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From Vol. 6, Issue 7, July 2024

A Stoic toolkit for facing adversity

Practicing Stoicism || MARC EPSEN

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We all face adversity in our lives, some impersonal (such as pandemics, storms, earthquakes, and heatwaves) and some personal (such as a quarrelsome neighbour, or a hostile workplace). It is unavoidable. The question is how to deal with adversity.

Stoics had several strategies to handle adversity. You may find some of these strategies useful in handling adversity in your life.


Stoics believed that if something is not under their control, it is nothing to them. Take your body, for example. It is not your own because it is not under your control – it can grow old, is subject to illnesses, and will die. So they accepted the impermanence of the body and this made them physically fearless. In this passage below, Epictetus says how he would deal with an imaginary adversary who threatens to physically harm him.

“But I will chain you.” 

“What is that you say, man? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but my will, no, not even Zeus can conquer that.”

“I will throw you into prison.”

“Correction – it is my body you will throw there.”

“I will behead you.”

“Well, when did I ever claim that mine was the only head that cannot be severed?" 
- Epictetus
, Discourses, 1.1

Can we all be that fearless? Probably not. However, we may be able to practice fearlessness in less drastic situations.


Can we turn to a Stoic sage for advice on how to handle adversity? No, said the Stoics  –  a sage is so rare that we can assume that one doesn’t really exist. However, we can all move towards the perfection of a Stoic sage. In other words, we persevere towards this ideal all our lives, knowing that we may never reach the ideal. 

This steadfast mindset of not giving up is a powerful weapon against adversity. Failure will not stop us from advancing. When you persevere, you are not deterred by adversity. You keep going without complaining. This makes you who you are, no matter what difficulties you face.

Difficulties are things that show what men are. - Epictetus, Discourses, 1.24

Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men." - Seneca, On Providence, 5.9

By being persistent, you wear down adversity before it wears you down.


Endurance is another way to deal with adversity. When we are faced with adversity which seems formidable, we endure it knowing nothing lasts forever. It is only a matter of time –  even this adversity will pass, though it doesn’t look like it now.

Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all things pass away and disappear, for substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.23

Knowing that all things pass gives us the power to endure any adversity of any magnitude.


Some adversities we face are not adversities at all. They are minor inconveniences that are amplified to look like adversities. Someone disagrees with us and we think they are “against us.” We attribute motives to others when none exists. Our imaginary grievances against the world make it look dangerous. 

Sometimes we take things personally when they are not. A hostile person is hostile because of his personality and not because of you. If you were not there he would have found someone else to be hostile to. Bring things into perspective.

Don’t ask for what is impossible. Such people are necessarily a part of this world, so are the vicious, untrustworthy, or those with other character flaws. When you realise that they have to exist, you become more kind towards them. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.42