Daily Stoic https://dailystoic.com Stoic Wisdom For Everyday Life Thu, 08 Sep 2022 20:05:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.6.9 https://dailystoic.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/cropped-7-32x32.png Daily Stoic https://dailystoic.com 32 32 How To Find And Keep Joy https://dailystoic.com/how-to-find-and-keep-joy/ Mon, 08 Aug 2022 21:48:35 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=13738 Today it’s all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion. Passion, we tell ourselves, is the source of joy. The Stoics disagreed. In fact, they believed that passion(s) were what contributed to our misery. To the experts and gurus who assure us that passion—that unbridled enthusiasm, that willingness to pounce on […]

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Today it’s all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion. Passion, we tell ourselves, is the source of joy.

The Stoics disagreed. In fact, they believed that passion(s) were what contributed to our misery. To the experts and gurus who assure us that passion—that unbridled enthusiasm, that willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal—is our most important asset, Seneca would ask, “how can such wavering and unstable persons possess any good that is fixed and lasting?

So what should we pursue? Where do we find joy? And how do we keep it? Seneca’s answer comes in his letter, On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy:

“It comes from a good conscience, from honorable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path…There are only a few who control themselves and their affairs by a guiding purpose; the rest do not proceed; they are merely swept along, like objects afloat in a river. And of these objects, some are held back by sluggish waters and are transported gently; others are torn along by a more violent current; some, which are nearest the bank, are left there as the current slackens; and others are carried out to sea by the onrush of the stream. Therefore, we should decide what we wish, and abide by the decision.”

Unshakeable joy comes from purpose. In something bigger than yourself. In perspective and gratitude. In the wisdom that philosophy teaches us. It might not be as exciting or as glamorous. It might be a little slower. But it’s far more durable and meaningful.

Finding that will take time and work and self-reflection. But it’s in there. Inside you. Dig deep. Find it. And you’ll have joy you can hold onto forever.

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How To Cure Anxiety: 9 Stoic Techniques That Work https://dailystoic.com/how-to-cure-anxiety/ Thu, 23 Jun 2022 19:58:40 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=13226 “We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca The 21st century has been described as “The Age of Anxiety,” “The United States of Stress,” “The World of Worry.” The implication is that what we are experiencing—pandemics, terrorism, political and economic turmoil, existential angst, and let’s stop there—is unique, unprecedented, uncharted. News headlines, tweets, […]

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“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca

The 21st century has been described as “The Age of Anxiety,” “The United States of Stress,” “The World of Worry.” The implication is that what we are experiencing—pandemics, terrorism, political and economic turmoil, existential angst, and let’s stop there—is unique, unprecedented, uncharted. News headlines, tweets, email and text sign-offs—you hear and see it everywhere: the world has never seen anything quite like this… hope you’re well during these unprecedented times… leaders facing unparalleled challenges… there’s no playbook for this.

We have great news. None of our problems are new. And there is a playbook—one that’s been tried and tested since the 3rd century BCE: Stoicism.

Zeno used it after he was shipwrecked and lost everything. Marcus Aurelius used it as the ruler of an empire ravaged by wars, famines, and a deadly contagion, which became known as the Antonine Plague. Seneca used it to withstand two exiles and two natural catastrophes. Epictetus used it to endure thirty years as a slave. George Washington used it in the darkest days of the American Revolution. James Stockdale used it to survive seven years or torture and unimaginable loneliness as a prisoner of war. Toussaint Louverture used it and rose up against Napoleon’s armies to lead the Haitian Revolution.

We created this guide to give you a time-tested playbook to help you cure your anxiety. It is rooted in the wisdom of the Stoics. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

What is Anxiety?

What Causes Anxiety?

9 Stoic Remedies For Anxiety

[*] Name Your Monster

[*] Focus On The Present Moment

[*] Put Your Impressions To The Test

[*] Assess Your Wants

[*] Do Less

[*] Practice Negative Visualization

[*] Take A Motionless Moment

[*] Let Go Of Everything But This

[*] Think Differently About Money

10 Best Stoic Quotes on Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes…some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” — Seneca

Anxiety is often defined as a feeling, an experience, or a state of worry, nervousness, or uneasiness.

65 million people in the U.S. alone struggle with some type of stress or anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most commonly reported. We know we’re anxious, but we can’t exactly put our finger on why.

One of the effects of the pandemic was, suddenly, we weren’t doing the things that, in the past, we told ourselves were the causes of our anxiety. We weren’t having to frantically get through security to catch a flight. We weren’t battling traffic to get somewhere on time. We weren’t dealing with people in the grocery store or the coffee shop or the subway. Prior to the pandemic, if someone told you would no longer have to deal with all of those things, you would be certain that your anxiety would go way down. But most likely, it didn’t.

Because anxiety has nothing to do with any of those things…

What Causes Anxiety?

“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” — Epictetus

There is nothing worse than the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s not a physical pain; but it’s not all mental either. You can actually feel whatever it is sitting there, in your gut, tying you up in knots.

Stop. Take a breath. What is the source of this actually? No one and nothing is physically tying up your stomach. It’s just you. You’re doing this.

The Stoics actually talk about this. “Today I escaped from anxiety,” Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations. “Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” He writes this during a plague, no less.

We tell ourselves we are stressed and anxious and worried because of the pressure our boss puts on us or because of some looming deadline or because of all of the places we have to be and people we have to see. And then when all that gets paired down, you realize, ‘Oh, no, it was me. I’m the common variable.’

Anxiety comes from the inside. We are the creators of our anxiety. Which means, as Marcus said, we can discard it. We can let it go. We can cure ourselves of our anxiety…

9 Stoic Remedies For Anxiety

There’s no question that Marcus Aurelius’ life was filled with things to worry about. .

Plagues. Wars. Natural Catastrophes. Financial crises. Frustrating colleagues. Personal insecurities. Existential angst. Health problems. And the loss of five children to boot, Marcus’ life was littered with stresses and anxieties.

And if it wasn’t—if everything had been easy—we probably wouldn’t be talking about him here two thousand years later. The historian Cassius Dio praised Marcus because he calmly persevered:

“[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”

So how did he manage? How did he deal with all of these stresses and anxieties?

He relied on his Stoic training. He used what he learned in studying the lives and the works of the Stoics who came before him: Zeno, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca, to name a few. He used these X Stoic remedies for anxiety…

Name Your Monster

“Always define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus talked about how his stresses and anxieties were perceptions he latched onto. They were monsters of his own creation. He told himself to pierce through those perceptions and “see what they really are.” When he was overwhelmed because he felt “occupied in the weightest business,” Marcus would look at his royal purple robe and say this is just sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. When he was stressed about money, he’d think about what money afforded. Fine seafood dinners? That’s just a dead fish. High-end noble vintage wines? That’s just grape juice. He called it stripping away the legend, ripping off the monster’s mask.

Anxiety is overwhelming and ambiguous. It can be so profound as to leave us immobile. Doubt, uncertainty, fear, worry, pressure, nervousness—they swirl around inside us and we don’t know what to do about it, we don’t know where exactly it’s coming from, we don’t know when or if it will go away.

The first thing we have to do is name it.

Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience, used an fMRI study to demonstrate that the simple act of naming an emotion calms the emotional center of the brain. When research subjects were shown images and asked to label a strong emotion, they showed decreased activity in the region of the brain that triggers emotional responses, and greater activity in the region of the brain associated with vigilance and cognitive control. As Lieberman explains:

In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses…This is ancient wisdom…Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.

Ancient wisdom, indeed. Seneca’s line was that “we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Marcus said to lay things bare and “strip away the legend that encrusts them.” If given free reign, negative thoughts and emotions will behave like uncaged beasts ready to turn on you. They’ll stir your fears, rattle your emotions, and ruin your week. Stress, anxiety, and anger become chronic and debilitating when they linger and fester.

They become what feels like an unbeatable enemy. Unless you summon the strength to put them down by writing them down. Tame them by naming them. And close the corral doors behind them.

Focus On The Present Moment

“Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation.” — Marcus Aurelius

We all feel pulled. To do more. To go more places. To make more progress. We are dogged by the constant worry we’re in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing—or rather, there is somewhere else, somewhere better that we could, that we should, be.

It’s a feeling that manifests not just in anxiety, but in guilt, envy, fear, insecurity, to boot. Basically, misery. The exact opposite of being content, happy or grateful. Of being present.

Marcus Aurelius knew this. Why do you think he mentioned “the present” and “the present moment” more than twenty times in Meditations? Each time he is saying, don’t worry about the past, don’t worry about the future, embrace what is in front of you right now. Be here now, he is saying. Don’t be somewhere else. Be here, and be here well.

It’s a reminder we seem to need constantly. Our restlessness, at an almost cultural level, is depriving us of the gift and beauty of the moment that is before us. Instead of doing what we’re doing with the full measure of our attention, we give it whatever fraction has not wandered away or been stolen by the device in our pocket. And then we wonder why time flies by, why we have to return to clean up mistakes, or why we never feel good enough.

Stop.

Do what you’re doing—whether it’s washing the dishes, sitting in traffic or writing your thesis. Be where you are—whether that’s with your kids, or in a career transition or at the doctor’s office. It’s where you’re supposed to be. In the right now—there is nothing else. Just this. In the right here, the present is all there is.

Be there, be there well.

Put Your Impressions To The Test

“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from—let me put you to the test’ . . .” — Epictetus

Every minute of every day, thoughts pop into your head. About what’s happening. About other people. About yourself. About what you see. About what you feel.

What are you supposed to do with all these thoughts? Well, according to the core premise of Stoicism the one thing you’re not supposed to do is act on them immediately. Epictetus talks about stopping and putting every impression to the test. Or, as Dr. Stixraud said on the Daily Stoic podcast , with every thought, we must have the discipline to ask: “Is this true?”

Epictetus referred to this as putting your impressions to the test.

One of the wonders of your mind is the quickness with which it can comprehend and categorize things. We are constantly making split-second decisions. This subjectivity can be very misleading, it can warp reality itself. Which is why we have to slow down, submit every impression to the test, confirm that everything we think and feel is true.

Because most of it isn’t! We’re not actually upset, we’re just hungry. We haven’t been wronged, it just looks like we have. There’s nothing actually to worry about, that’s just our anxiety talking. This situation isn’t “bad,” because just as easily we could see what’s “good” in it. Or maybe–as is so often the case–we don’t need to think anything at all, we can just turn off our thoughts about this or that altogether.

Assess Your Wants

“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” Epictetus

The anxious father, worried about his children. What does he want? A world that is always safe.

A frenzied traveler—what does she want? For the weather to hold and for traffic to part so she can make her flight.

A nervous investor? That the market will turn around and an investment will pay off.

All of these scenarios hold the same thing in common. As Epictetus says, it’s wanting something outside our control. Getting worked up, getting excited, nervously pacing—these intense, pained, and anxious moments show us at our most futile and servile. Staring at the clock, at the ticker, at the next checkout lane over, at the sky—it’s as if we all belong to a religious cult that believes the gods of fate will only give us what we want if we sacrifice our peace of mind.

Today, when you find yourself getting anxious, ask yourself: Why are my insides twisted into knots? Am I in control here or is my anxiety? And most important: Is my anxiety doing me any good?

Do Less

“We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus, showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.” — Seneca

Here’s a simple recipe for curing anxiety. It comes from Marcus Aurelius:

“If you seek tranquillity,” he said, “do less.”

And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”

Follow this advice today and everyday. So much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why we are so anxious. Or why our performance is suffering. Or why our heart isn’t really in it.

Of course it isn’t. We know deep down there’s no point.

But if we could do less inessential stuff, we’d be able to better do what is essential. We’d also get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.

Practice Negative Visualization

“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…” — Seneca

Some time around the year 64 AD, Seneca’s friend Lucilius sent him a letter. Lucilius was nervous about an ongoing lawsuit. We’re not sure what the suit was over, but we know that it was a serious case and that Lucilius had made himself anxious about the outcome and had written to Seneca for some advice.

Seneca’s advice? Why are you borrowing unhappiness? Why would you be miserable now just because you might be in the future? Basically, he told him that “what will happen will happen, so stop being anxious.” Now this might sound like a strange thing to hear from Seneca, the creator of the premeditatio malorum exercise that we talk about a lot in the Daily Stoic email. It’s stranger still considering that in the very same letter, Seneca tells Lucilius, “Let us think of everything that can happen as something which will happen.”

How does that work? Isn’t that contradictory advice?

Nope.

The point of premeditatio malorum—negative visualization—is not to make you worry. It’s to eliminate worry! By being aware of all of the possibilities that lay before us, we can now proceed with our preparations. Who has time for anxiety? We should be fortifying ourselves for what may come. Why waste time preferring one outcome to another? We are ready for all of them equally. But what if the worst case scenario happens? Ok, that won’t be fun, so let’s enjoy the present moment while we still can.

Premeditatio malorum—whether you carry it in your pocket in the form of our medallion—or you just run through it before embarking on a project or a journey or a longhaul flight, is a form of freedom. A form of empowerment. A way to help you meet the future by seizing what’s in front of you right now.

Use it.

Take A Motionless Moment

“To shrug it all off and wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness. Child’s play.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius headed an entire empire. He had books to read, writing to do, laws to pass, cases to hear, troops to lead. He was a busy man. He, like us, was pulled in many directions. He had anxieties, worries, hopes, and dreams.

Yet he speaks frequently and beautifully about taking moments of quiet and calm.

“If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind,” he said, “free of the future and the past—can make yourself, as Empedocles says, ‘a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness.’”

Have you ever had a moment like that? If you have, you know how special it is. You know what kind of insights you were able to access, how much happiness crept in, and how much anxiety crept out. Marcus wrote that taking these moments of stillness allows us to “concentrate on living what can be lived (the present moment).” Only then, he said, “can you spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.”

You deserve moments like that. Moments where you watch the snow fall. Moments where you sit quietly with a book. Moments where you look out the train window, not on a conference call, not checking email, not wondering how long until you arrive in the city, but a moment to check in with yourself, to think about your life and what you want to do with it. Moments with loved ones. Moments where you are grateful, connected, happy, creative, in the zone—doing whatever it is that you do best.

What these moments have in common? They are free of anxiety. The mind is clear, rejoicing in perfect stillness, as Marcus put it. You are free of the future and the past, fully present and locked in.

Take those moments. You deserve them.

Let Go Of Everything But This

We all want that quiet confidence that comes from being on the right path, as Seneca described it, and not being anxious or distracted by all those which crisscross ours.

