A Universal Philosophy: Great Insights From Female Stoics

Online (and historically), Stoicism can appear to be a male-bent philosophy. This runs contrary to the fact that one of the founding members of Stoicism, Musonius Rufus, said that to study philosophy is simply for someone to “search out and consider how they may lead good lives.” This provoked by the question of whether women too should study philosophy. “Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.”

The precedent was set by ancient Stoic women like Porcia Catonis, Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor, and Fannia. AND here at DailyStoic.com, we’ve had the great privilege of interviewing a number of women who study Stoicism and apply it to their daily lives. Here are some of their great insights on the role philosophy plays in their search of leading a good life:

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Renew Yourself Regularly

I have [this quote from Marcus Aurelius] laminated in my wallet, on my desk, and on my nightstand:

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”

It perfectly illustrates the current moment – right now that first retreat he’s talking about is mostly digital. That’s how we get away from ourselves — by retreating into technology and social media. But the only way to find peace and thrive is to take breaks from the world and make time to regularly renew ourselves by reconnecting with ourselves.

Arianna Huffington, the founder and CEO of Thrive Global and founder of The Huffington Post. She has been named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People and Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list. She is also the author of several bestselling books, including Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.


Other People’s Opinions

One thing you realize quickly as a female in the music industry is that everyone has a strong opinion about you. It’s been my challenge to isolate my view of myself from anything people say about me, the good or the bad. At the end of the day, none of the criticism or the accolades changes anything real in my life…To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, every day we all meet ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. Once you see what sort of person they are, you will realize there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.

I used to love the feeling of proving people wrong, of walking out in front of an audience who expected very little of me and changing their minds. Now I find myself focused less on proving people wrong, and more on improving myself and my performance.

Nita Strauss, lead guitarist for Alice Cooper and regularly ranked as one of the best female guitar players in the world.


Managing Feelings

Let us say what we feel and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life”…I find helpful the Stoic notion of indifferent things—all the stuff that doesn’t matter or matters a relatively tiny amount, and of thinking through what ideas, including false ideas, my feelings might be based on. It’s cognitive therapy but it’s also Stoicism. I also find that reading Seneca can cheer me up, even apart from any ethical or psychological tips I might glean, because his style is so effective; it’s absorbing and fun, and it’s hard to feel angry or upset when you’re busy following a rhetorical avalanche.

A while ago, I re-read Seneca’s On Anger during a particularly difficult and enraging time in my personal life, and I did genuinely find it helpful. It’s useful to have a reminder of how much being angry can hurt the person who is indulging in the feeling. I try not to be angry, and also not to be passive or ignore what’s wrong; it’s a tough balance. I like that Seneca and the other Stoic-influenced writers are so deeply interested in these essential daily questions of how to manage our feelings, and how feelings relate to action.

Emily Wilson, UPenn Professor and a well-known name in the Stoic community due to her masterful translations of Seneca as well as her biography of the man. She has most recently made headlines (including The New York Times) with her new, contemporary translation of The Odyssey.


Taming Anger

I’m particularly interested in Stoic accounts of anger. So many of our emotions can be implosive, with most of the real mechanism of them occurring beneath the surface like a serene looking duck whose strange little feet are flapping mercilessly under the water’s surface. Anger is an explosive emotion, meaning that it instantly becomes the problem of everyone else around us. It can also be one of the ugliest and least noble emotions, and is associated with many of the worst errors we make in the course of our lives.

I found Seneca’s theory of anger as a misplaced expectation incredibly helpful, and I think of it if I find myself irked by an inability to find my keys, or the less than ideal actions of others. By Seneca’s account, anger is not something which happens ‘to’ us, but an error of basic reasoning. I cannot expect to live in a world where babies don’t cry on planes, and I am not entitled to be angry about misplaced keys when I didn’t put them back in their usual spot. Moderating expectation – particularly in relation to things outside of our control, significantly mitigates the impulse to anger, or indeed the experience of the emotion itself.

Emotions — particularly powerful ones — always present themselves within our internal landscape as truthful accounts of that which is external to us. We think in the moment that we are upset because a colleague said something rude, or that we are angry because someone has treated us unjustly, or whatever. I’m always struck by Marcus Aurelius’ idea that our emotional responses do not exist in any way outside of our internal landscape; they are merely our projection of an external stimulus and the power it holds over us. The idea that pain, or anger, or any emotion is volitionally manufactured within us, or perhaps volitionally fed by us, is everything that is difficult and wonderful about stoicism. The responsibility always lies within the individual. This is freeing and irritating all at once.

