What is Stoicism?
First, Thank You!
I first want to thank you for being interested enough to find this site and learn more about this philosophy called Stoicism. I've observed significant changes in my life as a result of applying the principles of Stoicism and that's why I consider it to be my duty to share these ideas with as many people as possible.
Not only that, but I feel that it's necessary for me to intertwine my own experiences and understandings with this philosophy in a unique interpretation so that I can represent my own view and not only the view of those who paved the way. After all, the Stoic Seneca said that the people "who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides." Surely someone like Seneca would be glad to see his thinking expanded upon and wrestled with rather than simply being accepted.
And I actually think that this is exactly what's happening today. If there's one thing that I've noticed over the past few years of studying Stoicism it's that there are as many different ways to understand and apply Stoicism as there are Stoics. And in a way that is truly the genius of this philosophy. It brings people together from all walks of life and allows us to see something bigger than one religion or one discipline or one way to live. Christians, atheists, muslims, Buddhists, politicians, mothers, fathers, old, young, gay, straight, it doesn't matter. The philosophy of Stoicism is making waves around the world and bring people together with the common goal of discovering what it truly means to be an effective human being. And that's beautiful, isn't it?
Below I've attempted to explain the way I see Stoicism. This will change, as it only from my current view. Please feel free to reach me on my contact page if you feel that you need greater clarity on any of the following ideas. SD
A Brief History of Stoicism
"Man conquers the world by conquering himself." - Zeno of Citium
The Era of Hellenism
Stoicism began as one of the major schools of philosophy within the Hellenistic period in the mediterranean. For context, Hellenistic literally means “one who uses the Greek language”. This period is marked to have started around the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and some estimates suggest that it ended in 146 BC following the invasion of the Greek heartlands by Rome., But most people agree that this period officially ended in around 31 BC.
During the Hellenistic period Greece gave rise to the first structures of Democracy and in places like Athens, where Stoicism began, the culture was bustling with new inventions and ideas. It was a cultural expansion unlike any other time in History, and we have that to thank for much of our western culture that we enjoy today.
I have a great interview with Michael Tremblay where we discuss the ins and outs of the Hellenistic philosophies, but for now it’s important to know that this period in ancient Greece was marked by massive advancements and explorations into art, theatre, mathematics, sciences, music, literature and of course, philosophy, including schools of philosophy that you may have heard of like the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans, and of course, Stoicism, which all belonged to the “Hellenistic” tradition.
Zeno and the Birth of Stoicism
Zeno of Citium was by all accounts the official founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. The story goes that Zeno was a wealthy merchant who was shipwrecked while traveling to Athens with a load full of purple dye. This was very expensive cargo as this die was extracted painstakingly from sea snails, and it was seen as a symbol of luxury to use such a colour. As Donald Robertson puts it so eloquently, Zeno’s fortune came from and now returned to the sea.
So now Zeno is stuck in Athens. And what does he do? Well the legend goes that Zeno did what any of us would have done; he traveled to the Oracle of Delphi to receive guidance from the God Apollo. There, the Oracle told him that he was to “dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men.”
Zeno interpreted this to mean that he should learn from the great thinkers of the past, and he began at once to read about people like Socrates, which is very important to know as the Stoic philosophy is widely considered to be a derivative of the Socratic teachings, especially with his focus on virtue as the main good in life.
And so the legend continues that as Zeno was reading about Socrates, he asked the bookseller, “tell me where I can find a man like this?”. Because Athens was a town full of thinkers and philosophers the bookseller pointed out the window at a man called Crates of Thebes, a famous Cynic philosopher.
Zeno went on to study with Crates for a couple of decades before he started his own school of philosophy in around 300BC on the stairs of a painted porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, thus, "Stoicism" is created - a new philosophical guide to the good life.
How do we know all this?
We really don’t have many writings from the early Greek Stoics, and it’s not until Stoicism makes its way to Rome that we really start to get some great literature to sink our teeth into. It is, however, important to note that between Greece and Rome there were many notable philosophers who lead the Stoic school and added to the teachings of Zeno, and although we don't have much from the philosophers themselves, we do have enough from historians, like Diogenes Laertius, to put some of the pieces together.
