An introduction to Stoicism: An ancient, action based philosophy that is predicated on overcoming obstacles and turning them to our advantage.
Philosophy may not be a chosen pursuit of the attention deficit, meme devouring Gen Y’ers of the internet age. Perhaps that’s partly because we have the wrong impression of what philosophy truly is. The first image that may spring to mind is that of wrinkled and white-haired men, sitting around a low-burning fire arguing about what constitutes a ‘soul’, or whether there is such a thing as universal morality. If not that, then perhaps of some self-righteous, know-it-all philosophy major who studies the great minds of history to feed his intellectual superiority complex. We need to shift that mental image.
Philosophy is not meant as a purely theoretical doctrine of life, but a practical one. It is supposed to help you live a productive and worthy life here on Earth (and in some cases, for all eternity afterwards). It is in some ways a manual to life, one that has been laid out and refined by some of the pre-eminent leaders of thought in history. I’m sure we can all relate to the question asked of ourselves “What is the best way to live?” As I talked about in a previous post, living without regret is a central tenant in order to achieve a level of satisfaction at the end of life. Philosophy can give us the principles to ensure we reach that state.
The most practical I have come across so far is Stoicism. I was first introduced to the Stoic philosophy in a blog post put up by Ryan Holiday, one of its key advocates in the modern day. From there I have tried to incorporate its central maxims into my everyday life, though not making a concerted effort until recently. At its core, Stoicism is essentially the realisation that we cannot control external events but we are in full control of how we interpret and react to them.
We don’t generally possess a directing framework or compass with which to face the rough patches in life. While we’re not out fighting combat sword to sword or facing a mutinous uprising against us, as in the day of the Stoic practitioners mentioned in this post, we all have difficulties to overcome. Stoicism is an action based philosophy that is predicated on overcoming obstacles, turning them to our advantage.
Before we delve further into what this philosophy involves, let’s examine a brief history of how it came to be and how it has maintained its relevance and indeed its following over the millennia.
A history of Stoic endurance
Zeno of Citium (Cyprus) was the founder of Stoicism, developing and teaching the Stoic school of philosophy in Athens, around 300 BC. Much was derived from other notable schools of thought, in particular the Cynics (yes cynicism is actually a philosophy), Socrates and the Skeptics (also an ancient philosophy).
It all began with Zeno of Citium
An early follower of Zeno, Chrysippus, is credited as the one who elaborated on the early doctrines and essentially organised Stoicism into a system. The philosophy gathered a large following in Hellenistic Greece and was adopted by the early Roman Empire. It perhaps reached its Zenith under the emperor Marcus Aurelius and continued to thrive until the Christians decided Stoicism was at odds with the Christian faith and shut down all schools in 529 AD. Very unlike the Christians to suppress free thought isn’t it?
The philosophy lay relatively dormant, despite being utilised by some notable intellectuals, the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Descartes and Spinoza. In recent times it has struck somewhat of a revival, hence why I’m writing this article in 2016. The great American president Theodore Roosevelt carried stoic texts with him and Bill Clinton claims to read Meditations once a year. Then we have the internet crowd; the likes of Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday where I was introduced to the philosophy.
What is Stoicism? What does it stand for?
Stoicism appears to have developed quite the downer reputation for itself over the years. It is often viewed as a philosophy of grim endurance, as though the best we can hope to do in life is to break even. We simply have to grin and bear it. It has a reputation for misery in other words. This is ill-founded and not at all what it’s founders and forebearers had in mind.
The four cardinal virtues recognized by the Stoics were: Wisdom (sophia), Courage (andreia), Justice (dikaiosyne), and Temperance (sophrosyne). From these virtues, the key principles of Stoicism are derived. These principles are listed below, backed up by a quote from one its three most renowned adherents; Epictetus, Seneca & Marcus Aurelius.
Epictetus was born into a life of slavery in 55 A.D, eventually finding a life of philosophy and establishing his own school in the study of Stoicism. Seneca was a renowned philosopher, statesman and adviser to the tyrannical empower Nero. And the emperor Marcus Aurelius, well, this is what can be said of him (taken from Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life);
“He was sick, possibly with an ulcer. His family life was a source of distress: his wife appears to have been unfaithful to him, and of the at least 14 children she bore him, only six survived. Added to this were the stresses that came with ruling an empire. During his reign, there were numerous frontier uprisings, and Marcus often went personally to oversee campaigns against upstart tribes. His own officials – most notably, Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria – rebelled against him. His subordinates were insolent to him, which insolence he bore with ‘an unruffled temper’. Citizens told jokes at his expense and were not punished for doing so. During his reign, the empire also experienced plague, famine, and natural disasters such as the earthquake at Smyrna.”
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist practicing in Vienna during the second world war and subsequent Nazi occupation of Austria. Unfortunately for Frankl, he happened to be Jewish; not the ideal demographic for his particular circumstances. Frankl and his family were deported to a Nazi Ghetto in 1942, eventually finding themselves transported to the notorious Auschwitz death camp in 1944.
The man was subjected to the most humiliating and debilitating of conditions during his time at Auschwitz, conditions you or I could only conjure up in our darkest nightmares. This was nothing compared to the pain Frankl had to endure as his family was slowly wiped out at the hands of the Nazis. When the ordeal was finally over in 1945, Viktor and 1 sister were the only survivors; his parents, wife and other relations had all succumb to the gas chambers.