Well, how do you get that?

It’s simple, Marcus Aurelius wrote. Stop caring what other people think. Stop caring what they do. Stop caring what they say.

All that matters, he writes, is what you do. Everything else is beyond your concern. You can let it all go. You can ignore it entirely.

We find tranquility when we stop stressing about things we cannot control, whose influence we are impotent to constrain. We find tranquility when we narrow our focus, when we look inward, when we look in the mirror. When we still the uncontrollable passions in our heads, hearts, and bodies.

Stillness, we said above, is the key to a better life. The bad news is that there is only one way to get it. The good news is that it’s easy. You just have to stop. Stop caring what they think or say or do. Start caring deeply about what you do.

Stop…and start now.

Think Differently About Money

“The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” — Seneca

Even in his own time, Seneca was criticized for preaching Stoic virtues while accumulating one of the largest fortunes in Rome. Seneca was so rich that some historians speculate that major loans he made to the inhabitants of what is now Britain caused what became a horrifically brutal uprising there. His critics’ derisive nickname for him was “The Opulent Stoic.”

Seneca’s response to this criticism is pretty simple: he might have wealth, but he didn’t need it. He wasn’t dependent on it or addicted to it. Nor, despite his large bank account, was he considered to be anything close to Rome’s most lavish spenders and pleasure hunters.

Whether his rationalization was true or not (or whether he was a tad hypocritical), his is a decent prescription for navigating our materialistic and wealth-driven society, and the anxieties that come when money looms so large in our lives.

The Stoics had a pragmatic instead of a moralistic approach to wealth. Marcus Aurelius once told the Senate that he did not regard himself in possession of any of his wealth. It belongs to the people, he said, even the house I live in is not mine.

There is a tranquility that comes when we stop thinking so highly of money. When we stop thinking money is so rare. It isn’t. It is all incredibly common. Most of the people who have it are not impressive, most of the great fortunes are, in fact, the opposite of great.

Life gets a lot better when we break free from the chains of luxury. Anxiety slips away when we don’t need to make decisions that force us to continue to work and work and work and in order to get more money to pay for the things we don’t need.

Remember: humans can be happy with very little.

10 Best Stoic Quotes on Anxiety

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” — Epictetus

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius

“Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” — Seneca

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself with are externals, not under my control, and which have to do with the choice 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

“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest—by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.” — Seneca

“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” — Epictetus

“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” — Epictetus

“The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it.” — Marcus Aurelius

“You have power over your mind not outside events, realize this and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius

 “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole…Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” — Marcus Aurelius 

 

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Goal Setting: A Philosophical Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals https://dailystoic.com/goal-setting/ Thu, 28 Apr 2022 14:38:51 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=12980 “How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” — Epictetus What do the goals we set, whether personal or professional, require? If we hope to accomplish our goals, we need the discipline to hold ourselves accountable. We need the self-control to stay focused only on the things within our […]

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“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” — Epictetus

What do the goals we set, whether personal or professional, require? If we hope to accomplish our goals, we need the discipline to hold ourselves accountable. We need the self-control to stay focused only on the things within our control. And we need the endurance to persist through difficulty.

As it happens, Stoicism is a philosophy based on self-discipline, self-control, and endurance.

The Stoic Chrysippus, for instance, trained as a long-distance runner. Every day, as Diogenes Laertes recounts in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, he would set a goal, try to beat it, then when he did, he would set a new, faster goal. Because that’s what runners do, what athletes do, and what Stoics do: they try to get better everyday, they set a goal and they don’t stop until they accomplish that goal.

We created this guide to help you do exactly that. It is here to help you set and achieve your goals. It is rooted in the time-tested wisdom of the Stoics. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

I. What is Goal Setting?

II. The Importance of Goal Setting

[1] Goals Give You Clarity and Focus

[2] Goals Help You Assess The Good and Bad

[3] Goals Help You Beat Procrastination

III. How to Set Goals Like A Stoic

[1] Set Goals You Control

[2] Don’t Set Too Many Goals

[3] Make Sure They Are Your Goals

IV. How To Actually Achieve Your Goals

[1] Be Realistic

[2] Be Specific

[3] Take It Small Step By Small Step

[4] Trust The Process

[5] Use Physical Reminders

[6] Be Adaptable

[7] Associate With People Who Call Forth Your Best

[8] Make It Happen. Whatever It Takes

V. The Best Stoic Quotes On Goal-Setting

VI. The Best Books to Help You Achieve Your Goals

VII. Additional Reading

I. What is Goal Setting?

“If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.” — Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus said that goal setting was simple:

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Let’s look at Marcus Aurelius as an example.

At an early age, Marcus, who studied the teachings of Epictetus, was adopted by the emperor Hadrian and was groomed to be the emperor of Rome. An utterly anomalous event in human history would follow: Marcus Aurelius did not go the way of all kings and instead was made a better person by having enormous power thrust upon him. From his personal journal, known today as Meditations, we know it was a decision. As Epictetus instructed, he first said to himself what he would be.

Marcus saw the “malice, cunning and hypocrisy that power produces,” as well as the “peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from ‘good families,’” and then he set his goal: he would be an exception to that rule. “Take care not be Caesarified, or dyed in purple,” he wrote, “it happens. So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you.”

Seneca said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Marcus Aurelius set his destination, his goal for the person he wished to be. And then he worked consciously and deliberately, as we see in Meditations, to accomplish that goal, to do what he had to do to be what he said he would be.

So to the Stoics, goals are a kind of polestar. They are the port of call. They are not so much what push us, but what pulls us. They are that first part in Epictetus’ simple formula for a good life. Setting a goal is saying, this is what I will be. Which leads us right into the second part. Once you set your goal, once you say what you will be, goal setting becomes about figuring out what you have to do.

Think of Goal Setting Like A Painter

“No man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose.” — Seneca

From Seneca, we get the advice to think of goal setting like a painter. Goals are like the likeness the painter wishes to paint. They are what we are aiming for. They are what Seneca refers to in the quote above as “the chief purpose.”

Then, there is something equally important to the goal: the painter’s plan. How exactly will the painter achieve that chief purpose? After we have our goal, we, as Seneca puts it in the quote above, “can set in order the details.” If the goal is about deciding what target we are aiming for, the plan is about deciding what we need in order to hit that target. What color paints? What brushes? What level of skill?

Seneca’s analogy is a useful way to think about a core distinction the Stoics made between outcomes and actions. They believed in detaching from results and focusing on process. For the painter, she should focus not on the likeness she hopes to produce, but on the very next brush stroke. Instead of focusing on something in the far off future, you focus on what you can do right here right now. For example…

  • Instead of focusing on the goal of becoming an author, you focus on doing 1 hour of deep work today.
  • Instead of focusing on the goal of winning a championship, you focus on having the best practice of the year today.
  • Instead of focusing on the goal of running a marathon, you focus on going for a run and eating right today.

Goals are great in that they make it so everything we do can be in service of something purposeful. When we know what we’re really setting out to do, when we know the target we’re aiming for, we have clarity. We know what we have to do today. Goals, then, inform the specific actions we should be focusing on. They help us determine the plan, the details we need to set in order to achieve the outcome.

To bring back Epictetus’s formula from above, goals help us determine what we have to do in order to be who or do what we’ve determined we will be or do. And to bring back Seneca’s analogy, you can have a great idea and a great plan for a painting, but at some point, you have to start painting.

Now, with this understanding of how the Stoics thought about goal setting, let’s look at some of their best strategies for actually setting goals. Before we do—if you’re enjoying this article and these ideas and insights from the Stoics on goal setting, you will love our daily email newsletter. Every morning, we send a short (~500 word) email inspired by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and more. To join over 450,000 people who start their day off with the philosophy that has guided some of history’s greatest men and women, just enter your email address below and click “Get it”!

II. The Importance of Goal Setting

“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.” — Seneca

It’s easy to get busy and get pulled off course by life. The emails come in and you get distracted. The mood and the actions of the crowd can seduce and tempt us—we are all influenced by the tempo of our times.

So it’s key then, if you want to be good and do good, that you have a kind of North Star in your life that keeps you centered. Goals that draw you back on course when the events of life or the drift of inertia subtly misdirect you. 

Still, you might be thinking, “What is the importance of goal setting?” Or maybe you’ve asked,  “Is setting goals actually effective?” 

These are fair questions. So now, here are 3 arguments from the Stoics for why goal setting is important… 

[1] Goals Give You Clarity and Focus

Law 29 of The 48 Laws of Power is: Plan All The Way To The End. Robert Greene writes, “By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.” The second habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is: begin with an end in mind.

Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you’ll reach it—no Stoic would tolerate that assumption—but not having an end in mind is a guarantee you won’t. To the Stoics, oiêsis (false conceptions) are responsible not just for disturbances in the soul but for chaotic and dysfunctional lives and operations. When your efforts are not directed at a cause or a purpose, how will you know what to do day in and day out? How will you know what to say no to and what to say yes to? How will you know when you’ve had enough, when you’ve reached your goal, when you’ve gotten off track, if you’ve never defined what those things are?

The answer is that you cannot. And so you are driven into failure—or worse, into madness by the oblivion of directionlessness.

[2] Goals Help You Assess The Good and Bad

People have strong opinions about what is good and bad, positive or negative in life. Yet if you ask most of them what they’re working towards, what their grand strategy for life actually is, most can’t answer.

This is a contradiction. If you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish or what’s important to you—today or in life as a whole—you have no idea whether an event is truly good or bad.Without a ruler, Seneca said, you can’t make crooked straight.

Without clear goals, without a point or purpose to aim for, all your thoughts on good news and bad news, advantages and disadvantages are just pointless speculation.

You have to know what you’re trying to do today—and every day. You have to know what port you’re aiming for. Otherwise, you’re just being blown around. You’re just reacting. And you’ll never end up where you want to be.

[3] Goals Help You Beat Procrastination

Procrastination feeds on our uncertainty and chaos. The chaos that ensues from not having a plan. Not because plans are perfect, but because people without plans—like a line of infantrymen without a strong leader—are much more likely to get overwhelmed into inaction.

The Super Bowl–winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this risk by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you—you already have your marching orders.

Some of the world’s greatest minds—philosophers, artists, writers, painters, scientists, composers, businessmen—have similarly boxed out the chaos of life by setting goals.

Procrastination loves confusion and complexity. It loves questions like, What was I going to do? What do I wear? What time should I wake up? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or should I rush to put out that fire?

That’s what Seneca would call a life without design. And that’s what the Stoics would call torture. When you haven’t set any goals, when you’re just winging it, when you are deciding on the fly what you’re going to do or not—that decision fatigue evaporates motivation. On the flip side, goals eliminate all that confusion and complexity and decision fatigue. We know what we need to do. Procrastination is boxed out—by the order and clarity you built, the goals you set.

II. How To Set Goals Like A Stoic

From the Stoics, we get three key strategies we can apply when goal setting. Let’s dive right into them.

[1] Set Goals You Control

“There is never a need to get worked up about things you can’t control.” — Marcus Aurelius

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. The slave turned philosophy teacher Epictetus described it as our “chief task in life.” It was, he said, simply “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.” Or, in his language, what is up to us and what is not up to us (ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin).

So, the Stoics would say, the number one rule in goal setting is to set goals that are up to you, that are in your control.

Let’s look at an example. Mark Manson’s debut book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fck* was an international sensation that sold more than 8 million copies*.* Just before the release of his second book, Everything Is Fcked: A Book About Hope*, we asked Mark how he approached following up the massive success of Subtle Art:

When I sat down to write this book, it was really rough…This is going to sound cliche, but ultimately what “saved” me and kept me sane was remembering why I write: I write to sort out the ideas and issues that trouble me and try to do it in a way that can teach and help others…So, that was the starting point. Learning to regain some hope for myself—and for me, that was zeroing in on one goal: just write a better book. And I believe I did. Since making that commitment, it’s been liberating. I don’t feel anxious about this book release. It might bomb. It might sell really well. Fans might love it. They might hate it. But I truly believe it is a better book: it’s smarter, deeper, more mature, better-written than Subtle Art was. So, regardless of the worldly result, I will always be proud of it. And ultimately, that’s what matters.

It’s a strange paradox. The people who are most successful in life, who accomplish the most, who dominate their professions don’t care that much about winning. Certainly they talk about it less.

How could that be?

It’s that they are after something higher than that. They are after what Posidonius once told the great Roman general Pompey (as told in Lives of the Stoics). Their goal is to “be best.” Not the best, but best. They’re after mastery—self-mastery. They’re after maximizing their potential.

Marcus Aurelius wasn’t measuring his accomplishments as emperor against the great conquerors of the past—although certainly, he intended to win the wars he was forced to fight. Instead, his aim was higher. He wanted to be good. To be decent. To be in command of himself. To live up to being “the man that philosophy tried to make him.”

Winning is like being rich. It’s nice, but it’s not something in your control, day to day. What is in your control is showing up, giving maximum effort, following your training, sticking to your principles, pursuing your calling. If that translates to on the field success, great—in fact, it almost always does. If that translates into career recognition, awesome—and again, it usually does.

[2] Don’t Set Too Many Goals

“Ask yourself at every moment, Is this necessary?” — Marcus Aurelius

Just like ours, the ancient world was filled with people who had ambitious goals and trouble prioritizing them. Seneca said it’s one of the hardest balances to strike in life.

We don’t want to be the person who can never sit still. “For love of bustle is not industry, it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind.” But we also don’t want to be the person always sitting still. “True repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation,” he wrote, “that kind of repose is slackness and inertia.”

The work of the philosopher, Seneca said, is finding the perfect balance of those two tendencies. It’s about working and relaxing, not working and work avoidance.

When we had the great Matthew McConaughey on the Daily Stoic podcast a little while back, he told us the story of how he found that balance for himself. At one point a few years ago, McConaughey realized he was doing too much—he had a production company, a music label, a foundation, his acting career, his family. The problem wasn’t that he couldn’t juggle it all. He could. The problem was, he said, “I was making B’s in five things. I wanna make A’s in three things.” So he called his lawyer and shut down the production company and the music label. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and he had to carefully unwind the businesses to be fair to the people who’d been working hard on them, but it was the right call for his family. The incredible work he’s done as an actor since—and now his million-copy bestselling book Greenlights—is a testament to that.

As Marcus Aurelius said, when you eliminate the inessential, you get the double benefit of doing the essential stuff better. Which is why we all need to do the following exercise regularly:

Make a list of all the things you’re trying to juggle.

Pare it down to just a few.

