The Stoics were right – emotional control is good for the soul

Both neuroscience and psychotherapy agree that you can change your mental framework as the Stoic Marcus Aurelius described

To become more forgiving, we are often told to be more empathic. Empathy is a powerful social adhesive, one that most people believe helps us mediate forgiveness as it increases the likelihood of feeling together with someone who has hurt us. But there are serious problems with empathy, as the psychologist Paul Bloom has argued.

He points out that empathy is inherently biased and we shouldn’t rely on it as a moral guide. ‘Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight,’ he said in a 2017 interview. ‘It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.’ Feelings of empathy arise unequally across situations, and people tend to empathise more with in-group members. In negative settings, empathy can even lead to emotional distress and burnout.

Fortunately, empathy is not the most effective way to foster kindness and lenience. The Stoic philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius offers a compelling alternative, one that bypasses the flimsy nature of empathy and focuses on finding equanimity instead:

Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them.

At the imperial court, Marcus Aurelius witnessed the ancient world’s most conniving social environment. It was often challenging to maintain a moral high ground, so he frequently contemplated the theme of forgiveness, which he wrote about in his Meditations.

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