I Think Therefore I Feel: An Introduction To Stoic Philosophy


As I continue to write posts for the 7 Things blog a number of them will be on Stoic philosophy. Stoic philosophy or Stoicism has been a big part of my life since I discovered it while recovering from a nervous breakdown at the age of 19. In 2010 I wrote my first book called “Greeks To Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century”, and earlier this year I updated it and re-released it as the second edition on my website and Amazon. Stoicism is a practical philosophy developed in Ancient Greece and then Rome that is designed to empower you and give you the tools necessary to take control over how you feel regardless of what circumstance you find yourself in. This is a big subject, one which I’ll be coming back to in order to focus on the individual facets of the philosophy over time. And so for this post I simply want to introduce you to two of the main concepts of Stoicism as well as give you something that you can take away after reading and immediately apply in order make your life happier!

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease

worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will”

- Epictetus

The practical and therapeutic aspect of Stoicism comes from two important truths:

1 – That the only thing we have full control over in this world is our ability to form opinion.

2 – That it is not what occurs to us that makes us feel how we feel, rather it is the opinions that we form about the occurrences that create our emotional state.

If these statements are true you must realise the power that they imply. If the only thing we can control is our opinion and the only thing that controls how we feel is our opinion, then ultimately and with a little practice we can take full control over our emotional state regardless of outside circumstances! But before we get too far ahead let’s put these concepts to the test.

Concept 1: That the only thing we have full control over is out ability to form opinion, to judge, to prefer, or be averse to, to form belief systems and thought processes. Well we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the actions, thoughts or words of any other person, and we don’t ultimately control our bodies, for at any moment an accident could occur leaving your body injured without your permission and intention. While we have the power to attempt to influence, we don’t ultimately control our physical health, our wealth, our status, our reputation. Anything that relies on a force outside of us is not fully within out power to control at all times. Only our ‘Ruling Faculty’, our ability to form opinion relies, always and only, on us and remains within out control at all times. People can attempt to sway our opinion, but only with our permission can our opinion be changed.

Concept 2: That it is not the incident that causes the reaction, it is in fact the opinions and beliefs held about the incident that cause the feelings and emotions. This one’s easy to prove, let’s take the classic example of a sports game. If you take a soccer final for example, you will notice that the crowd, for the sake of this demonstration, is made up on one side of red shirts, and blue on the other. Everyone in the audience is witness to the exact same series of events, albeit from slightly different angles, yet their reactions could not be more polarized! When the red team scores a goal, the red supporters jump for joy while the blues slump in their seats deflated. It is not the event that causes our reactions, but the opinions and beliefs we have formed about the event.

I could go into more examples of both concepts but this is merely and introduction and I think those examples illustrate the point well enough for now. So now that we have established that it’s not the event but our perception of the event that causes how we feel, and that we control that perception, let’s put it to the test! The practical application of these concepts comes from replacing irrational and untrue beliefs with rational and true ones. For this next example let’s imagine you are walking home from the shop, big bulging shopping bags in hand, when suddenly the bottom of one of the bags splits wide open and the contents are sprawled over the pavement. Your pasta sauce has smashed, your oranges and apples are rolling down the street and the milk has sprung a leak, spraying white liquid over the rest of the shopping on the ground. The accident has occurred, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Your reaction to the event now comes down to your opinion about it.

Let’s look at one potential though process, that of the “Awfuliser”: “This is awful! My parents are coming for dinner! I’m such an idiot, I should have been more careful! Those morons should really make the bags stronger! This is just the worst, why me, and today of all days! This is so humiliating, everyone thinks I’m an idiot. I’m going to have to do all the shopping again, but I don’t have time! And what a waste of money. What an idiot I am, I can’t do anything right. Looks like I’ll have to cancel the dinner.” What kind of emotional reaction do you think this will lead to? It will of course lead to feelings of anger, frustration, shame, rage, embarrassment, self-loathing and so on. This is not a nice state to be in, and we don’t make our best decisions in this state either. So the dinner is cancelled and our poor character is feeling like crap, probably for the rest of the day.

Let’s now take a look at how our model Stoic would react to such an accident. The exact same event has just occurred, let’s see how our Stoic deals with the situation. “Well this is unfortunate, I certainly didn’t ask for this to occur. But the deed is done, it’s already happened, nothing I can do about it now. These kinds of accidents happen to the best of us, it’s nobody’s fault. I was looking forward to cooking for my parents, and I’m sure they’ll be disappointed but they will be understanding once they know what happened. I’ll call them and take them out to a restaurant instead. I’m not happy about the money I’ve lost thanks to this accident, but at same time I’m not going to let it ruin my whole day. Deep breath, salvage what I can of the groceries, get home, have a hot shower and enjoy a nice evening out.” And what do you think will be the physiological result of this kind of way of thinking? Irritation sure, but calmness overall, and an understanding that ‘these things happen’. Our Stoic moves on quickly and calmly ready to enjoy the rest of the day, while our unfortunate ‘Awfuliser’ wallows in depression and self pity for the remainder of the afternoon and evening.

These are extremely simplistic examples of course, but I hope that you have grasped the basic concepts of how Stoicism, when practiced, can be a powerful tool in controlling your emotional state, reducing stress and depression and making life a whole lot nicer. I can’t begin to express the positive effect it’s had on my life, the radical change in my inner dialogue from self-critical, destructive and depressive thought processes to a landscape of rational, positive empathy. So the next time something goes wrong, before your habitual beliefs kick in, try shifting things up a bit in the opinion department and see what effect it has on your emotional state, on how you feel inside.

