Stoicism, since its roots, has been a school of thought for the hard-headed and practical. It’s called a “philosophy” but it harkens back to the oldest form of that word. It doesn’t mean what we tend to think philosophy means: waxing intellectual in a university classroom, and navel gazing without actually having to put anything in practice or put anything on the line. It was a philosophy for doers and builders, people with skin in the game.
The oldest Stoics were men who lived real lives. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome. Cato the Younger was a senator and a military commander. These were men who lived in the cut and thrust of politics and war. They didn’t sit back and pontificate. Which is why their words are worth more, in a way, than some of their counterparts who spent more time writing and less time doing. (Cato, as it turns out, left behind no written record of his life; and yet, he has inspired generations since.)
We study these models because they can teach us about how to live. But it’s important that we focus on how they lived more than what they said. It’s tempting to sit and read the high-flown words of a Seneca or an Aurelius and think that we are somehow different, that we can’t live the same way they did.
Nonsense. That’s the whole point. The point is that our models should serve to shape our behavior. We should study these thinkers not because studying is the end goal, but because their lives can give us direction, help us improve, guide us in making better decisions. Stoicism has been referred to as “an operating system”—but you have to operate in order for that system to work.
Remember that even as we look at these lives, the point isn’t to look—it’s to do.