22.08.2022 Human Resources Trends

Stoicism, an ancient philosophy for a modern workplace

stoicism pwc luxembourg blog article

One of a pair of twin brothers dies. When a foolish student runs into the surviving twin, he asks, “Did you die, or was it your brother?” This joke comes from the Philogelos, the oldest existing collection of jokes, written 1,600 years ago. Most of them are quite childish or make fun of illiterate people. Still, you probably laughed at this one, which was written before the fall of the Roman Empire (we confess we chuckled). In short, our sense of humour hasn’t changed much in the last two millennia. 

Similarly, neither has our relationship to love, life, death, power… you name it. These are what  makes us human and drive our desire to live a good life—a central element of Stoicism.

Stoicism is a trending philosophy that is having a major revival over the last decade. However, we admit that its rebirth might be linked to the current trend of “instant tips and tricks” to become happier, live healthier and so on, which, too often, leads to misunderstandings about what Stoicism really is.

So, this philosophy is a system of personal ethics that focuses on accepting what we have in life. As an example, Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and Epictetus’ “The Enchiridion” are two classic Stoic texts. Today, many initiatives have been created to apply the Stoic philosophy to modern living for the benefit of the general public, such as Modern Stoicism, the Stoic Fellowship or the Aurelius Foundation, to name a few.

It’s undeniable that, for various reasons, our modern workplace is undergoing a deep change, with people prioritising jobs that, as a prerequisite, fulfil them and align with their beliefs. Thus, how does Stoicism fit into the recent shift in our workplaces?

In this blog entry, we will show you, through concrete examples, how we can apply some of the principles of this philosophy in our modern professional lives to become a better version of ourselves and keep growing.

Four Cardinal Virtues

The Stoics —Greek and later Roman thinkers— who lived 2,000 years ago believed that the path to eudaimonia (happiness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself. That is, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain. The Stoics are too often portrayed as people that shut down all emotions, but in reality they embrace positive emotions—joy, love, gratitude—and want to reduce the impact negative emotions—anger, fear, hatred—have on their happiness.

The most important pillar of Stoic philosophy is the “Four Cardinal Virtues”, which, with constant practice, lead to positive personal changes:

  – Practical wisdom makes the distinction between what we can and can’t change. It’s fundamental to understand that wisdom is about having the knowledge to know what’s good and what’s bad. We are constantly facing many challenges and choices in the workplace, and we have to judge what we can and can’t do on a daily basis. Wisdom helps you answer questions about the other three virtues below. It helps you make the best decisions with long-term benefits.

  – Courage is about standing up and being morally strong to do the right thing. A few weeks ago, we had an Advisory off-site event. During a speech, one partner said that integrity was about saying to our clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. And that integrity requires courage—that is, bravery to face adversity.

  – Justice is about doing the right thing. This is the highest virtue according to the Stoics. It means that we exist for the benefit of others rather than ourselves. Everything we do should contribute to the good of society. And our modern workplaces are filled with inspiring visions about doing the right thing.

  – Temperance is the idea that we should do things in moderation, not overreacting to events or neglecting to do enough to fix them. For the Stoics, your role isn’t to disgrace yourself, but to live up to the highest potential of human beings—no matter what life, gods or whatever, threw at you at birth. Interestingly, two of the most noteworthy Roman Stoics couldn’t be more different: Epictetus was a slave and Marcus Aurelius, an emperor.

In the workplace, young workers face challenges like information overload or repetitive tasks, and experienced workers face other challenges like conflict of interest, complex choices, high responsibilities, among others. Lord Acton said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Each role has its own advantages and issues, and Stoics believe you should live up to your highest potential, and be a good, wise and tempered human being.

Source: Article from PwC Luxembourg blog