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It’s Not About The One-Liners

Daily Stoic Emails

There is a story the Stoics liked to repeat about a general who lost his entire family to the enemy. It was devastating news, discovered all at once, like that scene in Gladiator when Maximus rushes back to his farm, only to find everything he loved had been destroyed, desecrated.

All expected the general to fall to pieces. Instead, he gathered himself and, as Epictetus tells us, said, “I knew they were mortal when I had them.” And then he carried on living as best he could.

It’s an epic, tragic, and inspiring line. But we should understand that Stoicism is far more than quips. It has to be…because no one could possibly withstand an event like that with simply an astute philosophical observation.

Stoicism is a rich set of ideas, and then it is real work. Liking a social media post, not being overwhelmed by the moment is one thing, but the real work is what comes after. It’s returning to Stoicism again and again. It’s washing ourselves in its messages, its characters, and it’s beauty day after day, letting it wash over us again and again.

Seneca, who wrote three beautiful essays on loss and heartache called Consolations, would talk about how grief was something that had to be conquered, not deceived. Emotions and experiences have to be understood, processed, integrated. You can’t just stuff it down. You can’t just dismiss it with a repost or a joke. You can’t just pretend it’s not there. You can’t just carry around a “Memento Mori” coin and claim to be a steward of Stoicism. You can’t just expect “Memento Mori” to work as a magical incantation that protects you from the grievous wounds of fate.

Of course, we know that these one-liners and great quotes are interesting, inspiring, and provocative. We post them everyday on social media. We talk about them in our emails. But if someone stops there, they’re missing the point Stoicism is a lot more than that (That’s one of the reasons we’re relaunching Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy for Your Actual Life. It’s great that you’re subscribed to this email, but what next? How do you take the next step? How are you applying these ideas?)

Let’s go back to that story of the general. Because what really matters in his story is all the stuff left out. How did he move forward? What was he doing the next day, the next month? Did he continue to practice and apply this self-control and poise? Marcus Aurelius didn’t just write about Stoicism in his journal – he lived it. Think about his own grief with the loss of his children, no amount of philosophy just magically healed him. He had to work at it. He practiced the self-discipline and mindfulness that he wrote about day after day, week after week. And so it would need to go for that general, just reminding himself that his loved ones were going to die at some point anyway would have hardly been sufficient to process, integrate and carry on after a tragedy of that magnitude.

The same is true for our own pain and adversity. A Stoic sense of humor, a tough exterior–these are only the beginning of the process, of processing. Stoicism is a hard slog. It’s a practice. It’s an ongoing thing. It’s something you do.