For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism. It’s a philosophy designed to make us more resilient, happier, more virtuous and more wise–and as a result, better people, better parents and better professionals.
Stoicism has been a common thread though some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Marcus Aurelius. Frederick the Great, Montaigne, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Theodore Roosevelt, General James Mattis, —just to name a few—were all influenced by Stoic philosophy.
So what is Stoicism? Who were the Stoics? How can you be a Stoic? We answer all your questions and more below. Click the links below to navigate to a specific section or scroll and read the entirety of the page:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Letters From A Stoic by Seneca
- Discourses by Epictetus
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
- The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday
- The Dichotomy of Control
- Practice Misfortune
- Train Perceptions
- Remember—It’s All Ephemeral
- Take The View From Above
- Memento Mori: Meditate On Your Mortality
- Premeditatio Malorum
- Amor Fati
“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ” — Seneca
The private diaries of one of Rome’s greatest emperors, the personal letters of one of Rome’s best playwrights and wisest power brokers, the lectures of a former slave and exile, turned influential teacher. Against all odds, some two millennia later, these incredible documents survive. They contain some of the greatest wisdom in the history of the world and together, they constitute the bedrock of what is known as Stoicism—an ancient philosophy that was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.
Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.” Given the fact that the mere mention of philosophy makes most nervous or bored, “Stoic philosophy” on the surface sounds like the last thing anyone would want to learn about, let alone urgently need in the course of daily life.
It would be hard to find a word that dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.” In its rightful place, Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry. Certainly, many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out: George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics. The ancient Stoics themselves were no slouches. The names you encounter on this site in our daily email meditations—Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca—belonged to, respectively, a Roman emperor, a former slave who triumphed to become an influential lecturer and friend of the emperor Hadrian, and a famous playwright and political adviser.
What have all these and countless other great men and women found within Stoicism that others missed? A great deal. Primarily, that it provides much needed strength, wisdom, and stamina for all of life’s challenges.
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!
Around 304 BC, a merchant named Zeno was shipwrecked on a trading voyage. He lost nearly everything. Making his way to Athens, he was introduced to philosophy by the Cynic philosopher Crates and the Megarian philosopher Stilpo, which changed his life. As Zeno later joked, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.” He would later move to what became known as the Stoa Poikile, literally meaning “painted porch.” Erected in the 5th century BC—the ruins of it are visible still, some 2,500 years later—the painted porch is where Zeno and his disciples gathered for discussion. While his followers were originally called Zenonians, it is the ultimate credit to Zeno’s humility that the philosophical school he founded, unlike nearly every school and religion before or since, didn’t ultimately carry his name.
Agasicles, king of the Spartans, once quipped that he wanted to be “the student of men whose son I should like to be as well.” It is a critical consideration we need to make in our search for role models. Stoicism is no exception. Before we begin our studies we need to ask ourselves: Who are the people that followed these precepts? Who can I point out as an example? Am I proud to look up to this person? Do I want to be more like them?
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright and political advisor Seneca, and the slave turned prominent teacher Epictetus—these are the three Stoics you need to get to know first. Once you do, we’re confident you will want to follow in their footsteps.
“Alone of the emperors,” the historian Herodian would write of the man who became known to us as Marcus Aurelius, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.” Cassius Dio: “In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power.”
Born April 26th, 121, nobody would have predicted that Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus would one day be Emperor of the Roman Empire. The emperor Hadrian, who would have known young Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, sensing his potential, kept an eye on the boy. His nickname for Marcus, whom he liked to go hunting with, was Verissimus—a play on his name Verus—the truest one. What exactly Hadrian saw in Marcus is unclear. But by Marcus’s 17th birthday, Hadrian had begun planning something extraordinary.
He was going to make Marcus Aurelius the emperor of Rome.
On February 25th, 138, Hadrian adopted a 51 year old man named Antoninus Pius on the condition that he in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. Given life-expectancy statistics of the time, Hadrian figured this regent and mentor might be at the helm in five years. All was well, except Antoninus lived and ruled for twenty three years.
