chaos,” Dissinger said. “But it's improbable to be able to completely ignore the responses that your brain is sending your body if you're stressed."

Additionally, Dissinger finds the doctrine that every life event is fated troubling. She believes that feeling no control over external events could encourage passivity in the face of resistance. 

“If you believe that every event was meant to happen, then you could be less inclined to take an approach to try to change what had happened,” Dissinger said. “Even if you could.”

However, Burbage expressed that in responding to distressing events, Stoic practices of moderation may be the healthiest coping strategy. Burbage stresses this lesson to her students so that they can make rational, healthy choices in the face of distress. 

“There are going to be kids around them and certain situations that happen that overwhelm them and make them feel some hard emotions of anger and sadness and hurtful feelings,” Burbage said. “And what can you do to calm yourself so that you show it or display it in an appropriate way?” 

While today’s average citizen is further away from the devastation of war than Marcus Aurelius was, there are still situations of acute emotional distress. According to USA Facts, there have been 783 school shootings of elementary and secondary schools resulting in death or injury in the US since 2000. These tragedies devastate communities, leaving friends and families irrevocably changed

Dissinger expressed that for mourners of shooting victims, stoic ideals would do nothing to soften the blow to the community. 

“If someone was like, those school shootings are meant to happen, I would be extremely emotionally distressed,” Dissinger said. “I don’t want that to be fate. I don't want that to be destiny.” 

The idea of destiny makes its way into many aspects of philosophical thought such as fatalism and faiths such as various sects of Christianity. What sets Stoicism apart from these ideologies is that it makes no promises of a future, only peace of mind. 

Burbage explains that peace of mind is important for in every aspect and for every walk of life. The skills she teaches her students travel beyond the walls of the classroom and the child development: lessons in Stoicism can be beneficial anywhere. 

“Learning those skills is important in just about everything you do as far as functioning in the world with others and with yourself,” Burbage said.