Over the past 15 years I’ve read hundreds of books, articles, essays and fragments of the world's most prominent philosophies. From all this research two things have stuck out as significant.
There are a lot of similarities between the practical philosophies that you can apply to your life today and start to see a benefit.
Of all these philosophies, frameworks and guiding principles, Stoic philosophy, to me, is the most practical and effective in reducing day to day suffering and improving well-being.
On its face, Stoic Philosophy sounds like a subject that’s taught in dusty lecture halls and written in thick, verbose books, laden with complicated language.
The second part of this statement is true. The original texts are dense. However, this gives modern philosophers something to do. We need to study and summarise the ancient lessons of the Stoics in order to provide an easy way to access the lessons and frameworks that have such a huge potential to make improvements to your life.
This article will serve you as Stoicism 101, it won’t cover the entire philosophy (there are books dedicated to that) but it will cover:
What is Stoicism?
Who were The Stoics?
What Are Some Core Stoic Practices?
How Can You Use Stoicism?
What I mean by resilience is; developing a state of mind that is immune to the impact of what goes on around us. This is where Stoicism really comes into its own.
So effective is Stoic Philosophy at improving our relationship with life, it is the foundation for modern practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
What is Stoicism?
I first found Stoic philosophy by chance around 10 years ago. It struck me a refreshingly honest, direct and practical framework to build hardship and responsibility, reduce stress and suffering, and live a happier life. Since then it’s grown into the foundation of my personal philosophy I use day to day.
So what is it?
Origin of Stoic Philosophy:
Stoicism is a school of ancient Hellenistic philosophy founded around 300BC by a man called Zeno of Citium. Zeno was a former merchant who lost everything in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece. After washing ashore and making his way to Athens, he became a student of the Cynic school of philosophy, studying under a man named Crates of Thebes.
The name Stoic comes from the Greek word for porch - Stoa. When Zeno began his own school of thought he did not have the money to buy a building. Plato had his academy, Aristotle had his Lyceum, but Zeno’s followers met to discuss their philosophy on the streets of Athens under the shade of the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens. Anyone was welcome to listen and debate ideas, creating the very first group of Stoics.
The philosophy is one of practicality, and focuses on the question: How can we find a path to happiness (which the Stoics called eudaimonia)?
It was a philosophy for the everyday men and women of the world, not just for educated aristocrats or isolated philosophers in their halls of books, or silent sages up their mountains.
For the Stoics, the practical path to eudaimonia (happiness) is grounded in a few core principles:
The ability to view ourselves, the world, and it’s people objectively and accept their nature as it is.
The discipline to prevent ourselves from being controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain and suffering
The ability to behave with Stoic virtue (wisdom, temperance, justice, courage)
Making the distinction between what is within our power to influence, and what is not. Using this information we act on what can be acted upon, and we dismiss what can’t.
Stoic philosophy was used by anyone from the soldiers of the ancient world, all the way up to the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. Growing to become one of the most prominent philosophies of Greece and Rome. In fact, at the time, Stoic philosophy was only truly rivalled, and eventually overtaken, by Christianity.
So why was Stoic philosophy so popular amongst such a wide range of people? In two words - It Works.
This was a time when war, famine, exile, death, disease and many more external threats were far more common than they are now. The potential for suffering was huge, specifically suffering caused by external events. And these are exactly the situations in which Stoic philosophy thrives.
The Stoics teach that we are not disturbed by events, only how we respond to them.
They also teach that there is very little inside our control. Merely our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and actions. That's it.
These two ideas are important for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it instructs us to take responsibility for how we view things, because this is the true cause of suffering. Rather than just blaming the world or other people for our shitty situation or our crappy mood, we are empowered to accept that it's us who create our happiness. No one else.
Secondly, it draws a line between what we do and do not have control over. Many people suffer because we get upset about, or try and control the things in life that we have no control over. And, of course, this leads us to feel helpless, ineffective, powerless, bitter, resentful. We suffer.
However, when we focus on what we can control, we start to become effective, efficient, we solve problems more easily, we suffer less. The key is to accept that there is very little within our control, and focus of effort is that small patch of land that we own. Our thoughts, our actions, our perspective and our beliefs.
I have put together a foundation here at Orion that structures ideas from Stoic philosophy (and some from other places), specifically designed to create a framework for a positive and resilient state of mind.
Follow the link here to find out more.