In 161, as Antoninus died and ended one of the longest reigns, Marcus finally became the Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity, as well as the plague that left millions dead.
The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just look at the journal that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations: the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser.
And for Marcus, Stoicism provided a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history.
Born around 4BC in Corduba, Spain, the son of a wealthy and learned writer known to history as Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger was destined for great things from birth. Seneca’s father selected Attalus the Stoic to tutor his boy, primarily for his reputation as a man of great eloquence. His son took to education with gusto—by Seneca’s own telling, he cheerfully “laid siege” to the classroom and was the first to arrive and last to leave it. The most powerful lesson that Seneca learned from Attalus was on the desire to improve practically, in the real world. The purpose of studying philosophy, Seneca learned from his beloved instructor, was to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.”
While his commitment to self-improvement was beloved by his teachers, they also knew that his father—no fan of philosophy—was paying them to train his son for an active and ambitious political career. In Rome, a promising young lawyer could appear in court as early as age 17, and there is little doubt that Seneca was one…but, only in his early twenties, Seneca’s health nearly cut it all short. A lung condition forced him to take an extended trip to Egypt to recover where he would spend nearly a decade writing, reading, and building up his strength.
He returned to Rome at 35 in 31 AD—a time of paranoia and violence and corruption and political turmoil. Seneca kept his head down for the most part throughout the equally terrifying reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. His life took a sharp turn in 41 A.D. when Claudius became the emperor and exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica. It would be another eight years away from Rome—and although he started productively (writing Consolation to Polybius, Consolation to Helvia and On Anger in a short span), the many writing consolations soon needed some consoling himself. So began his practice of letter writing, which would continue all his life.
Eight years later, in another sharp turn, Agrippina, mother of future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius recalled Seneca from exile to become her son’s tutor and adviser. At 53 years old, Seneca is suddenly elevated to the center of life in the Roman imperial court—a whirlwind of events that history still hasn’t wrapped its head around. In the end, Seneca made only minimal impact on Nero, a man whom time would shortly reveal to be deranged. Was it always a hopeless mission? Probably. But all a Stoic can do is show up and do our work. Seneca believed he had an obligation. As he would later write, the difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans is that the Stoics felt that politics was a duty.
While Seneca would speak, with surprising relatability, about slave owners who became owned by the responsibility and management of their slaves or other Stoics would congratulate themselves for their humane treatment of their human chattel, Epictetus actually was one.
His given name is not known. Epictētos is Greek meaning “acquired.” Epictetus was born into slavery. Epictetus’ mention of his owner, Epaphroditus, is surprisingly neutral because we know Epaphroditus was cruel even by Roman standards. Later Christian writers tell us that Epictetus’s master was violent and depraved, at one point twisting Epictetus’s leg with all his might. As a punishment? As a sick pleasure? In a wrestling match? Trying to get a disobedient young kid to follow instructions? We don’t know. All we hear is that Epictetus calmly warned him about taking it too far. When the leg snapped, Epictetus made no sound, he uttered no tears. He smiled and looked at his master and said, “Didn’t I warn you?”
For the rest of his life, Epictetus would walk with a limp. But Epictetus remained unbroken by the incident. “Lameness is an impediment to the leg,” he would later say, “but not to the will.” Epictetus would choose to see his disability as only a physical impairment, and in fact it was that idea of choice that defined the core of his philosophical beliefs. Life was like a play, he liked to say, and if it was the playwrights “pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”
And so he did.
Law established by Augustus in 4AD determined that slaves could not be freed before their 30th birthday. Epictetus didn’t obtain his freedom until shortly after emperor Nero’s death. He chose to dedicate himself fully to philosophy and taught in Rome for nearly 25 years…Until the emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers in Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught until his death.
