Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve wellbeing or happiness. Here are four central ideas:
- Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although there is nothing wrong with these things and they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, often the pursuit of these things actually damages the only thing that can bring us happiness: an excellent, rational mental state.
- Emotions – our emotions are the project of our judgements, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place. This isn’t as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.
- Nature – the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.
- Control – in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.
The three Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of practical advice aimed at helping people incorporate these ideas into their daily lives.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his giant empire broke into pieces and descended into a long period of political turmoil with rulers constantly jockying for power. This period, known as the Hellenistic Age, saw the rise of multiple schools of philosophy, all of which had at their core the task of trying to quell the anxiety caused by the political events that they had no control over. Stoicism was one of these schools.
Stoicism was for everyone. If you were making a late night infomercial trying to convince people that Stoicism was right for them, no matter which walk of life they came from, you couldn’t ask for three people with more diversity between them than Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius to plead your case. Known as the three “crown jewels” of Stoicism, these men dedicated their lives to applying Stoicism to the adversity that faced them, and their brilliant insights and techniques can teach us all something about the human condition.
1. Don’t Enslave Yourself to Annoying People
There aren’t many people more qualified to talk about feeling enslaved than the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus; he spent his entire childhood as a slave in the city of Rome. For most people, the thought of being enslaved is the kind of thing that makes you want to curl into the fetal position. To be forcefully put to work and treated as the property of someone else is one of the worst things that could ever happen to you. This is why it baffled Epictetus that everyone around him voluntarily puts themselves into slavery dozens of times per day. Epictetus said:
“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”
If someone dropped a coconut on your head, tied your body up and forced you to be their slave, you would probably be pretty upset about that–you’d at least leave them a bad review on Yelp. Yet, as we go throughout our lives and people inevitably do things that inconvenience us or say things that annoy us, we allow them to mentally enslave us. We react to them. We argue with them and tell them how wrong they are. We try to find some way to “get back” at them. Just as a slave master would chain your leg to a drain pipe, we allow these random people to chain our minds to a certain distressing train of thought. But make no mistake: You have a choice!
2. Choose Reasonable Expectations
Marcus Aurelius said,
“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!”
We all know someone who is a die hard sports fan. This guy has been a fan for years; they know all the players, they have their own autographed jersey, and every once in a while they like to paint their stomach blue and scream like an absolute lunatic. We’ve all seen this guy erupt off the couch in excitement when their favorite player hits the game winning shot, but we’ve also seen this guy scream red-faced at the TV or treat the people around him differently out of frustration.
The problem is, this guy is allowing himself to be made either happy or angry by the decisions of a select few people that don’t know that he’s a fan, they don’t care about his opinion, and they would trade his favorite player in a heartbeat if it meant a better bottom-line for them. The Stoics would point out that he has absolutely zero control over anything that’s happening on the screen, so why would he allow himself to be so negatively affected by it? They would say that his frustration comes from unrealistic expectations. When the referee makes a bad call, he reacts with anger because he holds the referee to an impossible expectation–that the referee will never make a mistake. The Stoics would point out that this guy yells at the TV, week after week, knowing that referees sometimes make bad calls, but pretending as though they don’t. And to what end?
3. Pre-Meditate Those Expectations
Lucky for us, the Stoics offer a solution. Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Philosopher and the once Emporer of Rome, wrote a nice summary of this commonly practiced Stoic solution. He wrote:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
Have you ever seen a Buddhist sit quietly and meditate as an observer of their own thoughts in an attempt to understand them better? The Stoics propose something extremely similar, but more proactive. We know adversity is going to hit us. We know little annoyances sting us all day long. If we know that some people are bad drivers, why do we still get angry when they inevitably cut us off on the freeway? The Stoics recommend that every morning you should wake up, sit quietly and be incredibly pessimistic.
Repeatedly tell yourself about how the person on the freeway is going to cut you off and that the referee is going to make a bad call and cost your team the game. By doing this, they thought you could retrain your mind to have more realistic expectations. Think about it: if you expect the ref to make a bad call, and he does, you feel the same; if you expect the ref to make a bad call, and he doesn’t, you are pleasantly surprised. The idea of taking a realistic look at what we can or can’t control is a hallmark of Stoic ethics.
4. You Are a Mind That is Operating This Bag of Chemicals You Call a Body.
As humans, we are survival oriented creatures. We like stability. We like predictability. This is why people typically have a fear of the unknown. We like to think that we are in complete control of things like our body or our bank account balance or our reputation, but the Stoics thought we should recognize how tremendously out of our control those things really are. Someone could run a smear campaign against you and ruin your reputation. Someone could steal your identity and take every penny in your bank account. Your body could have a brain aneurism at any second of the day, and basing our happiness on something that we ultimately have little control over is a recipe for failure.
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
Stoicism teaches that we don’t have control over anything external to us. The only thing we can control is how we react to what happens. The ultimate goal is to acheive a state of complete mental tranquility and the key to acheiving it is virtue. The ultimate goal of Stoic virtue was to live in accordance with nature. But to the Stoics, being in agreement with Nature doesn’t mean that you go to Yellowstone national park and pick up trash–Nature is God. The Stoics were a pantheistic philosophy. They believed that God is the universe. This idea of God is very different than what most modern readers will be familiar with; but they thought that God is nature and the reason that governs all things.
An early Stoic philosopher Chrysippus said,
“The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence”
Nature is God and the reason that governs nature is the way that God takes action. As humans who possess a unique abilily to reason, we can think of ourselves as miniscule fractions of the reason that governs all things that are occupying a body. By using that reason to understand things the way they truly are, we are living in harmony with nature.