Frankl detailed his experiences a year after his release in one of my favorite books of all time; Man’s Search for Meaning. The central theme is that no matter what you may go through, even something as horrific as the holocaust, you are in complete control of how you choose to react and interpret these events. How you can find meaning in them. This is how Frankl and other survivors were able to survive and continue with their lives after the fact.
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Above all else, this is perhaps the key message of Stoicism. We Don’t Control External Events Which May Happen to Us. We do, however, control our reactions to these events. Frankl then was Stoic in his approach to finding meaning and his subsequent development of Logotherapy.
Stoics made a sharp (perhaps too sharp) distinction between things that are under our control and things that lay outside of it. The first category included mostly our own thoughts and attitudes, while the second category included pretty much everything else. The idea was that peace of mind comes from focusing on what we can actually control, rather than wasting emotional energy on what we cannot control.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
Happiness is derived from leading a life of virtue
“Virtue is sufficient for happiness.”
According to the Stoics, the highest good is the virtuous life. Virtue alone is happiness, and vice is unhappiness (virtue meaning, chiefly, the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom). It is our perceptions of things, rather than the things themselves, that cause most of our trouble.
This also assumes that happiness is derived from an internal source, not from anything outside ourselves. It is our conduct and our perception of life that leads to happiness.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”
Adversity leads to opportunity
“You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.”
We do ourselves an immense favor when we consider adversity an opportunity to make this discovery – and, in the discovery, to enhance what we find there. As someone who has grown up in the comforts of a developed nation, I look for ways to create that adversity. Physical adversity for example.. the reason why I climb large mountains.
In essence, this principle means essentially turning obstacles into opportunities. It is essentially these obstacles which bring meaning to our lives. How we choose to tackle them determines our success. Let no obstacle lead to despair, learn from setbacks and find a way around.
Seneca advises us to regularly practise adversity, so we are not taken by surprise when it lands on our doorstep:
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”
Consider the worst case scenario
“In the morning say to thyself, This day I shalt have to do with an idle curious man, with an unthankful man, a railer, a crafty, false, or an envious man; an unsociable uncharitable man.”
— Marcus Aurelius
By keeping the very worst that can happen in our heads constantly, the Stoics tell us, we immunise ourselves from the dangers of too much so-called ‘positive thinking’, a product of the mind that believes a realistic accounting of the world can lead only to despair. Only by envisioning the bad can we truly appreciate the good; gratitude does not arrive when we take things for granted. It’s precisely this gratitude that leaves us content to cede control of what the world has already removed from our control anyway.
“Who is the invincible human being? One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.”
This is a key one for myself. I have the tendency to be overly confident that life will work itself out no matter what and as such, I don’t generally leave myself a backup plan. Or, when my plan doesn’t work out as expected, it can lead to tremendous disappointment.
Demonstrate through action, not words
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
— Epictetus, The Art of Living
A key distinction between this philosophy and many that remain purely in the realm of academia. Don’t preach what you don’t practice. In fact, don’t preach it at all. Live it.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Death is nothing to fear.
“What it is to die, and how if a man shall consider this by itself alone, to die, and separate from it in his mind all those things which with it usually represent themselves unto us, he can conceive of it no otherwise, than as of a work of nature, and he that fears any work of nature, is a very child. Now death, it is not only a work of nature, but also conducing to nature.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Death is always present in a stoics thoughts. This allows them to make the most of the life they have. By understanding the fleeting nature of our existence, we cease to waste time (for the most part) and focus on the things which are important to us.
Live in the moment
“Remember withal that no man properly can be said to live more than that which is now present, which is but a moment of time. Whatsoever is besides either is already past, or uncertain”
— Marcus Aurelius
The only time we really have is right now. The past is gone and the future uncertain. Both are predominantly out of our control, therefore we should direct our focus on the present. Easier said than done, I know. Yet by keeping this principle in mind, we certainly do ourselves a favour.
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”
Lose the ego
“Consider both the infiniteness of the time already past, and the immense vastness of that which is to come, wherein all things are to be resolved and annihilated. Art not thou then a very fool, who for these things, art either puffed up with pride, or distracted with cares, or canst find in thy heart to make such moans as for a thing that would trouble thee for a very long time?”
“If anybody shall reprove me, and shall make it apparent unto me, that in any either opinion or action of mine I do err, I will most gladly retract. For it is the truth that I seek after, by which I am sure that never any man was hurt; and as sure, that he is hurt that continueth in any error, or ignorance whatsoever.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Seek truth and reality over false pride and arrogance.
“Alexander of Macedon, and he that dressed his mules, when once dead both came to one.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Don’t fall for the trap of materialism
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Seneca advised ‘practicing poverty’. What we generally fear is losing what we have and the hardship we would have to endure if that were to happen. Well, try it for yourself, you’ll soon find it’s not that bad. Go camping for a week with only the most basic of necessities. You’ll find that you can survive if not thrive, that irrational fear banished for good. The Stoics realised that material possessions only clouded our mind and made our lives harder rather than easier.
The principles mentioned here only give you a brief glimpse into the Stoic philosophy and what it truly stands for. To get a little more in depth, I recommend the following:
- Letters from a stoic by Seneca
- Discourses by Epictetus
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- A Guide to the Good Life by William B Irvine
- Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday