Stoicism dates back to ancient Greece, so it stands to reason that plenty of criticism and misconceptions have built up about it over the years. Some people will dismiss Stoicism as nothing more than a fancy way of saying, “Keep a stiff upper lip.” But the truth is far more meaningful and helpful than that.
Stoicism has remained a popular philosophy for all these thousands of years because it offers an effective framework for those who desire a life of virtue and serenity.
This philosophy prioritizes reason and logic in offering ways to navigate difficult social situations and to continually make virtuous decisions. Perhaps now, more than ever, we are surrounded by ways to indulge in easy and unrewarding pleasures. So why not check in with the Stoics to see what advice they have on how to avoid the pitfalls of modern life?
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
1. When paying attention to what’s in your control, focus on character.
2. Keep in mind the impermanence of life, possessions, and circumstances.
3. The Discipline of Action involves preparing yourself for what’s likely to happen.
Stoicism offers one of the best bets for happiness.
No one wants to live an unhappy life, right? In fact, people have been seeking the best ways to avoid unhappiness for a very long time. And in doing so, some of the brightest minds in history have spent lifetimes asking themselves what causes unhappiness and how we can avoid such things. While there have been advances in psychotherapy and neuroscience, the philosophy of Stoicism continues to be a popular resource for people who are seeking a reliable system of principles in their lives.
Stoicism can be traced back to 300 BCE. However, one of the reasons it’s still relevant today is that many of the principles in Stoicism can still be found in modern psychiatric practices, like cognitive behavioural therapy.
For example, one of the core tenets of Stoicism is about learning how to focus on the things that are truly under your control. Often, our sources of unhappiness are related to things that are completely out of our control. We get hung up on the opinions of others, getting stuck in traffic, bad weather, illnesses, or fluctuations in the economy.
What if we could learn to let go of our desires for goals that are unreliable? What if our happiness didn’t depend on things like money and the opinions of others? What if we could train ourselves so that our happiness was only dependent on things that are entirely in our control? This is one of the essential insights of Stoicism.
If this sounds appealing to you, then let’s take it a step further and quickly break down some of the fundamental Stoic principles.
For starters, there are three key areas to focus on: ethics, physics, and logic – all of which are interconnected. Ethics is about finding an ideal way to live. In order to do that, we should have an understanding of physics, which, in this case, refers to understanding how nature and humans work. And one of the main things to know about human beings is that we have the capacity for reason and logic, which will play a central role in solving problems and finding our ideal way of life.
All of this can be summed up by saying that Stoics believe the key to a peaceful existence is to live according to nature. So we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of understanding human nature – which includes recognizing the common habits and tendencies that can stand in the way of our wellbeing.
The practice of Stoicism is three-fold, and it begins with the Discipline of Desire.
In A Handbook for New Stoics, the authors present 52 exercises that are designed to guide you from being a beginner to an advanced student over the course of a year. But the authors also suggest nine exercises that should give you enough of an impression to determine if Stoicism is something you want to pursue further.
These nine exercises are divided evenly between three categories: the disciplines of desires, the discipline of action, and the discipline of assent. These make up what is known as the three-disciplined practice of Stoicism. These disciplines are designed to improve your character and help you be the best person you can be.
All three disciplines are centred around what is known as the dichotomy of control. It involves identifying and separating what is and isn't within our control. And if you’re familiar with the Serenity Prayer, then you’re familiar with this dichotomy. It goes: “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.” Variations of this sentiment can be found in religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, as well as philosophies like Stoicism.
So, the first exercise is about familiarizing yourself with what is and isn’t in your control. The reality is, very few things are in our complete control. One of the ancient Stoic authors whose work has survived over the years is Epictetus. He suggests just three things over which we have total control.
They are thought, impulse and the will to avoid and to get. Now, let’s take a closer look at what Epictetus was referring to because we need to account for translation and the fact that the words of ancient Stoics have changed over time. Epictetus wasn’t suggesting that we can control which thoughts enter our mind or which impulses occur. Rather, he was referring to the judgments our thoughts can carry and whether or not we decide to act on our impulses.
