How Stoics Rethink Crises

Facing challenges well

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

In ancient Greek crisis (κρίνω krinō) meant decision point or choice. It’s a time when things come to a head.

Yet today, we use the term to mean emergency or catastrophe.

For the ancients, Hercules at the crossroads was the ultimate crisis.

One day, Hercules found himself faced with two Goddesses. The first enticed him to take a path of pleasure and vice. The road was smooth and easy, but Hercules could not see far down it. The second Goddess offered lasting happiness, but her path was marked by toil. Hercules must decide. It’s a decision that defines who he is.

The crises we face today are the same. Situations are questions that we answer with our actions. Our response to each challenge shapes who we are.

By reframing any disaster as a decision point, we retain our agency over the world. Life isn’t just something that happens to us, it unfolds from within. Neither Triumph nor disaster are up to us, but how we respond to them is.

Whenever we experience an emergency, we believe that something that matters is threatened. But is that true? Often we’ve made a mistake: nothing is in danger. We’ve mis-assessed the situation. At other times, something is at risk – or has been lost – but not something of importance. We’ve invested ourselves in something without lasting value. Still, often we are facing a true emergency. In such cases, we can only do our best. Any apparent crisis offers us this choice – we must determine whether it is it a truly a catastrophe.

Hercules’s path was marked by joy and tragedy. In the best accounts of his myth, he makes the right decision and transforms himself into a hero that deserves his place among the gods. Epictetus encourages us to do the same:

You ought to realize, you take up very little space in the world as a whole – your body, that is; in reason, however, you yield to no one, not even to the gods, because reason is not measured in size but sense. So why not care for that side of you, where you and the gods are equals?

Epictetus, Discourses 4.1

🎯 Action

Frame anything that happens today as a decision point and nothing more.

🔗 Links

💬 Sometimes what we care about, in so many words, we shouldn’t. Here’s Epictetus on the consequences of that:

Whenever externals are more important to you than your own integrity, then be prepared to serve them the remainder of your life.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.2

💬 Seneca reminds us about the importance of preparation. It’s easier to make the right play when we’ve fully prepared ourselves for what life may present to us:

All things happen in a more endurable fashion to men who are prepared for them.

Seneca, On the Firmness of the Wise Man

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