Stoicism as a Philosophy of Life
My jargon-free guide to putting Stoicism into practice
I think a lot of people who get interested in Stoicism are looking for a simple guide that tells them how to actually put it into practice in their daily lives. I’m going to try to explain in plain English how I actually make use of Stoicism myself, without any reference to Greek jargon or too many quotes from ancient texts. If you do want information about the technical terms employed and detailed references to the original sources, see my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019).
Stoicism is a pretty big subject. I could easily write a whole series of articles like this, focusing on different aspects of Stoic theory and practice applied to daily life. I’m going to keep this as simple as possible, though, to help you get started. If you’re completely new to this subject, all the background you need to know right now is that Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy that was founded at the end of the fourth century BC by Zeno of Citium, and that it endured for about five centuries. The ancient Stoics who are best known today, though, lived during the time of the Roman empire: Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Most people begin by reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which is what I recommend you look at next after you’ve finished reading this.
One Tricky Part
What makes Stoicism Stoicism? I have to say something about this because, unfortunately, the essence of the philosophy is misunderstood by a lot of people. There are a lot of misleading articles online that contribute to the confusion. Normally this is a bit of a technical issue that requires some patience and wrestling with ancient Greek. However, I think it can potentially be simplified and expressed in plain English. At least, I think we can say something that’s not too misleading and good enough to get started. Stoicism is fundamentally a philosophical worldview with a specific set of ethical values. These values are the basis of a whole range of psychological practices designed to help us flourish and, in the process, become more emotionally resilient and less easily upset by events in life. Stoics believe that the only truly good thing is what they call “virtue”, by which they really mean a sort of practical or moral wisdom. In other words, our character matters more than anything else in life. That’s because it’s ultimately down to us how we choose to respond to situations in life whereas we don’t have complete control over the events that happen to befall us. Life is what you make of it. The goal of life isn’t pleasure, fame, or wealth — because these are partly in the hands of fate. Rather it’s about having the wisdom and strength of character to deal well with whatever fate sends us, whether it’s pain or pleasure, fame or condemnation, wealth or poverty.
However, that doesn’t mean that Stoics are completely indifferent to everything except virtue. (This is the key point that a lot of people get wrong about the philosophy so think about it carefully.) Stoics do have a light preference for pleasure over pain, having friends over having enemies, and having wealth over being in poverty. However, they don’t feel strongly enough to get upset about it if their luck is out and things work out otherwise than they had initially intended. Stoics learn to accept what befalls them, in this sense. They don’t complain about things. They just make the best of the situation and get on with their lives. I think the best way to understand the essence of Stoic ethics is that it’s about striking a balance between two apparently competing states of mind. On the one hand, Stoics are committed to pursuing specific goals in life with courage and determination, doing what’s both in their own interest and in the interests of humanity. On the other hand, they calmly accept setbacks and other forms of misfortune without becoming emotionally frustrated or upset. This isn’t just a vague idea, though, it’s a whole way of life, which Stoics try to follow on a daily basis. Let’s get into some of the main concepts and practices they use to help themselves live according to these values…
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Two Basic Concepts
There’s actually an ancient handbook of Stoic practice called the Enchiridion of Epictetus. I said I wasn’t going to get into the primary sources here but I can’t help but mention that the opening sentence of the Stoic handbook contains one of the foundational concepts: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” Modern Stoics tend to call this the “Dichotomy of Control” — sorry, I did also say no jargon, but that piece is quite widespread! Of course, this is a truism, right? It’s obvious that some things are up to us in life and other things aren’t. However, the Stoics were definitely on to something here. People do tend to lose sight of this distinction and worry about, or struggle with, things they can’t control. A good example would be the past — all of it. You can’t change it now, it’s too late, it’s already happened. Morbid rumination about the past is extremely common among people suffering from clinical depression, although we all do it to some extent. I like to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and tell myself: “What’s beyond remedy is beyond regret.” As an aside, those of you who have heard of the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous will spot that it’s saying virtually the same thing:
God, give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the Courage to change the things I can
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoics aren’t just talking about things we have degrees of partial control over, though. They want to make a clear-cut distinction between what’s entirely under our control and everything else. In other words, we should be continually mindful of the difference between our own actions and what merely happens to us in life, i.e., between our volition, our acts of freewill, and the events we experience. What matters isn’t what happens to us but how we respond. Stoics train themselves, throughout life, to take more responsibility for their own actions while becoming more emotionally accepting of the events that befall them.