For example, we can’t control when an impulse of hunger arrives. But we can decide whether or not to walk to the kitchen, and we can decide which foods to get and which foods to avoid. Likewise, if our first thought upon meeting someone is, “Oh, this person is a moron,” we can control whether or not we accept or reject this thought. In this respect, we can take the word “thought” on Epictetus’s list of things over which we have total control and replace it with “judgment.”
When paying attention to what’s in your control, focus on character.
In many ways, human nature today isn’t all that different now than it was back in 300 BCE. Many of our desires remain the same. Temptations like food, sex, alcohol, drugs, and gambling continue to be at the root of compulsive desires that can harm or even destroy lives. The discipline of desire is about building up your will to avoid or control the desires that do not contribute to good character.
Ultimately, one thing over which we do have complete control is our character since our character is essentially the sum of our decisions and actions. We can control our urges, and we can make decisions based on sound reasoning and our own set of values and ideals. Yes, there are often outside forces trying to get us to do things that may not align with those values, whether it’s persistent advertising or the opinions of friends, family, or co-workers, but ultimately the decision is ours to make.
So, while the first exercise is about recognizing what is and isn’t in your control, the second exercise is about shifting your focus. Let’s see if we can stop worrying about external things that are out of our control and instead focus on internal things, like how we decide to use our time or how we respond to the challenges life throws our way.
Think of it this way: how much of our lives are spent worrying about outcomes over which we have very little control? When you focus on character, you can put yourself in the position of saying, “I know I did my best. The outcome isn’t in my control, but I can choose to be happy regardless because I did everything in my power to influence a positive outcome.”
Consider your health. Among the things Epictetus advises us not to be averse to are sickness, death, and poverty because again, we don’t have total control over these things. We can influence them by making decisions that support a long, healthy life, but ultimately, we could very well end up sick or poor through no fault of our own. And since we can’t control it, we shouldn’t let it worry us.
The same can be said for that upcoming performance review at work. Rather than hanging all your hopes and your happiness on the outcome, a Stoic would simply focus on doing the best job she can.
Keep in mind the impermanence of life, possessions, and circumstances.
The final exercise in the Discipline of Desire deals with a tricky subject: impermanence. Chances are, deep down, you know the reality of the situation: nothing lasts forever. Yet, for many of us, this is something that we choose to ignore.
For old-school Stoics like Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, there was good reason to keep in mind the impermanence of life. Only four of Aurelius’s 13 children lived to adulthood, and during his reign, there was a terrible plague that took the lives of five million Romans. So, bracing yourself for the possibility of a loved one passing did make sense.
Critics of Stoicism will often suggest that its principles are designed to turn people into morbid, uncaring robots who shun pleasure. But this is taking a very limited view. Ask yourself, which makes more sense: denying the fact that nothing lasts forever or being prepared for the inevitable?
What Stoics really value is equanimity, which is very different from a cold, callous, uncaring attitude. Striving for equanimity is about striving for a certain level of serenity or calm levelheadedness. And who wouldn’t want that?
Let’s not forget, impermanence isn’t just about life and death. Reason and logic tell us that impermanence applies to nearly everything in life, including our belongings and circumstances. Many of us get unhappy when our computer breaks down, or the stock market takes a tumble. But maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe the more sensible way of living would be to understand that such things are bound to happen and that what’s here today may be gone tomorrow.
Not only is this living in accordance with nature, it can also lead to more appreciation for the good things in life, which, in turn, can lead to more happiness. On the other hand, it can also lead to more resilience in the face of difficulties, since you know that they won’t last forever, either.
When it comes to the Discipline of Desire, coming to terms with impermanence is certainly one of the more challenging aspects. So start small and work your way up to the more important things. For instance, the next time your car breaks down, try being Stoic about it. Logic should tell you that it was bound to happen one day, so why stress over it? Instead of capitulating to frustration, give thanks for all the days when your car did get you where you needed to go.
The Discipline of Action involves preparing yourself for what’s likely to happen.