Some of the ancient Stoic thinkers include Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, Chrysippus, the third head, and people like Cato the Younger, who many people looked up to as one of the great Stoics. There were many other notable people who carried the ideas of Stoicism forward or who simply lived as examples of Stoic logic, but for now I'll simply point you to this post by Massimo Pigliucci which will help anyone looking for more detail around the lineage of Stoic thinkers.
One very notable Stoic was Diogenes of Babylon who travelled to Rome in 155BC with other philosophers on a diplomatic tour to spread these Greek ideas to the Roman Empire, which brings us to the most important Stoics that we know today - the Roman Stoics.
The Roman Stoics
SENECA THE YOUNGER
Seneca the Younger was a roman statesman, play writer, investor and advisor to the emperor Nero. Seneca was a confusing fellow because in his writings we see a man who was deeply interested in philosophy and was trying to understand what was real and what wasn't. But his history tells us a story of a man that was also entrenched in scandal, especially seeing as Nero was one of the most tyrannical emperors of Rome and Seneca had such a close association.
Regardless of his many imperfections, one cannot say that he didn’t wrestle with what it meant to live a good life, and that’s why he remains my personal favorite of all the Stoics we can learn from. He truly was a person who may have struggled to live in the way that he taught, and this makes him deeply human. His most popular writings are contained in a book called “Letters from a Stoic”, which is a collection of letters that he wrote to his friend Lucilius on life and how to live it.
Musonius Rufus is the next of the core Roman philosophers who we can read from today. We don’t have much from Musonius, but what we do have can give us an insight into a man who was very interested not only in the deeper ideas of Stoicism, but also in the very practical day to day application of this philosophy (sometimes maybe too practical). For example, he would discuss the kind of career path a Stoic should choose, or he would even say that a man should not cut off his beard as it is his sign of being a man. Overall, Musonius' lectures are actually quite inspiring and have added to the Stoic cannon quite well.
Epictetus started his life as a slave. His name literally translates to “gained” or “acquired”. Later he was freed by his master, who saw intellectual potential in him, and he actually went on to study with Musonius Rufus. Epictetus is widely regarded to be one of the most important Stoic teachers because he taught such practical wisdom with logic and power - a combination seldom found but always well-received. What we have from Epictetus is a collection of discourses that were captured by a man called Arrian of Nicomedia who also compiled somewhat of a “best of Epictetus” called it the Enchiridion, or “Handbook”. This collection of ideas still stands today as one of the Stoic's primary resources.
Marcus Aurelius, influenced by Epictetus, was the last of what is considered to be the five good Roman emperors. He was groomed from a young age - along with his brother Lucius Verus - to be Emperor of Rome, but Marcus’s love of philosophy and understanding of Epictetus’s teachings led him to carrying out his duty as Emperor in as effective and ethical a way possible, unlike many who came before and after him.As emperor, he had ultimate power, and because of this we are able to see the true power of philosophy, and of Stoicism. As emperor he could have had absolutely anything he wanted. He could have snapped his fingers and summoned anything he liked, including the death of anyone he disliked. But he was a philosopher first, and an emperor second. He was dedicated to living by correct principles, and we can see this in his personal diary which we can read today called “Meditations”. This collection of thoughts from Marcus Aurelius shows us a man who was probably somewhat displeased with the fact that he was emperor. He constantly had people trying to manipulate him, deceive him, and likely kill him. He was faced with every possible temptation, and yet he made sure that the power that he had never went to his head, and that in itself is a near impossible task.
A Philosophy Founded in Difficulty
This is a great time to point out that all of these Stoics who I’ve talked about lived lives of extremes. Zeno lost everything in his shipwreck, Seneca was very wealthy and influential but also experienced periods of exile, Epictetus was a slave and experienced exile as well, and Marcus Aurelius had ultimate power which required extreme discipline.
This is a true testament to the fact that Stoicism is a philosophy that was born in adversity and shaped in the mountains and valleys of life. It’s a philosophy that can help us to be effective human beings at any time in our lives. Sometimes your life will challenge, and sometimes your life might be easy, but what Stoicism offers is a guide for how to deal with the highest highs and the lowest lows of life effectively. This is why Stoicism has been cited to have influenced people like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, James Stockdale, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, and Nelson Mandela, who is reported to have taken inspiration from the Stoics during his time in jail.