I will of course go into more detailed explanations of how to practice and exercise Stoic Philosophy in future blogs, but I hope this introduction has been intriguing and inspiring. You have the power to control how you feel regardless of outside circumstance, doesn’t that idea fill you full excitement? What do you think about Stoic philosophy, would you be willing to try it out?

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

Thanks for reading :)

Rohan.

ps. If you are interested in delving deeper into Stoic philosophy check out my ‘Shop Page’ by clicking HERE, where you can read about and purchase my Stoicism book “Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century”

Rohan Healy is the author of “Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century” and “The 7 Things That Made Me Genuinely & Irreversibly Happy: And How They Can Do The Same For You”

Click the book titles to visit their Amazon pages, read the reviews, and sample or purchase the books.

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31 thoughts on “I Think Therefore I Feel: An Introduction To Stoic Philosophy

  1. I’m just getting into cognitive behaviour therapy to fight my anxiety and Stoicism comes really close to some of the methods. How do you incorporate positive feelings into this philosophy? Can you ‘extend’ your hapiness from a situation or does the methodical thinking reduce the intensity of pure joy?

    • Yup it sure does. CBT was derived from Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which he created using Stoic philosophy as the basis for his work. Yes, Stoicism can limit some kinds of ecstatic joy just as it limits deep depressions. These highs and lows are replaced by a kind of contentment which we still naturally dip below and rise above from time to time, but not to the same degree.

      For example about 6 years ago, before I really got into practicing Stoicism my mood relied a lot on soccer results (I’m totally serious). The rest of my day, sometimes even week for a big game, depended on whether Liverpool won or lost. That’s no way to live, and it effects those around you which is unfair. The same for relationships or other things in your life that effect your mood. If he/she calls you feel amazing, if he/she doesn’t you feel horrible.

      Yes, you may lose a little of that really high intensity, but what replaces it is, in my opinion, far more valuable. I’ll take the basic state of happiness and contentment of Stoicism over being totally at the mercy of outside forces for my mood.

      I still go up and down with events, but not nearly as much, and after taking a moment to re-frame/rationalize my perception I can get back to my happy zone very quickly :)

      Hope this helps, good luck with your anxiety! And be sure to check out Albert Ellis’ REBT, it’s the best for dealing with ‘worry’ ;)

      Rohan.

  2. Thanks, this helps. I have a therapist and I’m always searching for something to be skeptical about outside the sessions, finding reasons why it won’t work for me. Now that there is a connection with Stoicism I can put more of that useless pretentious energy in the philosophy behind it :)

    The soccer example makes a lot of sense, I’ve played poker for about five years where the flip of a card could make or break your day (or week depending on your degeneracy).

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  4. I haven’t studied philosophy per se, but this sounds as if it relates to the Law of Attraction, which I have been studying, and which says that we attract what we think about the most, i.e. our thoughts are always actively creating our life experience. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

    • Yes! And Metaphysical Affirmations and Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Perception’ as well. All these concepts are based around the idea that our thoughts, beliefs and opinions shape not only our emotional and psychological state, but our physical health and even our environment!

      Stoicism deals mainly with using our ability to form opinion and perception to change the way we feel, but there’s no doubt that our inner world has a great effect on the outer world, perhaps more so even than the outside does on us!

      Thanks for the lovely comment :)

      Rohan.

  5. Great post R, I wish I could put this into practice more often myself. I remember seeing an interview with a chap celebrating his 100th birthday a number of years ago, and the interviewer was rather taken aback when she asked him what his secret to long life was, and he just replied with 1 word “acceptance”. I’m pretty sure he meant it in the sense of stoicism.

    • Thanks for the comment :) That’s a cool story, acceptance really is the key. Apparently stress is the big life shorten-er and if you can reduce that through a profound acceptance of yourself and your circumstance then there’s no reason we shouldn’t all be celebrating 100th birthdays lol!

      Rohan.

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  8. Great post, Rohan. I think that quote from Hamlet was kick ass …. ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. hell yeah. And the other thing that the stoics understood so well is the ‘transitory’ nature of life as you called it. That’s the best way to deal with every fricking second of our lives.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes exactly, the only thing that never changes in life is the fact that life always changes. If we don’t want to go up and down with every little event it’s important we take control of our opinions and perceptions :)

      Rohan.

      • Thanks bro…opinions and perceptions….guess those are our compass and rudder with which we lead our lives.

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  10. I hadn’t known what stoicism was all about either – assumed it was related to the modern day definition of the word about keeping a stiff upper lip and ignoring emotions. This is a much more appealing and sensible interpretation you’ve got here, this business of choosing our thoughts in such a way as to influence our emotions and thereby choosing the best feeling thought… Very uplifting post!

    • It’s funny you should mention the modern definition as the word Stoic came from the philosophy and not the other way round! Yes these days Stoic is quite a simplified term for being emotionless, unflinching and uncaring, but the original philosophy is much deeper and more empowering and positive :)

      Yup, it’s fun to change to the way we views things and then to notice how it changes how we feel!

      Thanks for the lovely comment :)

      Rohan.

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