I first found a definition for Stoicism and Stoic philosophy by chance around 15 years ago when I picked up a copy of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans (This is a very helpful book to get started).

The first thing that stood out was the Stoic philosopher’s refreshing honesty, simple logic, direct approach to human problems, and practicality for our use in everyday life.

It had a refreshing focus on how to live a good life, dealing with hardship, taking personal responsibility, and reducing stress and suffering.

My bookshelves up to that point had seen an increasing number of “self-help” books that promised happiness, confidence, peace of mind, and most other things in between.

If I’m honest, most of them were different shades of BS.

However, with Stoicism and the teachings of the ancient Stoics, there was a 2000-year-old Hellenistic philosophy that added more value to my life than all of the other books. A philosophy grounded in our nature as human beings, guiding our thoughts and behaviours towards a happy life, resilience, well-being, and personal responsibility.

Stoicism has grown into the foundation of the personal philosophy I use day-to-day, and I think the Stoic framework for life can help anyone who’s looking for a practical philosophy to use a path for self-development, and this article is going to outline exactly how.

So what is Stoicism?

Today, we’re going to find out.

“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

Nassim Taleb

A Brief Introduction to Stoicism:

At its core, Stoicism is two things:

  1. A set of ethical values that helps us reach a virtuous life and a state of being marked by happiness, resilience, and peace of mind from doing good. These principles also help us avoid guilt, anger, jealousy, hatred, and other negative emotions through the avoidance of evil (more on this later).
  2. A set of practices that teach us to reduce our stress and negative emotions by cultivating self-awareness, discipline, wisdom, and rationality. It also encourages us to align ourselves with nature.

The philosophy was founded in Athens, under the stoa poikile, around 300 BCE by the philosopher Zeno of Citium and later refined by the works of early stoics like Seneca, former slave Epictetus, and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Links to each of these Stoics can be found above in their names if you want to learn more about them.

The guiding principles, or ethical values, of Stoicism can be distilled into four cardinal virtues:

  • Wisdom – our ability to see things as they are, free from bias, and prejudice. Wisdom is our ability to see right from wrong, use reason, rational judgement, and avoid warping the truth of what we see.

  • Courage– our ability to act in alignment with what we think is right, despite pressure not to.

  • Justice– our capacity to behave in the interests of the common and wider good. The opposite of this would be to behave in ways that are detrimental to our neighbours and fellow man.

  • Temperanceour ability to exercise self restraint, self control, moderation, and discipline.

Much like the Socratic branch of philosophy, the Stoics believed virtue to be the only good thing and vice to be the only evil. A common thread among the Greek philosophies of the time. This, by extension, means that the content of our character is the most important thing.

When we build these virtues and stoic ethics into our character, Stoics believe that we can grow into better people, live our best life, become more resilient, and that good character leads directly to happiness and a life of contentment.

Four-Stoic-Virtues Infographic

In ancient Greece, this was known as ‘ataraxia,’ which is our ability to remain immune to the fluctuations of fortune and external circumstances.

In simple terms, Stoicism teaches us to focus on the things we can control—our character, thoughts, emotions, and actions—while accepting the things we cannot, such as the actions of others or the natural course of events going on in the world around us. If we can learn to do this, we can learn to develop a more resilient mindset—an inner peace and contentment that is deeper than the enjoyment that comes from fleeting pleasures and is resilient to the disappointments and hardships of life. Let’s get into some practices we can use to get started. What is Stoicism? Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

The Practices of Stoic Philosophy:

1. The Stoic Dichotomy of Control:

“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.

Within your control are your own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel you. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

Not within your control is literally everything else. You must remember these things are externals, and none of your concern.”

– Epictetus

The concept of control is at the core of practical Stoic philosophy; when understood, it allows us to clearly see the areas of our lives that we are able to influence and those that are outside the reach of our control.

This, by extension, gives us the ability to stop wasting our time and energy on what we can’t control and accept it, while at the same time helping us focus on the areas of our lives we can control.

However, when misunderstood, this dichotomy of control can create feelings of frustration, helplessness, depression, meaninglessness, and bitterness as we try to exert control over external areas of life over which we have no control.

The concept of control is not unique to the Stoics; it has risen to prominence across multiple cultures throughout history as a method for living a more aware and fulfilling life, from Buddhists to Hebrews to feudal Japan to ancient Greeks.