And so here we are in the 2020s still being influenced by Stoicism in our society today and still trying to get to the bottom of just how useful and effective this philosophy can be. Today we look to people like Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Gregory Sadler, John Sellars, Ryan Holiday, Kai Whiting, Nancy Sherman, Gregory Lopez, and many other excellent modern thinkers who are carrying Stoicism forward into a new era, and it's up to all of us to learn more about just how effective Stoicism can be as a way of life.
Now let's take a look at what the philosophy teaches!
Falling in Love with Philosophy
"What can guide us? Only philosophy." - Marcus Aurelius
At the core of Stoicism is an unwavering commitment to the discipline of philosophy. Epictetus taught that philosophy's purpose is to "illuminate the ways our soul has become infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us." In other words, if life is everest then philosophy is our sherpa.
But seeing that philosophy is actually defined as "the love of wisdom", it stands to reason that the ultimate pursuit for Stoics is that of wisdom. And what exactly is wisdom?According to Massimo Pigliucci, the Stoics had a two part definition of Wisdom. It is "(i) knowledge of human and divine matters, and (ii) fitting expertise." The Stoics gave us a path to discovering the truth about matters human and divine, and to also achieving the kind of fitting expertise that would make us effective humans, and this is where I present what I believe are the three most powerful questions of Stoicism which align with the three core Stoic studies of physics, ethics and logic:
What is all of this that we're seeing and experiencing, and what is our place in it?
Based on our answers to the previous question, how should we act?
When thinking about our place in this universe and how we should act, how do we know if we're right?
So as you can see, at the core of Stoicism is a deep desire to decode this very complex landscape that we seem to be moving through. The Stoics asked some of the most important questions of life, but they did so in a practical manner that could help the smartest and the simplest of people alike to live a better life. Because of this, Stoicism offers a low barrier-to-entry guide to understanding some of the most complex matters of life.
But always remember that no matter how many questions we can answer about the universe and how we should live, we must always come back to philosophy, the love of wisdom, with an open heart and mind. This is what grounds us and shows us that no matter how far we push our reasoning capacity and our ability to explore, there is always more to find. There is always a new truth, a new idea, and a new concept to explore, and these truths and concepts are found in no single school of philosophy, religion or way of life. These truths are found everywhere if we look. As Seneca said, “there has yet to be a monopoly of truth, and there is plenty of it left for future generations too.”
So keep on learning and exploring. This is the start of the Stoic way, and In the same way that the grindstone sharpens the axe and makes it easier for the axeman to fell the tree, the love of philosophy is the process that sharpens your mind so that you can face the storms of life with a better traveling partner - a partner who always gives and never asks anything in return.
The Destination: A Flourishing Life in Agreement with Nature
"If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable." - Seneca
Eudaemonia and Our Place in the Cosmos
After falling in love with philosophy and learning from great thinkers Zeno of Citium came to the conclusion that the ultimate goal of life was to align with nature, which would lead to "eudaemonia" - a latin term roughly translated to "flourishing". And what exactly does it mean to be in alignment with nature? Well, it's an idea that has many interpretations, but here's mine:
In order to understand the idea of finding alignment with nature I want you to consider the lion. We, as observing and thinking humans, look at the lion and study his place within his ecosystem. We're captivated by the lion. His teeth, his mane, his strength, and his courage. But although we like to study the lion, it would be far out to think that the lion is as perplexed about his place in the universe as we are.
See, the lion doesn't think very much about what he should do or how he should do it. He simply knows! As far as we can tell, he doesn't ever struggle with his morning routine, he doesn't sit for hours philosophising about how he should live his life, and he doesn't question what everything around him is or what it all means. And not only this, but there are certain things that, if we saw the lion do, would make us consider the lion to be sick.
For example, should the lion all of a sudden become a vegetarian we would surely consider him to be ill, or out of alignment with his nature as a lion. We would know this because his whole body is a reflection of his unique place in the ecosystem. He's strong, he's agile, he has big teeth and bigger claws. So how could a creature like this not be sick if he were to not eat meat? He is perfectly formed to hunt and eat meat, as far as we can tell.