They are the most essential values in Stoic philosophy. “If, at some point in your life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.” That was almost twenty centuries ago. We have discovered a lot of things since then—automobiles, the Internet, cures for diseases that were previously a death sentence—but have we found anything better?
…than being brave
…than moderation and sobriety
…than doing what’s right
…than truth and understanding?
No, we have not. It’s unlikely we ever will. Everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four traits:
If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s dark and beautiful novel All the Pretty Horses, you’ll remember the key question that Emilio Perez asks John Grady, one that cuts to the core of life and what we all must do to live a life worth living.
“The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave?”
The Stoics might have phrased this a bit differently. Seneca would say that he actually pitied people who have never experienced misfortune. “You have passed through life without an opponent,” he said, “No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
The world wants to know what category to put you in, which is why it will occasionally send difficult situations your way. Think of these not as inconveniences or even tragedies but as opportunities, as questions to answers. Do I have cojones? Am I brave? Am I going to face this problem or run away from it? Will I stand up or be rolled over?
Let your actions etch a response into the record—and let them remind you of why courage is the most important thing.
Of course, life is not so simple as to say that courage is all the counts. While everyone would admit that courage is essential, we are also all well aware of people whose bravery turns to recklessness and becomes a fault when they begin to endanger themselves and others.
This is where Aristotle comes in. Aristotle actually used courage as the main example in his famous metaphor of a “Golden Mean.” On one end of the spectrum, he said, there was cowardice—that’s a deficiency of courage. On the other, there was recklessness—too much courage. What was called for, what we required then, was a golden mean. The right amount.
That’s what Temperance or moderation is about: Doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way. Because “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle also said, “therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
In other words: Virtue and excellence is a way of living. It’s foundational. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit.
As Epictetus would later say, “capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” So if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.
This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without herculean effort or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes—that’s what it takes.
P.S. Daily Stoic sifted through the greatest Stoic wisdom and aimed it at one of the most challenging parts of life: habit formation and growth. Check out Daily Stoic Habits for Success, Habits for Success Challenge! Challenge yourself to change what you “repeatedly do.” We are promising that if you can do that, you can achieve excellence—personally and professionally.
Being brave. Finding the right balance. These are core Stoic virtues, but in their seriousness, they pale in comparison to what the Stoics worshipped most highly: Doing the right thing.
There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.
- Cato gave his life trying to restore the Roman Republic.
- And Thrasea and Agrippinus gave theirs resisting the tyranny of Nero.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson formed a new nation—one which would seek, however imperfectly, to fight for democracy and justice—largely inspired by the philosophy of Cato and those other Stoics.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a translator of Epictetus, led a black regiment of troops in the US Civil War.
- Beatrice Webb, who helped to found the London School of Economics and who first conceptualized the idea of collective bargaining, regularly re-read Marcus Aurelius.
Countless other activists and politicians have turned to Stoicism to gird them against the difficulty of fighting for ideals that mattered, to guide them towards what was right in a world of so much wrong. A Stoic must deeply believe that an individual can make a difference. Successful activism and political maneuvering require understanding and strategy, as well as realism… and hope. It requires wisdom, acceptance and also a refusal to accept the statue quo.
It was James Baldwin who most brilliantly captured this tension in Notes of a Native Son:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength.
A Stoic sees the world clearly…but also sees clearly what the world can be. And then they are brave, and strategic enough to help bring it into reality.
Courage. Temperance. Justice. These are the critical virtues of life. But what situations call for courage? What is the right amount? What is the right thing? This is where the final and essential virtue comes in: Wisdom. The knowing. The learning. The experience required to navigate the world.
Wisdom has always been prized by the Stoics. Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen more than we talk. And since we have two eyes, we are obligated to read and observe more than we talk as well.
It is key today, as it was in the ancient world, to be able to distinguish between the vast aggregations of information that lay out there at your disposal—and the actual wisdom that you need to live a good life. It’s key that we study, that we keep our minds open always. You cannot learn that which you think you already know, Epictetus said. It’s true.
