Philosophy can be an intimidating thing to get into, and Stoicism is no different.

Often, when we hear the word philosophy, we associate it with complex moral and ethical questions, questions about the meaning of life, and long books written in deliberately confusing styles.

Stoicism is a little different. It’s simple. Not only is it simple, but it can be easily applied to everyday life to help us live more happily and become more resilient to things that threaten our peace of mind.

If you’re interested in becoming a practicing Stoic, there are three core skills, outlined by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, that you’ll have to learn to lay a solid foundation for the rest of the practice. These are:

  1. The Discipline of Assent: learning to be mindful of our judgments

  2. The Discipline Desire: learning to accept fate

  3. The Discipline Action: learning to act well with regards to others and mankind as a whole

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The Discipline of Assent

The discipline of assent is our ability to act rationally and wisely. To see things clearly as they are, rather than how we want them to be or clouded by our judgments, preconceptions, prejudices, and biases.

This discipline also involves an awareness of how we judge the things around us. Our judgments will define how we respond, think, act, and feel emotionally. Therefore, if our judgments are negative, we are more likely to react destructively and harbor negative emotions. This self-awareness can help us catch our emotions in the act and, in doing so, avoid the snap judgments or impulsive actions that the Stoics look to avoid.

This awareness is essentially the practice of mindfulness. Acting as an observer of your mind in the present moment.

Epictetus once said:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own views.”

This teaching highlights the fact that we can decide how we look at the world. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

Examples of this can be seen in daily life: This traffic is a nightmare. My terrible boss has asked me to work late. Some idiot almost crashed into me.

We add “value judgments” to things all the time without knowing it, and without knowing it, these judgments seep into how we think, feel, and behave. If you’re new to all this, there’s a high chance you do this a lot.

In reality, to a Stoic, these things simply are. No more. No less. They just are. It’s the individual that adds the judgment. Slowly, day by day, through practicing this habit of awareness, we can slowly remove these value judgments from our experiences and, as a result, improve the way we think, feel, and act toward what happens around us.

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The Discipline Desire

If the discipline of assent is deciding how we view things, the discipline of desire is deciding what we want.

In the Stoic practice, this can be seen as the practice of living in accordance with the nature of the universe. This means not wanting anything to happen that conflicts with nature’s laws. Epictetus expresses this in the following quote:

“Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”

Life will unfold as a result of nature. People die, storms will rage, things decay, night turns to day, we age, and time goes by. All of this is part of the natural order of the universe, and Epictetus instructs us to accept this and avoid falling into the trap of wishing life unfolded as per our own desires.

This is an important lesson because much of our suffering—our stress, anger, frustration, resentment, or grief—comes when we anchor our emotions and feelings to our expectations.

Ultimately, the majority of what happens around us is outside our control. The Stoics recognized this and saw that when our wellbeing is linked to something outside our control, it becomes fragile, bound to rise and fall depending on what happens around us. Generally, the greater our desire for an outcome, the more we suffer when it doesn’t happen.

As an antidote to this kind of suffering, the Stoics learned to love fate, a practice called “amor fati”. When we can learn to love fate and accept that fate is simply the laws of nature acting out across time, we can free ourselves of our expectations and therefore free our wellbeing from being bound to that which is outside our control.

Nietzsche once wrote:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

The Discipline Action

For the Stoic, the discipline of action is the choice to behave in alignment with the Stoic principles of ethics. To the Stoics, the things we do are either good, bad, or indifferent.

Things are good if they are virtuous. Things are bad if they are in conflict with virtue. Everything else is indifferent. For example:

  • Good: This can be acting with virtue, and some Stoics believed that virtue is the only good, and that anything outside of virtue can only be indifferent or bad. Good can be showing courage in the face of fear, showing moderation despite the desire to be greedy or indulge in addictive behavior, and being just to those around us and not allowing our own incentives to get in the way of what is right.

  • Bad: This can be any action that is not virtuous. For example, lying to someone to avoid responsibility, ignoring moderation, and choosing laziness, greed, and bad habits It could be ignoring justice and taking advantage of other people or the community to get ahead. It can also include cowardice and shying away from doing what is right.

  • Indifferent: To the Stoics, there were many things that fell under indifference. For example, money, possessions, fame, etc. can all be things that we can use for good or for bad. In and of themselves, these things are not good or bad; they are simply indifferent.

First, to act with virtue, we need to define exactly what virtuous behavior is. The Stoics defined four cardinal virtues:

  • Wisdom – The ability to use reason and think rationally. Our capacity to see things for what they are, free from judgment, bias, and prejudice. This includes our ability to determine what is good, bad, and indifferent.

“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

  • Justice – Our ability to treat others with moral integrity, compassion, and fairness. This is the Stoic virtue of being a good citizen and a good neighbor. The virtue of justice in this context is much broader than the way we use the word today, which is often used in a legal context. It extends to how we behave generally as part of a group.

“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.” — Marcus Aurelius

  • Temperance – Temperance is a combination of mindfulness and self-control, or self-discipline. The Stoics saw temperance as our capacity to resist the pull of our desires, fears, and passions. However, to do this effectively, we need to be aware of the things that pull at us in this way; this is where the mindful nature of temperance comes into play.

    “Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses to gain and avoid outside our own choice, we should set a contrary habit against that, and where appearances are really slippery, use the counterforce of our training.” – Epictetus

  • Courage – Courage is our ability to do the right thing despite pressure not to. Courage is closely connected with temperance in that they both require us to overcome our passions and desires. However, courage is specifically about overcoming fear or hesitation. This could be stepping in when someone is threatening another person, it can be admitting when we are wrong, it could even be challenging our boss when we think our business is non-compliant.

    “There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel.” – Seneca

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