And by now you're wondering what all of this has to do with the Stoic idea of aligning with nature. The point is that the Lion has a place in the ecosystem just as much as the tree has a place, and the elements in the ground, and the birds, and the ocean, and the clouds, and the rain and the sun and the stars. They all have unique and important roles to play in the infinite scheme of the cosmos. So if all of these things have their own place in what happens, then doesn't it make sense that maybe there are skills (or virtues) that we possess that make us uniquely human and that, if nourished, would allow us to simply and effectively integrate ourselves within the cosmos right down to our own smaller ecosystems? And on top of this, wouldn't there also be decisions that we could make that would seem to take us out of alignment with our nature as human beings, and therefore would label us as ill human beings just as the vegetarian lion is sick lion?
But this idea of aligning with nature doesn't simply apply to how we as a humanity and one species should act, but it also applies to how you as an individual should direct your life. I'm sure you've had moments in your life when you felt a certain pull towards one direction, or maybe you've felt inspired to chase a certain goal that would be meaningful to you. You might be naturally talented at a sport, or even as a mathematician or a public speaker. Whatever your skill or whatever you're drawn to, the correct Stoic approach in my opinion would be to align with that individual nature by pursuing it to the best of your abilities. As you do this you'll find that you can learn faster because you'll enjoy what you're learning, and you'll be manifesting a part of yourself that only you can bring to the tribe of humanity.
Epictetus brought a unique perspective on a life in alignment with nature by teaching what we now call his role ethics. This was his suggestion that we, as human beings, tend to find ourselves in certain roles in our family, community and personal lives, and that if we could fulfil those roles to the best of our abilities then we would be doing society and ourselves a great service. This is an idea that has the potential to face harsh scrutiny seeing as we now live in a society where we have more choice than ever to choose what we do and what roles we play, however I believe that Epictetus’s role ethics can be best interpreted to mean that whatever we do, we should do it to the very best of our ability. This, if anything, is a sign of a healthy human, and as long as we aim at the good (see the next section), then doing our very best at whatever we do simply must be in alignment with nature. After all, it would seem that everything else in the cosmos strives to its highest potential, right? Trees are a great example. They don’t grow and then stop when they’re tired. As long as there is sun, water and nutrients the tree will grow to exactly how big it can grow. So if you’re a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a teacher, a student, a CEO or a clerk, do your best.
And one final interpretation of the idea of alignment with nature might be best reframed as aligning with irrefutable truths of the world, or things that cannot be otherwise. The Stoics taught, as you'll see soon, that there are things that are in our control and things that are outside our control, and they suggested that if we were to focus only on what is ours to control and to forget about the rest then we could achieve "inner tranquility and outer effectiveness." The things that are in our control are simply our own reactions to events and our rational thinking capacity, but everything else is ultimately outside our control, seeing as we have no immediate power over the world around us. The forces of nature and the world around us are simply doing their thing, so it’s best to align yourself with these things that cannot be otherwise so that you can focus on what can be otherwise - yourself.
These are the types of questions, in my interpretation, that the Stoics tried to answer about life. What is all of this that we see? What's our place in it? How could we act as effectively as possible? How would we know if this is the correct line of thinking? They used logic and reason to make headway on these questions and discovered that we, as humans, might also have a code that would act as a guide to a flourishing life in alignment with the ecosystem we're born into - the cosmos. And now that we have the broader picture of what our aim is, read on to see what I view as the way to the attainment of that aim.
The Way: A Life of Virtue
"Freedom is the name of virtue: Slavery, of vice….
None is a slave whose acts are free." - Epictetus
The Four Cardinal Virtues: Your Internal Compass
Whether you believe in the conscience or not, we all have moments in our lives when we feel that what we're about to do would be either right or wrong, good or bad. Many of us don't bother to listen to this mysterious guidance, but we can all recognise that it's there and we know that it can be quite loud at times. Socrates, who influenced the Stoic school heavily, spoke about this internal compass. He spoke of it as his own "internal oracle". It was a voice that guided him to do only what he considered to be good and right. Later scholars and philosophers have agreed that what he saw as an internal oracle was not unique to him, but was what we consider to be the conscience. The difference is that he actually listened.
On closer inspection of our own conscience we can see that in moments of intervention we're often being "guided" to be more courageous, to treat our fellow human beings better, to be more disciplined, to stop being weak and arrogant, or to get better information so that we can make more rational decisions.
The Stoics seem to have decoded this conscience, and this is where I present what the Stoics called the four cardinal virtues. Embodying these four powerful virtues, the Stoics taught, would lead you to a flourishing life in alignment with nature:
Strength in face of adversity, bravery in times of turmoil, courage to live by correct principles, courage to love and to trust.