Since its inception around 300BC it has helped form modern frameworks for psychotherapy, most notably Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s also nice to see the philosophy have something of a resurgence in recent years, as more and more people look to find a practical, logical framework to deal with an ever chaotic world.
What is The Purpose of Stoicism?
Stoic philosophy was centred around how to live a good life. The Stoics sought fulfilment and happiness (called eudaimonia), which they believed came through virtue, logic, and reason.
The virtues of Stoic philosophy are:
Wisdom - seeing things for what they are, not what we wish they would be
Courage - acting in the right way despite fear or reservation
Justice - acting fairly despite pressure not to
Temperance - acting with discipline and self control despite the draws of passion and greed
The Stoics promoted ethics as the primary concern for human understanding, the ability to tell right from wrong and act accordingly. Through ethics we can find happiness, and through ethics we can learn to work for the betterment of the self and the community.
A core of Stoic ethics instructs the practitioner to develop a healthy self control. This is needed so that we can more easily resist the temptations of greed, lust, gluttony, power, wealth and status. These things promote unvirtuous behaviour and prevent clear thinking and alignment with nature. While the things themselves are not good or bad, they promote bad behaviour and result in paths to an unhappy life.
To understand nature we must make an effort to keep a clear an unbiased mind. This requires the discipline and self control to stop temptation clouding our judgement, or negative emotions from pulling us away from the truth of a situation. Destructive feelings can cause us to see things that are not true, threats that are not there, and pull us from the reality of a situation.
The Stoics believed that people who lack virtue are blindly pulled along by whatever pulls at their desire. Cleanthes once said these people are: "like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes".
The Stoic however would look at the situation and decide how to respond. They have the ability to be happy in hardship, content in adversity, and accepting in loss. The development of virtue helps to cut the strings that drag along the emotions of people when they experience something difficult.
Unfortunately the modern use of the word Stoic has come to mean something entirely different to its ancient ancestor. These days the word “stoic” is synonymous with being unemotional, cold, and unresponsive.
However, the Stoics did not look to eliminate emotion or run from feeling, they looked to lessen the hold these things have on our peace of mind. This was achieved through reason, judgement, and self control. The use of logic, discipline, meditation, and objectivity that helped the Stoics keep their composure in times of difficulty, and remain clear headed to judge the best way to move forward.
What Beliefs are core to Stoicism?
1. The Dichotomy of Control
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
The concept of control is a core of practical Stoic philosophy, when understood it can help us define the boundary between the areas of our life that we are able to influence (and be effective), and those which are outside the reach of our control (where we will be ineffective).
This is an important area of any personal philosophy. Control causes suffering in two main ways.
1. We try to control what is outside our control.
As Epictetus points out in the passage above, we only really have control over our thoughts and our actions.
We cannot control what other people think, do or say, but we can decide how we respond to it.
We can’t control the weather but we can decide how we behave if it threatens a special day or event.(Video) A Practical Guide to Stoicism - Tim Ferriss
We can’t control the economy but it’s our responsibility to decide how we react when we lose money on an investment or pension etc.#
We can’t control a traffic jam, but we can decide how to spend our time waiting in the car.
When we try and control areas of life that are outside our reach we risk feeling powerless, ineffective, frustrated, bitter, jealous, resentful and altogether unhappy.
2. We don’t control what is within our control.
As Epictetus points out, we only really have control over our thoughts and our actions. That's it.
We may sometimes think that our control reaches further than this, but in reality it doesn’t.
Accepting full responsibility for our thoughts and our actions and
Making the distinction between these two areas of our life stops us wasting our time and energy on what we can’t change, while at the same time helping us focus on the areas of our life we can.
The concept of control is not unique to the Stoics, it has risen its head across multiple cultures throughout history as a method for living a more aware and fulfilling life, from Buddhists, to Hebrews, to feudal Japan and ancient Greeks.
The Stoics believed that a fundamental key to reduce suffering and live a good life, is to make a clear distinction between that which is inside our control and that which is not.
As we come closer to understanding this distinction we can begin to focus our energy and time on what we can influence and come to accept what we cannot.
The US Army’s Leadership manual contains the following:
“It is crucial for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not worry about things they cannot”
The world’s most successful addiction program shares the same philosophy, Alcoholics Anonymous recite the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
This philosophy has been used time and time again to pull people from the dark corners of their lives, back into the light and is used by the US Army to build leaders. It can just as easily be applied to everyday life to prevent frustration, feelings of powerlessness and to build empowerment and effectiveness.
