Stoic philosophy tl;dr
More and more often I am asked to explain the Stoic philosophy. I share it because it helped me, and I believe it may help others as well. Especially in unstable times. Hope it will be useful for you. If so, check the reading recommendations where you will find a much deeper presentation of these and other Stoic concepts and practices. Farewell.
Table of contents
- Morality as the highest goal
- The dichotomy of control - What we can and cannot control
- Embracing obstacles
- Follow nature
- Live without anger or grief
- Amor Fati - Accepting your fortune
- Memento mori - Embracing mortality
- Training your character
- Reading recommendations
Our rational nature moves freely forward in its impressions when it: 1) accepts nothing false or uncertain; 2) directs its impulses only to acts for the common good; 3) limits its desires and aversions only to what’s in its own power; 4) embraces everything nature assigns it. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Morality as the highest goal
The only reason to study philosophy is to become a better person. - Lives of the Stoics, the first sentence, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
Like many ancient philosophies, Stoicism believe that the ultimate goal is to be a better person. Better for others, for society, and also for ourselves. It can be achieved by developing the virtues:
- Justice - it is our moral compass, a duty to our fellow man and our society. It’s the morality behind how we act, specifically to our community and the people within it. We should be kind, courteous, understanding, respectful, fair and generous. We should support people when they need it. We should add values to the community.
- Wisdom - is your ability to define what is good, what is wrong and what is indifferent. It is also the ability to view the world objectively, as it is, rather than warping your view of the world because of what you want it to be.
- Temperance - it can also be called moderation. It relates to self-restraint, self-discipline and self-control. It is our ability to choose long-term well-being over short-term satisfaction.
- Courage - is our ability to overcome feelings that threaten to cause cowardice, and as a result, prevent us from acting in the correct way. It means doing the right thing even if we are afraid of it.
Stoics believe that if we develop our virtues and live a good life, we will live in a happy eudaemonic state.
The dichotomy of control - What we can and cannot control
One of the most important Stoic ideas is that we should learn to distinguish between what we can and cannot control. We should then work and concentrate on what we can control and accept what we cannot, treating it more like facts.
We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” - Epictetus, Enchiridion
We can control our actions, mindset, will. We cannot control the outcome of actions, especially of other people.
Example: An archer can do the best training, can be sure to be in the best state of mind, fully concentrate, but cannot control whether his arrow hits the target.
“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
What is truly important is that you did your best, not if you succeeded or not. My father once said after his tennis game that he is very happy with it. I asked: “Did you win?”, he answered: “No, but I feel I did my best, and that is important”. This is a Stoic approach. We should strive to do our best, and we should not worry, but rather look at things as indifferent facts.
“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
Obstacles are an inseparable part of our lives. Most people are unhappy when an obstacle stands in their way, but we should rather embrace it. Imagine a game with no obstacles. For instance, a Mario game where you just walk on a flat map without monsters and bosses. It would be really boring! The same in life, obstacles make life interesting, and it is also what makes us stronger and better people, it prepares us for other challenges.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The key is a good attitude. Are you lucky? Good for you. Are you unlucky? Take it as an opportunity to train your character, learn to overcome obstacles, learn how to turn an obstacle into an advantage. With such a mindset, you always win and you can face every situation with equal stillness and cheerfulness.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate; you have passed through life without an antagonist; no one will know what you can do, - not even yourself.” For if a man is to know himself, he must be tested; no one finds out what be can do except by trying. - Seneca
“We are members of one great body, planted by nature … We must consider that we were born for the good of the whole.” - Seneca
Stoics strongly believe and insist to follow nature. That is more about acting in a way that is natural to us and others, than sticking close to the trees. Stoics believe we should observe what the nature of things and the natural flow of the world are. Then we should follow it in a Taoist fashion instead of fighting it (it is no coincidence, as Stoicism has strong influences from east philosophies, including Buddhism and Taoism).
For good or for ill, life and nature are governed by laws that we can’t change. The quicker we accept this, the more tranquil we can be. - Epictetus
Live without anger or grief
Anger or grief is never helpful. Seeing the world as it is and acting rationally is. It does not mean we should suspend anger. Instead, realize it does not make any sense and do not let it arise. If you ever feel anger, I recommend reading On Anger by Seneca. If you ever experience a terrible misfortune, and you feel a grief, my recommendation is On Consolation to Marcia by Seneca.
Amor Fati - Accepting your fortune
We cannot fully control our situation. We are often fooled by randomness, unaware of how much we owe to and depend on the fortune. Fortune can take everything from us at any moment. We should not fear that, but instead, be grateful for what we have now. Remembering that everything we have can be lost should not be a source of bitterness, but just the opposite, a cause for happiness. The fact is that everyone will die one day. Instead of realizing it too late, be happy and use the time we have together now.
