Why Pop Culture is a Classic(s) Matter: Epicureanism and Stoicism: How Ancient Philosophies Can Help You Deal with the Stress of Modern Life

To some people, philosophy is a boring subject they had to endure in school, or a pretentious topic that requires too much work. To others, it’s a lifelong journey of study and reflection that can be very fulfilling, even if its nature is inherently never-ending. To me, philosophy has always been fascinating, and I believe its study to be extremely beneficial for developing logical thinking skills. In particular, ancient philosophies have always resonated the most with me, not only for the incredible literature they produced, but also because of the strong element of self-reflection they involve. In fact, Stoicism and Epicureanism, the two most influential and famous schools of thought of the classical world, are actually rooted in the desire to achieve happiness and wisdom. According to such philosophies, the means through which these desires can be satiated are shaped by specific principles and self-reflective practices, many of which are still very useful in the context of the modern world.

For instance, the Epicureans were preoccupied with the concept of taedium vitae, a sensation of anxiety and existential dread, of restlessness, that prevents you from being satisfied with your life. The poet Lucretius describes it as the sort of feeling that makes you rush out of your house as if it was on fire, hurrying to another place, only to then feel bored when you arrive and thus decide to return home. It’s the sort of stress that makes you feel extremely annoyed at your life, even though you can’t really pinpoint what it is that’s so annoying. Everything is just…meh. As a student, I think that is very relatable, especially when you can feel the anxiety of deadlines approaching but somehow can’t bring yourself to do any work. Or maybe when you know that the walk to your next lecture is not actually going to take that long, yet the thought of getting up is so tedious you might just stay in bed. Not a nice feeling, is it? So, the Epicureans tried to come up with ways to deal with it, and in general to reach ultimate happiness, which to them looked a lot like a form of ultimate chill. They believed that “what is good is easy to get, what is terrible is easy to endure.” The philosopher should only be concerned with fulfilling necessary needs, and be in control of his passions to avoid emotional pain: in other words, don’t let the bad things that happen to you and the desire for stuff you don’t really need kill your vibe. 

Obviously, achieving such a state of detachment from the world is easier said than done. It’s no coincidence that Epicurus encouraged his followers to lead a private life in order to stay as far away as possible from upsetting events. Personally, I think sometimes we need to live our passions to the fullest, and even endure the pain they bring us, to fully understand ourselves and appreciate life in its totality. Still, I do believe that the idea of stopping to reflect on the perspective we see the world from is very relevant today. We are constantly asked to express our reactions to what happens around us: sometimes it’s so easy to become angry, frustrated, or bored with reality, that it could be a relief to establish control over these emotions, evaluating whether it’s worth it to let them upset us.

This concept of introspection as a way to gain control over your relationship with the outside world is what I find so fascinating about Epicureanism. The idea, common to Stoicism too, is that to achieve ultimate wisdom and happiness all you have to do is want it, and work on yourself in order to achieve it. It is all quite empowering and flexible at the same time, meaning that it proceeded to have a massive impact on later philosophies. After all, that’s one of the best things about philosophy: no one forces you to precisely and uncompromisingly subscribe to a specific school of thought. You can agree with or relate to different principles of different philosophical systems, and maybe adapt them to your own needs or beliefs.

A good example of that is the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism. The idea is that the individual is not simply a citizen of their native nation, but a citizen of the world (or rather, the cosmos). In practice, this means that you should be able to feel at home everywhere you are, because you are part of a larger human community based on shared values and principles: these, originally, would be the Stoic doctrine, but today they could be any shared humanitarian, political or moral values. Across history many artists and thinkers have defined themselves as cosmopolites and, in today’s globalised world, I think many of us can also identify as such, especially as international students or as part of the global academic community. 

Of the Stoics and Epicurean ancient philosophers, Seneca remains one of the most renowned and widely read ones. When I first read him, I remember being amazed by how simple yet universally relevant his observations are. So, I’m going to draw from his writings on the duration of life to give one last piece of advice: “life is long enough, if we know how to use it.” To me, that means that to be happy you should not only use your time wisely, doing things you enjoy and pursuing your objectives, but you should also look inside yourself to better understand how you want to live, and then use that introspection to shape your approach to the world. And that simple thought process, too, is philosophy. 

[Isabel Ferrari – she/her]

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