Wisdom of the Ancients

RD India spoke with William Mulligan, author of The Everyday Stoic, on how Stoicism can offer valuable guiding principles for a life well-lived.

By Ishani Nandi Updated: Jul 2, 2024 15:54:15 IST
Wisdom of the Ancients

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy dating back to around 300 BCE, has experienced a resurgence in popularity in modern times. This revival is driven by its timeless principles that advocate for resilience and wisdom in facing life's challenges. Stoicism emphasizes virtue, reason, and self-control as pathways to inner peace and a fulfilling life. Its appeal lies in providing practical tools to manage stress, foster emotional resilience, and achieve clarity in ethical decision-making. Moreover, its focus on distinguishing between what we can control (our thoughts and actions) and what we cannot (external events) resonates deeply in today's uncertain world.

However, the popularity of Stoicism also raises concerns. Critics argue that its emphasis on detachment and suppression of emotions may lead to emotional repression or an overly passive acceptance of injustice. Additionally, the philosophy's ancient roots may pose challenges in applying its teachings directly to contemporary issues and contexts. Nonetheless, Stoicism continues to attract individuals seeking practical wisdom and a structured approach to personal development amidst the complexities of modern life. 

To learn more about Stoicism and its potential in empowering individuals to live an empowered and fulfilling life, Reader's Digest India connected with William Mulligan, author of the book The Everyday Stoic: Simple Rules for a Good Life.

What inspired you to write The Everyday Stoic, and how did your personal experiences shape the content of the book?

I think like most people, I grew up scared; I was a prisoner of my own anxiety and inability to take control of my life. I felt like the world was a bad place full of bad people, and I was just a victim to the string that they pulled. When I found Stoicism, I realized that it would be my saviour; it just took me many years to fully understand that. It took me so long because it was hard for me to understand the ancient literature; I didn’t know where to start, how to understand it fully, or how to incorporate it into my life.

The inspiration behind the book was the understanding that there are so many people in this world who felt exactly how I felt. I know many of the people reading this will resonate with the feelings I had—of feeling powerless and scared. Some are in a dark place and believe that the world will never provide light for them. I wrote this book to show them that they have the power, they have the light within them, that you, the reader, don't have to stay stuck, and that this is the answer you have been hoping for. I didn’t want people to continue living in the dark. I also didn’t want people spending years of study attempting to find some answer. I wanted to provide the answers and a practical framework so that the reader could make the same transformation I had, but without the years of doubt and struggle. I knew that if someone read this book, then they could have my 10-year transformation, but much quicker.

The book is completely inspired and shaped by my personal experience. I thought that this was important as Stoicism was so integral in changing and shaping my life. The most important thing to me was to get across to the reader this transformative ability of Stoicism. I needed the reader to be able to follow my journey and feel the changes that I felt. My book contains many of my personal stories; this was actually the hardest part of writing the book—to dig deep into myself to truly understand my situations and transformation. I believe this aspect of the book was only made possible due to my partner's encouragement; she encouraged me to reflect on my own life from a perspective that was unusual for me; this was essential to drawing out the greatest wisdom and guidance of Stoicism.

william-mulligan_062724032550.jpgThe author, Wiliam Mulligan

Could you elaborate on some specific situations where Stoic principles have profoundly impacted your daily life?

Imagine you are lost in the dark. Stoicism is like being handed a torch, and now you can see. It always helps; it always provides guidance before you have time to crumble under the pressures that life provides. Stoicism has already got your back. I’ll give you a story that happened after the writing of this book—a story about my newborn daughter. During my whole life, I have been a big worrier. I grew up with 6 siblings. I remember at night I would get worried that they couldn’t breathe in their beds; it would always create intense anxiety in me. I would have to check in on them, usually by waking them up or observing them to see if their chest was expanding from breathing. I couldn’t relax until I knew that they were breathing. If they were playing on the trampoline, I would observe them to make sure that they didn’t fall off or land on their necks. If I were to witness them almost fall, I’d get this strong panic in me; I’d be filled with dread and imagine the worst possible scenario. So it was only natural that my whole life I had a slight worry about starting a family. I was worried about living with these strong fears, fearing about the well-being of my child. I guess this held me back from having a family for many years.

While writing this book, my daughter was born. The literal light of my life, so pure, so precious, so cute. The day she was born, I cried tears of joy for hours. Every day since, her mother and I would take walks on the park with our daughter, and spend every day listening to music together, like the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, or Yann Tiersen. I would read her books every night—books I’m sure she’d enjoy, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or Wings of Fire, an autobiography of Abdul Kalam. I know she won’t understand the words, but I just like being in her presence.