No matter where we are in our path through life, taking responsibility of distinguishing what is in our control and what is not will allow us to see where we can affect change and where we can stop wasting our time. Acceptance and awareness begin to replace complaint and frustration.
Be aware that the only thing we fully control are our beliefs and our actions.
Where in your life do you try and control things outside the reach of your sovereignty?
The thoughts, opinions and beliefs of other people
The economy, job market, political climate
Your body, age, hunger, desire, emotion
Where in your life do you neglect control of things within your sovereignty?
2. Amor Fati
The Stoics have left us with a handful of simple, effective ideas for living more fulfilled lives. The challenge lies in clearly laying these ideas out on the table, and squeezing all the value from them for you to use as you choose.
One of these Stoic concepts is Amor Fati, which roughly translates as “love of fate”, or “love of one’s fate”.
It is the practice of accepting and embracing everything that has happened in our life, and everything that has come before us. It is understanding that the nature of the universe is change, and that without change we would not exist, we would not experience.
Whether change is good, bad, enjoyment, suffering, or loss, it is necessary, and billions of years of constant change has brought us to where we are right now. In that way, we can learn to love fate.
“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.”
- Marcus Aurelius
Amor fati is often credited to the Stoics. The slave philosopher Epictetus openly talk about similar concepts. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about fate in his journal Meditations.
Later philosophers such as Nietzsche explicitly use the term Amor Fati in their writings. Nietzsche writes:
"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it."
Here Nietzsche is saying that we should not hide from fate, we should not conceal it, nor should we wish it to be different. It is what it will be, not what we wish it will be. We should accept it. However, more than just acceptance, we should love our fate and embrace it.
"For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”
Here Nietzsche is saying that when we are happy, the entire world and all of history was necessary leading up to that moment of happiness. Without that history, you would not be here, and you would not have felt that happiness.
So if you resist, hate, or complain about fate, you are resisting the conditions that have given you life, and experience. Like a set of dominoes knocking one another over. The first domino is needed for the last to fall. In the same way, all of the conditions of the past were needed for you to be here right now.
Robert Greene also writes:
“Through Nietzsche, I discovered amor fati. I just fell in love with the concept because the power that you can have in life of accepting your fate is so immense that it’s almost hard to fathom. You feel that everything happens for a purpose, and that it is up to you to make this purpose something positive and active.”
While I don’t believe that everything happens for a “reason”, I do think Greene has a good point. We need to accept fate, harness it and use it to make something positive. Resistance to things that have already happened is simply a source of unnecessary suffering.
These days more modern authors write about fate in a similar way. For example Robert Greene has written:
“stop wishing for something else to happen, for a different fate. That is to live a false life.”
Whenever we find ourselves wishing for something else it prevents us from accepting the world for what it is, finding a way forward, and acting upon it.
Be careful about complaining, winging, and wishing for things to be different. They anchor us to negativity and prevent us from doing.
To end I’ll leave you with a quote from the french philosopher Albert Camus:
"a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honour most in this world."
Don’t reject anything. Next time you find yourself standing in the rain. Don’t get annoyed that you’re wet, focus on how it feels and enjoy it. We don’t get too many years of experience, so we might as well love what we can.
3. Memento Mori
Death. It’s not normally something we’d sit around talking about over a beer. If anything it’s an area of life you and I probably avoid.
Either way, I think we can both agree that neither of us want to die, right?
It’s a pretty deeply ingrained human instinct.
Is that a lion? - I probably shouldn’t go over there
Is that hot? - Probably shouldn’t touch it
This seems high - I won’t look over the edge
Look there’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson - I probably shouldn’t walk over and punch him.
When you strip us down to our bare bones, our wiring is to survive and replicate. Given that to be true, death is a non-desirable.
So much so, that we don’t even like thinking about it, contemplating it or accepting it.
And, while the denial of death can make us feel warm and fuzzy, it can lock us out of the Stoic benefits that can come from it’s contemplation.
After all, we’re all going to die. We’re all temporary, our time is limited, and our experience of this crazy ride of life will come to an end.
Stoicism tell us that reminding ourselves of this reality can hugely improve how we live day to day.
The Stoics taught that; in the constant reminder of death, we can learn how to live.
Counter-intuitively, thinking about death can help us live better, happier and more present lives. Here’s how:
Memento mori is a phrase that has spanned both time and culture. It’s been used in meditation and philosophy by people from the Stoics to the Buddhists, all in an effort to achieve more gratitude for life, and a perspective that makes our existence more vibrant.
