How Can Stoicism Help Overcome Adversity?

Stoicism is a logical philosophy of life, and its practical teachings can be beneficial when facing adversity.

Jan 12, 2024By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics

how can stoicism overcome adversity


Stoicism was founded in the third century BCE and quickly became popular in Ancient Greece and Rome. Since then, it has been an influential philosophy because its rational, practical, and logical approach offers an appealing roadmap for those looking to live a virtuous life. It is also well-loved for its teachings of resilience and fortitude, which can help overcome challenges, obstacles, and adversity.  


The Dichotomy of Control Is Nice But Hard To Use

raphael school of athens painting
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-1511. Source: Musei Vaticani


One of the Stoics’ most well-known teachings is the dichotomy of control. Their theory is this: things are either controllable (your thoughts and actions) or uncontrollable (everything else), and you should only ever spend time thinking about the controllable things because you can’t do anything about the uncontrollable. Basically, don’t stress about things you can’t change; worry only about yourself. 


It is easy to see how this line of thinking is helpful, especially when discussing ideas such as virtue and how to live a good life. But when it comes to the topic of adversity, it falls a little flat. Of course, it’s nice to hear that I shouldn’t worry about the obstacles in my path, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Surely, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has more practical advice than that, right? Well, yes. Yes, it does. 


Stoics Are Perseverant

edward coley burne jones sisyphus painting
Sisyphus, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. 1870. Source: The Tate, London


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“Difficulties show men what they are” (Epictetus). 


The Stoics believe that each person on earth is like a drowning man: They are always trying to swim to the surface — that is, live a good and virtuous life — but no matter how hard they try, they always fall short. Still, the Stoics say they should keep trying, and it is this steadfast mindset that is extremely important for combatting adversity. It is easy to stop trying when facing seemingly insurmountable external obstacles. However, to overcome adversity, you must have the mental strength to keep going despite failure. The next time you encounter an obstacle, remind yourself how important it is to keep going. It doesn’t matter that you’ve hit a snag, only that you keep trying. 


Stoicism Turns Negatives Into Positives

The Death of Seneca by Jacques Louis David, c. 1773. Source: Petit Palais
The Death of Seneca by Jacques Louis David, c. 1773. Source: Petit Palais


“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials” (Seneca). 


Stoics know how easy it is to be weighed down by daily struggles — but they also know how important it is to see them as a way to build resilience. One of the most important characteristics to a Stoic is fortitude. In the face of adversity, do you see it as a quitting point, or are you willing to take it as a learning opportunity? For the rest of this week, when you find yourself encountering challenges, focus on shifting your mindset. Instead of viewing them as negatives, try to uncover a silver lining. Not only will this sharpen your mental resolve, but it will also make you happier and give you a more positive outlook on life.


Intentions Matter More Than Results

Niobe Mourning Her Children. Source: Ancient World Magazine
Niobe Mourning Her Children. Source: Ancient World Magazine


“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens” (Epictetus). 


If an archer prepares adequately, aims, and misses their target because of an unexpected gust of wind, they have failed in achieving their goal — but only because of external factors. Because, as the Stoic dichotomy of control states, some things are outside our influence, the ultimate concern is not the result but the intention. When dealing with adversity, it is important to keep this Stoic teaching in mind. Intentions are everything; whether or not you surpass your challenges is not as important as the fact that you did everything you could. The result is out of your hands, but you want to overcome the adversity, and that’s what matters. 


Stoics Aren’t Ruled By Their Passions

diogenes the cynic
Painting of Diogenes the Cynic by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860. Source: The Walters Art Museum


“We do a better service to ourselves and others by remaining detached and avoiding melodramatic reactions” (Epictetus). 


As a result of Stoicism’s value of rationality, its practitioners often have a reputation for being uncompromising and emotionally detached. While much of this is misaligned with Stoic values, there is some truth behind their approach to emotions. Rather than being ruled by their impulses, Stoics take a breath, contemplate the appropriate response for a moment, and then proceed. This meditative exercise is useful for anyone facing challenges because it clears the mind and allows room for logical thought. When you find yourself struggling, calm your thoughts and try to imagine a few next steps. Don’t be impulsive; choose the response that will have the best outcome possible for you.


Change Is Inevitable and Provides New Solutions

A Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane, 1905-1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A Masque for the Four Seasons, by Walter Crane, 1905-1909. Source: Wikimedia Commons


“Change is Nature’s delight” (Marcus Aurelius).


Stoics know that everything is temporary. Just as the seasons change, so too do circumstances. Stoicism emphasizes the impermanent state of the universe and acknowledges that there is constant fluctuation in the nature of things. You are not stagnant either; as time passes, you are evolving in new ways to adapt to your obstacles. Stoics know that even though nothing appears to have changed on the surface, each day is a fresh chance to approach adversity in a new way. The next time you face a seemingly unbeatable problem, remember that you are a different person than before, and your new perspective might result in a solution.

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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.