Which is why we need to not only be humble students but also seek out great teachers. It’s why we should always be reading. It’s why we cannot stop training. It’s why we have to be diligent in filtering out the signal from the noise.
The goal is not just to acquire information, but the right kind of information. It’s the lessons found in Meditations, in everything from the actual Epictetus to James Stockdale entering the world of Epictetus. It’s the key facts, standing out from the background noise, that you need to absorb.
Thousands of years of blazing insight are available to the world. It is likely that you have the power to learn anything you want at your fingertips. So today, honor the Stoic virtue of wisdom by slowing down, being deliberate, and finding the wisdom you need.
Two eyes, two ears, one mouth. Remain a student. Act accordingly—and wisely.
P.S. If you’re looking to be a better reader—to build a real reading practice—the Stoics can help. We built out some of their best insights into our Daily Stoic: Read-to-Lead Reading Challenge. It’s going to walk you through more than a dozen actionable challenges that will help you elevate your game as a reader, learn how to think more critically and discover important books that will change your life. We’ve got videos and worksheets and all sorts of recommendations and strategies for you. If you’ve liked any of our other courses, you’ll love this one—it’s awesome, it’s actionable and it will help you get a better ROI out of one of the most important ways we spend our time and enrich our minds. Give it a shot.
Meditations is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Marcus stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises—reminders designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with. You cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will be helpful to you next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied.
While Marcus wrote mainly for himself, Seneca had no trouble advising and aiding others. In fact, that was his job—he was Nero’s tutor, tasked with reducing the terrible impulses of a terrible man. His advice on grief, on wealth, on power, on religion, and on life are always there when you need them. Seneca’s letters are the best place to start, but the essays in On the Shortness of Life are excellent as well.
That Epictetus’ teachings survive to us is remarkable. It is only thanks to a student named Arrian, who’s credited with transcribing the lessons he learned in Epictetus’ classroom at the beginning of the second century AD. Arrian wrote in a letter prior to the Discourses’ publishing, “whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could, as a record for later use of his thought and frank expression.” Arrian would use those lessons to achieve renown throughout Rome as a political advisor, military commander, and prolific author. Interestingly, in the first book of Meditations, titled “Debts and Lessons,” Marcus thanks one of his philosophy teachers, Rusticus, “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures – and loaning me his own copy.”
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living features not only 366 all-new translations of brilliant stoic passages but 366 exciting stories, examples and explanations of the stoic principles from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus but also some of the lesser known but equally wise stoics from Zeno to Cleanthes to Chrysippus. The book takes the reader on a daily journey through practical, pragmatic philosophy. Each day offers a new stoic insight and exercise. By following these teachings, you’ll find the serenity, self-knowledge and resilience you need to live well.
The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday
Inspired by Stoicism and the maxim from Marcus Aurelius—“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”—The Obstacle Is The Way is a primer of the key principles for thriving under pressure. Through historical examples of great men and women, it teaches us how to overcome adversity and difficulties, turn obstacles upside down, and shows us how to love our fate, no matter what it might bring. The book has become a cult classic with coaches and athletes alike and has been featured in prominent outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus
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. A flight is delayed because of weather— no amount of yelling at an airline representative will end a storm. No amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter or born in a different country. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you. And on top of that, time spent hurling yourself at these immovable objects is time not spent on the things we can change.
Return to this question daily—in each and every trying situation. Journal and reflect on it constantly. If you can focus on making clear what parts of your day are within your control and what parts are not, you will not only be happier, you will have a distinct advantage over other people who fail to realize they are fighting an unwinnable battle.
“Few care now about the marches and countermarches of the Roman commanders. What the centuries have clung to is a notebook of thoughts by a man whose real life was largely unknown who put down in the midnight dimness not the events of the day or the plans of the morrow, but something of far more permanent interest, the ideals and aspirations that a rare spirit lived by.” — Brand Blanshard
Epictetus the slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the power broker and playwright. These three radically different men led radically different lives. But they seemed to have one habit in common: Journaling.