Simply put, Memento Mori translates from Latin to; ‘remember that you must die’.
Memento Mori is a reminder that your death is inevitable, your time is limited. There will be a day where you and I won’t wake up to enjoy the beautiful chaos of life.
It’s one of life’s guarantees. No matter where you are born, how rich you are, or what you do during your life, you will die. Death is simply change, and change is life.
Many of us will avoid thinking about death’s uncomfortable inevitability. The slow approach of the end. However, for those who know how to use it, the reality of death helps cultivate a greater appreciation of life.
Humor me for a moment and imagine that you only have one week left to live. I imagine that you have a list of things that you would do, people that you would spend time with, and places you’d go.
Memento Mori uses the same same principle but instead of one week, we have 80 odd years. Looking honestly at our mortality helps us clarify what’s important.
Stoicism & Memento Mori:
The ancient Stoic philosophy is full of examples that instructs it’s students to meditate on death. To contemplate our own mortality.
In his letters, Seneca speaks of the benefits from meditating on death:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus recommends that whenever you spend time with your loved ones, whenever you hug your family or kiss your partner, you should remind yourself that they are mortal. One day they won’t be there. This constant reminder of death helps us appreciate what we have. Impermanence makes things more valuable.
Even the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius practised Memento Mori, contemplating his mortality to guide his actions:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Stoic philosophers did not see death as a morbid idea to be avoided. It was an aspect of life to be accepted and used to appreciate each new day, remain grateful for the time we have, prioritise actions and not waste time.
In Plato’s Phaedo he recounts the death of Socrates, arguably Athens’ most famous philosopher.
Socrates famously met death with a calm indifference, his last words were said to be uttered to a close friend about paying a debt of chickens.
Plato argues the study of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying”. Therefore in life a philosopher should have at the forefront of their mind, death.
Japanese Zen & The Samurai:
We’ve all heard of the Samurai. We all probably wanted to be one when we were kids. But how many times have you come across their philosophy?
The Samurai used death as a mental practice to enjoy life, conquer fear, and become better warriors.
“The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one's mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done”
A comparison can be made between human life and the Japanese cherry blossoms.
In Japan, the cherry blossom has become part of the culture. The pink-white blossoms can be followed through the country as is moves North with the change in temperature. A large part of what makes the blossoms so beautiful is that they only last for a week.
In a similar way, enjoyment of life becomes more profound because it is fleeting.
The Buddhists of Tibet have a practice called Lojong in which there are The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind. One of these Thoughts is the contemplation of death and our impermanence.
It consists of the following:
All things made from other things are impermanent.
The human body is a thing made from other things.
Therefore, the death of the body is certain.
The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.
This idea was designed for daily contemplation, to prevent the natural human tendency to behave as though we have all the time in the world.
This central teaching of the Buddhist practice is called maranasati, or “death awareness”, and is thought to be a core part of living a better life.
You and I can gain a lot from using some of this Buddhist wisdom. It helps us become aware of how short our time really is, and in doing so helps us question whether or not we are making the most of the time we have.
For me, Memento Mori has a certain amount of order and chaos.
Our base human nature is chaos, over time it will influence us to act like we will live forever. It will normalise our lives and make it easy for us to take it for granted.
This chaos is balanced by the order we apply through conscious thought, awareness and gratitude. This order helps us appreciate what we have, and prevents our more primitive nature from taking it all for granted.
However, order is like bathing. You can expect to do it once and stay clean. It requires constant maintenance or we risk slipping back to taking life for granted and behaving like our life will never end, inevitably being shocked when it comes, and maybe a little regretful.
How Can You Use Stoicism?
1. Read Stoic Work
Most Stoic work has been lost to the erosion of time. However the ancient world has left us a number of pieces of Stoic writing that a huge array of practical ideas and philosophies to help us live more resilient and happier lives.
Marcus Aurelius left us with his private journal called Meditations.
Meditations is a different kind of book on this list. It’s the writings of an ageing emperor. A journal of thoughts and reflections that was never supposed to be read, let alone published.
Because of its nature, it’s a very honest and thought provoking book that’s more a collection of ideas, thoughts and introspection than anything else.
Meditations is probably the most quoted and suggested work of stoic philosophy, because every page has something to think about, some profound lesson or observation about life, ourselves and our place in the world.
As the emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was one of the most powerful men on the planet, despite this, Meditations shows us humility, perspective, compassion, understanding and personal growth, from a man who was just trying to make sense of life.