The Stoics believed that a fundamental key to reducing suffering and living a good life is to make a clear distinction between that which is within our complete control and that which is not. As we come closer to understanding this distinction, we can begin to focus our energy and time on what we can influence and accept what we cannot.

The US Army’s Leadership Manual contains the following:

“It is crucial for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not worry about things they cannot”

The world’s most successful addiction program shares the same philosophy. Alcoholics Anonymous recites the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

This philosophy has been used time and time again to pull people from the dark corners of their lives back into the light, and is used by the US Army to build leaders.

It can just as easily be applied to everyday life to prevent frustration and feelings of powerlessness and to build empowerment and effectiveness.

No matter where we are in our path through life, taking responsibility for distinguishing what is in our control from what is not will allow us to see where we can affect change and where we can stop wasting our time. Acceptance and awareness begin to replace complaints and frustration.

Be aware that the only things we fully control are our beliefs and our actions.

Ask Yourself:

  1. Where in your life do you try to control things outside the reach of your sovereignty?

    1. The thoughts, opinions and beliefs of other people

    2. The economy, job market, and political climate

    3. Your body, age, hunger, desire, and emotion

  2. Where in your life do you neglect control of things within your sovereignty?

    1. Your actions

    2. Your thoughts

    3. Your beliefs

    4. Your decisions

Stoic-Control-Infographic

2. Memento Mori

Memento Mori is the practice of contemplating your own mortality, or remembering that one day you will die.

Sounds morbid? I know, but bear with me.

In his letters, Seneca the Younger explains the benefit of meditating on death:

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.

This idea can seem strange to those who first come across it. Why would you want to think about your own death? In reality, there is a real, practical benefit.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus recommended that we all remind ourselves that we will die.

He did this because, when we recognize that our time is limited, we appreciate each moment more intently. When we are with loved ones, we don’t know how many moments like this we’ll have, so we become more present, focused, and grateful.

The concept of Memento Mori plays an important role in our perception of life and takes something destructive like death and turns it into a tool to more vividly enjoy life.

Marcus Aurelius of the Roman empire, practiced Memento Mori to help guide his actions. In his journal, Meditations, he wrote:

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.

Stoic philosophy does not view death as a painful concept to be avoided. It is seen as an inevitable part of life that should be embraced and used to more fully appreciate it.

Memento Mori helps us prioritize what really matters while reminding us that time is finite.

3. Amor Fati

Amor Fati was a concept used by the Stoics as a way to accept the world around them and prevent their peace of mind from being affected by events outside of their control.

The phrase Amor fati is Latin, meaning “love of fate.”

Very simply put, it’s the practice of accepting the world around us as it is and learning to love the unfolding of life, the changing nature of the universe, and everything that has happened up to this point to allow us to be here right now.

Embraced by the likes of Nietzsche and Epictetus, this idea encourages us to wholeheartedly accept and love our lives, including the hardships and challenges that inevitably befall us.

In our daily lives, adopting the mindset of “amor fati” includes shifting our perspective from resisting or bemoaning the trials and tribulations we face to welcoming them as opportunities for growth, learning, and self-discovery.

To integrate amor fati into our daily lives, we can begin by practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. In moments of challenge or distress, we can pause, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves to accept and embrace the situation as it is.

Rather than dwelling on what could have been or what we wish were different, we can choose to see the experience as another page of our journey.

Going one step further, we can even develop gratitude for the lessons and insights that we find in each challenge we face, recognizing that adversity often serves as a catalyst for personal growth and self-improvement.

When we reframe our struggles in this light, we will begin to find life’s obstacles less of a burden, and even approach them with a sense of curiosity.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the following:

“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart?

Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.”

– Marcus Aurelius

The world is changing. Everything that has happened since the beginning of time has led to you being where you are and who you are. There can be no other way.

Between then and now, life has been in constant flux, a sequence of changes that can be for the better or for the worse, but they are almost always out of our control.

The Stoics instruct us to love fate. Accept it as a part of life, do what we can with what is within our power, and take the rest as it happens. After all, fate has given us the gift of experience.

What is Stoicism? Page Break Image of a Greek Temple 2

5 Steps to Apply Stoicism:

Hopefully you’re beginning to see how Stoicism can add some real benefit to our day to day live and even become a life-changing practice.

Today’s practice of modern stoicism can give us the tools to face the challenges of modern life with resilience and some sense of peace.

So, to help guide you in incorporating Stoic principles into your daily life, here are 10 steps to get you started.

