Nelson Mandela: A modern-day stoic

The idea of this topic is to present you with some people that may not declare themselves as stoics but live or have lived as such. We will tell you in which way they fit Stoicism, and this will help you see that it is way more viable than you might have imagined. Shall we begin?

Stoicism is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago

When we think about modern day stoics a couple of questions come to mind. Is it possible to live in the 21st century as a Stoic? After all, we are talking about a philosophy that originated in Greece before Christ and its last most famous representative was a Roman Emperor, like when Rome was an Empire. OK, let’s say it is possible, how would that happen, and where have those stoics been hiding?

Stoicism could not be more contemporary. People have been following parts of its teachings while struggling with others. They are likely to be challenged by orientations given by those ancient bearded men we see on busts in the museum. Yet a curious thing is that some people have been stoics their whole life without knowing it.

Look to your heroes for inspiration

Let’s talk about heroes, I mean real heroes, not Spiderman or Wolverine. Nothing against them. I acknowledge being a huge fan of X-Men, but I mean flesh and bone heroes. Each one of us holds inside an infinite range of possible outcomes and this will be impacted by role models (heroes) we choose to learn from, at least according to Stoicism. 

And here is a tip before we move forward: one of stoic´s best exercises is to make a journal. Write down a couple of names of  those you consider heroes and why. This will be a great source of inspiration. 

Nelson Mandela: a true stoic 

I must start with my favorite hero, Nelson Mandela. To be honest, I don´t know if Mandela considered himself a stoic, but as we take a closer look at his life, we can see he had become one. He begins his political life in a very hostile way, he is angry and unhappy with his country’s situation, and it all leads to him spending a long time in jail. 

Can you imagine  27 years of your life spent breaking rocks all year long, having no proper clothing, no family contact, sleeping in a room you can barely lie down in? And all that because you don’t agree with the way your fellow citizens are treated? 

Accept your situation and do your best 

In his biography, A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela tells us how he changed his character. First, he had to come to terms with his situation; he was in jail, and he didn’t know if he would ever be free again. There was nothing he could do about it. His first lesson was to accept what he couldn’t change. 

Mandela used to read the poem Invictus by William E. Henley about a man that had spent his life going back and forth from hospital due to being constantly sick. He was  a prisoner of his own health, and there was not much he could do about it either, but he decided not to give up.

That poem taught Mandela the second lesson: be the best you can. Every life he touched would change for the better and he peacefully reunited an entire country. He was definitely a Stoic. He was put through some stoic exercises against his will, but he managed to keep only the good from that situation, and most of all, he faced his challenges and learned how to control his temper. 

Mandela led his people to freedom peacefully

Nelson Mandela, like William E. Henley, decided no one would rule his soul, and thus he managed to keep himself whole. I can only compare these two to Epictetus, who although was a slave, had the courage to face his master and let him know that he could own his body, but never his spirit. He was a free man.

Mandela left us in 2013. He died from health issues, only natural for a 95-year-old man that had experienced a hard life. He never feared that moment, and from his biography we can learn he had come face to face with death many times. He felt ready. He fulfilled his life´s purpose to serve humankind.