Skip to Content

He wore a toga and spoke Latin. This ancient philosopher can help you survive the anxiety of the 2024 election

Analysis by John Blake, CNN

(CNN) — Some people obsessively monitor presidential election polls. Others ignore any political news like an overdue bill. And a few probably wish they could just press a button and fast-forward past this November.

Americans have devised all sorts of strategies to deal with the unrelenting stress of this year’s presidential race. The rematch between President Biden and former President Trump has been called “the most dreaded election in modern political history.” As the two rivals prepare to debate on Thursday, about six in 10 American adults say they are already worn out by campaign coverage.

But there’s another way to cope with anxiety about the future — by turning to the past. Mention the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, and it may conjure images of boring, bearded White men in togas who lived thousands of years ago. But sages like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius offer plenty of practical advice for today’s voters who are navigating the relentless grind of this year’s presidential election.

Stoic philosophy, which teaches that it is impossible to live a happy life without living virtuously, also talks a lot about confronting one’s worse fears. The definition of Stoicism varies, but bestselling author Ryan Holiday describes it as the a “tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance and wisdom.”

The first Stoic school was founded in Athens by a philosopher named Zeno of Citium around the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Zeno, who lost his entire fortune in a shipwreck, found consolation in philosophy. He later quipped, “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.”

We too can begin such a journey, Holiday says. He says that like us, the Stoics also knew something about dealing with loss, political instability and living in a time when many people felt politically powerless. He cites Aurelius, a Stoic follower who became one of Rome’s greatest emperors. He led Rome during a global pandemic that killed at least 10 million people and grappled constantly with war and murderous political divisions.

“Aurelius experienced this devastating global pandemic that ravaged society,” says Holiday, who just released “Right Thing, Right Now,” the third installment in his bestselling book series on Stoic virtues.  “But he would have also seen what it [the pandemic] did to people: the tribalism, the fear, the anger along with the flights of fancy. He saw everything that we just saw over the last couple of years.”

CNN talked to Holiday and Massimo Pigliucci, author of “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.” Both authors, through books, videos and podcasts, are two of the most popular modern-day interpreters of Stoicism.

They offered three pieces of Stoic advice for handling the anxiety of this year’s election.

Don’t let the future destroy the present

It pays to look ahead in the world of politics. Pollsters predict trends. Pundits gauge the potential impact of political gaffes. Party leaders assess the implications of court decisions. Worry about the future is constant.

That type of worry, though, spreads like a contagion to voters. People obsess about what will happen to them if the wrong candidate is elected. Some fixate on nightmare scenarios about the country descending into civil war. This grinding anxiety echoes Shakespeare’s famous line from “Julius Caesar”: “A coward dies a thousand times, a hero dies but once.”

Stoics only die once, though, because they reject fixating on the future. Stoicism teaches people to separate what they can control from what they cannot. Their advice: don’t become engulfed by nightmare political scenarios that may or may not come to pass.

“The Stoics say that he who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary,” Holiday says. “The idea that you should wake up every day in miserable anticipation of a thing that may or may not happen is to punish yourself on top of whatever the pain that will come from that thing actually happening,” Holiday says.

Pigliucci says Stoics coped with the political turbulence of their day by focusing on what they could control: their emotions. He cites the Serenity Prayer, which is often recited at 12-step programs. The prayer is attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a towering Christian theologian from the 20th century, and asks God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

“Seems like excellent advice for the upcoming presidential elections,” Pigliucci says. “Have the courage to do your duty as a citizen; vote, maybe send money or volunteer for a campaign; then accept the outcome because it will be what it will be.”

Don’t be too cynical to get involved

Maybe you’ve met this type of person. They don’t vote because they say it won’t make a difference.  You might hear them in a barbershop or perched on a barstool, griping. All politicians are corrupt. The Illuminati control everything. Pass me a beer.

Some people deal with the anxiety of the election by checking out of politics altogether. The ancient Athenians had a word for citizens that refused to exercise their right to vote. They called them “idiotai,” from which the word “idiot” is derived.

Many Stoic leaders would never be labeled as “idiotai.” They were passionately involved in politics and the pursuit of justice.