It would be Epictetus who would admonish his students that philosophy was something they should “write down day by day,” that this writing was how they “should exercise themselves.” Seneca’s favorite time to journal was in the evenings. When darkness had fallen and his wife had gone asleep, he explained to a friend, “I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” Then he would go to bed, finding that “the sleep which follows this self-examination” was particularly sweet. And Marcus, he was the most prodigious of journalers, and we are lucky enough that his writings survive to us, appropriately titled, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, Ta eis heauton, or “to himself.”
In Stoicism the art of journaling is more than some simple diary. This daily practice is the philosophy. Preparing for the day ahead. Reflecting on the day that has passed. Reminding oneself of the wisdom we have learned from our teachers, from our reading, from our own experiences. It’s not enough to simply hear these lessons once, instead, one practices them over and over again, turns them over in their mind, and most importantly, writes them down and feels them flowing through their fingers in doing so.
Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s not a philosophy you read once and magically understand at the soul-level. No, it’s a lifelong pursuit that requires diligence and repetition and concentration. (Pierre Hadot called it spiritual exercising). That’s one of the benefits of the page-a-day (with monthly themes) format we organized the Stoics into (and the weekly themes in The Daily Stoic Journal). It’s putting one thing up for you to review—to have at hand—and to fully digest. Not in passing. Not just once. But every single day over the course of a year, and preferably year in and year out. And if Epictetus is right, it’s something you’re supposed to keep within reach at all times—which is why a collection of the greatest hits, presented daily, was so appealing to us.
In this way, journaling is Stoicism. It’s almost impossible to have one without the other.
P.S. Check out The Daily Stoic Journal. It’s an easy place to start and is built around the Stoic journaling methods of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” — Seneca
Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”
It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you can not just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.
Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience. Anyone who has made a big bet on themselves knows how much energy both states can consume. The solution is to do something about that ignorance. Make yourself familiar with the things, the worst-case scenarios, that you’re afraid of.
Practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real life. The downside is almost always reversible or transient.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down. What they meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy. Because if you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.
Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing you towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding. Or, the death of someone close to you; a chance to show fortitude.
Marcus Aurelius described it like this:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
It should sound familiar because it is the same thinking behind Obama’s “teachable moments.” Right before the election, Joe Klein asked Obama how he’d made his decision to respond to the Reverend Wright scandal. He said something like ‘when the story broke I realized the best thing to do wasn’t damage control, it was to speak to Americans like adults.’ And what he ended up doing was turning a negative situation into the perfect platform for his landmark speech about race.
The common refrain about entrepreneurs is that they take advantage of, even create, opportunities. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. The Reverend Wright scandal, a frustrating case where your help goes unappreciated, the death of a loved one, none of those are “opportunities” in the normal sense of the word. In fact, they are the opposite. They are obstacles. What a Stoic does is turn every obstacle into an opportunity.
There is no good or bad to the practicing Stoic. There is only perception. You control perception. You can choose to extrapolate past your first impression (‘X happened.’ –> ‘X happened and now my life is over.’). If you tie your first response to dispassion, you’ll find that everything is simply an opportunity.
Note: This exercise served as the inspiration behind The Obstacle Is The Way.
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself a simple and effective reminder to help him regain perspective and stay balanced:
“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”
It is important to note that ‘passion’ here isn’t the modern usage we’re familiar with as in enthusiasm or caring about something. As Don Robertson explains in his book, when the Stoics discuss overcoming ‘passions’, which they called patheiai, they refer to the irrational, unhealthy and excessive desires and emotions. Anger would be a good example. What is important to remember, and this is the crucial bit, they seek to replace them with eupatheiai, such as joy instead of excessive pleasure.
Returning to the point of the exercise, it’s simple: remember how small you are. For that matter, remember how small most everything is.