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.” - Homer, The Iliad
Another thing is that what is truly important is not material and the wise person is self-sufficient. It does not mean that we do not want money, love, friendship, or family. We do, but if we lost them due to an unfortunate, we could still be happy, as the true source of happiness is to be a good person and to do best with what we have.
Nevertheless, though the sage may love his friends dearly, often comparing them with himself, and putting them ahead of himself, yet all the good will be limited to his own being, and he will speak the words which were spoken by the very Stilbo whom Epicurus criticizes in his letter. For Stilbo, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: “I have all my goods with me!” - Letter from Seneca
Memento mori - Embracing mortality
We can lose everything, including our lives. There is a true story that reminds me of it. It is about a person from my far family who just walked on a street, stumbled, crushed his head on a curb, and died. Something like that can happen to anyone at any time.
Reflecting on our mortality should encourage us to live our lives to the best. What would I do if I died tomorrow? What would I do if this was the last week of my life? What if it is the last month, year, a decade? Partying and losing all the money is not the answer. I ask this question to myself quite often and sometimes I decide that I want to meet with my friends or family, and sometimes I have a sense that I just want to spend some time in solitude reading a book. Nevertheless, I often fall asleep feeling that I am satisfied and if fortune wants me to die tomorrow, I will not lose anything because I used my time the best I could.
This all is about: to use your time to the maximum. Reflection on mortality is about prioritization. It is to remember that our time is limited and to concentrate on what is most important to us. We will die anyway - it is something we cannot control. So we should do everything we can to spend every moment in the best possible way.
Training your character
This is all the theory, but being a Stoic is not about what you believe, but rather about how you act. Stoics train themselves to act properly through both daily behaviors and special practices. Here are some of them:
- Whenever in adversity think of it as a Stoic trial. Like Stoic gods (abstract) are testing your character. In the end, grade yourself. Did you manage to do the best you could while keeping your emotions in check? Did you manage to stay the best person for others all the time? Did you manage to keep a clear perspective of the situation? Track it, and whenever you see a problem coming, think of it as another test of your character and occasion to train yourself in being the best you can be in a tough situation.
- Memento mori - from time to time, reflect on our mortality, on the possibility that we may die at any time.
- Pre mortem - thinking about what might go wrong and preparing for such a situation. If, for instance, you are worried about losing your job, go deep into this scenario and you will soon see that you will be fine. Then you can prepare and store some money safely for such a situation.
We also build our discipline through intentional training, like:
- living modestly.
They both strengthen out the will but also destroy the fear of bad luck.
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes - Letter from Seneca
There are many books dedicated to Stoicism I would like to recommend, but which one to choose depends on what you need and what your level of knowledge is. I have read them all and I will characterize them with my words.
It is often said that there are 3 main classic sources of the stoic philosophy, and which one is your favorite says a lot about you:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - the set of short reflections of the famous philosopher kind. Very practical, but often also enigmatic. The author wrote these reflections to himself. Good for reflection before bedtime. More about being a good person when in power.
- Letters by Seneka the younger - very practical letters from the richest person in Rome. Seneca himself is somewhat controversial, nevertheless his teachings are still very useful and very readable. I recommend it in the free version The tao of Seneka collected by Tim Ferriss. More about giving the best of ourselves.
- Enchiridion of Epictetus - a collection of notes by the famous philosopher who was a slave for the majority of his life. Short but very concise and concrete. More about fighting adversity.
The daily Stoics
For readers new to the ancient philosophy, I recommend to start with a more modern position, especially the work of Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, starting with:
- The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living - one quote and a short description for each day of the year. I believe this is the best way to start Stoicism: read one reflection each day before sleep and then think about it.
- The Daily Stoic Journal: 366 Days of Writing and Reflection on the Art of Living - a journal that asks you to write your reflections on a concrete topic twice a day. It deepens the idea of everyday reflection.
- The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph - the best, in my opinion, position by the authors concentrated on turning every adversity into strength and a tool. Very practical.
- Ego Is the Enemy - principal position about the importance of humility and the problems with ego. Eyes-opening and very important reflection.
- Stillness Is the Key - the book about finding and keeping stillness, and therefore smooth happiness in both good and tough times.
- Lives of the Stoics - biographies of famous Stoics.
There are also many other positions that I would like to recommend, starting from those that I liked the most:
- How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci - a great, deep and easy to read position about Stoicism. Very practical, modern and readable.
- The Stoic Challenge by William B. Irvine - a very easy to read book about some aspects of Stoicism (I finished it in 3 days). That is why I decided to buy 10 instances and send them around the world.
- Stoicism: A Stoic Approach To Modern Life by Tom Miles - a concise and easy to read position.
Which one to choose?
If you are looking for a classic, you have to choose which side of Stoicism interests you most. These are concise reflections, not to read too much in one sitting. If you want to check more popular Stoicism and try to make your learning really practical, start with the Daily Stoic. If you want to understand the whole Stoic philosophy, How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci should be perfect. If you need a short and simple position to start, The Stoic Challenge by William B. Irvine is there for you.