I will say that this should all be built on stoic views of virtue. That we should focus first on being a virtuous person above all else.
  1. Use the Dichotomy of Control: recognize that some things are within your control, while others are not. Focus your energy on the aspects you can influence—your thoughts, emotions, and actions—and accept the external things you cannot change.

  2. Practice mindfulness: develop an awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment.

  3. Negative Visualization: Imagine worst-case scenarios or potential losses to help you appreciate what you have and prepare for challenges that may come your way.

  4. Practice Gratitude: Cultivate a grateful mindset by acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of your life.

  5. Amor Fati: Learn to love and accept your fate, including the hardships and challenges that come your way.

When we take a little time to work on incorporating these practices and principles into our daily lives, great things can start to happen.

Over time, these small changes in weaving Stoic philosophy into our day-to-day practice can dramatically shift how we approach the world around us and its challenges.

A Deeper Definition of Stoicism

To help us define Stoicism further, next we’ll go through some of the history of the ancient philosophy to add context. Then we’ll explore some specific principles we can use in everyday life to develop our own practice.

The Founder of Stoic Philosophy:

As we’ve touched on above, Stoicism is a school of ancient philosophy founded around 300 BC by a man called Zeno of Citium.

Zeno was a former merchant who was lucky enough to have lost everything he had in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea before washing ashore near Athens. He later became a student of the Cynic school of philosophy, studying under Crates of Thebes, before setting up his own school, which became known as Stoicism.

I say he was lucky because, through this temporary patch of adversity, he became the founder of one of history’s greatest philosophies. The name Stoic comes from the Greek word for porch, Stoa, where Zeno used to teach Stoicism to his students.

When the Stoic founder Zeno began his school of thought, he did not have the money to buy a building.

Plato had his academy, Aristotle had his Lyceum, but Zeno’s followers met to discuss their philosophy on the streets of Athens under the shade of the Stoa Poikile (the painted porch), a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens. Anyone was welcome to listen and debate ideas, creating the very first group of Stoics.

Zeno was succeeded by his pupil, Cleanthes of Assos, who in turn passed the head of the Stoic school to Chrysippus of Soli before the school broadened to later stoics.
The Founders of Stoicism infographic

Stoicism, Meaning, and Happiness:

The philosophy is one of practicality and focuses on the question: How can we define and find a path to happiness (which the Stoics called eudaimonia)?

It was a philosophy for the everyday men and women of the world, not just for educated aristocrats, isolated philosophers in their halls of books, or hermetic sages up their mountains.

At the heart of Stoicism, and the meaning of a Stoic, is the conviction that true happiness can only be found within ourselves, in the sanctuary of our inner character and virtues.

They believed that by turning our gaze inward, we bring awareness to the understanding that our well-being is not defined by external events or fleeting pleasures but by the cultivation of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. The life of virtue,

When we take the time to reflect on and embrace these virtues, we not only build our own moral compass but also discover a sense of purpose that can transcend the ebb and flow of life’s ups and downs.

For the Stoics, their practical path to eudaimonia (happiness) is grounded in a few core principles:

  1. The ability to view ourselves, the world, and it’s people objectively and accept their nature as it is

  2. The discipline to prevent ourselves from being controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain and suffering

  3. Making the distinction between what is within our power to influence and what is not. Using this information, we act on what can be acted upon and dismiss what can’t.

Stoicism teaches us that our power to find meaning and happiness resides in the choices we make and the attitudes we adopt. Through the practice of mindfulness and self-reflection, we learn to recognize and challenge our irrational beliefs, fears, and desires.

In doing so, we develop a resilient mindset capable of weathering life’s storms with resilience and composure. This inner fortitude, in turn, grants us the freedom to navigate the world with purpose and integrity, unswayed by the winds of fortune or the whims of circumstance.

Moreover, Stoicism encourages us to engage with the world and our fellow humans from a place of compassion and understanding. This, by extension, forges deeper connections with others, fostering empathy and cooperation, which ultimately contribute to a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

In essence, Stoicism invites us on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth, offering us the tools to forge our own path towards a life defined by meaning and happiness.

Stoicism is the People’s Philosophy:

The lessons and wisdom of Stoic philosophy were practical enough to be useful to anyone, from the soldiers of the ancient world all the way up to the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself.

It grew to become one of the most prominent philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, Stoic philosophy was only truly rivaled, and eventually overtaken, by Christianity.

So why was Stoic philosophy so popular among such a wide range of people?

