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Keep calm and think on: How the ancients can save today’s world

The gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, dating to the Roman emperor's reign, appears in its new hall at the Capitoline museum in Rome. Organizers of Stoic Week are urging participants to keep daily journals just as he did.

CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

In an endlessly over-sharing, selfie-snapping, Rob Ford kind of world that has lost its grip on impulse control, the proponents of good old-fashioned stoicism hope they have found their moment.

A team of academics and therapists funded by the British government is convinced that the 2,300-year-old philosophy of emotional detachment could rescue modernity from its worst excesses. Armed with pithy maxims from the likes of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and a series of daily exercises that draw on ancient calming rituals, they have organized Live Like a Stoic Week – a global self-improvement experiment, starting Monday, that aims to spread Stoic virtue across the virtual world.

The program features daily meditations and an online survey designed to help participants find happiness through the Stoic idea of self-control. A pilot study last year, said Donald Robertson, a researcher and author based in Halifax, N.S., "showed a 10-per-cent improvement in measures of psychological well-being. It seems that even in a short space of time, stoicism can have a positive effect on mood."

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Stoicism might seem an unlikely route to bliss, given its reputation for chilly rationality – a guiding thought from the slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus is that we achieve freedom only when we realize that it comes not by fulfilling our desires but by getting rid of them. For Stoics if not for the mayor of Toronto (and those who obsessively track his outbursts), self-control is actually a force for liberation.

"Stoicism can teach us how to live in this society without allowing it to take control, and that has a great deal of appeal," Mr. Robertson said. "People want to have an iPad, but they don't want to let it rule them, to dominate their philosophy of life."

Stoicism first emerged in Athens around 300 B.C., but it gained greater traction in 1st-century imperial Rome – a competitive culture of social mobility and haphazard leadership not unlike our own where freedom was defined in terms of status and wealth. To rise above the dissatisfying compromises in their high-pressure lives, worldly Romans turned to a self-help system that restored personal autonomy by stripping away external preoccupations that caused them grief and couldn't be controlled.

Two millennia later, the organizers of Stoic Week are urging participants to keep daily journals just as the Roman emperor did – the text for next Saturday's period of reflection is Marcus Aurelius's argument for why it's better to get out of bed in the morning when your preference is to stay put. At the therapeutic level, they also want would-be Stoics to start questioning their needless worries – in keeping with the saying of Epictetus thats "We are not disturbed by events but by our opinions about events."

Ancient philosophy insisted on connecting belief with behaviour, and Stoics in particular demanded the kind of 24/7 self-examination offered by Stoic Week. "It's a very exacting challenge for everyday life," said University of British Columbia philosophy professor Michael Griffin. "But it's also a very powerful idea: By thinking right, you can live right."

Living like a Stoic may sound heavy-duty for people unused to prolonged self-analysis, and stoicism has generally attracted followers who are caught up in harsh situations where sanity depends on some level of thoughtful reflection – soldiers, athletes, prisoners, the sick and elderly. Its analysis of human emotions has also been embraced by the proponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, linking the ancient Stoics with the clinical treatment of anxiety and depression.

But the organizers of Stoic Week insist that stoicism can have broader appeal, particularly among the questioning young.

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"It's a helpful idea for young people to have a sense of self that's slightly detached from the approval of other people," said Jules Evans, the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. "They're growing up in a world of social networks where their reputation is out of their control – every month some young person commits suicide because of online bullying. With stoicism they can learn not to tie their sense of self-worth to their reputation because reputation exists in the opinions of others, and other people's judgment is sometimes wrong."

Although it may not be the best selling point for the young and hopeful, stoicism is a philosophy designed to harden you up for the inevitabilities of failure, disappointment and death. "In the modern world, people seem completely lost when things go wrong," said Christopher Gill of Exeter University. "Stoicism encourages you to prepare for these events. This combination of recognizing the things you can do well in life and accepting the things you can't do is the great strength of stoicism."

If that sounds too ancient-Roman for everyday use, the exercises of Stoic Week are also designed to help with life's pettier irritations, such as fretting about a tight plane connection. Accepting that your role is to be a good passenger and not second-guess the pilot, Prof. Gill says,"really helps to lower the blood pressure."

One of the enduring critiques of the highly rational Stoics, of course, is that they have been all too successful at lowering their blood pressure across the board.

"There's not much joy and dancing in stoicism," Mr. Evans acknowledged. "Stoics can be very individualistic."

But in a world that can't hold back, detachment suddenly looks very welcoming.

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