Stoicism 101: An introduction to Stoicism, Stoic Philosophy and the Stoics.

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Synopsis

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that can help you become your best self. Here's the low-down!

This article contains:

  • Introduction to Stoicism
  • Overview of Stoicism
  • What are the main principles of Stoic philosophy?
  • Who were the Stoics?
  • What are ways people practice Stoicism today?
  • Where can I learn more about Stoicism?

  

Introduction to Stoicism

Simply put, Stoicism helps you live your best life.

It's like ancient self-help, which has been tried and tested for generations, and is still relevant today.

Practicing Stoicism tends to produce all sorts of positive effects (e.g. reduces negative emotions, increases positive emotions, enhances performance and promotes life satisfaction).

And it's easy to learn. 

Stoicism doesn’t require meditating on your head for hours a day or learning a whole new philosophical language. It was deliberately created to be understandable, actionable and useful. It offers simple strategies for greater tranquility and better living. 

It's having a renaissance right now with entrepreneurs, athletes, and politicians as well. It's become a super hot topic.

So if you want to be in the know, you are looking for peace of mind, or if you want to explore answers to some of life’s most significant questions - please read on! 

**This is a living document and more strategies will be added. Please feel free to discuss in the comments section. (Just be cool - it wouldn't be very Stoic to be a jerk)!  

 

Overview of Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that hails from ancient Greece and Rome in the early parts of the 3rd century, BC.

Back in those days, people spent a lot more time thinking about how to live a good life. Folks felt compelled to understand how they could live righteously, happily and posses an excellent soul. More than just a way to seem deep at cocktail parties, existential questions were a vital part of public discourse. They talked about this stuff in the streets!

Stoicism was popular because it taught intuitive answers to life's big questions. It provided solutions to big problems like anxiety, stress, and fear. And Stoicism dealt with these issues of the human condition in a simple and elegant way.  

The Stoic answer (essentially) went as follows: People want enduring happiness and tranquility of mind, which come from being a virtuous person with excellent character.

And... doesn't this philosophy feel intuitively correct?

When you think about what it means to live well, be happy, or achieve a good life... doesn't having a good character seem absolutely essential? 

Aren't we impressed by exceptional creativity and wisdom? Don't we congratulate people who remain resilient and kind in stressful situations? Don't we love people for their bravery and zest, rather than their money and nice suits? Isn't life about building good character (at least in large part)?

And if nothing else, doesn't it seem helpful to focus on being your best self in every situation? 

Well, Stoicism is incredibly popular for a reason - it works. Stoic principles may have been developed long ago, but the strategies are as useful today as they were in ancient times. Modern people still find that Stoicism makes them better. 

Let's take a look at some of the big ideas and psychological strategies of the ancient Stoics. 

What are the main principles of Stoic philosophy?

Here are some of Stoicism's most important beliefs and strategies. They all stem from the Stoic worldview and a desire to live a good life by practicing virtue.  

**Importantly, these are not just exciting ideas to think about and then forget. They are meant to be practiced every day of your life. Literally set some reminders in your to-do list and start practicing today, and every day. Taking control of your thoughts and behaviors may not be easy, but few endeavors are as rewarding. 

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.” 
– Marcus Aurelius

  • A true Stoic is not an “armchair philosopher.” He or she is someone who gets out and lives by their values and their theories of life. Talk is cheap and action is where it's at. 
  • In this quote, you can also see the Stoic concern for righteous living. Stoics think that a good life is one of moral integrity. 
  • Want to be a kind person? You must commit to acts of kindness. Want to be a writer? You must write. You've got to bring your values to life through daily action. 
  • So get out of the house today and do something kind, creative, honest and/or loving. You'll feel good about it, because you will have done something good!

“The good or ill of a man lies within his own will.” 
- Epictetus

  • It ought to be said at least once more - that virtue is the primary concern of the practicing Stoic. More important than wealth or even health, excellence of character is the highest good.
  • A Stoic knows that as long as they think and behave virtuously (things which are always under their control), they need not concern themselves with the impact of external events that lay outside of their control.
  • Whether or not people are rude to you, or you encounter a streak of bad luck is irrelevant. As long as you respond in virtuous ways, you can rest easy in knowing that you're living a good life.
  • You are in control of how you respond to daily events. Remember that, and be sure to respond as your best self. 

“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” 
– Marcus Aurelius

  • In many ways, your thoughts determine your experience of reality.
  • For two people who undergo the same hardship, their differing assessment of that same misfortune can result in entirely different emotions and behaviors. Where one may feel utter despair at the loss of a job, another may feel liberated and hopeful about the opportunity. Same uncontrollable situation, two different types of controllable thoughts, with very different outcomes. 
  • For the Stoics, things were going to happen the way they were going to happen, and they didn't see the point in sitting around and thinking things were terrible, especially when all it does is add to the suffering. The Stoics would instead have you practice changing your thoughts to maintain tranquility of mind. 
  • The next time you encounter an adverse event, remember that your thinking plays a huge role in your emotional and behavioral reaction. Try to be a little more optimistic and you'll likely feel better and behave more productively. (this can be a life changing strategy and is often used in modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
  • To sum up this strategy another way: "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. - Maya Angelou

“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” 
– Seneca

  • Living as a Stoic does not mean living without material goods. In fact, the Stoics think that material goods are fine (to the extent they serve your ability to live virtuously).
  • However, Stoics are hyper-aware of the power of consumerism over our emotions and actions. Many people spend a lot of time disturbed about not having a cooler car or a bigger home, despite having excellent health and more possessions than most.
  • Stoics consciously try not to suffer over what they lack. Instead, they guide their awareness towards gratitude for what they have. A person of great character lives a good life, irrespective of their lack of bling. 
  • Seneca the Stoic was known to practice days of poverty, where he would fast and wear unfashionable clothing. The exercise was intended as a reminder to himself - that people do not require luxuries to live a good life.

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” 
 Seneca

  • The Stoics take a very different view of misfortune than most people. They expect mishaps and use them as opportunities to hone their virtues.
  • That's not to say that they are glad when troubles beset them, but they try not to lament them needlessly, and they actively seek benefit wherever possible.
  • Imagine breaking a leg and needing to sit in bed for four months while it heals. A Stoic would attempt to guide their thoughts away from useless “woe is me” rumination and focus instead on how they might be productive while bedridden (e.g. write their first book). They might, say, try to reframe the event as a way to cultivate their patience and become more creative.
  • Where there is an adverse event, Stoics try not to let it ruin their tranquility, and instead, they work to derive character-building benefits wherever possible.

“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.” 
- Seneca

“Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” 
- Epictetus

  • “Memento Mori” has been an important concept in many philosophical traditions, from the Stoics to the Existentialists. It means “remember that you will die.” While this may seem morbid, Stoics like Epictetus & Seneca believed that contemplating one’s mortality can lead to more gratitude and virtuous action.
  • When you remember that your life is not infinite, it tends to clarify what is truly important. The point is to get out and live today. Don’t stress so much about the little things, and ensure that you carpe that diem, as you won’t always have another chance.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
– Epictetus

  • Stoics acknowledge that you don’t have control over much of what happens. They think that worrying about uncontrollable things is unproductive if you want to attain tranquility and a good life. 
  • What matters is what you CAN control. 
  • The Stoics would remind you daily: to actively differentiate between what is and is not under your control, and to not waste energy on uncontrollable adverse events. The really important thing is virtuous thought and action, which are always within your control. 
  • Many people spend a shocking amount of time ruminating on something that happend 10 years ago and can't be changed. Or they want things that they can't have, like a guarentee of success. This usually just makes people feel angry and sad, without providing any real benefit. So try to take notice of what you're focused on, and start to focus on what you can actually affect. 

This is a living Document and more strategies will be added as time goes on. Please feel free to discuss these strategies or to add your own in the comments section!

Who were the Stoics?

