The Modern Stoic

Most people today think Stoicism is all about being unemotional, conservative, placid and just, well, stoic. But this modern use of the word completely misleads us: capital-S Stoicism is a philosophy of action.

As marketer, world-class mentor and leading voice in the Stoic renaissance Ryan Holiday argues, it’s the doers of the world who’ve found deep strength, inspiration and comfort in this philosophy.

Tim Ferriss, international bestselling author, angel investor and creator of the world’s most popular business podcast, has even called Stoicism ‘the ideal “personal operating system”’, particularly suited to ‘high-stress environments’ – not least for turning those stressful situations into manageable, creative and exciting opportunities, rather than sources of pain and frustration.

From George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt to Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great to Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant to modern-day illusionist and master of psychology Derren Brown, a host of the greatest thinkers, politicians, artists, athletes and psychologists have all studied and admired Stoicism.

Stoicism is and always has been for everyone, from the very bottom to the very top of society.

Epictetus, one of Stoicism’s greatest thinkers, was born a slave, yet his writings would become a touchstone for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, then the most powerful man in the world. The very same thinking and principles could create and nurture strength and comfort for both – and they undoubtedly can for us today.

As Ryan Holiday puts it, Stoicism is ‘a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry’.

In The Modern Stoic podcast series, we demystify this ‘tool’ and explore how it can be used right here, right now to create that great life and help us become the best versions of ourselves.

For Stoics, the prime directive of living a good and fulfilling life is to distinguish between the things which are in our control and those which are not. There are so many things which can stress and hurt us in our lives, but if we identify and acknowledge which ones are completely outside our control – from the weather to the stock market to the past itself – we can stop wasting so much effort and time on trying to change them. More importantly, it’s then a massive strategic benefit to expend energy only on those things we can change!

Times have changed since Zeno first began teaching the principles of Stoicism in third-century BC Athens. And yet the the human condition has not. We continue to grapple with the same fundamental questions:

  • I want to live a good life – but what does that mean?
  • How do I deal with my emotions when they threaten to overwhelm me?
  • Why am I afraid to die?
  • How can I be a good person and still be successful?
  • What’s the best way to handle failure (and success)?
  • How can I overcome my fears?

The writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and other great Stoic thinkers offer us practical wisdom for these dilemmas and many more besides.

True wisdom doesn’t come with a sell-by date.

That’s why another ancient practice, meditation, has recently been rebooted as ‘Mindfulness’ and now hordes of top executives, creative thinkers, and even schoolkids are discovering levels of emotional mastery that defuse stress and open the door to fertile mental spaces in which their best personal and professional work can unfold with previously unimaginable ease.

We might call Stoicism the Buddhism of the West. It’s also a source of deep wisdom, but with a more practical, immediate edge; as philosopher and author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, Nassim Taleb puts it, ‘A Stoic is a Buddhist with an attitude’.

As we explore in the podcast, that attitude is something we must cultivate in all areas of our lives if it’s going to bed in and generate real, lasting change.

The word ‘Stoicism’ actually comes from the Greek ‘stoa’, meaning ‘porch’, for it was there that Zeno first began exploring and teaching these ideas. Looking back, this was the perfect location: Stoicism developed not inside some ivory tower, gated community or dimly-lit library; it evolved in the open, poised symbolically right between the home and the outside world.

Its principles are just as important in our personal, private lives as they are in the social, business, and political worlds – as Marcus Aurelius well knew when he privately struggled in the pages of his journal to apply Stoic ideas to both bloodthirsty political struggles and to his own personal doubts and demons.

Stoicism Here and Now

The Modern Stoic isn’t just another collection of pithy quotes and memes to share on Facebook or Instagram and then promptly forget. In these podcasts, we take you on an adventure of (self-) discovery through the original, timeless writings of Stoicism’s greatest thinkers, past and present.

Short quotes, Top 10s and Stoic life-hacks can be useful, and there’s plenty of them out there. But at Voices in the Dark we’re offering something fuller, deeper and richer by going back to the original sources. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, ‘He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar’.

Each week, we drink some of the original waters and discuss what we find. We’re not posing as great teachers and thinkers; we’re explorers and we’re inviting you along on this voyage.

Just as we did for Robert Greene’s masterpiece, The 48 Laws of Power, we set out on a journey to educate ourselves, debate with the teachers of the past, and to weigh up how far this ancient wisdom does or does not fit our modern lives, drawing on personal experience and the stories of both the most successful and most unfortunate people in history.

This is an adventure, not a set of instructions to be followed without reflection. As Seneca himself put it, ‘The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone; it hasn’t been monopolised’.

Join us as we explore how to use Stoicism to develop a modern mindset of calm control and focused, effective action.

The Modern Stoic #17: Helping People Change

How and when to help other people; whether we can really get anybody to change after a certain age; how to check we’re not also in need of correction (and whether we should calibrate that by looking at everyone else, or turning to our inner compass). Drawing from...

The Modern Stoic #16: Make Fear Your Mentor

How to deal with and handle fear; how to find balance between accepting death and embracing life; and how to make fear your mentor. This week we take a look at Letter 24 – 'On Despising Death'. But it's not another go-round of telling yourself that death is OK and we...

The Modern Stoic #11: Humour And Fear

A rather messy letter which covers physical vanity; the three greatest fears people have; how to avoid getting lynched; when it’s useful to retire from the public eye; and why humour, fear and love are at the heart of the human condition. We give Seneca a hard time in...

The Modern Stoic #4: On Not Being A Dick

Self-development – becoming better humans – is what Voices in the Dark is all about. But how do we set about it without showing off, making others feel insecure, or adopting the obnoxious air of the 'oh look how simple a life I lead' bohemian? Being egotistical about...

The Modern Stoic #3: Dying (And Living) Well

You forget to look before crossing the street; your foot slips as you walk down the stairs... and it's all over. Are you ready? Can you be at peace with that? The Stoics took care to remind themselves of death: Memento mori. In the cutthroat world of the Romans, this...