Stoicism can easily be misread as pessimistic because of its relentless focus on mortality and fragility.
Have you ever turned to music when struggling with a difficult emotion, like sadness, anxiety or anger?
Most people believe that music has some therapeutic power, and that confidence is increasingly backed by empirical evidence. However, there remains little consensus on precisely how or why music has an ability to influence our emotional, physical and mental well-being.
Since ancient times, physicians and philosophers have explored the power of music in human life. Although the writings of Plato and Aristotle are more famous, another ancient school of philosophy, Stoicism, cultivated an interest in music’s therapeutic potential.
Given that the word “stoic” is mostly used to describe a rigid, emotionless person, Stoic musical practices would seem doomed to the boring or bizarre.
But Stoicism – the capital “S” kind – is a school of thought that’s really more about managing turbulent emotions in everyday life. This casts their connection to music in a different light, and it helps explain how Stoicism positively shaped the course of intellectual and music history.
Control What You Can
Founded in ancient Athens and peaking in popularity in first century Rome, Stoicism was developed by philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to manage destructive emotions such as anxiety, anger and grief through exercises that shift perspective. The question of control forms the core of this method. The Stoics taught that it is only by recognizing and accepting what is beyond a person’s control that a person can exert maximal control over what is within their power.
Importantly, the Stoic approach does not seek to directly suppress bad emotions but focuses instead on reshaping a person’s worldview, so that when they encounter difficulty or trauma, they will be prepared to experience emotions less destructively.
This strategy of putting things in perspective may seem familiar; the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy today, directly borrowed from Stoicism.
In recent years – and especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – interest in Stoicism has surged, with people from diverse political and economic backgrounds recognizing the efficacy of this ancient system to address afflictions like anxiety and addiction.
In Turbulent Times, Neostoicism Emerges
So where does music fit into all of this?
Emerging in the wake of the violent French Wars of Religion, Neostoics looked to Stoicism as a remedy for social and political instability. They developed a vocal music repertoire to teach the principles of the system, guiding singers and listeners to “rehearse” Stoic techniques of emotional regulation through informal musical gatherings in people’s homes.
These songs illustrated Stoic principles through musical “text painting,” in which specific words, actions or concepts were musically conveyed through sound – and, sometimes, visuals – in the score.
Take an example from 1582 – “L’eau va viste,” a poem by Antoine de Chandieu that was set to music by Paschal de L’Estocart.
L’eau va viste en s’escoulant,
Plus viste le traict volant,
Et plus viste encore passe
Le vent qui les nues chasse.
Mais de la joye mondaine
La course est si tressoudaine,
Qu’elle passe encor devant
L’eau et le traict et le vent.
Water flows quickly,
Even faster the flying arrow,
And faster still passes,
The wind which chases the clouds,
But of worldly joy,
Its course is so sudden,
That it passes even before,
The water, the arrow, and the wind.
Numerous Stoic writings, such as Seneca’s “On the Brevity of Life,” evoke similar imagery of running water to warn against placing one’s happiness in external comforts and securities, which, like a current, quickly pass.
L’Estocart’s musical arrangement for “L’eau va viste” picks up on this quality of motion. A snowballing rhythm gains momentum with each new example of quick passing.
The River of Time
Zoom ahead almost four centuries, and the English rock band Pink Floyd composed a strikingly similar musical reflection in their iconic song “Time” from their 1973 album, “Dark Side of the Moon.”
The album outlines all the major forces and concerns that can drive people insane: aging, death, fear, greed and violence.
Mental health held particular salience for the band. Their founding frontman, Syd Barrett, had a mental breakdown only a few years prior. According to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, the album is about “life with a heartbeat,” and the band signals this by opening and closing the album with a slow, simulated heartbeat that sounds somehow both mechanical and profoundly human.
Developing this rhythmic symbolism further, the single “Time” uses numerous musical strategies to draw attention to the fragility of human life.
The track opens with a meandering two-and-a-half minute instrumental introduction, slowly building from a breathy synthesizer drone to the disorienting sound of numerous ticking clocks. Then there’s a cacophony of alarms before listeners hear a mechanical bass click that sounds like a metronome or a mechanical heartbeat.
The entrance of the electric guitar and increasingly regular musical phrases finally set up the arrival of the vocals in the first verse: “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way.”
This unusual extended instrumental introduction destabilizes a listener’s expectation of musical time and demands greater attention to the moment-by-moment sensations of its passing. The lyrics throughout the song reinforce this initial musical warning –that listeners must pay close attention to the flow of time and to make sure it’s used with purpose and meaning.
“The time is gone. The song is over,” the lyrics conclude, “Thought I’d something more to say.”
An Internal Store of Power
These two musical examples, composed nearly 400 years apart, model a core element of Stoic therapy: By meditating on the fragility of time, Stoics seek not to instill dread, but to reveal death and transience as natural aspects of the human experience that can be faced without anxiety. This calm acceptance offers a release from destructive emotions like fear and yearning that pull our attention to the future and the past. As Marcus Aurelius recommended, “Give yourself a gift – the present moment.”
Stoicism and its abundant artistic echoes are easily misread as pessimistic because of this relentless focus on human mortality and fragility. This negative reading misses Stoicism’s profoundly optimistic and empowering message, which is that our mental freedom remains in our control, regardless of our external circumstances.
Waters highlighted exactly this point in his defense of the humanism of “Dark Side of the Moon,” explaining that “Despite the rather depressing ending … there is an allowance that all things are possible, that the potential is in our hands.”
Music, from this perspective, offers a way to learn about the therapeutic method of the Stoics in a way that goes beyond the contemplation of philosophical lyrics. These examples – and many others in the Stoic tradition that so thoughtfully unite words and sounds – transform helpful Stoic advice into a therapeutic practice guided through the twists and turns of song.