When she was around 5 months old, my worst fear came true; she had to be rushed off to the hospital, and it wasn’t looking good. I remember being calm and just thinking to myself that the best thing I can do is remain calm and not panic. The scary thoughts and worry tried to enter my mind, but I would not give them any power. I had a goal to remain calm for my daughter and my partner, and I was; I was almost peaceful. In the end, we walked out of the hospital as a happy and healthy family. Without Stoicism I could only imagine how much worse I would have made that situation, panicking and worrying, doing nothing to help.

Stoicism often emphasizes the importance of focusing on what we can control. How do you recommend readers distinguish between what is within their control and what is not, especially in high-stress situations?

In 50 BC there was a Greek slave; his name was Epictetus. Actually, he didn’t have a name, but his followers gave him the name Epictetus, meaning 'acquired' or 'gained'. When he eventually became a free man, he went out into the world and taught the public the philosophy of Stoicism. His works survive today thousands of years later because a student of his wrote down his words. These words are now known as Enchiridion and the Discourses of Epictetus. The Enchiridion opens with this passage: “We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgment, our impulse, our desire, aversion, and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status—in a word, anything not in our power to control. The former are naturally free, unconstrained, and unimpeded, while the latter are frail, inferior, subject to restraint, and none of our affair.”

In this passage, Epictetus is beginning to explain the dichotomy of control. To explain simply, we don’t control the external world, but we do control our internal world, which is a response to the external. We don’t control the weather, but we control how we react to the weather. We don’t control the traffic or rude people, but we do control if we are to respond in a negative or positive way to these externals.

So the next time you are in a situation, maybe your bus is late. You have no control over the bus, but you control whether you are going to get annoyed and then carry this annoyance throughout your whole day, ruining every aspect of your day and making you an irritable person to be around. You can relax, knowing that the bus is not within your control, and then focus on remaining calm. Maybe enjoy the world around you while you wait for the next bus. This is what I do when I miss my bus. I happily sit there enjoying the world around me, knowing that I now have an extra 20 minutes to listen to some music or read a book.

Many people struggle with negative emotions and anxiety. How does The Everyday Stoic propose that readers use Stoic practices to manage these feelings more effectively?

For the sake of being understood by the reader, I will refer to things such as anger, sadness, and anxiety as negative emotions. I do not, however, believe that these are negative emotions; they are natural parts of being human; they exist within us for reasons that help us to live. However, in excess, these things can become debilitating and ruin your life.  

People often believe that Stoicism helps you suppress negative emotions. It does no such thing; it helps you to understand them and be more aware of them. It helps you to understand better why you are feeling these things, what is causing them, and how they are trying to help you. You cannot delete these things from your life, and you shouldn’t want to; these things make you human.

My anxiety was crippling for so many years; I was controlled by it. But when I started to focus on what I could actually control, and when I started to put being a good person, with a kinder and more courageous nature as my main objective, everything else started to wash away. I didn’t care about looking cool or succeeding or not embarrassing myself. My pursuit was to be a good person, so as long as I am striving to do good, what does the rest even matter?



Stoicism can sometimes be perceived as promoting emotional suppression. How do you address this misconception in your book, and what is the real Stoic approach to emotions?

In a way, this is addressed throughout the whole book; through the teachings and examples, you will understand right away that Stoicism is not about emotional suppression. Reading about the stories of the great Stoics, you will see that they never promoted suppressing emotions. The Stoics understood that emotions are normal; suppressing them would be against the norm. One thing the Stoics would recommend is not getting carried away by emotions. Dr. Michael Sugrue once said, “All men suffer, but not all men pity themselves.” An analogy to explain this is something I was taught by Shi Heng Yi, a mentor of mine. He said, “The first arrow always hits; the second arrow is governed by our response to the first.”

This idea implies that the first arrow will always hit us; the situation may invoke anger or sadness, but the second arrow is up to us. We decided whether to hold on to these emotions and make them worse by encouraging them. If someone says something rude about me, the first arrow hits as I hear these words, but then it is my choice whether to carry on with my day or to hold onto these words and get involved in a time-wasting argument.

Your book includes exercises and reflections for readers. Could you share one of your favourite exercises from The Everyday Stoic and explain how it can benefit someone's mental and emotional well-being?