Moderation in consumption, discipline in endeavours, calm in the storms of life, not picking one side or another.
Correct judgement, understanding of what's right and wrong, understanding of what's good and what's bad, harmony with the human race, to love people.
Sound knowledge, constant education, love of philosophy, desire for correct information leading to correct judgement, rationality.
Can you see how pretty much any situation in your life could be benefited by turning up the dial on any one of these four virtues? This is what the Stoics thought. In fact Marcus Aurelius said that "if you find anything better than that (virtues), embrace it without reservations - it must be an extraordinary thing indeed."
So this is our internal compass. These are the virtues that can make us happy, healthy and flourishing human beings in alignment with nature. It is through the embodiment of these virtues in everything that we do that we can come closer each day to fulfilling our ultimate potential as human beings.
The Good, the Bad & the Indifferent
"Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference." - Marcus Aurelius
Understanding What's Important
By now we know that we have a destination (flourishing in alignment with nature), we have the way (a life of virtue) and we understand that we must fall in love with philosophy in order to ground our understanding in sound reasoning and education. But there's one more element that we need to know before we delve into some of the more specific and actionable tools and tactics of Stoicism. What we still need to know is what's important, what's not, and what doesn't matter either way.
The Stoics thought about this question and they taught a clear guide to the things that should be important to us and the things that simply don’t matter either way.
According to Stoics, the only real good is virtue, and therefore the four cardinal virtues are the gold standard for what we should aim at and what is important. Virtue should be our supreme aim seeing as virtue is the only good. And not only that, but a life of virtue is a life that leads to mental and physical health. It's a literal preventative cure for an unnatural and unhealthy life.
But some can misinterpret this and become bothered that “good” doesn’t encompass things like love, family, friendship, financial security, art, and other things that we might consider to be good. But what the Stoics really were trying to do was to look at what the absolute bare essentials were. Sure a friendship could be great, but it can also turn sour. Financial security could be nice, but we really can’t rely on it to bring us happiness, and even then there’s nothing inherently good about a few numbers on a bank balance. Courage, temperance, justice and wisdom will always be good, and there is nothing and no one who wouldn’t be better off after a strong dose of these virtues. In fact, everything that you currently consider to be good would actually be enhanced by the embodiment of these virtues into your own character.So focus on what will make your mind healthy and well, and everything will flow from that effort.
Just as the mountain implies the valley, so too must there be bad as well as good. But what is bad? Stoics define "bad" as anything that is not virtuous, and the simple way that we can decipher this is to look at the opposites of the four cardinal virtues.
So in place of courage, which is good, we could say that cowardice is bad. This could mean shirking your duties, letting your fears rule you, not living up to your best principles or doing wrong because you were too afraid to do right. In place of temperance, which is good, we could say that excess is bad. Things like lust, gluttony, lack of discipline, or over-emotive responses would be examples of this. In place of justice, which is good, we could say that injustice is bad. This means being unfair, treating people with disrespect, having incorrect judgements about right and wrong, or acting immorally. And finally, in place of wisdom, which is good, we could say that ignorance is bad. This would mean choosing to be blind to the facts, living against our better judgement, or not taking personal education seriously.
Can you see how all of these things, if integrated into your life, would be bad for you? And can you see how if you were to live with cowardice, excess, injustice and ignorance you would become a sick human being in the same way that a vegetarian lion would be sick? It would be out of alignment with our nature as humans, and this is why we must move towards the good (virtue) and move away from the bad (vice). But what about the rest?
The things that are indifferent are everything that exists outside of virtue and vice. Virtue is good, so we should aim at virtue, and vice is bad, so we should avoid vice, but everything else should be accepted gracefully if it comes and not missed if it doesn't. This is a hard concept for some people to wrap their heads around, but I’ll do my best to explain.
Things like money, nice cars, big homes, prestige, fame, and a lavish lifestyle are all indifferents because they really don't make any difference in our overall satisfaction unless we allow them to. And this is the key - if you place a high level of importance on these things then they will rule your life and make you happy or unhappy, depending on whether you have them or not. But if you understand, as the Stoics did, that you don't have to be a slave to these foreign desires, then you can flow through life making the most of things as they happen. If you get money, great! If you don't, brilliant! It doesn't matter either way, but what really matters is living virtuously.