5. Stop Pretending You Know That Things Are Bad
Let’s go back to our sports example from before. The sports fan is wrong for reacting angrily to something that is out of his control, but that’s not the only place the Stoics take issue with him. He also made a judgement that the referee’s call was a bad one; the Stoics think he is in no place to do that. They seperate qualities down into two types: preferred indifferents and unpreferred indifferents. Let me explain.
Most people would call things like health or a large bank account as “good”, but these things are not good in themselves. This idea goes back to an early Greek philosopher named Plato who said in his work Phaedo that for something to be truly good it could never even assist something that is bad. So to the Stoics, even something like good health was considered not intrinsically good because it is only as good as the person or thing it is making healthy. For example, the good health of Adolf Hitler in 1939 was not a very good thing.
Because of this, all that a truly wise person can say about good health is that it is something that they are indifferent about, but they would prefer to have it because the outcome is typically good for them. They called these sets of qualities preferred indifferents. The significance of this is that very little is intrinsically good or bad and that our job is not to worry about making judgements about things, but to use our ability to reason, control how we react to situations and be in harmony with nature.
6. You were put here to reason, so use it already.
If there is one thing you can do right now that the Stoics are certain will instantly make you a happier person, it is to use your ability to reason. The Stoics talk about the idea of a human being’s Oikeiosis. This word is an adaptation of the Greek word Oikos you might recognize as a type of Greek Yogurt in the supermarket, but the word itself means house or orientation. The Stoics were referring to the idea that each thing, whether it is an insect, a rock, an elephant or a human for that matter, all of these things have a certain thing it was put here to do assigned to it by Nature.
For an animal like a cow, it’s easy– chew grass, sleep, reproduce. For humans, it was all of those things (replace grass with pizza), but we were assigned more. The thing that seperates us from all the other animals in the animal kingdom, and what we were assigned by nature to do, was reason.
Have you ever seen one of those reality shows where a really young, drunken guy will blankly stare into the testimonial camera and say, “Hopefully I won’t cheat on my girlfriend tonight. We’ll see what happens.”
Behold! The Stoics would see this human as one that’s acting like it has the oikos of a cow, or any animal for that matter. These people don’t see themselves as creatures with an oikos of reason– with the ability to make rational decisions that are in harmony with nature–they see themselves as passengers. Whatever happens, happens. A lion is happiest when it does what lions do. A dolphin is happiest when it does what dolphins do. In this same way, humans are happiest when they exercise their ability to reason: their oikos and what they were assigned by Nature to do.
Marcus Aurelius says,
“Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. Man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”
7. Life is NOT too short.
Seneca famously said,
“That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away.”
How much do we worry about death and worrying that our life will be cut short in some tragic way? This is the area of Stoicism that Seneca really excelled in. He has a treatise called “On the Shortness of Life”. Seneca thinks that the idea that life is too short is a common human misconception. It’s not that we weren’t given enough life to live, it’s that we waste so much of it.
He tells a story about a prisoner who was locked up in his cell, awaiting his punishment for a crime, The emperor of Rome at the time, Caligula, sentences him to death and when the guards come to get the prisoner from his cell to kill him, he’s lounging around playing a game with the guard that was assigned to watch over him. So, these other guards show up and tell him he’s sentenced to death and they start dragging him away to be killed and as these guards are dragging him away he says to them, “You guys are my witnesses! I was up by one piece there! I beat him!”
Don’t spend what little time you have agonizing over when your life will end; you weren’t entitled to it anyway. Enjoy life while you can and thank Fortune for what she has given you.
8. Feel Your Emotions Like The Stoics Would
Seneca talks a lot about the idea of regulating emotions. He says that the idea of “moderate emotions,” is about as realistic as the idea of “moderate insanity”. He thinks emotions themselves are irrational. Why try to moderate them? We should train our brain to think rationally. The important part is this: Don’t let a single positive or negative emotion affect you too much. Don’t let a single compliment go to your head and make you grow complacent, and don’t let a single insult get you down and make you think you’re a loser. As it pertains to our sports analogy: don’t let a single win let you think your team is destined to win the championship and don’t let a single loss let you get down on future prospects.
9. Anger is a choice.
A common rebuttle to the Stoic doctrine is that feeling angry about something is not a concious choice that someone can make. Seneca completely disagrees. He wrote an entire treatise titled, “On Anger”, where he describes in detail what happens when someone gets upset about something. One key point to take from it is that even though the time that elapses between when something bad happens to you and when you feel angry seems instant, Seneca argues that anger is actually a four step process.
1. Realization: The moment you realize the ref made a bad call.
2. Indignation: The feeling of contempt for the ref that made the bad call.
3. Condemnation: You saying he should keep his ref uniform and work at Foot Locker.
4. Retribution: You doing something to exact revenge.
Seneca compares anger to truly involuntary instant behaviors like shivering when cold water is sprinkled on you. The significance of this is that we are empowered at any point within this long four step process to accept that the ref’s call is external to us and therefore out of our control.
10. When it comes down to it, we are dogs tied to the back of a cart.
The idea of having realistic expectations is definitely powerful, but what if we change our worldview to contain reasonable expectations and even those expectations aren’t met? The ultimate happiness lies in acceptance of fate, but when the Stoics talk about fate, they aren’t referencing anything magical or spooky. They are what is known in philosophy as compatiblists. Put shortly, they believe that free will and determinism are not mutally exclusive. For the case of our article today, think of determinism as fate.
Stoics believe that understanding our place in nature and accepting whatever Nature has in store for us is crucial. Early Stoics compared humans to a dog tied to the back of a cart. We don’t control where we go; the only thing we control is how much we whine and struggle along the way.