Following the Discipline of Desire, we enter the discipline of action. While the first discipline was about learning how to focus on the things you can control, the second discipline is about the actions you take or don’t take. This is about how we respond to adversity and the steps we can take in order to make the best, most virtuous decisions.
Once again, the goal of Stoicism is to live a life of virtuous character. For a practicing Stoic, that means living a life in harmony with nature. And harmony means equanimity and not losing your temper or succumbing to anger.
Naturally, this is easier said than done. But as with anything, it’s about practice, practice, practice. Key to this practice is understanding your environment. Remember, the Stoics put a high value on being familiar with human nature. In this case, it’s knowing ahead of time the challenges you can expect when entering into a given situation.
The example Epictetus gives is going to the Roman bathhouses. If you’re going to go bathing, you shouldn’t be surprised to find some people who are there to act foolish, berate others, and even to steal. Such is the nature of your fellow human beings.
The point is to prepare yourself for what is likely to happen so that you’re not caught off guard. This will lessen your chances of accidentally losing your temper or otherwise behaving in a way that you may later regret. After all, if there’s one thing we can reliably count on, it’s that people will invariably behave in improper ways.
In fact, just as we can prepare ourselves for entering a difficult situation, we can anticipate encountering difficult people no matter where we find ourselves. As Emperor Marcus Aurelius once pointed out, some people are selfish, jealous, duplicitous, violent, and generally up to no good. He even recommended telling yourself, first thing in the morning, that you will surely encounter some of these people today.
As he saw it, it’s foolish to be upset by such people or expect them to act otherwise. People will be who they are, it’s just another fact of human nature, and it’s the Stoic’s duty to be in harmony with nature.
Journaling is an effective and indispensable tool in starting your Stoic practice.
The final exercise under the Discipline of Action is really an exercise that can benefit all three disciplines. In fact, it’s an exercise that is recommended by many mental health professionals and by therapists who are simply trying to help their patients get a better night’s sleep. It’s the simple act of reflecting on your day and writing down some thoughts.
One of the most important of the ancient Stoic writings is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Essentially, Meditations is a reproduction of Marcus’s journals, and it shows just how important the process was for helping Marcus identify and adhere to his virtues.
Meditations is also a reassuring book. We can see that Marcus is well aware that he is not perfect, and that being a Stoic is a constant work in progress. By regularly taking the time to reflect and take stock of your struggles and victories, you, like Marcus, can identify areas and disciplines that need attention.
Seneca, a Roman senator, and another key figure in the ancient Stoic tradition, also championed the idea of regular self-reflection at the end of the day. For him, it was a practice that allowed him to sleep soundly at night. And if you’ve ever tossed and turned in bed, unable to stop replaying events from earlier in the day, you should do the same. Set aside some time before settling into bed to reflect on the day, write down your thoughts, and reap the rewards of a calm mind.
The authors also recommend journaling as a way to strengthen all aspects of your Stoic practice, especially when you’re just getting started. Use your journal to reflect on the core principles that we’ve already touched upon.
For example, think back on a recent difficult encounter and write down some aspects of this experience that were in your control, and some that weren’t. What can you learn from this experience? How could you better prepare yourself next time, so it won’t be as difficult as before? Did you have any unrealistic expectations that led you to believe the person you encountered would behave in a certain way? Or perhaps there was a recent event that served as a painful reminder of the impermanence of life?
As you can see, by reflecting on recent events, you can really strengthen your understanding of the core principles of Stoicism. It’s an invaluable tool for focusing your energies on the things that are in your control: preparing yourself for encountering challenging scenarios and difficult people.
The first exercises in the Discipline of Assent involve catching and countering initial impressions.
Following the Discipline of Desire and the Discipline of Action, we enter the Discipline of Assent, the most advanced of Stoicism’s three disciplines. Now is a good time to recall the three things that Epictetus believed are in your complete control: thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get. In the Discipline of Desire, we work on our ability to master our will to avoid and to get. With the Discipline of Action, we work on controlling our impulses.