Epictetus has his lectures written down by his student Arrian.
For me, the go-to Stoic work is from Epictetus.
Epictetus was born a slave in ancient Greece, he was mistreated, crippled, and passed from master to master until he landed with a man that allowed him to study philosophy under the Stoic philosopher, Masonius Rufus.
Epictetus has the top spot for me because he is honest, direct, and unapologetic in his communication. Are you suffering? Tough, life is hard, do something about it.
However, Epictetus doesn’t just point out the stark reality of life, he also offers frameworks to improve ourselves, to ascend our hardships and live happier, more resilient lives.
He never wrote or published, however his student Arian took extensive notes of his lectures, some of which still survive today as the Discourses of Epictetus.
Seneca wrote a number of works on Stoic philosophy that still exist today, the most famous of which being Letters From A Stoic.
Letters from a Stoic is a collection of written letters from the statesman, playwright, and stoic philosopher Seneca to his friend Lucilius.
Seneca takes the form of an old mentor, writing to his young friend about life. As a reader the book has the feel of a mentor - mentee relations where we are the mentee receiving advice from a philosopher who lived 2000 years in the past.
Like all Stoic texts, the book has aged surprisingly well. All of the problems faced in ancient Rome are the same problems we face day to day in our more modern world. Seneca provides insight on relationships, money, possession, discipline, greed, anger, envy, and many more.
If you’re in need of a mentor, or just a little guidance from an old philosopher, this book is a great place to look.
While Aurelius is perhaps the most famous journaling Stoic, he was not the only philosopher of the ancient world who used journaling as a way to organise and observe his thoughts. The great Stoic philosophers Seneca the Younger and Epictetus both praised journaling and its ability to help us develop into the people we wish to be.
Seneca enjoyed journaling in the evening to reflect on how the day had gone. He would ask himself whether or not his actions had been virtuous, and whether there was anything he could have done better. He wrote;
"When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by."
Epictetus instructed all of his students to write their philosophy, rehearse it, read it out loud and discuss it with others:
"Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand, write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”
At its core Stoicism is a philosophy of practicality. Its existence is to provide its practitioners with the tools needed to live a happy life, resilient to the things that threaten to disturb their peace of mind.
The practice of journaling reflects Stoic practicality. It gives us the opportunity to articulate our thoughts, reflect on how we handle different situations, and clarify the way in which we wish to approach life.
We lay bare our thoughts and mental chatter, and in doing so we are able to more clearly see how we think, behave, and perceive.
However, journaling isn’t simply the practice of keeping a diary. It targets specific areas of your life, and in doing so helps you reflect on the past, pay attention to the present, and prepare for the future. It helps you to meditate on your own personal philosophy, reminding yourself of the things you have learned from mentors and teachers, and provides a tool for us to realign with the person we want to be when we feel like we are wandering from that path.
The more we write, the more our philosophy ingrains itself in our character, and the less we will find ourselves forgetting the wisdom that we have come across in the past.
3. Stoic Meditation:
When we think of meditation, we often jump to yogis sitting up a mountain, or yoga instructors telling their students to calmly breathe in and breathe out to align their cosmic energy..
However, meditation can come in multiple different forms. I am going to recommend a meditation called mindfulness. You can do it on the train, at home, in the office, or on the toilet.
It’s simply a method of quieting the mind for us to understand the nature of our background thoughts and self-talk.
The Stoics used meditation as a way to reflect on the events of the day, to examine how they behaved, and how they responded to the world around them, to try and see if they had behaved with virtue, or if there were any situations in which they could have improved their behaviour.
Hopefully you found something useful here.
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Stoicism is defined as enduring pleasure or pain without showing emotion. When you neither react when you get burned badly nor react when you win the lottery, this is an example of stoicism. noun.
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that hails from ancient Greece and Rome in the early parts of the 3rd century, BC. It is a philosophy of life that maximizes positive emotions, reduces negative emotions and helps individuals to hone their virtues of character.
The Stoics elaborated a detailed taxonomy of virtue, dividing virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
- Develop An Internal Locus Of Control. ...
- Guard Your Time. ...
- Don't Outsource Your Happiness. ...
- Stay Focused When Confronted With Distractions. ...
- Toss Away Ego And Vanity. ...
- Consolidate Your Thoughts In Writing. ...
- Stand Your Ground. ...
- Imagine The Worst That Could Happen.