Remember that achievements can be ephemeral, and that your possession of them is for just an instant.
If everything is ephemeral, what does matter? Right now matters. Being a good person and doing the right thing right now, that’s what matters and that’s what was important to the Stoics.
Take Alexander the Great who conquered the known world and had cities named in his honor. This is common knowledge. The Stoics would also point out that, once while drunk, Alexander got into a fight with his dearest friend, Cleitus, and accidentally killed him. Afterward, he was so despondent that he couldn’t eat or drink for three days. Sophists were called from all over Greece to see what they could do about his grief, to no avail.
Is this the mark of a successful life? From a personal standpoint, it matters little if your name is emblazoned on a map if you lose perspective and hurt those around you.
Learn from Alexander’s mistake. Be humble and honest and aware. That is something you can have every single day of your life. You’ll never have to fear someone taking it from you or, worse still, it taking over you.
“How beautifully Plato put it. Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a bird’s- eye view and see everything all at once— of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets— all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus would often practice an exercise that is referred to as “taking the view from above” or “Plato’s view.” It invites us to take a step back, zoom out and see life from a higher vantage point than our own. This exercise—envisioning all the millions and millions of people, all the “armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths”—prompts us to take perspective and just like the previous exercise, remind us how small we are. It reorients us, and as Stoic scholar Pierre Hadot put it, “The view from above changes our value judgments on things: luxury, power, war…and the worries of everyday life become ridiculous.”
Seeing how small we are in the grand scheme of things is only one portion of this exercise. The second, more subtle point, is to tap into what the Stoics call sympatheia, or a mutual interdependence with the whole of humanity. As the astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of the first people to actually experience a real ‘view from above’ put it, “In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.” Take a step back from your own concerns and remind yourself of your duty to others. Take Plato’s view.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” Seneca
The quote from Seneca above takes part of Memento Mori—the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue now, and not wait.
Meditating on your mortality is only depressing if you miss the point. The Stoics find this thought 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.
“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
The premeditatio malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”) is a Stoic exercise of imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away from us. It helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks. We don’t always get what is rightfully ours, even if we’ve earned it. Not everything is as clean and straightforward as we think they may be. Psychologically, we must prepare ourselves for this to happen. It is one of the most powerful exercise in the Stoics’ toolkit to build resilience and strength.
Seneca, for instance, would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then, in his head (or in journaling as we said above), 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.
“To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.” — Marcus Aurelius
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 ago, writing in his own personal journal which would become known as Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius would say: “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” Another Stoic, Epictetus, who as a crippled slave has faced adversity after adversity, echoed the same: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
It is why amor fati is the Stoic exercise and mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it. So that like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for your potential.
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“We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” —Marcus Aurelius
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” Epictetus
“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill— of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.'” — Epictetus
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You become what you give your attention to…If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.” — Epictetus
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” — Marcus Aurelius
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” — Seneca
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
“It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.” — Epictetus
“To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” — Marcus Aurelius
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” — Epictetus
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be One.” — Marcus Aurelius
“The primary indication of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.” — Seneca
“Receive without pride, let go without attachment.” — Marcus Aurelius
Our most popular item, the memento mori medallion has been added to the daily carry of thousands as a literal and inescapable reminder that “you could leave life right now.” The front features an interpretation of the three essentials of existence – the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). The back shows a quote from Marcus Aurelius “You could leave life right now.”
Amor fati (Latin: “a love of fate”) is a mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens: Treating each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. The flame on the front of the medallion is inspired by Marcus Aurelius’s timeless wisdom: “a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” The back features an excerpt of the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s formula for greatness: “Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”
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Already know all of this? Do you want more advanced material? We recommend heading to our glossary of Stoicism terms and reading our post on the 28 books on Stoicism you need to read to advance your knowledge. You can also explore our Stoicism interviews which range from philosophy professors to MMA fighters. Oh, and if you’re looking for a great Stoicism quote, we have you covered.