Commit to making A’s in those few things, instead of B’s and C’s in a lot of things.

Decommit from what you never should have committed to in the first place.

Dedicate yourself to what’s actually essential.

Those five steps are a pathway to true balance and success.

[3] Make Sure They Are Your Goals

“Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.” — Marcus Aurelius

It can be deceiving to hear the Stoics talk about an indifference to external recognition or rewards. 

Marcus says that fame is meaningless. Seneca talks about how success or wealth is out of our control and therefore not to be prized. Don’t want what other people want, they say, don’t get sucked into meaningless competition.

So does this mean that the Stoic doesn’t try? That the Stoic is resigned to whatever happens to them in life, caring about nothing, uninterested in improving or growing? 

No, of course not. The Stoic is still incredibly ambitious—only they focus on an internal scorecard versus an external one.

A similar sentiment was well-expressed by the entrepreneur Sam Altman, who has helped thousands of startups over the years with his work at Y Combinator, when he was interviewed by Tyler Cowen:

“I think one thing that is a really important thing to strive for is being internally driven, being driven to compete with yourself, not with other people. If you compete with other people, you end up in this mimetic trap, and you sort of play this tournament, and if you win, you lose. But if you’re competing with yourself, and all you’re trying to do is — for the own self-satisfaction and for also the impact you have on the world and the duty you feel to do that — be the best possible version you can, there is no limit to how far that can drive someone to perform. And I think that is something you see — even though it looks like athletes are competing with each other — when you talk to a really great, absolute top-of-the-field athlete, it’s their own time they’re going against.”

Competition, Altman’s friend and mentor Peter Thiel has said, is for losers

When you try to beat other people, you set yourself up to fail. But going against yourself—trying to improve yourself—that’s a competition you have control over. It’s one you can win.

III. How To Actually Achieve Your Goals

[1] Be Realistic

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” — Epictetus

Everyone wants to accomplish their goals, but very few are willing to undertake the preparation and effort required. Therefore, you need to begin by asking yourself if this is what you really want, and if your motivation is strong enough to get you where you want to go.

Suppose you wanted to be victorious at the Olympic Games, Epictetus says,

“That’s fine, but fully consider what you’re getting yourself into. What does such a desire entail? What needs to happen first? Then what? What will be required of you? And what else follows from that? Is this whole course of action really beneficial to you? If so, carry on. If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.”

Before you do anything else, you must think this through. Recall the line from Coach Taylor: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”

It starts with clear eyes. You need to clearly see the road.

Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” Seneca would write.

Are you ready to take that path?

[2] Be Specific

“The human soul degrades itself…when it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.” — Marcus Aurelius

Seneca wrote about how excellence—regardless of the endeavor—is often curbed simply due to our aimlessness. “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim,” he said. “When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

It is not sufficient to just say that you want to get in shape this year, or that you want to be healthier. It is not sufficient to just say that you want to run more or swim more or ride your bike more this year. It is not sufficient to just say you want to get stronger in the weightroom.

No, we need something concrete…

In Atomic Habits, James Clear references a 2001 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology. The researchers randomly divided subjects (all of which had the nebulous goal of exercising more) into one of three groups. The control group was simply asked to record when they exercised. The “motivation” group was asked the same but then also given a presentation about the benefits of exercise. The third group got the same presentation, but they were also asked to specify the goal they wanted to achieve and solidify when and where they would exercise. To start, members of the third group completed this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

Interestingly, results among members of the first and second groups were about the same—35-38% of people consistently exercised at least once per week. As for the third group, 91% of people exercised at least once per week. More important than motivation, the researchers found, is what they refer to as implementation intention.

Determine the exact mile time you are working towards. Write down the exact weight you want to be able to bench press. Decide the exact number of MMA training sessions you are aiming to go to. The exact number of pounds or inches you want to lose. And then, do an implementation intention—write down when and where you will exercise next.

Decide the harbor you are aiming for. Then map out how you intend to get there…

[3] Take It Small Step By Small Step

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno

You have the harbor you are aiming for, something difficult you’re trying to accomplish. Whether it’s starting a business or losing weight, finishing a creative project or building a barn, the mammoth task sits before you. The very thought of its enormity is overwhelming. The thought of completing it, you can’t fathom. The light at the end of the tunnel is nowhere in sight.

What ought you do?

Do what the great (and prolific) author Rich Cohen does. On the Daily Stoic podcast, Rich explained how he’s able to be so consistently productive at such a high level (9 books published so far, many of them bestsellers). He said he approaches a big project like he approaches a cross-country road trip. “The way you deal with long road trips is you set yourself a minimum number of hours a day, no matter how you feel.”

The point is that “not much” adds up if you do it a lot. That’s what Marcus meant when he said, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole.” All you have to do, he said, is “stick with the situation at hand.” He also talks about assembling your life action by action—no one, he says, can stop you from that.

But this metaphor of the road is a good one. Because excellence is a road. There is a road to being a successful writer or entrepreneur. To that promotion or that award. The road to finishing this task or that project. And how do you travel any road? You travel a road in steps. A certain number of miles or hours per day.

Excelling at anything is a matter of taking one small step then another then another. One in front of the other. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when it doesn’t feel like it’s making much of a dent. Because it is. You’re getting closer. Eventually, you will arrive and it will be wonderful.

[4] Trust The Process

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole… Stick with the situation at hand.” — Marcus Aurelius

In the sports word, the “trust the process” philosophy can be traced to Nick Saban, the famous coach of Alabama—perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of college football. But he got it from a psychiatry professor named Lionel Rosen during his time at Michigan State.

Rosen’s big insight was this: sports are complex. Nobody has enough brainpower or motivation to consistently manage all the variables going on in the course of a season, let alone a game. They think they do—but realistically, they don’t. There are too many plays, too many players, too many statistics, countermoves, unpredictables, distractions. Over the course of a long playoff season, this adds up into a cognitively impossible load.

But, as Monte Burke writes in his book Saban, Rosen discovered that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds. Seven seconds—that’s very manageable.

As a result, Saban teaches his players to ignore the big picture—important games, winning championships, the opponent’s enormous lead. Instead, Saban tells his players to focus on doing the absolutely smallest things well—practicing with full effort, finishing a specific play, converting on a single possession. Saban tells his players:

“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”

In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides a way. A way to turn chaos and confusion and complexity into something clear and manageable and simple. The task at hand. The process. Whatever you want to call it, just remember that everything in life is built one small action at a time.

[5] Use Physical Reminders

“Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly [displayed].” — Marcus Aurelius

It seems crazy now, but amongst the Stoics in the ancient world there was once intense disagreement over whether philosophers should have “precepts” or sayings to remind them of who they are trying to be and what they are trying to accomplish.

Stoics like Aristo, who lived around the time of Zeno, believed that this was cheating. A wise man, properly trained, should just know what to do in any and every situation. Later Stoics, like Seneca, thought this was ridiculous, which is why his letters to Lucilius are filled with all sorts of quotes and aphorisms and rules. Marcus Aurelius, who admittedly was a fan of Aristo, seemed to follow a path similar to Seneca’s, laying down “epithets for the self” and all sorts of other precepts for living.

In a way, this debate continues today. Some people sneer at self-help and motivational sayings and even the medallions we sell here at Daily Stoic. Why do I need a coin to remind me of that. Isn’t all this stuff obvious? But if you walk into the locker room of any professional sports franchise or elite D-1 level program, you’ll see the walls are tattooed with precepts and reminders (The Pittsburgh Pirates even have “It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgement about things” in their clubhouse in Florida. Iowa Football has “Ego is the Enemy” in their weightroom.”)

On the Daily Stoic podcast, we asked 2x NBA champion and 6x All-Star (and fan of Stoicism) Pau Gasol about the role these precepts play in sports:

Athletes appreciate pointers and directions. Quotes kind of hit home, as far as there’s a message, like “Pound the rock.” As far as resilience, you just keep pounding the rock. That was a big one for the Spurs. Just keep pounding the rock. If you hit it a thousand times or two thousand times, you might not see a crack, but it’s that next hit, that next pound where the rock will crack. You just got to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. So pound the rock. It’s something that a lot of other coaches have acquired and then shared in their locker rooms.

Reminders matter. They aren’t cheating. They make you better. Mantras keep you centered. A physical totem can make the habit or standard you’re trying to hold yourself to into something more than an idea, and that helps—a lot. They give you something to rest on—a kind of backstop to prevent backsliding. One of the reasons we made coins for Daily Stoic was that when you have something physical you can touch, it grounds you. The coins are made at the same mint where the first Alcoholics Anonymous chips were invented, and they represent the same idea. If you have 10 years of sobriety sitting in your pocket or clasped in your hand, you’re less likely to throw it away for a drink.

[6] Be adaptable

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.” — Marcus Aurelius

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene tells the story of Freddie Roach. Before he became the great boxing trainer, Roach trained under the legendary coach Eddie Futch and was groomed to be a boxing champion. But before long, Roach was forced to retire from boxing.

As Greene writes in The Daily Laws, Roach “instinctively found his way back to the ring because he understood that what he loved was not boxing per se, but competitive sports and strategizing. Thinking in this way, he could adapt his inclinations to a new direction within boxing.”

Marcus Aurelius’ story is similar. Marcus didn’t want to be emperor. That was “the essential tragedy of Marcus Aurelius,” biographer Frank McLynn wrote. Marcus wanted to be a philosopher. He was reclusive and bookish by nature. When he learned he had been adopted by the emperor Hadrian and would be made emperor, he was saddened. But as Greene writes of Roach, Marcus soon realized he could adapt his inclinations within the role forced upon him. And like the way Roach became one of history’s greatest boxing trainers, Marcus Aurelius became the Stoic philosopher king.

Robert Greene crystallized it into a Law: Adapt your inclinations. Avoid having rigid goals and dreams. Change is the law.

[7] Associate With People Who Call Forth Your Best

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” — Epictetus

For thousands of years, we’ve known that humans are influenced by the people we spend the most time with. “Nature gave us friendship,” Cicero wrote, “as an aid to virtue, not as a companion to vice.” Seneca’s line was, “Associate with those who will make a better man of you.” Goethe famously said “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”

It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. That’s why we have to be so careful about the influences we allow into our life. If ever you are feeling stuck, consistently not accomplishing your goals, experiencing low motivation, struggling to make the kind of progress you know you are capable of—take a good hard look at the people surrounding you.

Do they inspire you, validate you, push you to be better? Or do they irritate you, offend you, drag you down? Are they positive, rational, motivated, reliable, loyal? Or are they hypocritical, fake, lame, pretentious, flaky, dishonest?

The proverb in the ancient world was: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.”But that idea of dwelling with a lame man cuts both ways. Epictetus was famously “lame,” having had his leg crippled while in slavery. Marcus Aurelius spent enormous amounts of time with Epictetus’s writings. It didn’t make him limp—it made him wiser, a harder worker, more resilient, calmer, more compassionate. Epictetus passed those things onto him. A slave shaped a king and made him better.

If you want to connect with a community that will push you to be better, we’d like to invite you to check out our Daily Stoic Life program. It’s the largest gathering of Stoics in the world. It’ people just like you, struggling, growing, and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of person they know they can be. Some folks pursue philosophy and self-improvement as a side project. But some treat it seriously, they want to go deep, and they know that the best way to learn is to surround themselves with like-minded individuals and people who will push them. Improvement comes fastest through involvement, results through accountability and wisdom through exposure to new people and new ideas. That’s why we created Daily Stoic Life. You can learn more about it here.

[8] Make It Happen. Whatever It Takes

“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.” — Marcus Aurelius

In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Her solo exploits are well known. Less so is that Earhart had already made the same flight less than five years prior. Unable to make a living as a female pilot, Earhart was working a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything.

Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. They swallow their pride. They do whatever it takes. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work. And they can prove the people who doubted them wrong, as Earhart certainly did.

“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low,” Epictetus said. “But in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.”

On the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

Seize the opportunity. All of them. Any of them.

Prove the doubters wrong.

IV. The Best Stoic Quotes On Goal-Setting

“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once…We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” — Epictetus

“…The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. — Seneca

“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” — Seneca

“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” —Epictetus

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” — Seneca

“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” — Zeno

“The first step: Don’t be anxious…The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it.” — Marcus Aurelius

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” — Marcus Aurelius

V. The Best Books to Help You Achieve Your Goals

Mastery and The Daily Laws by Robert Greene

Atomic Habits by James Clear

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

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual by Jocko Willink

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

VI. Additional Reading

Here are some of our best articles to help you live a good life:

How To Be Happy: 11 Strategies Proven Over The Past 2,000 Years

How To Overcome Procrastination Based On Ancient Philosophy

The Power of Habits: What The Ancients Knew About Making Good Ones & Breaking Bad Ones

Anger Management: 8 Strategies Backed By Two Thousand Years of Practice

How To Be A Great Leader: Timeless Leadership Traits From Roman Emperors, Philosophers, and More

The Art of Journaling: How To Start Journaling, Benefits of Journaling, and More

Motivation: An Ancient Guide on How To Get and Stay Motivated

Coping With Grief: 10 Timeless Strategies From Ancient Philosophy

VII. Want More?

Want more guidance in setting and accomplishing goals? Achieve your most important goals with our Goal Setting Worksheet. Get The Free Guide Below

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12 (Stoic) Rules For Life: An Ancient Guide to the Good Life https://dailystoic.com/12-rules-for-life/ Wed, 16 Feb 2022 19:51:49 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=12624 It’d be wonderful if life never tempted you, if you could just go day-to-day, winging it and always do right. But that’s not how the world is. That’s not who you are. If left to our own devices, with enough opportunities, eventually we’ll mess up—we’ll drift, we’ll stray. That’s why the greats have what Marcus […]

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It’d be wonderful if life never tempted you, if you could just go day-to-day, winging it and always do right. But that’s not how the world is. That’s not who you are. If left to our own devices, with enough opportunities, eventually we’ll mess up—we’ll drift, we’ll stray.

That’s why the greats have what Marcus Aurelius called “epithets for the self” or what General Mattis has called “flat-ass rules.” Know what you stand for and stick to it, he said. Draw the line and hold it.

Stoicism, in theory, is a philosophy. As a practice, it is a set of rules to live by. The Stoics believed that life was complicated—more importantly, that it was exhausting. So to create rules was to help ensure that we stay on the right path, that we don’t let the complexity and the nuance of each individual scenario allow us to compromise on the big, high standards we know we hold. 