A handful of thinkers helped to form the Stoic philosophy. This section will provide pertinent information about several of the most famous Stoics, as well as what they contributed to the Stoic philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was one of the most influential human beings in human history. He was the head of the Roman Empire for two decades, at a time when it was one of the largest and most powerful civilizations the world had ever seen. And despite being an individual of limitless power - who could do whatever he pleased with impunity - emperor Aurelius ardently practiced and lived the Stoic philosophy.

He wrote nightly in his journal about his struggles to live as a restrained, wise and virtuous human being. He wrote them for himself entirely, later his writings were uncovered, collected, and published under the title Meditations. The collection is now recognized as one of the most influential Stoic texts. His writings are a direct look at the thoughts of a practicing Stoic, and he stands as an incredible example of how Stoic strategies can help individuals deal with stressful situations.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a statesman, a dramatist, and a writer, which meant he possessed real charisma and a way with words. He had a particularly simple, entertaining and memorable way of explaining Stoicism, which has placed his writings among the very best ways for beginners to engage with the philosophy. Also, Seneca’s thoughts resonate with modern audiences, due to his unusually practical considerations of topics like friendship, mortality, altruism and the proper use of time. Give one of Seneca’s more popular texts a read here -Letters from a Stoic. And listen to why Seneca offers some of Tim Ferriss’ favorite life hacks here - The Tao of Seneca.

Zeno of Citium

Stoic philosophy started with Zeno of Citium. Having shipwrecked near Athens, he turned his misfortune into an opportunity by taking advantage of all the philosophical resources available in the city. He sat in on lectures from the other schools of philosophy (e.g., Cynicism, Epicureanism) and eventually started his own. He would teach his theory on the Stoa Poikile(a famously painted porch in Athens), and it is from this Greek word for porch “stōïkos” that the term Stoicism came.

Epictetus

Epictetus, a former slave, improved his station in life to become one of Stoicism’s most analytical thinkers. Epictetus’ handbook, The Enchiridion, is an especially practical look at how to implement the Stoic philosophy in one’s life. He had a particular talent for explaining how Stoic strategies improve one’s quality of life and made a compelling case for why one might want to make Stoicism their primary operating system. Many of his teachings have become recognizable, without being known as his. For instance, one of his principles is at the basis of the: serenity prayer: “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

What are ways people practice Stoicism today?

Tim Ferris on Practicing Famine

“Practicing poverty or practicing rehearsing your worst case scenario in real life, not just journaling, not just in your head, I find very, very important.

For instance, I will regularly, three continuous days per month minimum, practice fasting. I will do that from early Thursday dinner to an early Sunday dinner to simply expose myself to the rather, often unfamiliar, sensation of real hunger.

The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw off your life and control your life.”

-Tim Ferris

Find more exercises from renown modern day stoics here.

Ryan Holiday on the Premeditation of Evils

“Practice premeditatio malorum (a premeditation of evils). Everyone talks about positive visualization. The stoics practice negative visualization. Think about what could go wrong, accept that it is a possibility, prepare for it, proceed anyway. Don’t be caught by surprise by misfortune, be ready for it.”

- Ryan Holiday

Find more Stoic exercises to try on a daily basis here.

Where can I learn more about Stoicism?

Stoicism is multi-dimensional. It is far richer, deeper and more nuanced than I could possibly discuss in this more psychologically oriented description. If you enjoy Stoicism as I've described it, please go on to learn more - it has the power to change your life for the better. 

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

Reddit - Stoicism

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

Wikipedia - Stoicism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Psychology Podcast, ft. Ryan Holiday on Stoicism

Tim Ferris - On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca

Ryan Holiday's website features many articles on Stoicism

How to be a Stoic, website dedicated to practical Stoicism by Massimo Pigliucci

List of Stoicism themed podcasts

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Written by Taylor Kreiss. Taylor writes about positive psychology to help people live their best lives! See more of his work and learn more about Taylor on his site.

Article originally appeared at Holstee.com 

Tags: happiness, philosophy, philosophy of life, psychology, stoicism, taylor kreiss, thinking

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