The second basic concept follows on pretty closely from the first and it happens to be perfectly summed up in the most widely-quoted saying from the Encheiridion: “It’s not events that upset us but our opinions about them.” Every cognitive-behavioural therapist knows that quote, incidentally, because for decades it’s been taught to many clients at the start of treatment. We’ve said that some things are up to us and other things are not. The only things really up to us are (some of) our own thoughts and actions, including the way we choose to look at the situations we face in life. There’s another Stoic saying: everything has two handles. There’s a good handle and a bad handle. People get upset and frustrated when they try to pick up events using the bad or broken handle. For example, suppose that during an important presentation you’re giving at work someone asks you a question that you can’t answer. Telling yourself “This is a catastrophe, I look like a complete idiot — I can’t handle the embarrassment!”, would be trying to pick it up by the broken handle. You could just tell yourself “It’s not a big deal, all that matters is I do my best — I can handle this just by pausing, admitting I don’t have the answer right now, and offering to get back to them with it later”, which would be a good handle to use.
Our thoughts shape our emotions, at least to some extent. For the Stoics, more specifically, it’s our underlying beliefs about what matters, our values, that are the key to our emotions. That brings us full circle to the fundamental principle of Stoic ethics that I mentioned at the beginning. If we believe that external things and other people’s opinions are all-important that’s a recipe for neurosis — we’re setting ourselves up to feel frustrated and distressed if things don’t turn out as we’d have liked, which can always happen. The Stoics want us to be more realistic about life and bear in mind that events are fickle, we’re fortunate one day and unfortunate the next. Wisdom consists in accepting our fate at a very deep level and being a bit more detached and emotionally indifferent toward things in this regard.
The trick is to notice that our values don’t exist in reality, we project them onto external events. Our fortune goes up and down, like a stone being tossed in the air and falling down again, but it makes no difference whatsoever to the stone whether it goes up or down. It only matters to us because of our opinion that one condition is so much better than the other. We only get upset when we turn that into a rigid demand: I must not fall down, I have to succeed! Maybe it doesn’t really matter that much, though. Maybe it’s not worth getting upset about. The Stoics don’t think any external events are worth getting upset about. The only thing that really matters is our own character and how we choose to deal with things that happen to us in life.
Three Daily Practices
Those are some of the foundations of Stoicism as a daily practice. That’s a very simplified version but it’s enough for now. You should realize that there’s no clear dividing line here between theory and practice. Looking at the world in a particular way is, in a sense, an important psychological practice in its own right. It’s also something that takes effort and practice to maintain. Stoics return to these ideas on a daily basis, assuming that it’s a lifelong business to fully absorb them and turn them into your philosophy of life. The Stoics employed lots of different psychological exercises to help themselves cultivate this philosophical mindset. (In my first book on the subject, I counted roughly eighteen.) Here are three of the simplest things you can do…
As we’ve seen, Stoics bear in mind that our values don’t live out there in the real world but are projected onto events like a beam of sunlight illuminating an object. If we look at the world through rose-tinted glasses everything might look very different than if we look at events through a glass darkly, perhaps through gloomy blue lenses. One way Stoics try to remind themselves of this is by describing events to themselves in very objective language, avoiding any strong value judgements or emotive rhetoric. You can think of this as training yourself to be more matter-of-fact or down-to-earth about events. Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is nothing more than a bench covered in velvet. When the most exquisite wine in the empire was set before Marcus Aurelius he’d silently mumble to himself that, in the final analysis, it’s only a bottle of fermented grape juice — nothing worth getting excited about. When you’re faced with a stressful situation it can be particularly helpful to view it in this way. Actually take time to describe the events to yourself as accurately and objectively as possible. If it helps, imagine you’re a scientist documenting events that you’re observing happening to someone else. Don’t turn a setback into a drama, by striking a tragic pose. Don’t tell yourself that it’s terrible, in other words, just lay out the bare facts and begin looking for realistic solutions.