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In this article, we are going to detail 12 Stoic rules for life. This is a long post. It should be bookmarked and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

Rule 1: Own the morning

Rule 2: Only focus on what’s in your control

Rule 3: Don’t suffer imagined troubles

Rule 4: Treat success and failure the same

Rule 5: Just do one thing every day

Rule 6: Make beautiful choices

Rule 7: Constantly ask, “is this necessary?”

Rule 8: Love your fate

Rule 9: Speak with the dead

Rule 10: Be strict with yourself and tolerant with others

Rule 11: Turn obstacles upside down

Rule 12: Remember: you are dying every day

Rule 1: Own the morning

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being…I’m going to do what I was born for…Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’” — Marcus Aurelius

 

One of the most relatable moments in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the argument Marcus Aurelius has with himself in the opening of book 5. It’s clearly an argument he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—as have many of us: He knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain under the warm covers. 

It’s relatable…but it’s also impressive. Marcus didn’t actually have to get out of bed. He didn’t really have to do anything. One of his predecessors, Tiberius, basically abandoned the throne for an exotic island. Marcus’s adopted great-grandfather Hadrian hardly spent any time in Rome at all. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work. 

Why? It’s because Marcus knew that winning the morning was key to winning the day and winning at life. He wouldn’t have heard the expression that “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day well-begun is half done. But it begs the question: what does winning the morning actually look like? What should one do after they wake up early? From the Stoics, we glean 3 habits that make the morning a success: Journal. Take a walk. Do deep work. Let’s look at each of those individually:

[1] Journal

 

The Stoics were big fans of journaling (if you’re a Daily Stoic subscriber, you’ve definitely heard us say that in an email or two). Epictetus the slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the power broker and playwright. These three radically different men led radically different lives. But journaling—they all had that habit in common. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations consists of a collection of personal self-help notes, which he never intended to see the light of day.  And Epictetus encouraged his students to write down their thoughts and reflect upon their actions everyday. The Stoic “keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush,” he said.

More recently, Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, Ben Franklin, and we’ll stop there—all journalers. And for good reason—it works. There are few habits as time-tested and researched-backed as journaling. It clarifies the mind, provides room for quiet, private reflection, it gives one a record of their thoughts over time, it prepares you for the day ahead. There is no better way to start the day than with a journal. 

[2] Take a walk

The Stoics sought stillness. It is with a still mind that one does their best work. The paradox is that perhaps the single best way to still one’s mind is to put the body in motion. Runners and cyclists will tell you that this is true like an equation is true. That it is a fact. But you don’t even have to go that far, or that hard, with your physical exertion to get what the Stoics were after. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” Seneca said, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed.” Take a walk in the parking lot before you head into the office. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Take a walk to the local coffee shop and back. By the time you’re done, you’ll be in the perfect headspace to…

[3] Do deep work

“Concentrate on what’s in front of you like a Roman,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Do it like it’s the last and most important thing in your life.” From his stepfather, Antoninus, Marcus learned how to work long hours—how to stay in the saddle. He writes in Meditations that he admired how Antoninus even scheduled his bathroom breaks so he could work for long, uninterrupted periods. Ryan Holiday talks about how he does two to three hours of deep work first thing when he gets to his office. James Clear, author of the wonderful bestseller Atomic Habits, told us on the Daily Stoic podcast that he carves out “two sacred hours” in the morning to do his writing. That’s it. “I know it probably doesn’t seem like a lot,” Holiday explains, “but the Stoics knew that good work is realized by small steps. It’s not a small thing, but good work is created in small steps.”

The day so easily gets away from us. Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key that we prioritize the important things and it’s key that we habitualize doing them early. 

Well-begun is half won. So get started.

Put it into practice: Commit to waking up tomorrow 30 minutes earlier than you usually do. Decide what you are going to do with that extra 30 minutes (i.e. read, journal, exercise, meditate, etc.)

Rule 2: Only focus on what’s in your control

“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…” — Epictetus

 

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. 

What does this look like in practice?

Sports are a good example. An athlete can’t control if the other team cheats or that refs always get the calls right. They can’t control if people in the media know what they are talking about or if they stake out positions just to be controversial or contrarian. They can’t control the weather or the conditions on the field.

So what does that leave? One thing: their own performance. As Marcus Aurelius would say, it doesn’t matter what other people say or think, it only matters what you do.

You control how you play.

Not whether you win.

You control how you play.

Not if people respect you. 

You control how you play.

Not if the crowd cheers you on. 

You control how you play.

That’s it. 

Focus on what’s in your control. Nothing else.

Put it into practice: Think for 5 minutes about your current problems and separate them into two categories: 1) what is in your control and 2) what is out of your control. Now only focus on what’s in your control. 

Rule 3: Don’t suffer imagined troubles

“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca

 

What are you worried about right now?

Your job?

Your family?

Your future?

Your health?

You’re not crazy to worry. Bad things could happen related to any of them. A car accident. An economic downturn. A surprise diagnosis.

But let’s go backwards in time: a month, a year, five years ago. What were you worried about then? Mostly the same things, right?

And how many of those worries came to pass? As Mark Twain quipped, quip: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

And even the ones that did come to pass…clearly the worrying didn’t help stop it, right? 

It was Seneca who put the best one-liner to this feeling: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” 

So “what I advise you to do is,” Seneca continued, “do not be unhappy before the crisis comes…We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” Don’t anticipate sorrow. Don’t let anxiety and worry get the best of you. Don’t let your worries grow out of proportion to what might actually happen. Don’t let imagination overtake reality.

Put it into practice: Next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, remind yourself: “Stay in the present. Focus on what you can control.”

Rule 4: Treat success and failure the same

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius had an interesting metaphor. 

He believed that a man, an emperor, a soldier—everyone—was like a rock. Throw the rock up in the air, he said, and “it loses nothing by coming down and gained nothing by going up.” The rock stays the same.

We can imagine his own life mirror this analogy. He was an ordinary man plucked by Hadrian to become emperor. Yet he could have been equally dethroned at any moment as well (and late in his reign nearly was). Did this change who Marcus was? Did it mean he was better or worse than other people?

No. He was still the same rock. And so are you. Whether you have a day that begins with a promotion or ends with a firing, you’re the same. Whether you win the lottery or file for bankruptcy. Whether you address a crowd of thousands or have trouble getting your calls returned. The question is how we’re going to respond to these swings of fate, if we can follow the lines of Kipling’s classic poem, “If—”:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;   

You’re the same. Success or failure, highs and lows, they don’t change you. They are outside you. These are indifferents. You stay the same.

Put it into practice: Greet anything and everything that life throws at you today—the highs and the lows—the same way. 

Rule 5: Just do one thing every day

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno

 

Seneca wrote a lot of letters to his friend Lucilius. We don’t know a lot about Lucilius, only that he was from Pompeii, he was a Roman knight, he was the imperial procurator in Sicily then its Governor, he owned a country villa in Ardea. For all his success though, we get the sense that he struggled with many of the things we all struggle with: Anxiety. Distraction. Fear. Temptation. Self-discipline.

So it’s good that he had a friend like Seneca, someone who cared about him, told him the truth, and gave him advice. One of the best pieces of advice from Seneca was actually pretty simple. “Each day,” he told Lucilius, you should “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well.”

One gain per day. That’s it.

This is the way to curbing our procrastinating tendencies: remembering that incremental, consistent, humble, persistent work is the way to improvement. Your business, your book, your career, your body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with little things, day after day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former Governor, professional bodybuilder, and father of five. He’s also a fan of the Stoics and said in a video to people trying to stay strong and sane during the pandemic: “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.”

Whether it’s from Seneca or Arnold, good advice is good advice and truth is truth. One thing a day adds up. One step at a time is all it takes. You just gotta get one small win. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel…and be.

Put it into practice: Pick a project you are either currently working on or wanting to get started. What is the smallest step you can take to move that project forward? Go complete that step!

Rule 6: Make beautiful choices

“If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” –Epictetus

 

Epictetus said that the root of beauty was beautiful choices. 

He was talking less of physical beauty, one imagines, than of true beautiful human behavior, but actually, it applies to both.

A stunning woman whose looks are the result of her vanity and self-obsession will be rather unattractive when you get to know her. A man with strapping muscles acquired through steroids and a neglect of all other concerns is not really that impressive.

Beauty, then, is difficult to separate from the intention, the choices which create it. 

So if you’d like to look better, that gives you a good place to start—in your choices but also in your motivations and intentions. It’s the decision to get out of bed early and go for a run… so you can be around to see your children grow up, not so you can look good in the mirror. Do your makeup because it gives you confidence, because the ritual of applying it is some quiet time to yourself… not to cover up your flaws. Hire a trainer because you want to learn the discipline of weightlifting or boxing… not because you just want someone to tell you what to do. 

Remember: The Stoics tried to separate what was up to us and what wasn’t

Things can get between you and your goal, of course, but nothing can stop you from getting started. Nothing can stop you from making a beautiful choice for yourself today. 

Put it into practice: Every time you are faced with a choice today—between walking the 15 minutes or taking an Uber, between picking up the phone to have the difficult conversation or leaving it to an email, between taking responsibility or hoping it goes unnoticed—choose the more difficult option, the option that challenges you the most

Rule 7: Constantly ask, “is this necessary?”

“Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius

 

Now, unlike any other moment in recent memory, we are being forced to reevaluate things. We’re looking at our jobs, at our finances, at the places we live. We’re looking at so many of the systems that have been set up, whether they’re governmental or cultural or familial. We’re having to ask questions about why they are what they are, how they’ve held up under the immense pressure and stress of this global pandemic. 

You can imagine Marcus Aurelius doing a bit of this himself. He too experienced a plague, and was forced to spend years far from Rome with the army. There, in his tent, he sat with his journal—the pages that would become Meditations—and he had a conversation with himself.  

One of the best passages survives to us and is worth applying to our own lives right now under similar stress and uncertainty: 

“Most of what we say and do is not essential,” he writes. “If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

There has never been a better time to go through your life and ask yourself about all the things you do and say and think, “Is this necessary?” “Is this essential?” “Why am I doing this?” “What would happen if I changed?”

These are the questions to ask yourself, every day, every moment. 

How much or how little you work. Where you live. What your marriage or your relationships look like. The political policies you support. What you spend money on. What your goals are. The way your schedule is arranged. The things taking up room in your junk drawer…or the thoughts running through your head. 

Most of what we do is not essential. Most of it is instinctual or it was foisted on us by someone else. Most of it isn’t actually working for us. We might be better and happier if we changed. 

So remember Marcus’s advice: “If you seek tranquility, do less.”

Put it into practice: Take out a piece of paper and make two columns. On the left side, list out all of the things that are swirling in your mind and competing for your time and attention. On the right side, write “it is necessary” or “it isn’t necessary” next to each item on the list. Then, cross out all the unnecessary items on the page and in your life. 

Rule 8: Love your fate

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them but instead want them to happen and your life will go well.” — Epictetus

 

The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would describe his formula for human greatness as amor fati—a love of fate. “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”

The Stoics were not only familiar with this attitude but they embraced it. Two thousand years earlier, Marcus Aurelius would say: “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” 

Stuff goes wrong. It’s a fact of life. As Seneca said, Fortune behaves just as she pleases. His own life was proof of that. A health flare up disrupted his career. An emperor exiled him. He clawed his way back…only to have it happen again.

Nearly all of this was out of Seneca’s control. The only part that was up to him was how he chose to see these events, and what he chose to do with them. He chose to see them as a good thing. He chose to use them. He chose to dye these events with his own color. 

Jocko Willink, in his famous viral speech, explains how we do this, how we can see everything that happens to us as good. 

Oh, the mission got canceled? Good… We can focus on another one.

Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good… We can keep it simple.

Didn’t get promoted? Good… More time to get better.

Didn’t get funded? Good… We own more of the company.

Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good… Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.

Got injured? Good… Needed a break from training.

Got tapped out? Good… It’s better to tap out in training than tap out on the street.

Got beat? Good… We learned.

Unexpected problems? Good… We have to figure out solutions.

This is a Stoic prescription. This is the Stoic prescription. It’s also the prescription for leadership, for entrepreneurship, for resiliency. 

Life throws stuff at you. You are the one who decides to lay down and let it bury you or to make hay out of it. You are the one who decides whether to bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away, or to look it square in the eye—as bad as it is—and say Good. 

These are your choices. And choosing rightly, choosing to see the bad things as ultimately good, is all you can do. It’s what you must do. Because people are depending on you. Because you believe in your ability to make it good.Because you have but one life to live.

Amor fati.

Put it into practice: Today, whenever something ‘bad’ happens, respond to it with, “Good.” And then see how you can turn it into a positive. 

Rule 9: Speak with the dead

 

The founder of Stoicism Zeno was a young man when he was given a cryptic piece of advice. “To live the best life,” the Oracle told Zeno, “you should have conversations with the dead.”

What does that mean? Like with ghosts and goblins? Go spend time chatting in a cemetery?

No, of course not. The Oracle was talking about reading. Because it’s through books that we really talk to people who are no longer with us. Their bodies may be rotting in the ground, or long since turned to dust, but in the pages of a book, they are alive and well. 

Harry Truman was one of the greatest readers to ever occupy the White House. As a friend observed, to Harry “history was the men who made it, and he spoke of Marcus Aurelius or Henry of Navarre or old Tom Jefferson or old Andy Jackson as if they were friends and neighbors with whom he had only recently discussed the affairs of the day, their day.” 

When Truman said that “not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers,” we felt like he was talking to us. We built our Daily Stoic Read to Lead Challenge around that piece of advice from him, as if he was still here, not dead for nearly fifty years. That’s the beauty and the power of books—they can bring the past to life, they can annex, as Seneca said, all ages into your own. 

You can put yourself in the same room as Lincoln. You can chat with Shakespeare. You can be inspired by Porcia Cato. To do this isn’t scary, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s incredibly reassuring, because it means you have permanent access to the wisest men and women who ever lived. 

It’s also an incredible opportunity to learn. To ask questions. To be taught. If there is anything at all scary about this, it’s that millions of people decline to do this every day, day after day, for the balance of their natural lives. They reject this superpower. They decide to be illiterate. They ignore the dead, choosing to listen to the chattering voices on their television and their Twitter feed. 

Be smart, be brave, talk to the dead.

Put it into practice: Read for thirty minutes today and everyday. 

Rule 10: Be tough on yourself and understanding to others

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” — Marcus Aurelius

Cato hated excess. He hated finery. He hated luxury. He thought to indulge such things was weakness and stupidity. And so what did Cato think of his brother who was far less strict about these things? He loved him. In fact, he worshiped him.