Laura Kennedy, freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, who’s earned an enormous following for her thoughtful “Coping” column in The Irish Times, which is based around the everyday usefulness of philosophy


True Happiness

A very common obstacle to true happiness is having a fixed notion of what true happiness is and then aggressively organizing your life to attain this state with all the strategizing, self-management, and personal report cards that go with this happiness-as-target point of view. I don’t think happiness can be sought. The seeking, the exertions, the calculating, the trial-and-error, perversely shuts off the happiness spigot.

True happiness, I think, is the meaningfulness that gratuitously happens, shows up, is revealed, or by grace discovered when we fully enter the project of directing our thoughts, words, and deeds toward the good and the worthy. It is in doing this, clumsily, fallibly, and without a compass, but just doing the damn best we can that, in certain moments when are minds and hearts are not defended, we experience love, order, sense, beauty, justice, and all the other ineffable good stuff.

I get out of my head and into my body. I love Stoicism because it values logos, reason, the discerning mind.  But I think our minds are often the wisest when we can settle them down to allow new unsought answers in. I trust the answers that surface during or as a result of my daily yoga practice…I think any daily practice that helps a person withdraw from the noise of everyday life so that wisdom’s voice can be heard is valuable.

Sharon Lebell, philosophical writer and performing musician. Lebell’s translation of Epictetus The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness—which contains 93 instructions to face each day and the challenges that it presents in a virtuous way—has become one of the bestselling translations of any of the Stoics


 A Global Community

There is a passage of Marcus I often bring to mind. It is fairly graphic and drives home its point vividly:  

“If you have ever seen a dismembered hand or food or head cut off, lying somewhere apart from the rest of the trunk, you have an image of what a person makes of himself, so far as in him lies, when he refuses to associate his will with what happens and cuts himself off and does some unneighborly act. You have made yourself an outcast from the unity which is according to nature…you have cut yourself off.” (Meditations 8.34, see Stoic Warriors , ch.7.)

The cultivation of empathy is critical, and what Marcus is calling for is a real affective and visceral appreciation that we are citizens of the cosmos or universe.

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Respect, for the Stoics, is the cement of the global community. We support and sustain each other…The Stoics were globalists. Their vision of virtue and goodness stopped not individual or small polis, but with the global community.”

Nancy Sherman, Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and an expert on Stoicism in the military, writing the book Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind.


Overcoming Obstacles

I wish I had stoicism in my life much earlier.  It would have gotten me through some pretty tough times.  My advice to people experiencing difficulties is, “Read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday”!  Seriously! I have recommended your book to many people because of the useful wisdom it offers.  Late in the 2015 NFL post-season, I had to work a game in Minnesota in extreme cold — 6-below-zero.  I was dreading the game for two weeks. What was I going to wear? How could I possibly survive the entire game in that temperature?  How painful was it going to be? Finally, about five days ahead of the game, I said to myself, “The obstacle is the way. Embrace this challenge. Learn through the preparation.  Strengthen my mind through the experience. Collaborate with my on-field team on creative ways to endure. And enjoy the challenge.” My anxiety melted away. (See what I did there??  Melted??))

Honestly, the phrase “The obstacle is the way” is one I think about whenever I run into a problem.

Michele Tafoya, the sideline reporter for NBC Sunday Night Football. The only person to be nominated for the Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality in all seven years of the award’s existence. She is a powerful advocate for Stoicism and diligent student of the philosophy, as well as a big fan of the Daily Stoic book and regularly shares passages from the book with her followers on Twitter.


Handling Emotions

I think there’s a common misconception about Stoicism, that it’s about forcing yourself to somehow not feel emotions; that’s probably an idea that would appeal more to men than to women (since, from childhood, boys are encouraged to be macho, while girls are encouraged to be in touch with their emotions). But the thing I love about Epictetus is that it’s really all about handling emotions. He’s like, “You’re definitely going to feel this incredibly powerful thing, but guess what, it’s not a law that dictates what you think or how you act—you’re perfectly free, and in fact duty-bound, to consult your reason and say, ‘OK, feeling, duly noted, but you are just a feeling and not the truth.’” I think that’s maybe an especially useful message for women, because of how little girls are educated, or at least how they were when I was little. I think for a lot of women (as well as men), there’s a tendency to think: “Oh my God, I already felt this, so the bad thing already happened.” And Epictetus is all about realizing, “Bro, nothing bad has happened yet, everyone has feelings, now just take a moment and evaluate what the truth is.

