Estimated reading time: 12.5 minutes
There is a strange tendency among those who study and write about Stoicism today to treat the founders like deities. To view them as infallible, shining examples of human perfection.
This is altogether the wrong way to go. The core Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus) were human beings like the rest of us. Time and limited information on their lives may have ironed out the creases. But they lived, they loved, they lost. They made mistakes, hurt people and had moments of weakness.
And that is, after all, the exact reason why Stoicism came about. The Stoics never developed their philosophies for the sake of other people. Every one of their letters, maxims, plays, and diary entries was prompted by events in their own lives. When they were weak, they wrote themselves guidelines for being strong. When they were overcome by grief, they developed ways to reconcile it. Each time they faced an obstacle, they dug within themselves for answers. This is precisely why it is still so relevant today- the lessons are universal.
Stoicism is not about asking lofty questions or dealing with paradoxes and vague concepts.
The focus is the mundane, the day to day and the ordinary issues we all face. Stoicism, as a philosophy, enables us to strengthen ourselves against the world and our own weaknesses. The original Stoics acknowledged the flawed nature of all people, including themselves. We see this with clarity in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a man who was worshipped as a god and still pursued self-improvement.
Stoicism is not a philosophy which requires a PhD to be understood. There is little need to analyze it, write essays on it, or read every book published on the topic. Stoicism exists to be used. Not just quoted when we want to sound smart - actually utilized in our lives, as dependable and versatile as a smartphone.
After all, Stoicism is not a religion (even if some people insist on treating it as such.) It did not spontaneously appear- people developed it to meet their needs. In order for the philosophy to survive, each new generation must add their own thoughts. We must adapt it to our times, to ensure it remains useful and is not forgotten. Stoicism is too valuable for us to allow it to fade into obscurity.
Learning about Stoicism over the last few years has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life. This is no exaggeration. Last week, two horrible events happened at once - my relationship ended, and my wonderful grandfather passed away without any warning. I was left reeling, sobbing uncontrollably on a bathroom floor in a strange city, without any idea how to continue. By turning to the lessons I have learned from the Stoics, I have been able to handle the pain better than I would have done in the past. I picked myself up, reread passages of their writings designed to handle these sorts of tragedies and found new strength. As difficult as it has been, I have managed to avoid falling back into depression, something I attribute to my Stoic principles.
Here are some of the Stoic concepts which I find to be most relevant for the modern age.
These have all helped me an enormous amount in my own life. Note: these are my personal interpretations. Also note: these quotations come from a range of sources, including the Hayes translation of Meditations, the CDN Costa translation of Letters From A Stoic, the Penguin translation of On the Shortness of Life, and Hasselman's translations in The Daily Stoic. Different translations vary, and those are the texts I recommend.
1. Let go of harmful emotions
‘And why should we be angry at the world? As if the world would notice.’ - Marcus Aurelius
Our society encourages many pointless and unhelpful feelings- a victim mentality, a sense of entitlement and incessant outrage. These emotions do nothing to help anyone and waste our time and energy. A core tenement of Stoicism is control over our minds. I consider this to be a radical idea, considering how many of us outsource our emotions to other people. We allow them to trample over us, manipulating how we feel. This aphorism from Marcus Aurelius is a reminder that anger is a pointless emotion. Stewing in our frustration, feeling outraged at the world, we are achieving nothing. Only by finding a sense of calmness and level-headedness can we act.
Through extensive work, I have been able to reach a point where I rarely feel anger. In situations that used to provoke rage, I am able to remain calm. When the emotion begins to bubble up, I ask myself: when has anger ever done me any good? The answer is never. At the center of Stoicism is a belief in the four virtues of human flourishing - justice, courage, wisdom, and self-control. Anger only ever clouds those values. Seneca also reflected on the futility of anger:
‘There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.’
2. Go deep with your learning
Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in mere passing. - Seneca
Personally, I love learning. My life revolves around reading and the acquisition of new skills. It is always tempting to go wide and shallow, learning a little about a lot. This line from Seneca reminds me of the value of going deep with a small number of topics, seeking to learn all about them.
I find this to be of particular relevance in the information age, as we are all bombarded with information every moment of the day. We read a few articles on a topic and assume this is enough to make our deductions and form opinions. Yet, all too often, our cognitive biases lead us to never truly learn anything new. Instead, we meld the new information into our existing worldview. Many people also seek to speed up the process of learning, as if it were possible to learn a language in a few days, absorb a book listened to on 4x speed, or acquire a complex skill in a few hours. This is learning for the sake of learning. I talk a lot about 'functional knowledge' - the type which serves a real world purpose. This means learning languages to use them, physical training to be able to move as we should, reading in order to understand the world. The Stoics saw learning as a vital point of pride, not something to race through. Epictetus also cautioned against feigning knowledge before we are ready:
‘If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.’