That may surprise people. Stoics get a bad rap because of the way the way the word is defined: someone “indifferent to pain or pleasure,” not showing “passion or feeling.” But ancient Stoic leaders would have been at home jousting on Sunday morning political talk shows or marching in a Black Lives Matter protest.

Holiday says Aurelius wrote constantly about justice in his classic book, “Meditations.”

“He talks about the common good more than 80 times in ‘Meditations,”  Holiday says. “He talks about it more than just about anything. He actually says the whole purpose of life is good character and acts for the common good.”

The stereotype of the dispassionate, uninvolved Stoic is “as wrong as it could possibly be,” Holiday says.

“If you look at the actual lives of Stoics, these are people who got married, had families, ran for public office and fought for causes,” Holiday says. “There was a generation of Stoics that were such a perpetual thorn in the side of emperors that they were known as the Stoic Opposition. At one point, all of them are kicked out of Rome because they won’t go along to get along.”

Cynicism can be masked cowardice — some cynics are afraid of the risks that come with getting involved. But the Stoic leaders were known for their courage in standing up to political tyrants. Pigliucci tells a famous story about political courage that centers on  Helvidius Priscus, a Stoic philosopher.

When the Roman emperor Vespasian threatened Priscus, the Stoic philosopher, with execution for speaking out against political tyranny, Priscus responded by saying:

“Well, when have I ever claimed to you that I’m immortal? You fulfill your role, and I’ll fulfill mine. It is yours to have me killed, and mine to die without a tremor; it is yours to send me into exile, and mine to depart without a qualm.”

Be kind, even to your political enemies

It’s hard not to be cynical when it comes to US presidential politics. Candidates brazenly lie on the campaign trail. Partisan websites and social media platforms spread so much disinformation that’s hard to know what to believe. Politicians who once loudly opposed certain candidates now bend the knee to curry their favor.

It’s easy for our dislike for our political opponents to morph into hatred. But Holiday suggests we consider how Aurelius dealt with political treachery in his time.  Aurelius survived an attempted coup from his most trusted general. He had unlimited power and could have devised an array of sadistic measures to torment or kill his traitor.  But he refused to do so.

“In fact, he wept when he was deprived of the chance to grant clemency to his former enemy,” Holiday writes in an essay on Aurelius. “The best revenge, Marcus would write “is to not be like that.”

When family or friends insult you or stop talking to you because of a political disagreement, it’s easy to respond in kind. The Stoics, though, have two words of advice, Holiday says:

Be kind.

That may sound naïve when personal attacks have become the norm in modern-day politics and this year’s presidential race. But Epictetus said that “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master.”

“The Stoics said we should try to see every person we meet as an opportunity for kindness,” Holiday writes in his new book.

Holiday says that when Aurelius was on his deathbed, he had one regret: He was still chastising himself over the times he had had lost his temper and been unkind to others.

Holiday says he’s had to apply that Stoic advice to his own personal life. He has risen in prominence in part because he’s sold a reported 6 million books on Stoicism. He’s also built a mini-empire around Stoicism that includes YouTube videos, an Instagram feed and a Stoic newsletter.

His elevated public profile has led to some personal challenges. He says he and his family have been constantly harassed because they have taken stands against book banning, in support of women’s rights, and for the removal of Confederate monuments. A friend betrayed him.

Holiday says a younger version of himself would have “wanted blood” for those who have tried to hurt him. Instead he considered the actions of Stoic leaders like Aurelius, drawing a direct link between the “dark energy” that the Stoic leaders faced in their time and what he sees in the 2024 presidential election cycle.

“There is this energy across all societies that is driven by hatred, fear, and that wants to protect what it has and prevent other people from getting their piece of it,” Holiday tells CNN. “And that energy was certainly there in Roman times. “

But solutions to that dark energy are there, too. Stoic leaders may seem like distant figures encased in marble, but we can learn from them, Holiday says.

They wrestled with and ultimately defeated the same dark energy that drove the political tribalization of their day. So can we.

John Blake is a CNN senior writer and author of the award-winning memoir, “More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.”

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: cnn-opinion

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content