The Stoic Actor

How philosophy can save your career.

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The Philosophy of Perseverance

The stoic actor perseveres hardship and will have a better life overall.

Length: 1,250 words

Reading Time: 4-5 minutes

Stoicism is an ancient Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens in around 300 BCE. However, the most famous of the stoics were alive during the Roman Empire; Seneca (4 BC – 65 CE), Epictetus (50-135 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE). In Aurelius’s time as the Emperor of Rome, he saw plague, strife and the capitol’s economic collapse.

Popular Stoicism

Stoic philosophy is resurging thanks to popular self-help and leadership workshops. With this attention, it is easy to think of it as a “white man’s” philosophy, geared toward capitalist individualism and privileged smugness. However, this can’t be further from stoicism’s central ideas. It was born out of hard times. Marcus Aurelius (one of the most famous stoics) may have been an Emperor, but he was also dealing with the collapse of his economy and a devastating plague. Throughout all of this, he put the lives and wellness of others before his own.

Other major philosophers of stoicism included the disabled, a person of colour and women. As a result, it was one of the first philosophies to promote the idea of universal equality by suggesting that rather than be a victim of one’s passions, one can rise above them. This includes hatred, selfishness and bigotry. All things considered, Stoic ideals like Sympatheia (meaning the interdependence of things) and Summum Bonum (doing for the highest good)  honourable approaches to daily life.

Stoicism has a practical approach, unlike more abstract philosophies, it resonates with the everyday concerns of life. Even though we live quite differently than the ancient Greeks and Romans did, the wisdom of stoicism equips you to bear uncertainty, misfortune, conflicts with others and the illusion of success for its own sake.

Applied Thinking

Stoicism is especially applicable to acting. It’s quoted and paraphrased often by David Mamet, who makes everal references to it throughout the Practical Handbook for the Actor. In fact, Epictetus’s Enchiridion is on the reading list for actors studying at the Atlantic Acting School in NYC.

Some may hold the opinion that to be a stoic means being pessimistic and humourless. However, this could not be further from its core message. In a nutshell, this philosophy asks you to;

  • be disciplined about what upsets you
  • remember that adversity is part of life
  • when you overcome them, life’s hardships strengthen you
Practical Life Lessons

Mind only the things that are in your control to change, don’t worry about those you can’t.

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.

This is a reminder to do your best. If you’re certain of this, then someone else’s decision not to cast you, or to reject your script submission, is outside your control. Therefore it is not to be excessively grieved. It may simply mean you’re not the right fit for the project. Nothing is worse than being involved in a job that isn’t a good fit, and you never know if they’ll keep you in mind for a more suitable one in the future. The high standards you hold yourself to are your best calling card.

Stoic Scene Analysis

This notion of “not concerning yourself with that which you cannot control” is central to scene analysis in the Practical Aesthetics approach. Epictetus calls those things “externals.” The Practical Handbook for the Actor also uses this word to denote attributed that the character possesses but can do nothing about. You can find this in Chapter 4, “Externals” (Bruder et. al, p.48) .

According to the authors, external attributes have little to do with the actions and outlook of a character. Putting too much attention on them risks inflating their importance in the story you’re telling. For example, if the character has a limp or bad eyesight, there is no point in recapitulating this. It’s over-emphasising something that the characters themselves would not consider to be as important as their own objective in the story (i.e. what they are doing).

A character’s externals need no more attention than you place on your own. David Mamet takes a strict view on this, suggesting that it is “pretending the difficulties of the character” when the actor has the difficulties of the text to wrestle with (Mamet, p21).

Love Your Life

Amor Fati (I love my fate)!

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
-Marcus Aurelius

There is probably no other stoic saying that is more appropriate to the work of an actor than this one. In scene analysis, your obstacle literally gives birth to your action. This aphorism is a healthy guide to living well in general. It may be hard to practise in difficult times, but there is virtue in seeing an obstacle as an opportunity. If you love the things that challenge you, you’ll seek improvement and be more compassionate and caring for others who are overcoming their own obstacles in life.

Edison’s Acceptance of the Inevitable

There’s an unconfirmed story about Thomas Edison that exemplifies the stoic attitude to adversity. His factory caught fire one evening. He knew very well that nobody could extinguish it because the chemicals for his work would burn continuously, no matter how much water was used. As he watched his life’s work and entire fortune burn away in spectacular, coloured flames,  he turned to his son and said “Go get your mother and sister! They’ll never see another fire like this ever again!”

This is an admirable revelation of character. Edison’s stoicism is not about being cynical or “tough.” He simply has the good sense to see when a battle is worth fighting and when it is a futile waste in relation to the big picture.

Quote- The Stoic Actor

Memento Mori (One day I will die.)

Modern life encourages us to ignore the simple fact of our own mortality. Fame and wealth give us the illusion of immortality, but life is always there to knock sense into us. Acknowledging your limited time one earth is not a dark, morbid point of view. It is to remind you of what is truly important. When you take inventory of your life with this in mind, you have a more balanced, tamed view of materialism.

Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share.
-Marcus Aurelius
He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
Lifelong Learning

Ask for Help

You should never feel ashamed about asking for help. People who make you feel bad about it are jerks. Marcus Aurelius was one of the most powerful Roman Emperors. Despite this, he recognised the importance of accepting other people’s help. He didn’t let his ego or fear of being seen as “weak” stop him. Even during plague and the economic collapse of his empire, he was not afraid to show vulnerability and humility.

Never Stop

Finally, having an open mind and a willingness to seek improvement in all things enables you to grow.

It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.

Actors are familiar with the concept of a creative process. The working and re-working of ideas doesn’t happen in an environment of closed narratives. Ideally you listen, contribute and learn from each other as it develops. In this sense, every rehearsal process is a learning environment.

Food for Thought

The stoics created a practical, everyday philosophy that helps all people work on resilience, empathy and compassion at the same time. To be a stoic actor, the self-discipline required to see things in a rational perspective, helps you with the basic tools of your craft.


Have your best week ever, by Ryan Holiday

The Neuroscience of Perseverance


True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet, 1997.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previtio, Scott Zigler, David Mamet (Introduction), 1986.

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