And one important point to make here is that the Stoics never said that we should desire to not have these nice things in life. In fact, things like money or a nice home are referred to by Stoics as "preferred indifferents". This simply means that if we have the chance to have them then it would be silly to desire to not have them. But even though we wouldn't necessarily push them away, we understand that having them will not bring us closer to peace of mind or a true flourishing life.
When you understand that things external to your own mind really only make as much difference as you allow them to, then you're freed to focus on what's truly good, to avoid what's truly bad, and to be happy with and enjoy whatever is served on your plate in the banquet of life.
Tools & Tactics
"In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil." - Seneca
Practice Makes Perfect
At the heart of Stoicism is a healthy respect and understanding of the importance of practice. They understood that our brains respond best to repetition of exercises over time, no matter if those exercises come from virtue or vice. This explains why we can be entrenched in both "good" and "bad" habits. The brain doesn't care what you feed it, but it simply responds to what you do repeatedly by creating pathways and connections that make it easier for you to continue to do the things you've always repeated.
The Stoics taught that philosophy must be paired with action so that we could fully integrate the philosophical theories and ideas into our daily lives. Philosophy, to Stoics, is not mere mental-masturbation, but it is in fact a way of life and a serious commitment to live by correct principles. And the only way to cement those principles into your mind is through exercises and practice.
Below you will find what I call the "tools and tactics" of Stoicism. These are exercises that you can do to gain greater clarity, to better understand what's right, wrong, good and bad, and to become a better version of yourself.
Your Personal Ideal
One exercise that I personally recommend to every one of my alignment coaching clients is that of defining your own personal ideal. Human beings are aiming creatures, and we know this because we're always exploring, learning, growing, excelling and becoming what we hope to be more perfected humans. It therefore makes sense that we should clearly define exactly who it is that we want to be so that we can have a personal ideal to aim at in our lives.
Marcus Aurelius did this in the first book of his journal by naming various inspirational people from his life (like his mother, his teachers and friends) and writing down the qualities or lessons that he learned from them. This served as a guide for his own character - a ruler to measure himself against every day.
You, too, can do this in your own life, and I'd recommend that you do. take some time to sit and think about the people you've met, the lessons you've learned, and the experiences you've had in your life. What are the characteristics of the people in your life that you'd like to embody in your own character? What are the lessons you've learned that would be good to live by? And what has life taught you about how to be a good human being?
Most people tend to drift through life simply accepting what they're taught and how they grew up, but the life of intention must be examined. Therefore, writing out your personal philosophy is the first step to understanding what you'd like to keep in your mind, what you'd like to throw out, and what you'd like to add.
The Dichotomy of Control Analysis
As I discussed earlier, the Stoics taught that in life there are things that we can control and there are things that we can't control. The things that we can control are limited to our own actions, reactions to outside events, and our rational thought. Everything else falls into the category of things that we ultimately cannot control.
Now in our modern understanding of Stoicism we can see that there are some things that are partially within our control like the way people treat us, or our ability to enact change in communities, but ultimately the Stoics taught that the most effective human being is one who focuses purely on controlling what can be controlled and releases his desire to control the rest. It’s basically a “change yourself before you change the world” kind of approach.
Next time you're faced with a potential challenge in your life, or if you're looking to achieve a goal, try doing a control analysis of the situation. You can do this by drawing a venn diagram. On one side write all of the things that you definitely cannot control about the situation, on the other side write all the things that you definitely can control about the situation, and in the middle write the things that you can only partially control. Once you've completed this you should have a clear idea of what you can do right now to make things better for yourself, and you'll also have a clear idea of the things that you should let go of. This leads to massive productivity, because you know what you can actually do to make things better, and it also leads to less anxiety because you can stop worrying about things that ultimately you cannot change.
The Stoic Journal
The Stoics, as you’ve probably deduced by now, were big on questions. Questions are the very process by which we come to know what we should do and how we should live, and so a life without questions would be an unexamined life and a life of drifting.
Epictetus suggested that we ask three questions each day that can help us to reflect on the day and how we could improve. They were:
1 - What went well today?
2 - What didn't go well today?
3 - What could I do to make tomorrow even better?
Each evening, try sitting down with a journal and answering these three questions about your day. You'll be surprised to see how quickly you can make positive changes when you start to think about the way you're living.
