How can Stoicism help in hard times?

I thinks it’s important to remind ourselves often that the conditions of our mind are malleable. We always have the ability to cultivate a more favourable inner world. We can modify how we perceive the world and in doing so produce a more enjoyable frame in which to live.

It’s not true that you leave childhood or adolescence with a rigid, unchangeable mental state. You always have to ability to weed out negative, unrealistic, and destructive beliefs, and replace them with ones which can dramatically improve well-being and reduce stress.

The difficult part is learning how.

In our day to day lives, the cultivation of things like peace of mind, mental clarity, rational thinking, and objectivity can help us live more deliberate, less reactive, and more resilient lives.

In the face of crisis, adversity, hardship, and chaos, these things become even more important. Without them we risk being consumed by the mania and irrationality of the crowd, a crowd that’s often driven by emotion, panic, fear, and these days, misinformation.

When we lack to tools to manage emotion, or think critically and clearly, it is much easier for us to be led by our environment, and impulse, rather than decide our own path.

Stoic philosophy provides us with a practical framework with which to cultivate a more favourable state of mind, and act as an anchor preventing the storms of chaos washing us along with the turmoil of the crowd and the moment.

It does this in two ways, by promoting:

  1. Clarity of mind

  2. Clarity of action

Stoicism & Clarity of Mind:

The dichotomy of control

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught us that philosophy is not just something to study and theorise, it was a way of life, and must be practised and applied to life.

This view of philosophy made Epictetus’ work extremely practical and applicable for many of the things we encounter every day.

People still pick up copies of his discourses or handbook and get a huge amount of value from reading his work.

Within his teachings is the dichotomy of control:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

Epictetus explains that in any given situation there are things that are within your control, and there are things that you have no control over.

When we begin to make this distinction for ourselves, two things start to become clear:

  1. When you try to control the things in life you have no control over, you become frustrated, bitter, angry, demotivated, deflated etc. No amount of effort on your part will ever cause these things to change. They are not up to you.

  2. When you focus your energy on the things within your control, you not only avoid the negative emotions of trying to control the uncontrollable, you become far more effective.

This is an important distinction to make in any given set of circumstances because much of our suffering comes from either our lack of awareness or our inability to accept the things we can do nothing about.

Accept the situation as it is, and leverage what is within your control to move forward.

The alternative is to suffer in a situation because you focus your energy into things you can do nothing about, while putting no energy into the things within your power.

This can apply to:

  1. Traffic

  2. The economy

  3. Politics

  4. The weather & natural disasters

  5. People’s opinions of you

  6. Pandemics (COVID-19 for example)

  7. And many more

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”

– Epictetus


“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

– Epictetus

Acceptance is a difficult topic for many people.

The most common thing I hear when talking about acceptance is that people think it is the same as resignation, or just giving up. It is not.

In this context, acceptance is the ability to make the distinction between what is within our power to change and what is not. It is not defeatist to accept that there are things in life we can’t change, it is simply a reasonable thing to do.

For example; accepting that wrongdoing is part of reality isn’t the same as accepting it as right.

Acceptance isn’t the same as sitting down and doing nothing, it’s simply seeing the world for what it is, rather than suffering because its not what we expect it to be.

It’s still our responsibility to do what we can with what we have. For many people, in various ways, that includes trying to make the world a better place for all.


“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
― Epictetus

Epictetus explains that much of our suffering comes from how we interpret and process our environment, rather than the environment itself.

The mind is an amazing thing, whenever we take in information it is filtered through everything we know, everything we’ve experienced, and everything we believe. This filtering ultimately ends in our reaction or our response.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Viktor Frankl

This can be good and bad. The conditions of our mind will determine our response, and for this reason it is important that we take responsibility for these conditions and do what we can to improve them.

For example:

  • We can suffer when our expectations of people, or the world, are unreasonable or unrealistic. Eventually these kinds of expectations will conflict with reality and we suffer.

  • We can suffer because we put too much energy and focus on the things in life outside our control, and not enough on the things within our control, making us feel powerless and frustrated.

  • We can suffer because we are unable to accept the world for what it is, and we resist it when it doesn’t align with what we believe it should be.

  • We even suffer prematurely because of how we think the future will unfold, when in reality things almost never happen the way we think they will.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality”

– Seneca

The truth is that we will always be exposed to things that have the potential to cause offence, hardship, stress, adversity, and resistance. I don’t believe that the secret to well-being lies in blaming the world or other people for our suffering and expecting all adversity to be taken away, I think well-being lies in taking personal responsibility for the things within our control and doing what we can to make them better. This includes the conditions of our mind.

Of course, we should always be working together to better our communities, lessen injustice, and find more and more solutions to complex problems, but I believe all improvement should start with the self, and that is always our responsibility.

After all, if a person is unable to solve the issues of their own life, they may well be unable to solve the complex problems of the world around them.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

– Viktor Frankl

Stoicism & Clarity of Action:

4 Stoic Virtues:

Stoicism not only helps us to frame how we think about the world, it can also help guide how we act in response to it.

The four Stoic virtues are core to Stoic philosophy, and many Stoic believed that virtue is sufficient for happiness, and that negative emotions were a result of errors in judgement and an inability to align oneself with the nature of being a rational creature.

For example; you may feel negative emotion towards the things around you because you cannot accept that they will act in accordance to their nature, rather than according to how you want them to act.

The four Stoic virtues to govern action are:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Temperance

  3. Justice

  4. Courage

Wisdom is necessary to understand right from wrong, and good from evil. Wisdom is our ability to see things for what they are, in context, rationally, and without bias. Only with wisdom can we see the world clearly. Without it, we will always be clouded by our own prejudice, emotion, values and expectations, we will be unwilling to see things in context and with neutrality. Without wisdom justice, temperance and courage become warped and muddied. It is the most important of the virtues. Broad and objective education, open mindedness, and the ability to openly discuss ideas is core to the cultivation of wisdom.

Temperance is our ability to moderate our behaviour. Temperance is our discipline, our self control, and restraint. With temperance we are able to do what we know we should do, rather than do what we feel like doing. Temperance is important for avoiding overeating, too much comfort, laziness, and promoting exercise, work, good habits and pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone for growth.

Courage is our ability to do what we believe to be right in the face of fear, anxiety, nerves and pressures that may otherwise prevent us from doing the right thing.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

Justice is our ability to do what is right for the good our our community, to act fairly, desire fairness, and behave in the spirit of the whole, rather than the self or the few.

I hope you found something useful.

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