It’s important to remember: The Stoic has strict standards. We have strong opinions on what’s right and what isn’t. But…and this is a big but…we have to be understanding and forgiving of those who have been, as Marcus Aurelius writes, cut off from truth. This observation from Marcus Aurelius’s most thoughtful biography, by Ernest Renan, explains the right way to do it:

“The consequence of austere philosophy might have produced stiffness and severity. But here it was that the rare goodness of the nature of Marcus Aurelius shone out in all its brilliancy. His severity was confined only to himself.”

That’s exactly the key. Your standards are for you.

Marcus’s rule was to be strict with yourself and tolerant with others. That’s the line that Cato walked with his brother. That’s what we have to figure out with the folks who, in today’s world, live in a very un-Stoic way.

There are consequences for their actions of course (especially when those actions or choices are unjust) but we don’t need to cast them out of our lives or write them off as worthless or awful. We can still engage with them. We can see them at Christmas. We can let them into our lives in a way that is safe or respectful to our boundaries. We can accept that people can see things in a different way and let them live as they wish (again, so long as those choices aren’t hurting other people).

We can, to borrow an old expression, hate the sin while still loving the sinner. Because what they do, how they aect is not up to us. The good we choose to still see in them? That’s in our control.

Put it into practice: Next time you find yourself feeling disappointed with someone or on the verge of judging someone, stop yourself and instead, look for the good in them.

Rule 11: Turn obstacles upside down

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.” — Marcus Aurelius

One way to go through life is to turn away from the things that are hard. You can close your eyes and ears to what is unpleasant. You can take the easy way, forgoing difficulty whenever possible. The other way is the Stoic way—it entails not only not avoiding hardship, but actively seeking it out.

In the novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian write to young Marcus Aurelius about his philosophy for learning and benefiting from all of life’s adversity and unpleasantness. “Whenever an object repelled me,” he says, “I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts. Even in the throes of my worst disaster, I have seen a moment when sheer exhaustion reduced some part of the horror of the experience, and when I made the defeat a thing of my own in being willing to accept it.” 

Of course, this is fiction so Hadrian never said such a thing. But clearly somebody taught Marcus a lesson along those lines, because Meditations is filled with similar passages. Marcus writes about how a fire turns everything that is thrown into it into flame. He says that obstacles are actually fuel. “The impediment to action advances action,” he writes, “what stands in the way becomes the way.”

It’s a beautiful way to approach the world—and ultimately, the only one suited for our unpredictable and stressful times. Take someone like Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had a hardscrabble existence. From the Kansas prairies to the backwoods of Florida, she and her family eked out a life from some of the most unforgiving environments on the planet. She endured—and eventually thrived—despite this, due primarily to her Stoic optimism. “There is good in everything,” she later wrote, “if only we look for it.”

To avoid difficulty would mean complete retreat from life. It would mean hiding in ignorance. Worse, this would make you dreadfully vulnerable to crisis if it did ever find you. Instead, we must strive—as Hadrian said—to welcome hazard. We can rejoice in the unexpected and even turn failure into something by deciding to own it. We can learn from unpleasantness and even soften our aversions. 

This will not be easy. But that’s fitting, isn’t it? We are not naturally attracted to obstacles…which is precisely why we must work on finding out how to like them. This is the way.

Put it into practice: Face today in the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder—look for the good in everything.

Rule 12: Remember: you are dying every day

“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward toward death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” — Seneca 

 

It’s easy to see death as this thing that lies off in the distant future. Even those of us who choose not to live in denial of our mortality can be guilty of this. We think of dying as an event that happens to us. It’s stationary—whatever date it will happen at—and we’re moving towards it, slowly or quickly, depending on our age and health.

Seneca felt that this was the wrong way to think about it, that it was a mistaken view that enabled many bad habits and much bad living. Instead, he said, death was a process—it was happening to us right now. We are dying every day, he said. Even as you read this email, time is passing that you will never get back. That time, he said, belongs to death. 

Powerful, right? Death doesn’t lie off in the distance. It’s with us right now. It’s the second hand on the clock. It’s the setting sun. As the arrow of time moves, death follows, claiming every moment that has passed. What ought we do about it? The answer is live. Live while you can. Put nothing off. Leave nothing unfinished. Seize it while it still belongs to us.

Memento Mori.

Put it into practice: Spend five minutes meditation on your mortality, on how brief your existence is. Then, as Marcus Aurelius would say, let the thought of your mortality determine everything you do and say and think.

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Daily Stoic Podcast Assistant Producer https://dailystoic.com/podcast-assistant/ Fri, 21 Jan 2022 23:23:17 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=12495 The Daily Stoic Podcast  The Daily Stoic podcast is a weekly podcast hosted and recorded by bestselling author Ryan Holiday. Guests have included global pop star Camila Cabello, Academy-Award winning actor Matthew McConaughey, #1 New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss, three time Olympian Dominique Dawes, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, former NASCAR champion Danica Patrick, […]

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The Daily Stoic Podcast 

The Daily Stoic podcast is a weekly podcast hosted and recorded by bestselling author Ryan Holiday. Guests have included global pop star Camila Cabello, Academy-Award winning actor Matthew McConaughey, #1 New York Times bestselling author Tim Ferriss, three time Olympian Dominique Dawes, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, former NASCAR champion Danica Patrick, radio host Charlamagne Tha God, former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, Congressman Dan Crenshaw, and dozens more. 

Role

This role will aid in the production of the Daily Stoic and Daily Dad podcasts. This will include audio engineering, production management, and episode scheduling. You will be producing a podcast that has been downloaded over 70 million times and has listeners all over the world. 

The Daily Stoic Podcast includes daily meditations, longform interviews with high-profile guests, and varied weekend content. The Daily Dad Podcast includes daily meditations and longform content. Each week, there are a total of 7 episodes for Daily Stoic and 6 episodes for Daily Dad.

Specific duties would include: 

  • Clean up audio, add intro, transition, ads, and outro music
  • Manage each episode’s editing, recording and distribution
  • Write podcast descriptions for each episode
  • Label files within DropBox
  • Research and schedule guests to join the podcast
  • Prep the host and guest before a podcast recording
  • Prepare questions prior to an interview
  • Monitor each episode’s analytics and metrics
  • Suggest new ideas to expand the podcast’s current reach

Ideal Candidate

The ideal candidate:

  • Has a strong interest and familiarity with Stoicism specifically and philosophy generally 
  • Has an instinct for natural dialogue editing and pacing
  • Has some experience working with podcasts, and eager to learn more
  • Has experience working remotely and with a remote team in different time zones
  • Loves podcasts, and is familiar with other shows in similar categories
  • Lives in Austin, TX or is willing to come to Austin for team events

To apply, please send a cover letter and some examples of relevant work experience to info@dailystoic.com. In your email put “Podcast Assistant” in the subject line. All other emails will be ignored. Application deadline is January 27, 2022. 

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Stoicism and Christianity: The History of the Stoics and the Christians https://dailystoic.com/stoicism-christianity-history/ Wed, 05 Jan 2022 18:40:06 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=12358 It’s pretty remarkable to think that two of history’s greatest philosophers walked the earth at the same time. That’s right, Seneca and Jesus were both born in the year 4BC. Not only that, they lived roughly parallel lives despite being separated by geography, culture, and social station. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, […]

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It’s pretty remarkable to think that two of history’s greatest philosophers walked the earth at the same time.

That’s right, Seneca and Jesus were both born in the year 4BC. Not only that, they lived roughly parallel lives despite being separated by geography, culture, and social station. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, and Seneca’s brother even appears briefly in the Bible! Again, it’s incredible. Ultimately, the two men met very similar ends, killed by the long reach of an emperor’s tyranny. Both have lived on far beyond their deaths—Jesus it was claimed, rose from the dead after three days, and Seneca, through his writings, feels as alive to us as he would have to many Romans.

What’s lovely too is just how much their teachings overlap. We will explore this in more detail below, but until then, here’s an example: 

“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” Seneca

“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Jesus

Now Seneca was obviously just a man—a flawed and contradictory man at that—while Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was both a man and God. But both lived these magnificent lives, leaving behind much for us to follow, to consider and to question. In this article, we are going to detail the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Christianity. This is a long post. It should be bookmarked and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

Philosophy Before Christianity

Stoicism and the Spread of Christianity 

The Clash Between Stoicism and Christianity Pt.1 

The Clash Between Stoicism and Christianity Pt.2

Are Stoicism and Christianity Compatible?

The Similarities Between Stoicism and Christianity

Additional Resources

Philosophy Before Christianity

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert observed a little discussed pivot point of Western Civilization:

“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”

He is referring to the period between the fall of the gods and the rise of God. 

Flaubert isn’t strictly correct. As we will see, Christianity was a rising sect well before Marcus Aurelius and indeed one of the most shameful parts of Marcus’s regime is his persecution of Christians, but Flaubert’s point is generally an interesting one. During this period before Christianity, what did people do instead of worshiping God? 

Well, many of them practiced philosophy. It had been 300 years since Zeno founded Stoicism. Chrysippus, Cleanthes, Publius Rutilius Rufus, Cicero, Cato, just to name a few—these great philosophers had all lived and died before Christ had come. 

The Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans—this was their heyday. In fact, we can see Stoicism as a kind of civic religion, a guide for behavior and a framework for living. It was a time when man was alone in the universe and forced to come up with, on his own, an answer to that timeless question: What is the meaning of life and how should I live it? As you will see, the Stoics and the Christians came to many similar insights in the pursuit of answering this timeless question. 

Stoicism and the Spread of Christianity

The early prophetic message of Jesus would get help from Paul the Apostle and his successors, who sought to refine Jesus’ teachings for a wider audience.

Born only a few years after Jesus, Paul the Apostle was a Pharisaic Jew who was steeped in the philosophical teachings of the Stoics. Paul was born in Tarsus, Cilici, the birthplace of Stoic thinkers like Chrysippus and Athenodorus. Therefore, as Paul moved across the Mediterranean developing his message, he was constantly in dialogue with Stoicism.

The only dates we have for the two key episodes in the life and ministry of Paul the Apostle are tied up with the Stoics. In the late spring or early summer of 51AD, Seneca’s brother Novatus, a high Roman official using his adoptive name of Gallio, undertook a year-long governorship of Achaia in southern Greece. 

The first of these events occurred in Athens, where Paul spent every day in the agora, debating with Stoic philosophers. Paul got in a dispute with the Stoics, which led to accusations against his teaching about foreign divinities. He was hauled before the court of the Areopagite to defend himself.

In his famous speech—what would become known to us as the Mars Hill speech—Paul commends his audience for their religiosity while chiding their devotion to “unknown gods.” He appeals to a creator, God, who made everything and has power over heaven and earth, giving “to all mortals life and breath and all things,” and adds that this God we search for is “not far from each one of us…for in him we live and move and have our being…for we too are his offspring.”

In presenting these ideas of a creator who has power over everything and from whom we ourselves have descended and are intimately connected, Paul is directly quoting the words of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes’ brilliant Hymn to Zeus

Paul’s defense appealing in part to Stoic theology converted one member of the court, Dionysius, as well as many others in attendance. Dionysius would become the first Christian Bishop of Athens and to this day is the patron saint of the city and seen as a protector of the judiciary.

Next, Paul departs for Achaea, where Seneca’s brother Gallio was governor. In 52 AD, just as Seneca was recalled from exile to serve as the tutor to a young Nero, Paul was accused, we learn in Acts 18:12, of “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” He was brought before Gallio dismissed the charges. And for the next seven years, Paul successfully grew his Churches across the empire while Seneca moved from being Nero’s tutor to right-hand man in his administration.

The Clash Between Stoicism and Christianity Pt. 1

We mentioned above that Seneca was recalled from exile and elevated to the center of the Roman imperial court, first as Nero’s tutor. Then roughly five years into his employment at court, Nero’s mother Agrippina had her husband, Claudius, killed by way of poisoned mushrooms. When Nero was made emperor at age sixteen, Seneca became the emperor’s advisor. His first task was to write the speeches that Nero would give to convince Rome that it wasn’t totally insane to give this dilettante child nearly godlike powers over millions of people. 

Time would quickly reveal Nero to be deranged and flawed. In 64 AD, the Great Fire struck Rome, and, boosted by strong winds, would destroy more than two-thirds of the city. Rumors begin to spread. As we learn from James Romm in Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero:

Some said that torchbearers had been seen setting the blaze, who, when accosted, claimed they were acting on high authority. Others said that vigiles [the corps that oversaw fire fighting and civic safety] attempting to douse the blaze had been prevented. The most damning rumor of all claimed that the princeps had stood on his palace battlements and strummed his lyre while the city burned, reciting his own verses about the destruction of Troy.

We still don’t know for certain whether or not Nero started the fire. What we do know is that he couldn’t stand that people thought he did. So, Romm continues,

He began a campaign to shift blame from himself to others. The sect the Romans called Christiani, and their founder Christus, appear first in Latin literature in Tacitus’ account of the great fire. According to this famous passage, the Christians were arrested on spurious charges and brought to Nero’s palace grounds for horrendous ordeals. They were dressed in animal skins and then were set upon by wild beasts; they were wrapped in pitch-soaked cloth and set on fire; or with a significance Nero could not have intended, they were nailed to crosses to suffocate to death.   

How many he ordered to be rounded up and killed we do not know. Paul, however, was added to Nero’s pile of bodies.

Did Seneca and Paul ever meet while Paul was in Rome? We don’t know for sure. Very little is known of Paul’s time in Rome. There is, however, a fascinating legend that the two philosophers did strike up a correspondence. An apocryphal collection of letters survives purporting to be between Seneca and Paul. How do we know the letters are fake? Here is the first letter supposedly from Seneca to Paul:

I suppose, Paul, you have been informed of that conversation which passed yesterday between me and my Lucilius, concerning hypocrisy and other subjects; for there were some of your disciples in company with us;

For when we were retired into the Sallustian gardens, through which they (disciples of Paul) were also passing and would have gone another way, by our persuasion they joined company with us.

I desire you to believe that we much wish for your conversation:

We were much delighted with your book of many Epistles, which you have written to some cities and chief towns of provinces, and contain wonderful instructions for moral conduct:

Such sentiments, as I suppose you were not the author of, but only the instrument of conveying, though sometimes both the author and the instrument.

For such is the sublimity of those doctrines, and their grandeur, that I suppose the age of a man is scarcely sufficient to be instructed and perfected in the knowledge of them. I wish your welfare, my brother. Farewell.

