Read time: 9 minutes. Click here to watch my video on the topic.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
I stumbled across the Stoic philosophy going down various internet rabbit holes several years ago. The concept, philosophy, way of life, school of thought, or however else you choose to look at Stoicism, has positively impacted my life and so I wanted to share it. I wouldn’t consider myself a Stoic but I apply certain principles, especially related to mindset, on a daily basis. It provides a framework to influence my perspectives and internal state of mind.
Stoics can be considered cold and emotionless at times. But I think perhaps they’re just misunderstood, especially as Stoicism has recently become more popular. Anyone can practice Stoicism. There are many resources on the topic and it’s become more mainstream with the likes of Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris popularizing it.
In this short guide I will provide you with a brief history, my main Stoic principles, Stoicism in modern life, and my final thoughts. There are some great resources available online and I’ll link them below as well. If you’ve only got a short amount of time to read this then I’d skip to the main principles because stoicism is about practical application.
The History Of Stoicism
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy believed to be founded in 3rd century BC. It was originally called Zenonism after Zeno of Citium. Zeno and his followers would meet at an open market in Athens called Stoa Poikilê, or “Painted Porch”, to learn and teach the Stoic philosophy. Later the philosophy was renamed in honour of the original gathering location’s name to Stoicism.
Stoicism tends to have 4 popular key people involved in its history. There are more but this group will serve as a good overview. First we have Zeno of Citium who established the study of Stoic philosophy with a makeup of ethics, physics and logic in Greece. He had laid great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue in accordance with nature.
Up next we have Lucius Annaeus Seneca who is most commonly just referred to as Seneca. Seneca’s thoughts on Stoicism tend to resonate with most because of his practical advice to relatable subjects like friendship or how to use your time properly. He was an advisor to a Roman emperor and one of the richest men in the Roman empire.
Then we have Epictetus who was born a slave to a wealthy household. He was freed from slavery shortly after emperor Nero’s death and started teaching philosophy in Rome. He learned about Stoicism from Musonius Rufus and became an influential teacher of the philosophy in his time.
Finally, we have Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who was the head of the Roman empire for two decades at one of its largest and most influential periods. He would regularly journal his advice on how to live a wise and virtuous life during this time which has since become a book called Mediations. In his journals, Marcus thanks his teacher Junius Rusticus for introducing him to the work of Epictetus. Marcus has become one of the most influential historical figures in Stoicism.
Stoicism experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. In recent times the school of thought has come to the forefront of people’s minds again. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other psychology methods have helped revive the philosophy beginning around the 1970s. There are now many books, online communities, and influencers in the space.
Principles Of Being Stoic
“To avoid unhappiness, frustration, and disappointment, we, therefore, need to do two things: control those things that are within our power (namely our beliefs, judgments, desires, and attitudes) and be indifferent or apathetic to those things which are not in our power (namely, things external to us).” – William R. Connolly
I am not aware of a text that would be the equivalent of a “Stoic Bible” to reference. There is no one source or author to credit for the philosophy. The building of Stoicism has been decentralized and each player in its development built upon the previous contributions from others. I think this is a part of the draw to it for me.
I’ve listed 5 of the main Stoic principles I try to keep in mind in my practice. There are more but these are the key ones for me. Between all of the historical Stoic texts there are themes that present themselves and I’ve tried to capture each major theme as a principle below.
1. Remember What’s In Your Control
A key component of the Stoic philosophy is to have an accurate understanding what you can and can’t control. Hint: you can’t control nearly as much as you might think. Marcus Aurelius said “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” This doesn’t mean you’re helpless and should not try. In fact, you may also be able to influence things that are outside of yourself.
Focus in on the actions you can control and do your best with them. The results may not always be what you want but at this point you have a choice on how you respond to the outcome. If you can keep in mind the parts of your life that are in your control then I think you’ll be happier and avoid any unwinnable battles with yourself.