In two words, it works.

This was a time when war, famine, exile, death, disease, and many more external threats were far more common than they are now.

The potential for suffering was huge, specifically suffering caused by external events. And these are exactly the situations in which Stoic philosophy thrives.

The Stoics teach that we are not disturbed by events, only by how we respond to them.

They also teach that there is very little that is within our control. Our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and actions. That’s it.

These two ideas are important for a number of reasons.

  1. Firstly, it instructs us to take responsibility for how we view things, because this is the true cause of suffering. Rather than just blaming the world or other people for our shitty situation or our crappy mood, we are empowered to accept that it’s us who create our happiness. No one else.

  2. Secondly, it draws a line between what we do and do not have control over. Many people suffer because we get upset about or try to control the things in life that we have no control over. And, of course, this leads us to feel helpless, ineffective, powerless, bitter, and resentful. We suffer.

However, when we focus on what we can control, we start to become more effective and efficient, we solve problems more easily, and we suffer less.

The key is to accept that there is very little within our control, and the focus of our effort should be on that small patch of land that we own. Our thoughts, our actions, our perspective, and our beliefs.

I have put together a foundation here at Orion that structures ideas from Stoic philosophy (and some from other places), specifically designed to create a framework for a positive and resilient state of mind.

Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

Conclusion:

Stoicism might seem like an ancient philosophy more suited for classrooms and history books than daily life, but in reality, it’s packed with practical lessons ranging from how to reduce stress to how we treat one another.

Through learning to accept what we can’t control, letting virtue guide our actions, living in alignment with nature and the laws of the world around us, and using wisdom and reason to decide how to act and think, we can start down the path of the Stoic philosopher and down the path to happiness.

I hope you found something helpful here.

Further Reading:

  1. “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius – Often considered the quintessential read for Stoic philosophy, this series of personal writings by the Roman Emperor offers profound insights into practicing resilience and moral integrity in the face of adversity.

  2. “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca – These letters are a goldmine of Stoic wisdom, providing practical advice on dealing with grief, the transient nature of fame, and the importance of living a life that’s in harmony with nature.

  3. “Discourses and Selected Writings” by Epictetus – A former slave and eminent Stoic philosopher, Epictetus’s teachings focus on the art of living, emphasizing the importance of living virtuously and being content with what life brings.

  4. “The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” by Pierre Hadot – Hadot offers an insightful analysis of Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations,’ delving into the philosophical context and the practical applications of his thoughts.

  5. “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine – Irvine presents Stoicism as a philosophy that can help people get to a state of tranquility and thereby live a fulfilling and joyful life.

  6. “Stoicism” by John Sellars – This book provides a comprehensive overview of the history and teachings of Stoicism, making it an ideal read for those who want to delve deeper into the philosophical aspects.

  7. “How To Think Like A Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson – This is a great analysis of the mindset of Marcus Aurelius.

FAQ:

Who were the main Stoic philosophers?

The most notable Stoic philosophers include Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism), Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Each contributed significantly to the development and spread of Stoic thought.

What are the key principles of Stoicism?

Stoicism is built on three foundational principles:

  1. Logic: The discipline of rational thinking and understanding the world.

  2. Ethics: The discipline of determining how best to live.

  3. Physics: Understanding the nature of the universe.

How is Stoicism relevant today?

Stoicism’s focus on personal virtue, resilience, and living in harmony with nature makes it highly applicable to modern life challenges. It offers tools for managing stress, making ethical decisions, and finding inner peace.

Can Stoicism help with anxiety and stress?

Yes, many people find Stoicism’s emphasis on focusing on what is within our control and accepting what isn’t very helpful for managing anxiety and stress.

What is the Stoic view of happiness?

Stoics believe that true happiness comes from a state of inner peace achieved by living virtuously and in accordance with nature. External factors like wealth or status are considered indifferent.

How does Stoicism differ from other philosophical schools?

While there are overlaps, Stoicism is distinct in its emphasis on accepting things beyond our control and focusing on personal virtue as the source of true happiness, as opposed to external achievements or pleasures.

What is a simple Stoic exercise I can start with?

A simple exercise is the practice of “negative visualization”: imagine losing something you value to appreciate it more and to lessen the impact if it were to happen.

How do Stoics handle negative emotions?

Stoics handle negative emotions by understanding their source and questioning their rationality. They believe in facing emotions with a clear mind and focusing on what can be controlled.

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