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From Vol. 1, Issue 9, September 2019

Canadian Stoicism


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Canadian Stoicism 

There’s is a growing reaction against the vapidity of modern life. A number of young Canadians have become disillusioned with the relentless march of social media, celebrity culture, consumerism, and other potentially soul-destroying forces. Many of them are turning to a surprising source of help and consolation: the ancient philosophy of Stoicism

Canada is consistently among the countries with the largest percentage of Stoics (data compiled by Modern Stoicism). Canada has the largest local meetup group for Stoicism in the world, with over 1,200 members in Toronto. Stoicism originated in Athens around 300 BC. When it was later introduced to Rome it struck a chord with the younger generation, much like today in Toronto and other parts of Canada. 

Stoicisms as a philosophy of life 

The philosophy of “Stoicism” (capital S) is often confused with the modern concept of “stoicism” (lower case), a coping style that involves having a stiff upper lip. Fortunately, the Greek philosophy of Stoicism had a much more sophisticated view of emotion. It’s about realizing that our emotions are caused by certain underlying beliefs. “It’s not events that upset us but rather our judgments about them.” (Epictetus) 

Stoicism and CBT 

There’s been reason to take Stoicism more seriously as an approach to building psychological resilience because it has provided the premise for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Large volumes of scientific evidence now show that CBT can be very effective for a range of emotional issues. Why are young people reading books on Stoicism rather than CBT, though? Adam Piercey who managed a team testing neurosurgical robots in Toronto, has an answer: Reading books on Stoicism allows us to see real world applications of its philosophy, with examples from major historical figures...Stoicism gives us tangible examples of people like Cato, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. That is the sort of real-world context that makes it easy to read, understand and apply Stoicism . 

Stoicism is a vast and complex. The starting point according to Epictetus was expressed in the maxim: 

Some things are up to us and other things are not.

Modern Stoics call this foundation stone the “Dichotomy of Control”. Stoics learn to make a clear distinction between their own actions and the external events that befall them. By bearing this in mind we can reduce the frustration and emotional distress we experience in any difficult situation. 

Learning the virtues 

However, the Stoic mindset requires learning the virtues of patience, tolerance, and acceptance in the grip even of intense physical discomfort. Maybe our harsh winters have prepared Canadians for this. Epictetus thought that we should learn another lesson from the long winter months, though. Only a madman seeks fresh figs in winter, he said, and it’s madness to crave things that are out of season. We have to learn to be patient sometimes and accept those parts of our environment that are beyond our control. The first people of Canada surely learned similar lessons from nature. However, today as we surf the Internet we have the whole world lies at our fingertips, or so it seems. 

The Stoics would have known this is an illusion. At any moment control can be wrested from us by our Internet connection going down. We’re never completely in control of external events anyway. There are always other factors influencing the outcome. The Stoics saw the hand of cosmic Fate in the outcome of battles or how one fared when travelling by sea. Today complex algorithms shape the search results we’re allowed to see and the advertisements that appear before our eyes. In a word, said Epictetus, it’s only our own actions that are ever really up to us: how we choose to respond to the situations we face, as opposed to what happens to us. Epictetus answers the question “What, then, is to be done?”, asked Epictetus, and then answered 

Make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. 

Donald Robertson is an author and Cognitive Behavior Therapist. His latest book is How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (https://