“It is clear from their (postclassical) language,” Emily Wilson writes in The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, “that this set of letters cannot possibly be genuine; they were probably composed in the third century ce, or perhaps early in the fourth. But the fact that somebody went to the trouble of faking them suggests how desirable it seemed to find a pagan author who could be assimilated into the Christian tradition.” As we will get into further below, Stoicism and Christianity had enough in common that for centuries, Stoics and Christians alike thought it perfectly feasible that Seneca and Paul were close friends. 

The Clash Between Stoicism and Christianity Pt. 2

A century after the Great Fire, Christians were living and teaching in Rome. And still subject to persecution. 

At some point in Marcus Aurelius’ early twenties, he was assigned a tutor named Junius Rusticus, who was a consul under the emperor Hadrian. It was, from the looks of it, a transformative period of study. As Marcus would later reflect, he learned from Junius matters big and small, from how to carry himself with dignity to how to write clearly and effectively. Almost immediately after Marcus became emperor, Junius was given major roles serving the state. In 162 AD, he served his second term as consul. For five years, he was urban prefect, essentially the mayor of Rome, supervising its police, legal enforcement, public works, and the city’s food supply. Given the vast corruption that had been endemic in Rome, this was a position of immense responsibility and trust. By all accounts, he acquitted himself honorably. It would also put Junius on a collision course with an event that would, unfortunately, define his legacy for most of history.

In 165 AD, a seemingly minor court case came to Junius’s desk. A Christian philosopher named Justin Martyr and a Cynic philosopher named Crescens had become involved in some sort of nasty dispute that had spilled out into the streets. Denounced by Crescens, who accused these Christians of being atheists, Justin and six of his students were charged and brought in to face questioning. Justin had in fact studied under a Stoic teacher in Samaria but left the school in favor of the burgeoning Christian faith. Many of Justin’s writings would evoke similarities between the Stoics and the Christians and he may well have been familiar with Junius’s own philosophical work. He quite reasonably expected a favorable ruling from his Stoic judge. As a devout Christian, he knew that a century before, Seneca’s brother had fairly judged and and freed Paul.

But this was Rome in a very different time. Rusticus’ job was to protect the peace. These Christians refused to acknowledge the Roman gods, the supremacy of the Roman state. That was crazy, disruptive, dangerous. Wasn’t Rusticus’s job to enforce the laws? To prevent these kinds of things from happening? And, perhaps, with Marcus away at the front and no one to check him, Rusticus was a little lost in the sway of his own power. 

In Blood of the Martyrs, Naomi Mitchison has a Stoic philosopher, Nausiphanes, attempt to explain this collision course between the Stoics and the Christians. “[The Christians] were being persecuted,” he says, “because they were against the Roman state; no Roman ever really bothered about a difference of gods; in religious matters they were profoundly tolerant because their own gods were not of the individual heart but only social inventions—or had become so. Yet politically they did and must persecute: and equally must be attacked by all who had the courage.”

The proceedings of the trial are recorded in The Acts of Justin:

Rusticus: You are a Christian, then? 

Justin: Yes, I am a Christian.

Rusticus: You are called a learned man and think that you know what is true teaching. Listen: if you were scourged and beheaded, are you convinced that you would go up to heaven?

Justin: I hope that I shall enter God’s house if I suffer that way.

Rusticus: Do you have an idea that you will go up into heaven to receive some suitable rewards?

Justin: It is not an idea that I have, it is something I know well and hold to be most certain.

Rusticus: Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods.

Justin: No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship.

Rusticus: If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy.

Justin: We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord JJesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior.

Rusticus: Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the fods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws.

In the name of Marcus Aurelius, at the order of Rusticus, this poor man was sent off to be cruelly beaten, whipped until the skin was torn from his body, and then beheaded.

It would be a stain on two otherwise flawless reputations.

Are Stoicism and Christianity Compatible?

Given that a Stoic ordered one of the most famous executions in Christian history, you might think that Stoicism and Christianity are obviously not compatible. But keep in mind, it was only in retrospect that the clash between Rusticus and Justin Martyr became famous. 

This “martyrdom” was barely notable at the time. Rome was in the middle of the Parthian War and a conflict with Germanic tribes on the border was bubbling up. A plague was ravaging the empire. Millions would die. A death sentence for one lawbreaker would not seem like the kind of thing that history would remember.

So the question of Stoicism and Christianity’s compatibility is nuanced. 

As Kavin Rowe, Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School, writes in One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians, “Stoicism has long been an explicit and even close conversation partner for Christian thinkers and saints.” 

We mentioned the invented collection of letters between Seneca and Paul above. There was also the 2nd century Christian Author Tertullian, who referred to Seneca as saepe noster (“frequently ours”). A century later, Saint Jerome dropped the saepe and said Seneca was noster (“ours”) in his On Illustrious Men. And Saint Augustine references passages from Seneca in City of God. 

So the relationship between the Stoics and the Christians runs deep. But can a Stoic be a Christian? Can a Christian be a Stoic? The debate continues to this day. Books have been written by scholars attempting to unite Stoicism and Christianity, just as books have been written by scholars attempting to separate Stoicism and Christianity. 

We’ll start with Kavin Rowe’s conclusion in One True Life, which is that Stoicism and Christianity are “rival traditions of life.” Of the works that attempt to unite Stoicism and Christianity, Rowe argues, “the indispensable assumption that underlies such such comparative work—or conversation construction—is that the Stoics and Christians share fundamentally the same, similar, or at least commensurable commitments. These commitments are to some sort of reality called God or the Divine, or to a particular doctrine called Providence, or to a goal called Human Betterment, or to certain common aspects of human experience called the Passions or the Virtues, and so on.” 

This assumption, Rowe writes, is false. “The stories that make Stoic/Christian commitments intelligible as Stoic/Christian commitments do not overlap or run parallel in the way that would be required for the existence of commensurable commitments or shared agreements.”

Most scholars do seem to be in agreement that it is difficult to be both a Stoic and a Christian. But they are also in agreement that a Christian can become a better Christian through reading the Stoics and a Stoic can become a better Stoic through reading the Christians. 

For instance, when we talked to Joseph Dodson—an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, who has written multiple volumes of work on the connections between Seneca and Paul—he cited the line from Seneca about how we should seek wisdom in all philosophical schools. “As for me, I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life,” Professor Dodson told us. “I admit I’m skeptical that one can be both a Stoic and a Christian, if one takes their core beliefs seriously…I can say with confidence, however, that God has used what I’ve found in Stoicism to make me a better Christian.”

Not long after interviewing Professor Dodson, we spoke to Dr. Kevin Vost, the author of The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living. He largely agreed with Professor Dodson’s insights then said, “I will also note that in researching for my book, The Porch and the Cross, I read Musonius Rufus’ lecture fragments for the first time and was astounded by how closely his views on issues like marriage, the family, abortion, and even contraception aligned with modern Catholic teaching. I don’t mean to make Christians out of the ancient Stoics themselves. I do believe the Stoics offer valuable lessons for all people of Christian faith, other faiths, and non-believers.”

Let’s explore some of those…

The Similarities Between Stoicism and Christianity

As unique as the individual circumstances of Jesus, Seneca, Paul, Rusticus, and Justin Martyr were, ultimately Stoicism and Christianity have more in common than not. 

In the works of both the Stoics and the Christians, we find similar lessons… 

On contentment:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” — Saint Paul

“It is the attitude [not the circumstance] that must be appraised: we must investigate whether the rich man can be content if he falls into poverty and whether the poor man can be content if he falls into riches.” — Seneca

On getting revenge:

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” — Jesus

“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” — Seneca

On the Golden Rule:

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” — Jesus

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” — Seneca

On mortality:

“In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin.” — Sirach 7:36

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius

On anxiety: 

“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” — Proverbs 12:25

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius

On love: 

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly.” — Peter

“To be free of passion and yet full of love.” — Marcus Aurelius

On discipline:

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — Hebrews 12:11

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.” — Musonius Rufus

On anger:

“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” — Ecclesiastes 7:9

“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane.” — Seneca

On stillness:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” — Psalms 46:10

“To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there, delight and stillness.” — Marcus Aurelius

On role models:

“Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love,  just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering  and sacrifice to God.” — Paul

“Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or pattern. For we must have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” — Seneca

On loving your enemies:

“But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” — Romans 12:20

“Kindness is invincible, but only when it’s sincere, with no hypocrisy or faking. For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you?” — Marcus Aurelius

***

Ernest Hemingway opens his book The Sun Also Rises with a Bible verse: “One generation passeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and resteth to the place where he arose.”

It was this passage, his editor would say, that “contained all the wisdom of the ancient world.” 

And what wisdom is that? One of the most striking things about history is just how long human beings have been doing what they do. Though certain attitudes and practices have come and gone, what’s left are people—living, dying, loving, fighting, crying, laughing. “Think by way of example on the times of Vespasian,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and you’ll see all these things: marrying, raising children, falling ill, dying, wars, holiday feasts, commerce, farming, flattering, pretending, suspecting, scheming, praying that others die, grumbling over one’s lot, falling in love, amassing fortunes, lusting after office and power. Now that life of theirs is dead and gone . . . the times of Trajan, again the same . . .” 

Christians and Stoics—in fact, people from all philosophies and religions—with a few exceptions, we are largely the same as people have always been and always will be. 

Additional Resources

Stoicism and Christianity: Lessons, Similarities and Differences

Stoicism and Christianity: Professor Joseph Dodson on Similarities & Differences

Stoicism, Christianity, And Remembering Your Death: An Interview With Former Atheist Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble

Dr. Kevin Vost on The Stoic Workout, Stoicism and Christianity, and the ABC Model of Emotions

A Unique Moment In History

On This Day, A Star Was Born

You’ve Chosen Your Own Hell

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Stoicism and The Law of Attraction: The Ancient Truth About Manifestation and Magical Thinking https://dailystoic.com/law-of-attraction/ Thu, 04 Nov 2021 14:37:50 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=12039 “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Does that mean Marcus Aurelius and the ancient Stoics believed in the Law of Attraction, as popularized by Rhonda Byrne? It’s a good question. And we will spend the […]

The post Stoicism and The Law of Attraction: The Ancient Truth About Manifestation and Magical Thinking appeared first on Daily Stoic.

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“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Does that mean Marcus Aurelius and the ancient Stoics believed in the Law of Attraction, as popularized by Rhonda Byrne?

It’s a good question. And we will spend the rest of this article answering it. This is a long post. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

What Is The Law of Attraction?

Does The Law of Attraction Really Work?

The Difference Between Positive Thinking and the Law of Attraction

Do The Stoics Believe In The Law of Attraction?

The Discipline of Action

3 Ancient Practices That Prove The Law Of Attraction Isn’t Real

Additional Resources

If you want to take a deeper dive into Stoicism and learn how to apply the philosophy to your life, check out our most popular course, Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course that will equip you with the tools to live as vibrant and expansive a life as the Stoics. Along with 14 daily emails, there will be 3 live video sessions with bestselling author Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. Learn more here and make sure to register before the live cohort begins on March 22nd!

What Is The Law of Attraction?

The Law of Attraction was made popular by The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The Secret has been translated into 50 languages and sold over 35 million copies. It was made into a movie in 2006 and the two combined have grossed well over $300 million. 

Oprah Winfrey gave it perhaps its biggest endorsement on The Larry King Show, saying, “The message of The Secret is the message I’ve been trying to share with the world on my show for the past twenty-one years.” 

Byrne was then on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where we learn the story of how reading The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles led to her writing The Secret. When asked about the title, Byrne told Oprah, “we really needed to contain the knowledge in a couple of words and ‘the secret’ is the law of attraction.” 

What do you mean by that? Oprah asks.

“The law of attraction,” Byrne responds, “is the most powerful law in the universe. It is the law by which we are creating our lives. So whether we realize it or not the law of attraction is working all of the time. Now clearly, if you don’t know what the law does then then you can’t be creating the life you want. The law of attraction says that like attracts like. What we do is we attract into our lives the things that we want and that is based on what we’re thinking and feeling.” 

The law of attraction (LOA) is the belief that the Universe creates whatever it is you focus your thoughts on. 

Oprah’s not the only famous advocate. When he was promoting the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith talked about how he felt connected to the character, based on a man named Chris Gardner who went from homeless to becoming a millionaire. “We both believe, wholeheartedly, that our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ideas are physical in the universe…That we are going to command and demand that the universe become what we want it to be.”

Jay Z has said, “I believe you can speak things into existence.” Conor McGregor believes, “If you truly believe in it and become vocal with it, you are creating that law of attraction and it will become reality.” And in the documentary In Wonder, there is a scene where Shawn Mendes shows a journal. On November 24th, 2018, he wrote line after line for a whole page, “I will sell out the Rogers Centre.” Tickets were going on sale that day. The next day, we see a full page in the journal, “I sold out the Rogers Centre.” He sold out the Rogers Centre—a more than 50,000 seat stadium in his home city of Toronto—“because I wrote it in my manifestation journal.”

LOA believers say it is a universal law: “like always attracts like.” They say things like that through “cutting edge science,” we can show that our thoughts have magnetic powers. That the energy and frequency of a thought radiates out into the Universe and attracts similar energies and frequencies of thoughts, people, things, then brings those things back to you. That thoughts become things. That if it’s on your mind or your vision board, it will eventually be in your real life. That creating the life of your dreams is just a matter of thinking about it with more intention.

LOA believers call it “placing an order.” Write down what you want—the more specific the better—then wait for them to happen. That’s right, as you’ll hear from one LOA guru, no action required! 

LOA believers write themselves a check for millions of dollars, carry it around in their pockets, and wait for the money to pour in. 

They write down, day after day, that they want millions of followers on TikTok and wait for the followers to pile up.

They put a picture of a mansion on their vision board and tell their manifestation coach that they planted the seed for their reality.

Then all that’s left is to meditate and journal and visualize and say your affirmations and then, as one LOA expert would say, “be receptive for what [you] wish to manifest.” 

Does The Law of Attraction Really Work?

It’d be wonderful if it were true. If we could, by the power of our thoughts, manifest the reality we wanted. Needless to say, this is not true.

Here’s a perfect example: 

In 2014, Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret—the famous book about the Law of Attraction—listed her Santa Barbara mansion for sale for some $23.5 million. A year later, she reduced it to $18.8. Then again to $14.9. Finally, after languishing for over five years, it sold for $13.6. $5 million less than she paid for it. $10 million less than she wanted for it. 

