By Glenn Chesnut, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, Indiana University.
In terms of the ancient background of the Serenity Prayer, the distinction between “the things we do not have the power to change” and “the things we do have the power to change” is a fundamental and central part of ancient Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy. In ancient Greek (in the Stoic literature), it is called the distinction between ta ouk eph’ hemin and ta eph’ hemin, that is, read literally, “things not up to us” vs. “things up to us.”
And the goal of the good life in Stoic philosophy is always described as the attainment of “serenity,” which in ancient Greek was apatheia, which meant freedom from overwhelming emotional storms (what were called the pathe in Greek, that is, the fierce passions like the furious and insane rage which drove Medea to kill her own children and Clytemnestra to murder her husband, King Agamemnon, by chopping him up with an ax as he lay soaking in his bathtub).
To see what they meant by the pathe, the overwhelming “passions” which led us to our destruction, see the Roman tragedies written by Seneca. His plays usually focus on the destructive power of ira (out of control anger) and furor (which is out of control anger carried to truly insane lengths). But the Stoics knew that there were a lot of other passions which could destroy you when they got out of control, such as desire, grief, fear, and even joy (modern drug addicts can assure you that this is so). And the ancients knew about sexual lust of course! They had felt its power too.