“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said. The ancient Stoics taught this idea in detail.
The philosophy known as Stoicism gets its name from Stoa Poikile, or "painted porch." It was an open structure decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, near the largest marketplace in ancient Greece.
Zeno, the teacher famed for his use of paradox, and his followers gathered there to discuss their ideas about becoming physically and mentally stronger.
Stoicism is catching on in modern America, notably Silicon Valley (though some claim the tech types there are missing some key points) (Pigliucci, 2020).
In search of authentic Stoicism
Not long ago, to find the true essence of Stoicism, I attended “Stoic camp” in Wyoming. It would be a week of reading these Greek and Roman philosophers on a small mountain.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so imagine my surprise when the room filled with men who resembled the historical conception of Greek and Roman warriors, tall and muscled, plus they all seemed to love to read!
These men were choosing to sit for hours on old couches with books on their laps (or on their laptops) containing words written centuries ago. Why should we care what the Greeks and Romans said about health or success? Because everything we care about concerned them, too, and they weren’t limited by our cultural assumptions (just their own, but the difference helps).
Nowadays we use the word “stoic” to mean someone who doesn’t complain. The Stoics went further: They saw your hardship as your fate and your job was to love it. Use hardship as a tool, they said, and you’ll be strong.
One of the Wyoming men told me he had been inspired by the story of the late James Stockdale. Shot down on his third combat tour over North Vietnam, Stockdale, a naval officer, was captive in Hanoi and repeatedly tortured over more than seven years, some of that time in solitary confinement or leg irons. He credited his close study of the Stoic Epictetus for his endurance under torture (Messerly, 2019).
In the ancient world, philosophy had the prestige we now give to science. People looked to it for instructions on how to live. Stoicism, one of several schools competing for students in both ancient Greece and Rome, argued that calm happiness was only possible once you toughened up.
As an 18th-century French writer, Nicolas Chamfort, proposed, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Stoicism gives more do-able instructions for lowering expectations, and thus raising one’s spirits.
It advises getting tougher (and more contented) through meditation on difficult topics:
The Stoics advise us to expect and plan for the worst.
Which sounds depressing, but, they argue, actually promotes calm happiness. Realism also makes us more effective. Past defeat is an education in how to avoid a future one. It gives us courage and freedom as we fight again.
“No prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue,” Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, “The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”
Philosophy similarly requires illuminating humiliations along the way. “You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintances, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything—in offices, in honors, before tribunals” (Epictetus, Enchiridion).
Train like a Stoic
Aside from cultivating mental toughness, Stoics suggest a number of physical techniques on the principle that embracing stress in controlled doses builds fortitude.
In our times, the classic application of this idea is found in vaccines; we willingly take in a pathogen in a calculated dose to physically “learn” resistance.
The Stoics advised students to expose themselves to cold occasionally, or to fast, so cold and hunger wouldn’t frighten them. Too much comfort weakens, they observed. As philosopher Massimo Pigliucci notes, “Seneca was one of the richest men in the Roman empire, and yet he occasionally fasted and went around underdressed for the weather” (Pigliucci, 2020).
Both strategies, we now know, may be good for our health despite the discomfort. Scientists have learned that cold pushes your body to generate its own heat. Research suggests that the shock of an icy shower may strengthen immunity, boost tolerance to pain, and ward off depression symptoms (Shevchuk, 2008). In a study of winter swimmers, comparing them to a control group, the swimmers could raise their core temperature. The control group could only shiver (Vybiral, 2000).
Embrace hunger and it won’t bother you, the Stoics said. Even today in the United States where obesity is more common than chronic hunger, we rush for a chocolate bar at the first hunger pang. Hunger frightens us. But Stoic wisdom remains true emotionally and as diet advice: a growing library of science explains the health benefits of cutting calories and responsible intermittent fasting (Cabo et al., 2020).
As for diet, famed Stoic Musonius Rufus advised avoiding sweets and exotic fare and consuming the health-giving “everyday” foods of the Mediterranean – advice that definitely included fish several times a week (Vost, 2016).
When it comes to exercise, again, a rather Stoic approach has come into favor: short intense bursts of activity, called high-intensity interval training, may be more effective than long, slow, easy low-intensity workouts.
The immune system may need exercise, too. One theory has it that allergies and other immune overreactions are becoming more common in higher-income countries because children aren’t exposed enough to parasites (Alexandre-Silva, et al., 2018).
Even as we age, the right amount of stress may be helpful to promote new neurons and ward off dementia. For example, when scientists analyzed cognitive tests over time for seniors who had lived through the death of a child or grandchild, they found more cognitive decline, compared to people who hadn’t suffered that great stress. But the illness of a partner or relative, a more ordinary stress, was linked to less decline than emerged in people who hadn’t experienced those challenges. (Comijs et al, 2011).
Go High, Get Strong
It’s also possible that high altitudes challenge our bodies in beneficial ways when it forces us to overcome a mild lack of oxygen and other stress reactions. The result in Colorado, the highest state in the U.S., is longer, healthier lives, as Brad Lemley explained in August.
After my time at Stoic Camp above 7,000 ft, I traveled to Denver and lingered there at well over 5,000. Then I went home to New York City’s sea level, I was stronger. I could bike further.
I could contemplate death, too.
As it turns out, there is evidence that even just visiting high altitudes can have a lasting effect.
I also suspect the sight of all those Greek god-like scholar hunk athletes did me some good as well.
Alexandre-Silva GM, Brito-Souza PA, Oliveira ACS, Cerni FA, Zottich U, Pucca MB. The hygiene hypothesis at a glance: Early exposures, immune mechanism and novel therapies. Acta Trop. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30165069/ Published Dec., 2018.
Cabo Rde, Mattson M. Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease: NEJM. New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1905136. Published April 30, 2020.
Comijs HC, van den Kommer TN, Minnaar RWM, Penninx BWJH, Deeg DJH. Accumulated and Differential Effects of Life Events on Cognitive Decline in Older Persons: Depending on Depression, Baseline Cognition, or ApoE ε4 Status? OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/66B/suppl_1/i111/553704. Published July 1, 2011.
Epictetus. The Enchiridion. The Enchiridion, by Epictetus. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/45109/45109-h/45109-h.htm. Published 2014.
Letters From a Stoic by Seneca: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes. https://dailystoic.com/letters-from-a-stoic/?utm_source=convertkit. Published August 31, 2020.
Messerly J. Epictetus and Admiral James Stockdale. Reason and Meaning. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/03/08/admiral-james-stockdale-and-epictetus/. Published November 10, 2019.
Pigliucci M. Silicon Valley style Stoicism. Medium. https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/silicon-valley-style-stoicism-6fb158128695. Published May 29, 2020.
Shevchuk N. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical hypotheses. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17993252/. Published 2008.
Vost, K. 'The Musonius Rufus Diet'. https://modernstoicism.com/the-musonius-rufus-diet-by-kevin-vost/ Published April 30, 2016.
Vybíral S, Lesná I, Jansky L, Zeman V. Thermoregulation in winter swimmers and physiological significance of human catecholamine thermogenesis. Exp Physiol. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10825419/ Published May, 2000.