For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism.
A brief synopsis and definition on this particular school of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.
Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.
Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate.
It had three principal leaders. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each day to write himself notes about restraint, compassion and humility. Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery to found his own school where he taught many of Rome’s greatest minds. Seneca, when Nero turned on him and demanded his suicide, could think only of comforting his wife and friends.
But it is not only those three—Stoicism has been practiced by kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.
Prussian King, Frederick the Great, was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could, in his words, “sustain you in misfortune”. Meanwhile, Montaigne, the politician and essayist, had a line from Epictetus carved into the beam above the study in which he spent most of his time.
The founding fathers were also inspired by the philosophy. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterwards, put on a play about Cato to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Whereas Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand when he died.
The economist Adam Smith’s theories on the interconnectedness of the world—capitalism—were significantly influenced by the Stoicism that he studied as a schoolboy, under a teacher who had translated Marcus Aurelius’ works.
The political thinker, John Stuart Mill, wrote of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in his famous treatise On Liberty, calling it “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”
Stoicism differs from most existing schools in one important sense: its purpose is practical application. It is not a purely intellectual enterprise.
It’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, better friends and better people.
It’s easy to gloss over the fact that Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor without truly absorbing the gravity of that position. Emperors were Deities, ordinary men with direct access to unlimited wealth and adulation. Before you jump to the conclusion that the Stoics were dour and sad men, ask yourself, if you were a dictator, what would your diary look like?
Stoic writing is much closer to a yoga session or a pre-game warm up than to a book of philosophy a university professor might write. It’s preparation for the philosophic life where the right state of mind is the most critical part.
Stoics practiced what are known as “spiritual exercises” and drew upon them for strength.
Let’s look at three of the most important such exercises.
“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.
Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”
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.
2.Train Perception to Avoid Good and Bad
“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.
3.Remember—It’s All Ephemeral
“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.
Stoicism is Ideal for the Real World
The Stoics were writing honestly, often self-critically, about how they could become better people, be happier, and deal with the problems they faced. You can see how practicing misfortune makes you stronger in the face of adversity; how flipping an obstacle upside down turns problems into opportunities; and how remembering how small you are keeps your ego manageable and in perspective.
Ultimately, that’s what Stoicism is about. It’s not some systematic discussion of why or how the world exists. It is a series of reminders, tips and aids for living a good life.
Stoicism, as Marcus reminds himself, is not some grand Instructor but a balm, a soothing ointment to an injury wherever we might have one. Epictetus was right when he said that “life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business.”
We should take whatever help we can get, and it just happens that that help can come from ourselves.
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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.