How Stoicism, a 2000-Year-Old Philosophy, Is Making a Comeback

An ancient philosophy is becoming popular again thanks to author Ryan Holiday.


Author Ryan Holiday is bringing back an ancient philosophy of "stoicism" and it’s proving a hit with the Silicon Valley crowd, Olympic athletes and hip-hop stars

Stoicism was founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Cilium (334-262 BC) but it spread widely and was practiced for hundreds of years across the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire, all the way until Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE).

Stoics emphasized goodness and peace of mind from leading a virtuous, ethical life. In practice, they sought to limit negative emotions and encouraged self-control. The idea was to become clear-headed and thus able to tap into the knowledge of universal reason. 

Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph” lays out how to adapt stoicism to modern life, with particular focus on work anxieties and success. He sees stoicism as a kind of practical philosophy, a life hack, with growing through overcoming adversity as its key lesson.

He argues that: "’negative’ experiences are often the most useful and valuable experiences of our lives. So, to try to constantly avoid negativity ultimately hinders us.”

He further expounds on the virtues of stoicism: 

“the philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behaviour, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses."

“Take obstacles in your life and turn them into your advantage, control what you can and accept what you can’t.”

While Holiday’s books and talks on stoicism have been successful, they also drew criticism from some over his background as a former PR man for American Apparel, and his self-promotional tactics. Others do not see his rebranding of stoicism as what New York Times callsa self-help system for overachievers” to be actual stoicism. 

Regardless, his books have won him many fans, from Google to NFL players and athletes at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Cover photo: A seagull stands on the head of a statue representing late Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius at the Capitol hill in downtown Rome on December 30, 2014 . (Photo credit: ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

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