Stoicism and Art

Stoicism and Art: How Stoicism Can Inspire Artists to Flourish

Art and philosophy tend to go hand in hand. After all, what is philosophy if not an artform in and of itself? Many times, art can inspire philosophy, and the same can be said the other way around. How many movies have we seen that aim to capture the nature of existentialism, or books with a clear air of nihilism? The idea of certain philosophies can inspire a plethora of creative ideas, but what about if one truly lived by one such philosophy? Could stoicism help you live a better life? And how could it help to inspire artists to flourish?

The name of today’s muse is Stoicism. Stoicism is within the Hellenistic philosophy, which was founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens back in 3 BC. Unlike some of the more mainstream philosophies, Stoicism is not rooted in complex musings about the world around us; it’s a code that’s purely focused on discipline. The world is an unpredictable place, and some things are just simply out of our control, so Stoicism’s primary focus is to help one overcome destructive emotions and to learn to act upon opportunities when they arise.


Stoicism and the Core Functions

Stoicism and the Core Functions

There were many Stoics throughout history, with just a couple examples being Marcus Aurelius the Roman Emperor, Seneca the philosopher and advisor to Emperor Nero, and Epictetus, who penned this masterpiece that summed up a true Stoic’s thoughts on death:

“I have to die. If it is now, well, then I will die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived—and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus was also the one to put down the seven functions of the mind.

“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but its own corrupt decisions.”

What are the seven functions, though? Well I’ll give you a quick rundown. These are essentially the tenets Stoics stand by.

  • Choice. Choose everything wisely, even the smallest ones, like what time you wake up or what to eat for breakfast, because they define who you are.
  • Refusal of temptation. Not being tempted by things that might stand in the way of your goals, whether they’re as small as not cheating on your diet and procrastinating, or as big as not being tempted into an affair.
  • Yearning. It’s a desire to become a better person. It’s every Stoic’s desire to want to better themselves, which is a journey that never ends, no matter how much you improve. You should always desire to become better than you were before.
  • Repulsion. Being disgusted by things such as blatant lies and abhorrent behavior is key to being a Stoic. This means not giving attention to said lies and behaviors unless it’s an actual threat to you or someone else.
  • Preparation. Easy. To be prepared for anything. Life is unpredictable, so you need to prepare yourself, especially mentally. Prepare yourself financially in case of a crash, but also prepare yourself for a possible rejection when you decide to ask someone out on a date.
  • Purpose. Finding your purpose within yourself and internalizing it. Only you can choose your purpose, whether it be as mother/father, an entertainer, an artist, etc.
  • Assent. Acceptance that some things are out of your control. Tragedies happen and disasters come. Some things are just out of our control, and we need to accept that before we can move on.


How Does Stoicism Help With Art?

Does Stoicism Help With Art
Sculpture of dejected man walking towards sunrise, next to the sea

Ahh, the key question: at what point do Stoicism and creativity begin to intertwine? Well here’s a few reasons why.


Spurred On By Death

We’re all going to die eventually. That’s something Stoicism really hammers home. So, what does this have to do with being inspired? Well, look at it this way.

One day, you will die. Maybe it will be tomorrow, a couple years, and several decades from now. There will come a time in which you will be gone, and you will never be able to create the art you love so much. Think of how many works-in-progress pieces you have that will never be finished, or the ideas in your mind that will never see the light of day again.

Let that sit in your head, and perhaps it may get you to pick up the tool of your trade.


Negative Visualization

To practice negative visualization is to imagine the worst case scenario in your head. Stoics use this in order to train themselves to become more resilient and prepared for anything that may happen. As a basic example: you’re considering getting an alarm system for your house. If you don’t think you need one, then picture the worst case scenario in which an alarm system would be needed, and then consider your decision over the alarm system again.

Another thing it can do is put everything in a different perspective. Suddenly, things you may have been afraid of don’t seem as bad. If you’re afraid of a piece you worked hard on being ridiculed, what do you think would happen to your motivation if you never made it in the first place?


View from Above

One thing Stoics are pretty good at is being able to see the entire picture. The view from above is a form of visualization where you take a look at yourself in a third-person point of view instead of straight on.

Stoics like to use the view from above method as a form of meditation and as a way to clear anxiety at the moment. This out of body experience is very helpful in getting a new perspective on things and to help calm your mind if you’re getting a bit too frustrated.

If you’re ever in a creative rut, getting frustrated with your art, or are getting anxious because of it, then try out viewing yourself from above. It may just clear your mind and inspire something brand new.


About The Author

Professor David Percival

Director of AHVC programme, and specialist in art and technology, including presence research, mixed and virtual reality.