Can Stoicism Improve Personal and Professional Relationships?

There are four main values that are important to Stoics, and these can be used to help cultivate relationships.

Dec 31, 2023By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics
stoicism improves personal professional relationships

 

Stoicism is a philosophy of life first created in 300 BCE. Zeno of Citium was its founder, and his teachings quickly gained traction. He argued that the world was rational and that living in accordance with nature was the ultimate goal. Nowadays, Stoics are known for their practical and straightforward approach to life, but they also have a reputation for being harsh and unforgiving. It might be surprising, then, to learn that Stoicism can be extremely helpful for cultivating relationships.

 

Stoics Have Four Main Values

Stoicism Cardinal Virtues, commemorative coin, Stoic Store UK
Stoicism Cardinal Virtues, commemorative coin, Source: Stoic Store UK

 

While Zeno is best known as the official founder of Stoicism, most of his original writings have been lost, and the leaders who came after him really developed the philosophy. As it spread throughout Ancient Greece and Rome, a particular emphasis was placed on ethics or, more specifically, how to live a virtuous life. Taking from earlier Socratic ideas, Stoics started to emphasize four values — wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice — and their importance for living a good life. 

 

However, it’s important to remember that living a good life isn’t done alone. We all have relationships to navigate, and the four Stoic virtues can help us improve these, whether they’re personal or professional. 

 

Wisdom Can Strengthen Bonds

An engraving of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
An engraving of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The key to wisdom, Stoics argue, is knowing the difference between what you can and can’t control. You can control your thoughts and actions; you can’t control everything else. The distinction sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult to implement. When you’re late to work, is it because traffic held you up (uncontrollable) or because you didn’t leave early enough (controllable)? The assessment happens in seconds, and it can become instantaneous with practice.

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This understanding can help in personal and professional settings. Rather than being frustrated with coworkers or family for things they have or have not done, you can focus on your internal reactions. You can’t control them, but you can control yourself. It allows you to make better choices in your actions, showing thoughtfulness and empathy for other people. Putting extra time into developing your wisdom of yourself will deepen your bonds with those around you. 

 

Courage Keeps You in the Moment with Others

Still-Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne. Source: Wikipedia
Still-Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne. Source: Wikipedia

 

Courage is popularly associated with brave action and heroism, but Stoicism values the courage that comes from overcoming the worst outcomes imaginable. Stoics practice memento mori, Latin for “remember death.” The exercise involves picturing the worst-case scenario and accepting it. That way, no matter how something turns out, it’s either better than expected or you’ve already come to terms with the situation. 

 

The best aspect of memento mori is that it removes the weight of expectations. It grounds you and fosters an appreciation for life. Often, cultivating relationships can seem like trial and error, especially with new people. Knowing that you’ve already prepared yourself for what is to come will help keep you relaxed around others and open to anything that arises, letting you focus more on being in the moment with people you care about rather than worrying about what might go wrong. 

 

Temperance Creates Stability and Trust

aristotle ancient philosophy logic
Roman copy (in marble) of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos (c. 330 BC). Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Aristotle’s Golden Mean is perhaps one of the most well-known approaches to ethics in moral philosophy. He suggests that virtue is found on a spectrum between extremes and that ethical behavior lies in the middle. Take, for example, pride. In excess, a person might be extremely vain; with a deficiency, a person might be too humble; in the middle, a person would be proud of their accomplishments but not overly so.  

 

Aristotle’s take was highly popular, and the Stoics expanded it. They called it temperance — one of their four values — and advocated for living balanced lives. This balance extends to relationships, too. It helps regulate emotions, build dependability, and increase patience. Once you have achieved balance, the people in your life will know they can count on you, and that stability is important for relationships because it creates trust and reliability. 

 

Justice Nurtures Interdependence

relief of themis
Themis with scales, bas-relief plaster cast depicting the Goddess of Justice

 

The ancient Stoics took the concept of justice seriously; for them, it was more than the legal justice we know today. They believed in sympatheia — the idea that everything is interconnected. Justice was not of individual importance, but rather, it was important for all things on Earth. It was about ensuring good for everyone around you, not just yourself. 

 

It is easy to see how this view of justice can benefit personal and professional relationships. The very foundation of relationships is caring for the well-being of someone outside of yourself. If you think only of what is best for you, you will never be able to develop new bonds, and you will likely struggle to maintain the ones you do have. Making others’ needs a priority shows empathy and compassion, and it helps you be a better person — and friend.

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By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.