Stoicism: You Always Have a Choice

Writing about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, Victor Frankl reflects on a principle that is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. 

Frankl writes about the immense suffering that he and his fellow prisoners experienced in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. He nonetheless maintains that even in the most dire of situations, we still have the freedom and autonomy to decide how to react to external events.

This idea aligns with the Stoic notion of the ‘dichotomy of control’ which I explored in an earlier post. That is, we should focus our efforts on our inner dispositions, namely what is in our power. We ultimately can not dictate how the events in the outside world will unfold. However, the value judgements and perspectives that we assign to our circumstances is something that is up to us.

As the modern Stoic writer Ryan Holiday notes, difficulty does not have to be seen as a sign of weakness or defeat. Rather, challenges and obstacles offer unique opportunities to develop new skills and may provide us with the wake-up call we need to change our course of action. Sometimes what we initially perceive as failures may turn out to be ‘blessings in disguise.’ One of the more notable examples of this is the case of Apple founder Steve Jobs who was initially ousted from the company he created. Jobs didn’t let this define his life however. He used this as an opportunity to create and reshape existing companies (NeXT and Pixar) and critically examine his leadership style. Upon return to Apple in 1997, he led the charge in making Apple largest companies in the world.

The ability to step back from our emotional impulses and view things from a rational and objective viewpoint is an important skill to develop to navigate the ups and downs of life. Furthermore, we must always be aware of what we can and can not control. If one considers the key aspects of their lives, they will realize that many things are outside our scope of influence. We don’t choose our parents, our up bringing, the country or socio-economic status that we are born in. Stoicism can help us make the best out of the hand that we are dealt with in life.

Stoic philosophy can act as an antidote to a world that can sometimes feel chaotic and unpredictable. In fact, many principles of Stoicism are used in modern day cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues including anxiety, substance abuse and depression. Some of similarities between the ancient school of philosophy and CBT[1] include:

  1. Using logic to question our irrational beliefs, assumptions or emotions
  2.  Accepting our circumstances, and refraining from assigning value judgements to events.
  3. Understanding what you can and can not control

In sum, both CBT and Stoicism emphasize the importance of constantly challenging your initial impressions or reactions towards events or circumstances. Furthermore, both doctrines advise us to slow down, look at events from a rational perspective and refrain from impulsive behaviour.

I will end this post with a quote from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius which provides a good summary of key points in this article:

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII

Hope you enjoyed this week’s post. I will dedicate one more post on Stoicism and then move on to the philosophy of mindfulness.


[1] If you would like a deeper dive into the similarities of CBT and Stoicism I recommend reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

An Inner Voyage: Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside by the seashore, in the hills, and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul—

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 4

Amidst the chaos and uncertain times we are living in during this global pandemic, I wanted to reflect on some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius that can help us reframe events and shift perspectives.

In this quote Marcus reflects on the notion that despite our external circumstances we can always find solace within.

Many of us seek to escape our day-to-day realities through retreat or travel. Travel can provide us with an opportunity to explore new landscapes, ideas, histories and cultures. Moreover, it offers us a temporary distraction from the ‘rat race’ and daily routines, in which we often operate in auto-pilot mode for.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is directed to reside inside, refrain from travel and remain in isolation to stop the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, I think we can use this time as an opportunity to cultivate solitude, and become more acquainted with our inner selves.

Rather than finding peace or tranquility though retreat, Marcus urges us to find it within ourselves. This can be done through living in the present moment, self reflection and contemplation. We can become aware of beauty and intricacies of life that we often ignore because we are too busy to do so. In the horrors of the Holocaust, Anne Frank was able to relish in the simple pleasures that life had to offer at that time. A glance at nature to recharge, find stillness and take a glimpse at the sublime.  In her diary she writes,

“As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?”

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Image source

Once we learn to find contentment within ourselves, in the mundane, we can find it anywhere.

Stay safe, and remain resilient.

3 Stoic Exercises to Achieve Tranquility and Inner Peace

View International Space Station Earth Space Night –

In this last blog post on the philosophy of Stoicism I want to explore 3 practical Stoic techniques that I have found particularly useful for attaining confidence and tranquility of the mind.

  1. Meditate on the Vastness of Time and the Universe   

If you take a step back and look at your life from a cosmic perspective you will realize how small and insignificant you are compared to the enormity of the universe.  Consider this – the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It is estimated that the human species evolved about 200,000 years ago. In the television series Cosmos, Carl Sagan condenses time in a calendar year to put human history into perspective. The Cosmic Calendar reveals that January 1 would represent the Big Bang and each minute accounts for 30,000 years. Humans only come into the picture on 10:30 pm on December 31st.

The Stoics taught that we should look at our lives from a cosmic viewpoint. Modern Stoics called this exercise ‘The View from Above.’  Taking this approach will allow us to escape our internal biases and assess things from an objective standpoint.

 How often do we ruminate on petty and trivial problems? Why do concern ourselves with externals that will soon perish shortly after we are gone? From this vantage point, our efforts for immortality through fame, wealth and social status are surely misguided.

Carl Sagan reflects on this sentiment in his work on Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Looking our lives from this is allows us to put events in perspective. Furthermore, it is not supposed to lead to nihilism but rather the contrary. We can add meaning and purpose to our lives explicitly because we are only here for a short time.

2. Look at Challenges as Opportunities

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use……  If labor (pain) be presented to you, you will find that it is endurance. If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.  

Epictetus, Discourses

In my last blog post I spoke about how we always have the opportunity to reframe events – even in the most dreadful circumstances. In many cases we fail to learn the lessons we need to if we live a life of ease and comfort. Failure humbles us. It shows us our blind spots.  It provides us with opportunities to evolve, grow and expand our thinking. 

This Stoic lesson will allow us to view every challenge we endure as an opportunity. For instance, if you get fired from your job, you can redevelop yourself and learn new skills. This situation will enable you to develop resilience and perseverance, two skills which are essential in a rapidly changing world. Every difficult situation we are placed enables us to overcome challenges and strengthen our will.   

3. Memento Mori

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The Stoics taught that we should always be self-aware of our own mortality.  Life is unpredictable, and death lurks around the corner. Reflecting on this fact is not meant to put us in a state of dread, but rather humble us. We may not know what the future holds so let us ensure that we leave nothing behind – live life with abandon.  


If you follow the 24/7 news cycle and are an avid consumer of current events, it is easy to be filled with a sense of fear and despair. Rising political polarization. Populism. Climate change. Brexit. Donald Trump. Identity politics, extremism and the culture wars. The list goes on and on.

What Stoicism can do is help us detach from external events, and help us focus on cultivating our inner lives. We can not control what happens around us but we always the choice to change our beliefs and our viewpoint. Regardless of all the noise, tranquillity is available to us, and Stoicism can help to get us there.

Hope you enjoyed this post on Stoicism. The next few posts will be dedicated towards mindfulness.

Till next time,