In the Discipline of Assent, it’s our thoughts. And remember, in Stoicism, “thoughts” essentially refer to the snap judgments we make. While we can’t stop these from occurring, we can learn how to counter them with logic, reason, and a desire to live more virtuously. We all know that initial impressions are often wrong. How many times have we made assumptions about people, only to be proven wrong once we got to know them better? How many times have we dreaded going to an event, only to be pleasantly surprised once we got there? Of course, the surprises we encounter with people and events aren't always pleasant.
As the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving, so the practice here is to pay attention to those instants when a judgmental thought pops up. As Epictetus suggests, “confront every harsh impression with the words, “You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be.’”
The authors recommend the same practice. If you’re alone, they even recommend saying these words aloud. Catching yourself like this should have the effect of preventing you from making poor decisions or knee-jerk reactions that you may live to regret. The point is to become more thoughtful and mindful when it comes to reacting and making decisions. So the next time you feel a snap decision coming on – stop, think it over, and give yourself a moment to cool down.
To take this exercise a step further, don’t just catch your judgments and remind yourself that they may be wrong – question them. Why is this judgment popping up? What is the underlying reason for it?
The final exercise is about internalizing the principles of Stoicism and keeping them with you always.
Everyone loses their cool from time to time. Even the most fervent Stoics in history were open about their flaws. So don’t beat yourself up if you decide to apply Stoic principles to your life and still find that anger gets the better of you every once in a while.
Stoicism isn’t about being perfect. It's about learning from your mistakes and having a discipline in place that will allow for more equanimity – more emotional stability, calmness, and maybe even happiness. It’s about not letting the messy aspect of interacting with people get the better of you. When you put all of this together, Stoicism becomes a way of improving your character and becoming a more virtuous person.
“How can this improve my character?” This is another question you can ask yourself when your initial thought may tell you that this is something you either desire or want to avoid. The principles of Stoicism are very much rooted in the idea that we’re all a work in progress, and we need to have simple phrases and questions at hand that we can repeat and use to constantly remind ourselves to make the right decisions.
The more we practice and train ourselves to think, make decisions, and behave in ways that improve our character and help us to become more virtuous, the easier it will become. This is not just a cornerstone of Stoicism; this is also the main principle behind cognitive behavioural therapy. In other words, there is plenty of scientific evidence that this approach to forming virtuous, character-building habits works. In this summary, we’ve really only scratched the surface of what Stoicism is all about. But you can put yourself on the right path by applying some of the principles we’ve covered here and making the conscious effort to internalize them.
While nightly self-reflection is a great tool for doing this, another helpful method is daily meditation. The principles of mindfulness meditation are very much aligned with those of Stoicism. Mindfulness meditation is designed to keep you focused on the present moment, and for Stoics, this is the only moment we have control over, so it is the focus of their attention as well.
The past is in the past, and the future is not something we have total control over, but the present is always full of opportunities to improve yourself and the lives of those around you. When you start choosing those opportunities over easy pleasures, you’ll be following the path of the Stoic.
What I took from it.
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, but it is one that remains highly relevant today. To understand the basics of Stoicism, you should know that it is based on three fundamental ideas: living in harmony with nature, understanding the dichotomy of control, and following a three-disciplined practice. The practice begins with the Discipline of Desire, which is about understanding what is and isn’t in our control; then, the Discipline of Action teaches us how to navigate difficult social situations; and the Discipline of Assent is about making better judgments and internalizing the principles.
Let go of “good” and “bad.” Was last week bad? Is having lots of money good? As far as Stoics are concerned, neither of these statements track. The only thing you should consider good and bad are things related to your character. For the Stoics, as well as Socrates, the only good is virtue, and the only bad is vice. So, statements like “I behaved badly around him,” or “It’s a good idea for me to help her,” make sense, but statements like “This apple is bad,” or “Last week was bad,” don’t make sense from a rational perspective, because these aren’t facts.
The fact is an apple can’t be good or bad; it just is what it is.
This may sound like fussing over semantics, but it’s more than that. The Stoics believed we shouldn’t assign value judgments to things outside our control. When you do that, you’re actually establishing preferences and assigning emotions in ways that can affect your decision making and steer you away from virtue, which really is bad.