Sometimes people struggle with the Stoic concept of virtue. It’s important because for Stoics virtue is literally the only true good in life, and vice the only true evil. That’s like saying that, ultimately, only our own character and actions matter. The ancient texts have a lot to say about virtue but there’s also a simple way of approaching the subject. We should assume that everyone is confused about the definition of virtue. That’s our starting point, not an obstacle. The process of training in Stoicism is, in part, about clarification of our own core values. Now, it’s true that the Stoics believe those values should be rational — it’s a philosophy, based on reason, not a religion based on faith, tradition, or revelation. However, from Socrates the Stoics inherited a very simple tool for clarifying our values and making them more consistent, which is perhaps the biggest step toward making them more rational.
We can describe this as a sort of “double-standards” strategy. Get a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle to make two columns. Write “Desired” at the top of one column and “Admired” at the top of the other. Now write down, under the first heading, some of the things you actually get most upset about in life or find yourself spending time pursuing. Let’s say those are the things on a daily basis that you desire to avoid, change, or to achieve — the things you find yourself investing your energy in. For example, people tend to write things like “Finding a partner”, “Impressing people at work”, or “Watching the news”, etc. They’re currently acting as though these things are important. Now think about the qualities you most admire in other people. It doesn’t really matter who they are. It could be friends or colleagues but you could even think about historical figures or fictional characters that you admire. Which of their character traits do you actually find most praiseworthy? Thinking about the qualities you genuinely admire most in other people is a simple way to clarify your own values.
Finally, what would happen if you copied some, or all, of those “virtues” into the first column? In other words, how would it change your life if you invested more time and energy in developing the character traits you admire in other people? What would the consequences be today, tomorrow, and the day after? What if that became a longer-term habit or your whole way of life? For example, a young man called Critobulus once asked Socrates to help him make new friends. Socrates asked him to list the qualities he was looking for in an ideal friend, and helped him to reflect on these and clarify them. Then, in typical Socratic fashion, he turns the whole discussion around by asking the young man how many of those qualities he possessed himself. The answer was basically: none of them. They both concluded that the youth was approaching things back to front and that he should invest more time and energy in making himself into the sort of person others would naturally wish to have as a friend. Their discussion is related to of one of Socrates’ recurring motifs, incidentally, which says: you should be, in reality, as you wish to appear.
The View from Above
Let’s get metaphysical. We’re going cosmic for the big finale. Remember that Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. The Stoics wanted to firmly grasp the truth about life through the use of reason. They naturally pointed out that in order to do so we have to think of events in terms of the bigger picture, something we very seldom do in daily life. When we view events narrowly we effectively take them out of context, which is like committing a lie of omission because we’re potentially leaving out key information. So the Stoics generally tried to broaden their perspective on events. They understood that when we’re angry or upset we tend to narrow down our scope of attention as if we’re placing the worst parts of the situation before us under a magnifying glass. There are several ways we can try to counter that tendency. One is to imagine that we’re looking down upon our lives from high above, though, like Zeus looking down from atop Mount Olympus. The Stoics sometimes talked about imagining how fleeting events are when considered in terms of the whole history of the universe, the whole of cosmic time. Likewise, they reminded themselves how their current environment seems like a tiny a speck compared to the vastness of the universe as a whole. Nothing seems worth getting very upset about from this perspective. However, arguably, that’s a more rational and objective way of looking at things because, in truth, our lives do take place within that wider context, the whole of space and time. This is quite an easy technique to use. Of course, it’s impossible to visualize the whole of space and time but we can certainly relate to the concept by picturing things from a broader perspective.
So the central idea behind Stoic philosophy is that virtue is the only true good and everything else is relatively indifferent, in the sense that it’s not worth getting upset about things that aren’t up to us. We’ve looked at two of the fundamental concepts: that some things are up to us whereas others are not, and that it’s not events that upset us but our opinions, or rather our value judgments, about them. Then we briefly introduced three simple techniques: describing things more objectively, clarifying our values, and picturing events in terms of the wider context, or even the whole of space and time. That’s a good start but there’s so much more.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism there are loads of resources available, including tons of free articles, videos, courses, and downloads. Without a doubt, though, the best place to start is the Modern Stoicism website, home of the nonprofit organization that runs Stoic Week and the annual Stoicon conference. I’ve written several books on Stoicism, the ones that would be most useful to beginners are Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019).