2. See Reality For What It Is
What is reality? That’s tough to say because I think everyone’s is different. How we interpret our own reality is called our perception. We use our senses to create a mental impression of our reality and use that for judgement. This perceived reality has the power to make us weak or can be a great source of strength. The distinction will come from our own interpreted perspective. This is because we are not positively or negatively affected by the reality until our judgement of it.
Epictetus is quoted as saying, “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.” A flip of perspective and the reality changes. I believe part of seeing reality for what it is comes from seeking out immutable truths. Look for those first principles and use them as a basis for judgement.
3. Practice Misfortune
The Stoic exercise of “premeditatio malorum”, also known as the “the pre-meditation of evils”, is the process of imagining all the things that could go wrong in your life. This includes negative events happening to people, places, objects, and really anything else that you might be attached to. By visualizing or meditating on these possible eventualities you can mentally prepare yourself for them. This is different than just worrying. The object of the exercise is to actively prepare yourself for the possible outcomes with a focus on what you can control.
Seneca said, “It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” He even believed it to be prudent to set aside some days each month to practice poverty. While this might not be absolutely necessary, I do think it is a good thought exercise to go through. Misfortunes are a fact of life but if you’re mentally prepared for them then you’ll be able to lead a more flourishing life.
4. Life Is Short
Meditate on your mortality. The thought behind this is to humble you. It’s a reminder that the heart will beat a finite amount of times and that will be it. The Stoics view death as a natural part of life. Marcus Aurelius said “Death, like birth, is just a natural process, material elements combining, growing, decaying and finally separating and completely dispersing.” Use this perspective to your advantage by applying it to your decision making on how you spend your time.
The focus of this isn’t to think about death specifically but rather to cause an examination of how you’re living your days knowing that this won’t be forever. Before you go to bed ask yourself the question, “did I live well today?”. If you can keep answering yes to that question then you’re on the right track.
5. Practice Your Values To Live A Virtuous Life
Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. These are often referred to as the cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy. This list of virtues goes back even before the birth of Stoicism to Socrates and perhaps even further. You will have your own set of values. They’re the ones that you practice every day on autopilot. Remember to examine them and decide if they’re leading you to live a good life. To the Stoic’s the highest good was leading a virtuous life.
Being A Stoic In Modern Life
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – James Stockdale
I think a lot of people find Stoicism at a low point in their lives. In the search for answers to resolve their mental pain they discover a way forward through the practice. All along the solution was as simple as adjusting your thinking. However, just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Through Stoic practice you are able to bring some tranquility to your mind.
If you haven’t heard of Admiral James Bond Stockdale I’d suggest looking up his life story and history as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in US Navy history. His story is even more relevant at the moment during the current pandemic. Stockdale was held as a prisoner for 7 years during which time he was brutally tortured. He did not know when it would end but he also never lost faith that he would prevail. The Stoic mindset was a beacon for Stockdale during those turbulent years that he has since turned into one of his life’s defining moments.
While the history of Stoicism stretches back thousands of years, it is still more relevant than ever today. After all we are still humans similar to those from a lot time ago. We have similar minds but in new circumstances. Our challenges may look different but fundamentally they remain unchanged and as long as humans remain human Stoicism will remain a piece of timeless wisdom that can be applied to modern life.
Stoicism is a tool in the toolkit. It is not my absolute choice as a mind “operating system” but I believe there are valuable bits of wisdom to draw from at certain times. In my opinion, the Stoics did not get everything right. Their views on physics have proved incorrect and strange compared to what we accept to be true today. However, I think they spent a lot of time thinking about the human mind and running their own evidenced-based thought experiments to learn how to improve their thinking. I believe they got most of the thinking part of Stoicism right.
Reading Moral letters to Lucilius (also called Letters from a Stoic) is a good starting point to learn about Stoicism and it is available for free online (also on my recommended books page). Once you’ve taken some time to learn about the different principles and gone down the Stoic rabbit hole it’s important to put the information into practice. This will mean unlearning and changing your mind. Stoicism is about honest self-reflection and potentially changing your behaviours. It will take some time but the process is worth it.
I appreciate you.