Reality—in this case the market—doesn’t care what you think. No amount of manifesting changes what something is worth. In fact, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal asked Rhonda Byrne why she didn’t just wish for her home to get the full asking price. It wasn’t a priority, she said, so she hadn’t “put in the time and energy.” That answer is a bit more palatable than admitting you’re a con artist. 

Dave Chappelle’s joke was that Rhonda Byrne should fly to Africa and tell those starving children her secret. That all they need to do is just visualize some roast beef, some mashed potatoes, and some gravy. They’d beg her to stop filling their minds with delicious impossibilities. “No, no, no,” Chappelle says, pretending to be Byrnes, “the problem is you have a bad attitude about starving to death.”

There’s no science that says your thoughts can will reality into behaving how you wish it to. Or that thinking negative thoughts will invite negative outcomes. In fact, literally all of science contradicts this. 

Here are just a few examples. 

  • Research has shown that “positive fantasies about the future predict poor performance.” 
  • Research has shown that positive fantasies also predicts both low effort and successful performance. 
  • Research has shown that consistent exposure to an ideal body type leads people to gain weight.

It’s worth repeating: literally all of science contradicts the law of attraction. Like magnets and electricity—often, like repels like. 

That’s not to say that positive thinking isn’t important. It’s to say that positive thinking is different from the law of attraction…

The Difference Between Positive Thinking and the Law of Attraction

In The Laws of Human Nature, the great Robert Greene makes the diction between having a constricted (negative) attitude an expansive (positive) attitude. The way we see the world is important. To illustrate this, he uses the example of a young man and a young woman studying abroad in Paris.

The young man has a constricted attitude. He finds reasons to not like the people, the weather, or the food. Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t what he hoped, not to mention it is overcrowded with annoying tourists. He has a miserable experience in Paris and swears to never return. 

The young woman has an expansive attitude. She’s not great at speaking French but she is thrilled to be learning the language. She finds the Parisians to be awesome and makes a lot of new friends. She finds the gloomy weather to be the perfect match for this romantic city. Everyday feels like an adventure. She’s enchanted and wants to stay as long as she can and then return as often as she can. 

Two people saw and experienced the same city in opposite ways. How does that happen? “With our particular perspectives,” Robert writes, “[we] add color to or subtract it from things and people. We focus on either the beautiful Gothic architecture or the annoying tourists.”

So yes, positive thinking is important. Our reality is largely created by what we decide to see: the positive or the negative. If you have positive thoughts, you will have positive experiences. If you see everything as negative and nasty, you will see annoying people and crappy weather.

But the law of attraction leaves out the crucial variable. As Ryan Holiday explained to Lewis Howes on The School of Greatness podcast, “Our perceptions do color our reality…But the Stoics don’t say, ‘oh, if you just see everything positive, it will all be positive.’ It’s that the positivity sets up the action that can make the positivity real.” 

The law of attraction says to write yourself a check for a million dollars and then wait for it to happen. The Stoics would say it’s fine to write yourself that check, as Ryan continues, “and then go do the work.” 

Did The Stoics Believe In The Law of Attraction?

The tricky part is, as we just talked about, the Stoics did believe our thoughts are extremely powerful. Our worldview does influence what we see. Telling yourself that something is possible or impossible can function as a kind of effective truth. 

Much more rigorous and less mystical thinkers than the Secret gurus have known this for centuries. 

Marcus Aurelius said, “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes the color of your thoughts.” He also said, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” 

Before Marcus, the slave turned teacher Epictetus said, “Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom.”

To the Stoics, the discipline of perception was essential. If you saw the world as a negative, horrible place, if you saw other people as your enemies, if you believed that you were screwed, you were right. 

Marcus Aurelius didn’t believe you manifested the future through “energy,” but he did believe that you had the power right here and now to determine whether you’d be “harmed” by something. If you decided to see what happened as good, you could make it good.

The Stoics would say that our thoughts determine the character of the reality we live in. If you see the awfulness in everything, your life will feel awful—even if you are surrounded by wealth and success. If you hold a perpetually negative outlook, soon enough everything you encounter will seem negative. Close it off and you’ll become closed-minded. Color it with the wrong thoughts and your life will be dyed the same. If you have a growth mindset, if you consider the very real chance of adversity, you won’t be easily discouraged when you fail. If you find something to be grateful for in every situation, you will feel blessed and happy where others feel aggrieved or deprived. 

The problem with the Law of Attraction is that it cuts both ways. 

By believing that thinking positively produces positive outcomes, it actually makes practitioners very vulnerable—because they will deliberately avoid thinking of potentially negative outcomes. And then guess what? When these outcomes do happen—because, well, life—they’re caught off guard. 

That’s why the exercise of premeditatio malorum (“the premeditation of evils”), which we talk more about below, is not dangerous, as many Secret manifesters might fear, but the epitome of safe. “Rehearse them in your mind,” Seneca said, “exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” The unexpecting are crushed, he said, the prepared, resolute. 

The key is that the discipline of perception is worthless on its own. What matters is what follows—the discipline of action. 

The Discipline of Action

As a kid, Demosthenes—one of the greatest orators of history and someone the publicly-minded Stoics would have studied carefully—was sickly and frail with a nearly debilitating speech impediment. He was the awkward child no one understood and everyone laughed at. 

Stuck in his young mind was the image of a great orator, a man he’d once witnessed speaking at the court at Athens. That a lone individual could keep a crowd hanging on his every word for hours—it inspired and challenged Demosthenes, who was well aware this confident speaker was in many ways the opposite of him.

So he did something about it. 

To conquer his speech impediment, he would fill his mouth with pebbles and practice speaking. He rehearsed full speeches into the wind or while running up steep inclines. He shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to go outside and have no choice but to stay inside and practice with his voice, his facial expressions, and his arguments. He even locked himself underground in a dugout he’d built to study and educate himself. 

All this training would pay off. Just like that confident speaker whose image he long held in his mind, Demosthenes earned the ability to command a crowd and would become the voice of Athens, it’s great speaker and conscience. make him one of the greatest orators of Athens. 

Some academic would at some point ask Demosthenes what the three most important traits of speechmaking were, his reply says it all: “Action, Action, Action!”

Whether your dream is to be a great orator, a great writer, a great entrepreneur, a great athlete—the road to realizing that dream is exactly that: a road. And just like you travel along a road in steps, accomplishing anything is a matter of steps. And taking steps means taking action.

This seems obvious. That action is the critical variable in achieving your goals and dreams. But not to LOA believers. According to one LOA guru, Esther Hicks, “You did not come into this environment to create through action.” Uh what, that is literally the only way to create things. Hicks and her followers believe that to take action is to doubt the Universe’s powers of manifestation. Better to show your unquestionable belief in the Universe through your inaction. 

This is obviously the antithesis of the way the Stoics lived. “You have to assemble your life yourself,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “action by action.”

3 Ancient Practices That Prove The Law Of Attraction Isn’t Real

Negative Visualization

“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” — Seneca

A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins, “I have bad news. The project has failed spectacularly. What went wrong?”

The team is perplexed: What?! But we haven’t even launched yet…!

It may seem strange and maybe even counterproductive to demand that employees think negatively instead of optimistically. In LOA circles, it’s forbidden. “That thinking of what you do not want,” as LOA guru Esther Hicks says, “only attracts more of what you do not want into your experience.”

The technique that the CEO above was using was designed by psychologist Gary Klein. It’s called a premortem. In a premortem, a project manager must envision what could go wrong—what will go wrong—in advance, before starting. 

Why? Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they are only considering how the Universe will manifest exactly what they hope and wish for.

In business circles today, everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies and the Harvard Business Review are doing this exact exercise. In a direct response to that optimistic-only, feel-good thinking, these leaders are encouraging their employees to think negatively.

But the practice goes back much further than psychology. It dates back many thousands of years, in fact—to the great Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. And they had an even better name for it: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).

Marcus Aurelius actually learned one premeditatio malorum practice from Epictetus. “As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus,” writes Marcus, a father of fourteen, “whisper to yourself, ‘He may be dead in the morning.’” 

Your tempting fate! we can hear LOA believers shouting.”Don’t tempt fate, you say,” Marcus continues. “By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?”

The point of thinking about this unthinkable thing is not to invite it to happen. It has a purpose. A parent who faces the fact that they can lose a child at any moment is a parent who dares not waste a moment. A wise parent looks at the cruel world and says, “I know what you can do to my family in the future, but for the moment you’ve spared me. I will not take that for granted.”

Or take a writer like Seneca. His premeditatio malorum practice would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then, in his head (or in writing), he would go over the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening—a storm could arise, the captain could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” he wrote to a friend, “nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”

By doing this exercise, Seneca was always prepared for disruption and always working that disruption into his plans. He was fitted for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one.

Voluntary Discomfort

“Make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.” — Seneca

Wallace Wattles—whose book The Science of Getting Rich inspired Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret—said, “Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it. Do not spend your time in charitable work, or charity movements, all charity only tends to perpetuate the wretchedness it aims to eradicate…Give your attention wholly to riches; ignore poverty.”

That is a great way to set yourself up to be in very, very bad shape if anything were ever to happen to the economy or to your job. Yikes. 

Seneca, one of the wealthiest men in Rome during his lifetime, had a lot to say about poverty The word “poverty” appears nearly a hundred times in his Letters to his friend Lucilius. 

He talked repeatedly about how poverty is far from the burden most fear it to be. He talked about how the poor man has a better grasp on true and tried friendship than the rich man. He talked about the kind of people welcome at his dinner table—impoverished or wealthy, it didn’t matter, what kind of character did they have? What kind of person were they? He talked about how it is not the person who has little that is poor but the one who craves more. 

Needless to say, Seneca would scoff at a Wattles or a Byrne’s advice to ignore poverty. His advice was in fact the opposite. He said we should do what he did routinely: practice poverty. As he described:

“Set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty…For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.”

Seneca wasn’t a rare exception. Others have practiced poverty without the Universe making poverty their reality.

From the late Roman collection of biographies known as the Historia Augusta, we get this story of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “He studied philosophy with ardour, even as a youth. For when he was twelve years old he adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground; at his mother’s solicitation, however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins.”

More recently, when we interviewed Tim Ferriss, we asked him what tactical advice or practices he’d recommend to our readers who want to cultivate resilience. Tim’s answer? “The first would be practicing poverty,” he said. Once a month, Tim does a three-day fast “to simply expose myself to the rather, often unfamiliar, sensation of real hunger.” 

He also mentioned how his friend, a wealthy CEO, schedules a week every quarter where sleeps in a sleeping bag in his living room and survives on instant coffee and instant oatmeal. With this reassurance that he can thrive with with next to nothing, his decision making improves. He can think big picture rather than do things out of fear or obligation. 

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

Meditate On Your Mortality

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius

Rhonda Byrne’s advice would be to avoid thinking about your mortality. As she writes in The Secret, “If you think or talk about diseases, you will become sick. What you think or surround yourself with – good or bad, is what you will bring upon yourself.”

But here’s the thing: you already have a terminal diagnosis. We all do! As the writer Edmund Wilson put it, “Death is one prophecy that never fails.” Every person is born with a fatal disease.

Which is why for nearly 3,000 years, the great minds have been saying essentially the same thing: think about death. Indeed, the Stoics would hardly be alone in disputing Byrne:

Socrates: “The one aim of those who practice philosophy is to practice for dying and death.” 

Shakespeare: “Every third thought should be my grave.”

Michelangelo: “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.” 

Tolstoy: “If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different.” 

Moses: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” 

And Mozart: “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.”

Again, that’s over 3,000 years of wisdom on the same theme…

Every era and every culture has its own way of teaching the same lesson: Memento Mori, as the Romans would remind themselves. At a Roman triumph, the majority of the public would have their eyes glued to the victorious general at the front—one of the most coveted spots during Roman times. Only a few would notice the aide in the back, right behind the commander, whispering into his ear, Memento Mori. “Remember, thou art mortal.”

Did that cause all of them to die premature deaths? Um. No. 

Memento Mori is not about being morbid. It’s not to tempt The Universe. It was as Samuel Johnson wrote, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” 

The Stoic finds this thought of their mortality invigorating and humbling. It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “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.” 

Use those reminders and meditate on them daily—let them be the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second.

Additional Resources:

How Stoicism Can Help You Take Action

 

“The Secret” Is A Lie, Stop Trying To Manifest, Start Thinking Ahead

 

The Stoic Secret Of Facing Failure To Achieve Success: Premeditatio Malorum

 

Why I Practice Marcus Aurelius’ Meditation On Mortality

 

Today’s Stoic Practice: Practice Misfortune

 

The Thing Is…You Must Take Action

 

We Are What We Think About

 

Action by Action

 

Clearing Out Your Perceptions

 

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5 Stoic Tips for Handling Rude People https://dailystoic.com/5-stoic-tips-for-handling-rude-people/ Tue, 13 Jul 2021 18:11:25 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=11363 Today, the name “Karen” has rapidly become the catch-all term for unhinged, incredibly rude people. The person who calls the manager on a waiter for messing up an order. The person who screams at a person in the street for menial and unimportant.  And while this terrible behavior may well be on the rise—documented in […]

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Today, the name “Karen” has rapidly become the catch-all term for unhinged, incredibly rude people. The person who calls the manager on a waiter for messing up an order. The person who screams at a person in the street for menial and unimportant. 

And while this terrible behavior may well be on the rise—documented in its ubiquity through smart phones—the reality is that rude people have always been with us. 

In Lives of the Stoics, we mentioned the infamous Nero—often referred to as the worst of the Roman Emperors in antiquity. By the end of Nero’s reign, he had ordered the death of his mother, murdered his wife, according to some accounts his second wife as well, and even one of the Stoic pillars, Seneca. Nero was the embodiment of evil. Now, the people we come across on a daily basis may not reach Nero’s level of evil, but they are little tyrants themselves, seeking to control the uncontrollable and bend the world to their own solipsistic worldview.  

Is a world without these people possible? Perhaps. Likely? Not in our lifetimes. So the question is…how do we deal with them without compromising our character? Below, we answer that question with 5 Stoic tips for dealing with the worst kind of people.

If you want to take a deeper dive into Stoicism and learn how to apply the philosophy to your life, check out our most popular course, Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course that will equip you with the tools to live as vibrant and expansive a life as the Stoics. Along with 14 daily emails, there will be 3 live video sessions with bestselling author Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. Learn more here and make sure to register before the live cohort begins on March 22nd!