One of my favorite exercises is an exercise called ’The view from above.’ This is something I would do daily when I first started my company, “Mulligan Brothers,” with my two brothers. The idea is that you sit and meditate on this thought, the thought of the space around you and yourself within it, so picture the room you are in and think about it for a while, envisioning it around you, then zoom out. Now you can see yourself where you are and the nearby roads or parks, then zoom out and see yourself as a small dot within your city. Keep zooming out and reflecting on yourself within the country, then the world. Now you are a speck on the large planet. Zoom out further and further. Now the planet is but a speck in our solar system. The further you zoom out, the smaller and smaller you become, shrinking away, and with it also shrinks the weight upon your shoulders.

Doing this exercise when I was stressed, struggling to get the business started, all my problems would shrink away, and I realized how unimportant they were on the grand scale of things.

Critics argue that Stoicism can lead to passivity in the face of injustice or suffering. How do you respond to the criticism that Stoicism might encourage people to accept rather than challenge unfair circumstances?

The Stoics broke everything down in life into either good, bad, or indifferent. The things in life that are good are the things that are our own; the virtues are good. Simply put, the good in life is courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice. These are things that we control. Most of the Stoics agreed that justice was the most important of all the virtues, so in a sense justice was the most important thing in life, the crowning virtue. The reason justice is important is because without it, all our character and growth are for selfish reasons; it is only to benefit ourselves.

The ancient Stoics would encourage their followers to challenge unfair circumstances. The Stoics believed in this idea that we are all part of this same cosmic community so that we should care for each other as a brother or sister. The front cover of the Dutch and American version of The Everyday Stoic contains the image of the ‘Circles of Hierocles’ or the ‘Circles of Concern.’ The idea was that by following this principle, we could begin to concern ourselves with the whole of mankind the same way we are naturally concerned with our own wellbeing.


Stoicism originated in a very different cultural and historical context. What challenges do you see in adapting Stoic principles to the complexities and nuances of modern life, and how have you addressed these in your book?

That is something I love about Stoicism; all of the teachings are still applicable today. In fact, I believe that the teachings are more helpful today with the modern problems we face. The only difficulty I originally faced was to understand them in the context of our modern world, but through my book, I make this so easily understandable and practical. I believe it was easy for me to adapt it to our modern world because I have been adapting the teachings to my life for over a decade. It was difficult for many years, but now most of these things are second nature, so it was easy to write about the things that have helped change my life and fix my problems.

How do you see the role of Stoicism evolving in contemporary society, particularly with the rise of mental health awareness and self-help literature?

I believe if we were taught these things at school, then the world would be in a much better place. I think most of the problems we face would be a lot less frequent or may only exist in rare circumstances. The only reason it can be hard to learn the Stoic way of life is because society has raised us wrong; we have been taught to value externals like fame, beauty, and wealth. We have been taught through the schooling system that failure is the end and wherever we are is where we will always be, and who we are is who we will always be, and we are taught that we are powerless.

I think many people in power do not want this to be taught to the masses. How can we become consumers if we place little value on these things? Why would we continue to follow their orders if we understood what is actually good to do? Why would we keep believing their narrative and hating our brothers and sisters if we were raised knowing what it means to be a good person and that we are all equal? Stoicism is growing in popularity, so I hope that many people who were raised wrong can have that realization that this is their life and they control it. They can now decide to start doing good for themselves and the world around them. With these teachings they can share with the youth and kids, they will no longer be thrust into a world where they are crippled by anxiety from social media and society. I think the people that read my book will find their strength and their voice, and these people will build a new foundation for the society to build off.

If you could choose one key takeaway that you hope readers gain from The Everyday Stoicwhat would it be and why?

Don’t just read my book. If you read my book and don’t change your life, then you need to read my book again. It would be a waste of your time to read my book without reflecting on your life and your position in this world. If you want more answers or want my lessons for free, then you can join my Stoic school on YouTube or ask me questions on Instagram. My mission is to help you. My Stoic teachings have taught me to care for everyone as if they were my brother or sister, and if I saw my family struggling, then I would guide them and teach them how to cope, and that is how I feel about all of you. I hope that after reading my book or learning from me for a while, you will no longer need my guidance and you will be able to be a light for your loved ones, and with time you can be a light for mankind.

To learn more, visit William Mulligan's YouTube channel 'The Everyday Stoic’ and Instagram @Williammulliganbrother.



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