Seneca's perspective on reading is valuable too. He encourages us to read deep, not wide. To read important, thought-provoking books and incorporate the benefits into your life. I see a lot of people trying to 'hack' reading and speed it up, although as I have written before, the only way to read more is to love it:
'You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.'
3. Embrace your nature and role in the world
'At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’
–But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice?” Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
–But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat.' - Marcus Aurelius
I run through this passage first thing almost every morning and the effect is never diminished. The Stoics viewed a person's work as their role in the world, regardless of the specifics. They often wrote about 'logos'- the divine force animating the universe, pushing us all to do what we must. I find this attitude to work relevant, considering the entitled attitude my generation has towards work. We expect our jobs to be perfect, always enjoyable and to be applauded for everything. For the Stoics, work was a part of human existence, a necessity to be embraced however difficult. Another thought from Marcus Aurelius compliments this perspective:
'At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice—giving you a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint about your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life—for, if you keep watch over these things, the gods won’t ask for more.'
4. Live with the end in mind
'Life is like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters. ' - Seneca
Memento mori might as well have been the motto of the Stoics. Their writings are peppered with references to mortality, something that must have been very close to mind in the era before modern medicine. Whilst people live much longer now, meditating upon death is more important than ever. Why? Precisely because it is so taboo. We have reached a point where the topic is pushed to the recesses of our minds. Doctors seek to extend our lives as long as possible, many people spend ungodly amounts of money on rejuvenating treatments, and cryogenic freezing is beginning to be available for those who imagine they may be resurrected.
As Epictetus wrote: 'you are a little soul carrying around a corpse.' This Stoic perspective on death is somewhat grounding.
5. Build an ‘inner citadel’
'Direct your eyesight inward, and you’ll find / A thousand regions in your mind / Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be / Expert in home-cosmography.' - Henry Thoreau
Whilst Thoreau is not strictly classed as a Stoic, his writings are complementary. This short poem comes from Walden and illustrates this concept well.
To the Stoics, our homes are not our fortresses - our minds are. This is where the concept of an 'inner citadel' comes in. We all have the capacity to build an impenetrable fortress within our minds, a place where we can escape the world. The Stoics were aware of the chaotic nature of the world (all led rather tumultuous lives, especially Marcus Aurelius) and so developed the idea of creating a sense of calm nothing can disrupt. I have written before about my own version of this idea, what I call 'a rich internal life.'
Coming from a Jewish background, I have always found the concept of an 'inner citadel' particularly resonant. Relentless persecution and a lack of a secure homeland have turned Jewish people inwards, to an extraordinary sort of strength and self-reliance. Without stability, we have found a way to fortify our minds against trials. Most of the religious festivals do not celebrate religion as such- they commemorate the strength of those who came before.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote: 'Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains... But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power to choose to retire into yourself.'
6. Practice negative visualization
This classic Stoic technique is brilliant. The idea is simple. Negative visualization goes against modern ideas of positive thinking, however it is very effective for creating a more upbeat mindset.
Imagine the worst has happened. All our worst fears come true in an instant: a job is lost, partner leaves, the house burns down, civilization collapses. Whatever seems most daunting. Feel the fear, the horror, the pain. Then, we can acknowledge these events have not happened (yet) and be appreciative about it. I love this concept because it is so versatile, powerful and underused.
Seneca developed this technique to console a friend, Marcia. Still distraught three years after the death of her son, he advised her to guard against suffering so much from future tragedies. Seneca urged Marcia to imagine negative events before they happen, as a means of being prepared for them. He described all we have as 'on loan', and liable to be reclaimed at any point.
7. Other people are...well, people
‘When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own- not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me with ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper, and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural.’ - Marcus Aurelius
These words bring to mind Tim Urban's advice for anyone who wishes to be a good person:
'Every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbor, and person on the internet you come across:
- Has a family who loves them and vice versa
- Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations
- Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do
- Is dealing with random health problems, trying to make ends meet financially, and is probably tired
- Might be supporting one or more other human beings
- Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past
- Might be the most important person in someone else’s life
- Is just trying to figure out how to be happy'
We all communicate with increasing numbers of people each day. As the interactions become briefer and more distant, rudeness can end up being the default. I like to remind myself of Marcus Aurelius' words each morning (I know many passages from Meditations off by heart) each morning as a means of feeling prepared for whoever I encounter.
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