And one more word of advice for when you’re asking these questions: listen. I mean actually pay attention. Most people ask questions not to find answers but simply to say they tried. This is about life change, not about puffing up your ego because you’re doing personal development. Ask the questions, and actually listen to the way you feel and the thoughts that pop up. They’ll tell you, as they did for Socrates, what you’re doing wrong and what could be improved. All you have to do is learn from them and take action.
Ancient Stoic philosophers understood, as modern psychologists understand today, that the best way to overcome a fear or a potential pain in the future is to voluntarily subject yourself to that fear or pain through visualisation techniques. The Stoics suggested that we should look briefly into the future so that we could experience our fears and see ourselves overcoming them. We could also use this exercise to look at all the ways that your life could go wrong over the next few weeks, months or years, and in doing so you could devise plans to overcome or deal with these potential threats.
This exercise is used by sporting teams and high-performance individuals everywhere to more effectively see how they could mess up on the field or in the job and then to correct the wrongs in the mind before they actually happen, or to prevent them from happening in the first place. But however you use pre-meditation, it should be seen as a way to overcome your fears in the present by briefly meeting them in the unknown future and learning more about what they really are and how you could overcome them, if they are a real threat.
The View From Above
Marcus Aurelius created an exercise that many Stoics use today in order to gain a greater perspective and gratitude for the world we live in. This technique is called the "view from above" and it is simply the act of imagining yourself above the world looking down. The idea is this: the farther away from yourself that you can get the more you realise just how small and insignificant we really are in the grand scheme of things. When you see that you're a mere piece of dust on a small blue dot in the middle of an infinite universe then you can really put a few of your daily anxieties into proper perspective.
Sure, what we experience is real to us and we feel that we are faced with real problems, but getting outside of our overthinking minds for a few moments to see our lives from the perspective of the cosmos really allows us to see that life isn't meant to be filled with stress and anxiety, but rather it should be cherished. Life is beautiful, and it's absolutely magnificent to think that we, tiny people in an infinite universe, get to experience love, play, adventure, exploration, breath, learning, growing, feeling and living! This is a gift, so don't waste it!
Amor Fati is a latin phrase which translates roughly to "love your fate". This is essentially the practice of trying to align yourself with what happens to you instead of constantly kicking against it. It's a similar idea to the one taught in modern personal development today which says that we should live our lives as if life is happening for us, not to us. This simple reframing of our view can help us to see opportunities in times of perceived threat and to get from life instead of just getting through life.
Think about it like this: in life we know that we will have ups and downs. There will always be challenges and opportunities, valleys and mountains, winters and springs, but if you know that these times will come then wouldn't you rather accept and love what happens as opposed to always wishing that you were somewhere you're not? If you want what happens to you then you'll always get what you want!
And don't misunderstand what I'm saying here. "Amor Fati" doesn't mean that we should simply stop trying to live a better life, and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to improve our lot. It means that we should find the beauty, necessity and potential for opportunity within everything that happens to us. In this way the true Stoic finds the seed of opportunity within every situation in life, and as a result is able to learn, grow, and expand his level of gratitude and admiration for the world around him.
Another latin phrase, Memento Mori translates to "remember death". This seems like a morbid meditation on the outside, but at its core it's a powerful way to live.
Human beings are self-aware creatures, and we all know that someday we will die. This knowledge is the very motivation that has pushed us to the highest of highs in our understanding of the world and our place in it. We know that we don't last long, and therefore we know that we must live while we have the chance. To fear death is unnatural because what we fear is something that is as fundamental to our advancement as human beings as breath, water or food. Death is to life what man is to woman, or valley to mountain, or sadness to joy. To live is to die, and the fact that we could die at any moment should inspire us to live in each moment, as it may be our last.
So meditate on death every day and understand that death isn't a hindering force in our lives, but that it is the very thing that drives us.
Similar to the pre-meditation exercise but in a physical form, the Stoics encouraged their students to set aside days when they would actually practice living lives of more simple means. Seneca the Younger would, from time to time, choose voluntarily to wear the simplest clothes and eat only the most basic foods, and in doing so he was able to see clearly that there was nothing wrong or bad about poverty. Sure, we would prefer to not be in poverty, but it's important to understand that there is nothing innately wrong with having less. By practicing being uncomfortable a Stoic is able to understand what true discomfort is and what it is not.