Give People The Benefit of the Doubt

“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, who theoretically had the power to ban rude people from his presence, kicked off each day instead by preparing for them, reminding himself that his fellow humans were often selfish, rude and annoying. The point was to not let it catch him by surprise, so he would be indignant and shocked by it. 

But there’s another part of the exercise—spending a few seconds trying to understand and sympathize with the people who behave this way. As David Foster Wallace would say in his famous “This Is Water” speech, we want to avoid the immediate and unconscious impulse to take people’s rudeness personally. We want to avoid the assumption that they are trying to hurt us, that they mean to act so selfishly.

Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Think of that when you’re stuck in the checkout line today, or when you’re caught in traffic, or when someone does something that really pisses you off that makes you think, “What’s wrong with this person?” You have no idea what their reality is, you have no idea what they’ve been through—and how much more empathetic and patient might you be if you did. Or better, if you gave them every benefit of the doubt.

This is the Best Revenge

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.” — Marcus Aurelius

We do not want to give you the impression here that a Stoic merely accepts everything in life. The Stoics were not passive weaklings. They just knew how absurd the need to “get even” is. “Best to take the opposite course,” Seneca wrote. “Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?” When someone hurts us or pisses us off, that’s exactly what we do.

That’s why when someone insulted Cato, he pretended not to hear it. When someone said something offensive to Epictetus, he told himself that if he got upset, he was as much to blame as they were. He also joked that if they really knew him, they’d be even more critical. When someone attacked Marcus Aurelius’s character, he reminded himself, “the best revenge is not to be like that.”

And that’s what you must remind yourself also. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t have to turn things into bigger things. You don’t have to be like that. 

Step Outside of Yourself

“Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.” — Marcus Aurelius

We’ve all fallen victim to “the heat of the moment.” Someone cuts us off on the freeway, or speaks to us rudely, or is simply unpleasant to be around. In these moments, we become so irritated and so emotional that it’s hard to recognize ourselves in the mirror. We become someone else entirely—consumed with the belief that we’ve been wronged in some way. In these situations, it’s helpful to zoom out, to “take the view from above,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote.  

The Stoic principle of Sympatheia is our best friend in dealing with unpleasant people. It’s the idea of seeing the bigger picture. In the heat of the moment, when faced with a rude person, there’s this compulsion to get even or to put someone in their place. But this isn’t us talking, it’s our inflated sense of self-importance. And it’s not worth damaging our character.

Strive to be Indifferent

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.” — Marcus Aurelius

Emotions are powerful. There is a reason why most of us tend to give into them. But the price we pay for stooping down to another person’s level is far greater than if we learn to control ourselves. We always talk about control in Stoicism, and it is almost always in relation to controlling ourselves rather than other people. 

In Lives of the Stoics, we told the origin story of Zeno—the founder of the great philosophy we practice today. Zeno began his study of philosophy as a young man, under the famous Cynic Crates. The story goes that after Zeno endured a nearly fatal shipwreck, he wandered through the city of Athens with a great deal of anxiety. He was constantly worried about what others thought of him, and Crates knew just how to fix that. One day, Crates asked Zeno to carry a clay pot full of lentil soup through the busy crowds in the potters district. Zeno was worried about standing out and tried to conceal the pot underneath his cloak. Crates took notice, and promptly walked up to Zeno, smashed the pot of soup with his staff, and watched as it splattered all of Zeno’s cloak and undergarments. “Courage, my little Phoenician” said Crates, “It’s only a little soup.”

Seneca would say that it’s obviously better to be rich than poor, tall than short, but the Stoic was indifferent when fate actually dealt out its hand on the matter. Because the Stoic was strong enough to make good of whatever is thrown their way. This has to be top of mind whenever we deal with people. Expectations that people will always treat us with respect will inevitably lead to disappointment. Instead, we ought to prepare ourselves for reality. We should choose each day, as Marcus once said, to be unharmed. 

So long as we remain indifferent to what others say, we can’t be. 

Accept That Rude People Are Inescapable

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”  — Marcus Aurelius

It’s remarkable to think that even as Emperor, Marcus dealt with rude and arrogant people. It illustrates the most important point of all. That rude people have always existed, and they are everywhere.  

So you have to ask yourself, Marcus wrote, Is a world without shameless or stupid or mean or insensitive people possible? No. Of course not. “Then don’t ask the impossible,” he says. “There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole world class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”

The bottom line is this: we have to accept that there will always be unpleasant people. We have to take the high road and respond to rudeness with indifference and empathy. 

How hurt must someone be, to inflict rudeness on another? 

How insecure are they, to belittle or insult someone whom they do not know? 

This is the mindset we must adopt. Anything else—getting even, getting angry, or getting physical— it only makes the world a worse place. As Stoics, we’re charged with doing the opposite. 

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What it comes down to is remembering that you have a choice

“Every event has two handles,” Epictetus said, “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”

So know that you know there are always two handles, which one will you choose to grab?

P.S. If rude people consistently cause you to lose your temper, the Stoics have some of the smartest and most applicable insights about getting your anger contained. That’s why we created Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger. 10 days of tried and tested strategies, exercises, video lessons, and bonus tools based on Stoic philosophy and aimed at helping you deal with your anger in a constructive manner. Learn more here!

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Stoicism: The Philosophy of the Beehive NOT Just the Bee https://dailystoic.com/beehive/ Thu, 27 May 2021 14:54:52 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=11159 This is a guest post by Kai Whiting. Kai is the co-author of the recently released Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. Stoic philosophy is profoundly about sculpting your own character for the purpose of living what the Stoic founder, Zeno of Citium, referred to as the “good life”. However, by “good” […]

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This is a guest post by Kai Whiting. Kai is the co-author of the recently released Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in.

Stoic philosophy is profoundly about sculpting your own character for the purpose of living what the Stoic founder, Zeno of Citium, referred to as the “good life”. However, by “good” he didn’t mean nice or pleasurable. What he meant was a life worthy of being lived (the obtaining of what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia). And it is worthy because, through your capacity for reason, you are able to act and think courageously, justly, and wisely, with temperance. As my co-author Leonidas Konstantakos and I state in our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in:

The four Stoic virtues — courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom — are meant to guide all choices and actions, great and small. In Stoicism, practicing courage means consistently, deliberately, and rationally facing dangerous or socially uncomfortable situations in pursuit of noble causes. Justice means ensuring that all beings are treated fairly and self-control means, among other things, consciously and habitually making the choice to regulate appetites for food, drink, money, and sex. This involves calling out and countering injustice whenever and however it arises. Finally, you are said to be wise when you are able to unwaveringly judge what is good, bad, or neither.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people come to Stoicism when they realize that an operating system focused on achieving fame, a bigger salary or a job promotion (all Stoic indifferents) is inherently an unstable one. This is because such a system only works if enough people get with your program and fortune (fortuna) aligns with your goals. Unfortunately, and as the Stoics highlight, other people getting with our program is not always (or often) up to us or completely within our power:

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. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1 – Hard & Gill translation)

In any case, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is a perfect example of how power, fame, money and even being in a position to force a whole host of people (his Roman subjects and slaves) to make certain things easier, cannot shield you from all of life’s challenges and personal tragedies. Aside from being involved in perpetual war campaigns, mutinies, plagues, and floods, Marcus lost just about every child his wife, Faustina, gave birth to. Judging by the following entry in his personal journal, which we now refer to as Meditations, he also had to deal with his fair share of people who weren’t exactly interested in Stoicism or a journey towards eudaimonia:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil… I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1 – George Long translation)

Undoubtedly, Marcus’ wisdom is helpful when we come up against difficult people who either won’t get with our program, or who accidentally, or purposefully, attempt to sabotage our operating system. His words tell us that we are very likely to come across poorly behaved people and remind us that we do not have to take ownership of these people’s bad attitudes or actions. Likewise, we don’t need to hate them for it and shouldn’t allow ourselves to be triggered. Instead, we are called to appropriately deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that we do not corrupt our own pursuit of eudaimonia.

Contrary to what is often expressed in Stoic social media circles, this doesn’t mean that we must always or automatically shrug our shoulders or ignore bad behavior. Nothing outside of seeking virtue and avoiding vice (the polar opposites of virtue: cowardice, greed, injustice and ignorance) is automatic in Stoicism. A Stoic’s reaction will always depend on context. Spending a lot of time sitting on the fence is not Stoicism. It’s siding with the victor. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do but it isn’t always. Certainly, sitting on the fence shouldn’t be about leaving the dirty work up to others or removing ourselves from every single person or situation we disagree with or dislike, just because it’s easier. In fact, limiting our interactions to a carefully designed echo chamber does not fit well with the Stoic call to work towards building a harmonious global community. This is also why Marcus reminds himself:

A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realising that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens. Only there is this gift we have from Zeus who brought together the human community: we can grow back again to our neighbour and resume our place in the complement of the whole. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.8 – Hard and Gill translation)

Fundamentally, Stoicism enables all of us who are willing to use our capacity for reason to take steps to understand the nature of a problem and what we can do, given our skillset and mindset, to solve it. And, in line with our pursuit of virtue, we solve it not just for ourselves but for the good of our community, recognizing as Marcus did:

What brings no benefit to the hive brings no benefit to the bee (Meditations 6.54)

If we grapple with the spirit of Marcus’ message, it quickly becomes obvious that while Stoicism does instruct us not to let an insult or a person’s behavior trigger or frustrate us, in order that we might rise above it, it does not tell us to scoff at or ignore someone else’s plight. Similarly, Stoicism isn’t really about changing our mindset so that we have a calmer quieter life or so we can train harder in the gym, now that we have learned what’s in our control. It’s fundamentally about understanding what’s in our control (or not) so that we allow ourselves the headspace to do what is right, for the right reason, for the good of the wider society of fellow citizens. This includes us.

Understanding our well-being from the perspective of the beehive leads us to consider our specific role within that beehive and how our attitudes and actions contribute to the harmony within it. While often overlooked, Stoicism calls us to consider how the food we swallow, the clothing we put on our backs and what we spend our time or money on affects other people (bees). By extension, we also need to consider how our individual behavior (and to a certain extent group think) affects the physical structure and functioning of the planet we inhabit (the physical structure of the beehive). This is because how we treat all living beings and their habitats on Earth is indicative of our virtuous (or vicious) character.

The fact that Stoics rejected the “nice life” in favor of the “good life”, and that a good life involves the beehive and not just the bee, tells us that while each Stoic individually pursues virtue, they do so with their eyes fixed on the common good of the community they belong to – for their sake and for the sake of others.

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Kai Whiting is the co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

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Stoicism and Mimetic Desire: 3 Keys To Living Intentionally https://dailystoic.com/stoicism-and-mimetic-desire/ Tue, 25 May 2021 19:01:12 +0000 https://dailystoic.com/?p=11137 This is a guest post by Luke Burgis. Luke is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, which is now available for pre-order and releases on June 1st! “Mimetic desire” is a concept that originated with the French thinker René Girard. He believed that our desires are not entirely our […]

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This is a guest post by Luke Burgis. Luke is the author of Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, which is now available for pre-order and releases on June 1st!

“Mimetic desire” is a concept that originated with the French thinker René Girard. He believed that our desires are not entirely our own. Instead, they are generated and shaped through a social process by which people imitate (mimesis comes from the Greek word for “imitate”) the desires of others.

The degree to which our desires are mimetic is unclear. Some students of Girard believe that everything humans want is derivative of what someone else has already wanted. Others think that only some desires are borrowed from others to greater or lesser degrees.

It seems obvious that at least some desires are mimetic. When we were children, chances are that we wanted to do some things (like play a sport) because our friends did. Even as adults, we are very susceptible to mimetic behavior. It’s easy to catch the desire to vacation somewhere, for instance, after we see a beautiful vacation photo on Instagram.  

Understanding our relationship to mimetic desire is an important step in becoming a person whose choices are not socially derived, but intentional. It’s about gaining freedom from trends and bubbles and fads—the ability to have more agency in shaping the life we want.

Here are three of the most important ways that Stoicism can help:

Detachment 

Epictetus wrote: “The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want…If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy…For desire, suspend it completely for now.” (Enchiridion, 2.1-2)

Notice that he ends with “for now”—it is not indefinite. Epictetus is recommending that we create some critical distance from our desires for a period of time so that we can discern which of them lead to a good life and which do not. He talked about saying to a desire, “Hold on a moment…let me put you to the test.” 

We can’t suspend all desire indefinitely. Humans are desiring creatures. But we shouldn’t immediately believe in the truth of every desire stirred up in us.  Marcus Aurelius had a good exercise that can help us with this: stripping away the legend that encrusts things…

Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood…Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time.

Stoicism teaches that we should discern our desires carefully. That starts with developing a sense of detachment from them so that we can evaluate them critically.

Deliberate Action

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire doesn’t give many practical solutions to the problems it presents. If our desires are truly mimetic, then we don’t have as much control over our desires as we like to think. So what should we do?

Marcus Aurelius gives the Stoic prescription for this. He wrote that “progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over.”

It is by taking deliberate action that we move forward—not by spending all of our time wrestling with, or becoming consumed with, our desires.

We have to act. And it is through action that we ultimately make sense of our true desires. “Learn to ask of all actions,” Marcus writes, “‘Why are they doing that?’ Starting with your own.”

Perennial Desires 

Desires come and go, but some things never change. The wisdom of the Stoics is so relevant today because it is grounded in time-tested truths about human nature.

The four Stoic virtues articulated in this letter by Marcus Aurelius are justice, prudence, self-control, and courage. For thousands of years, people have pursued these virtues and found that they never disappoint. We can think of these virtues as the perennial desires of the wise. 

These virtues also form the basis of a practical morality. The great writer Montesquieu, an admirer of the Stoics, wrote this in a letter to a friend in 1750:

About thirty years ago, I conceived the project of writing a book on duty. Cicero’s treatise On duties had delighted me, and I took it as my model. As you know, Cicero had, as it were, copied Panaetius, who was a Stoic, and the Stoics had treated this question most successfully. So I read the Stoics’ principal works, among them the Moral Reflections of Marcus Aurelius, which struck me as the masterpiece of Antiquity. I confess that I was impressed by its morality, and that I should have liked to make a saint of Marcus Aurelius […]. What impressed me most was to discover that this morality was practical…

Montesquieu could look to people that lived nearly 2,000 years before him because there are enduring desires that are common to people of all times and in all places. Pursuing them prevents us from pursuing ephemeral—and more mimetic—desires instead. We can stand on the accumulated wisdom of the great men and women that came before us. The four Stoic virtues are a good place to start.

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about mimetic desire, please check out the book that I wrote about it: Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.  

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