Elif Batuman, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Idiot, a National finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction.


Agency

“The ultimate test of Stoicism is when you have “hard times.” I have had “hard times” and to be honest it isn’t as if Stoicism pulled me out of grief or anything like that, but I did not recognize that they were wrong about it either. I was bereft but left with my agency. What struck me was surprise that more people did not “act out” in grief, with so little left to care about, what would acting terribly matter? It seemed like the Stoic were right that all we really have, since it can be all taken from us in a moment, is our agency and that choice to not lash out when we’ve been so deeply hurt.”

Jennifer Baker, a professor at the College of Charleston where she teaches courses on ethical and political theory, environmental ethics and philosophy, business ethics, bioethics, and American philosophy. Her research focuses on virtue ethics, and she looks to ancient ethical theories as positive examples of how ethics ought to be done today. She is also behind the blog “For the Love of Wisdom.”


The Power Of Perception

Stoicism entered my life at a very young age without my even knowing what it was. I was a fledging Stoic with a fluffy down of circumstance. I think that we all come into this world natural Stoics, born with no material trappings, just basic needs with patience and acceptance imposed upon us in our moment of birth. However, focus and will soon kick in! It seems to me that it is the clutter of life that distorts and clouds the perception of the ‘newborn stoic’.

It was brilliant that I went blind at the age of 8, before the clutter of my life got a look in.

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Epictetus made a very good point when he said that lameness was an impediment of the leg not of the will. To my mind, I often feel that people are more disabled by their thoughts, state of mind, perception, than they are by anything physical. The most physically disabled person can often be the most capable and the most physically able the most incapable. It all comes down to ‘strength of will’.

Verity Smith, a blind international dressage rider, singer, songwriter and author. She has represented Great Britain in the Paralympics, and is now training with the aim of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo games to fulfill her dream of competing on the Able Bodied Team (Check out Verity’s GoFundMe Campaign to support her quest to make Olympic history).


Human Nature

“What bothers me about the emotionless cow thing is that it regards Stoicism as being primarily about emotional regulation. Getting clear about the emotions was certainly part of the picture for ancient Stoics, but it’s not the key to their system, not at all. For them, the main thing was to get clear about human nature: what it is to be a rational creature, what is our place in the universe and how we connect to one another. It was their view that both we and our world are products of intelligent design. From that, it follows that if there’s a capability that belongs to human nature, there should be a right use for that capability. And the capacity to feel deeply, to be elated or eager or even horrified, is indeed part of our nature. The trick is to get our values right so that the things we react strongly to are the ones that truly matter for a human being. Once a person learns to care intensely about honesty, courage, and compassion, and only provisionally about their income or their reputation or even how long they live, then the emotions, too, fall into line. But getting there is hard – it could be a lifelong project.”

Margaret Graver, one of the best known and respected scholars on Stoicism and ancient philosophy. She is the author of the popular academic text Stoicism and Emotion, in which she disproves the myth of Stoicism as a philosophy advocating being emotionless. Currently, she is the Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth, where she offers a variety of courses on Greek and Roman Philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, and Latin literature.


Stoic Realism

Seneca can sound at times like he is quoting a passage from Scripture, particularly when he exhorts people to remember their death. I love the line in one of Seneca’s letters, “Old and young alike should have death before their eyes; we are not summoned in order of birth registration.”

I am not surprised that Stoicism is experiencing a modern-day revival. The Stoic emphasis on living in accord with reason and virtue is very much lacking today. And I think everyone could benefit from embracing more Stoic realism rather than reasoning solely according to our passions…Personally, I find the Stoic emphasis on self-discipline and realism to be inspiring and helpful in my spiritual life.”

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, former atheist turned avowed Christian and founder of the Memento Mori project. Sr. Theresa is also the author of The Prodigal You Love, Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional, and Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal


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