You can do this exercise by practicing regular physical exercise, by setting aside a weekend to fast, wearing clothes that may be seen as unfashionable or uncool, or living very simply for a period of time. When you do this, your range of comfort and gratitude in life will be expanded and your range of possible discomforts or frustrations will be narrowed. As Seneca would have suggested, it's not until you go without food that you realise just how good most foods could taste.
Gratitude is the precursor to many powerful changes in life, and if you believe that practice makes perfect then maybe it's time to practice your gratitude. Take a moment every night to write down three to five things that happened in your day that you were grateful for. A positive and cheerful outlook on life was something that the Stoics suggested would be of great value. To meditate on the beauty of life, the complexity of our existence, and the simple daily happenings that allow us to feel joy is one of the most precious human abilities. It's something that should be practiced daily in our thoughts in order for us to stay grounded in the truth that despite the regular chaos of life, there is always beauty to be found.
We often get stuck in unempowering feedback loops where we constantly feed our minds negative and poisonous information and self talk, and can you blame us? The news is always negative, gossip runs rampant in our societies, and we’re constantly being sold a lie that we need just one more new thing in order to be happy. Daily gratitude flips the switch on that feedback loop and allows your mind to work for you and not against you by feeding you a more balanced perspective on life.
Attention to the Moment
People like Seneca observed that we are rarely living in the present moment. He saw that most people were either living with their fears and anxieties of future threats or living with the regrets of the past. He said “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”
By grounding yourself in a constant attention to the current moment you'll be better able to focus on what you can actually control - your own thoughts and actions. In doing this we can create almost a superpower within ourselves - a clear view of the world as it is and a clear view of where our true power lies.
There are many ways that you can practice being in the moment, but I would suggest a habit of either hyper-discipline or hyper-openness.
For discipline I suggest getting involved in a meditation practice, meaningful work, or a complex task. These are situations where you have to learn how to come back to the moment and focus on the task at hand, and over time you can become better at being aware in each moment.
For openness I suggest allowing your mind to wander and to experience wherever you are without reservations. Go for a walk, relax with a good view, or simply be with yourself. Don't judge, don't desire to be anywhere else. Just experience. I do this on what I now call "play runs". This is when I'll go for a run but without any specific goal. I'll run when I want to run, walk when I feel like walking, stop if I want to stop and experience things as I am drawn to them. Living near the beach I'm lucky as I have so many beautiful scenes to wander into, but I have found that the exercise of dropping all goals, expectations and desires from my mind before a run can really welcome inspiration into my mind, simply because I'm not looking for anything. If you’ve ever tried to find something you’ve lost and then found it later when you weren’t looking then you’ll know that often the act of looking is the biggest hindrance to the goal of finding.
A Word to the Wise
"Neither advocacy nor opposition." - Sharon Lebell
Sit With These Ideas
What's really great about Stoicism is its transformation over time. Each new generation of Stoic thinkers have contributed to the canon of Stoicism and what it means to be a Stoic, and someone who I truly believe exemplifies the joy and flourishing that can be found in Stoicism would be Sharon Lebell - a wonderful friend and author who translated some of Epictetus' best lessons into a wonderfully modern interpretation in 2007. She said the following in a recent addition of Chuck Chakrapani's Stoic Gym magazine:
"Have you had the good fortune to read the innovative polymath Edward DeBono? One of his key ideas he called “Po.” Po means neither yes nor no. Neither advocacy nor opposition. It means to sit with an idea, a person, an experience, or a philosophy with earnest curiosity suspending judgement, postponing conclusive evaluation. With Po we refrain from disambiguation, trying to settle the matter, deciding if we like or agree with something or not. Decisions, choices, preferences, evaluations can come later, but Po is a point of view that deserves time and dignity and can help us think clearer and make better decisions." - Sharon Lebell
To understand Stoicism is something that can only be achieved by dedicating yourself to testing these principles while sitting with the ideas and how they affect you. Use the principle of Po as you study the most important questions in life. Sometimes it's not necessarily about filling your mind with new wisdom, but rather it's about allowing the wisdom you currently have in there to play around, to be there. Let your mind wander, and let it explore simple and important questions of life. What is all of this that I experience? What does that make me? How should I act? How do I know? Simple questions that can lead to extraordinary answers.