Welcome, readers of the self-help world. Today we crack open the centuries-old philosophy of Stoicism like a fortune cookie for the modern age.
Stoicism gets a bad rap as being purely logical and emotionless. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The Stoics knew how to live joyfully while going with the flow of nature. Let’s learn how to apply their wisdom to live better lives today.
- A Quick History of Stoic Philosophy
- The Main Principles of Stoic Philosophy
- Stoicism in Action: Hypothetical and Historical Examples
- Key Exercises and Rituals for Practicing Stoicism
- How Stoicism Differs from Epicureanism
- Isn’t Stoicism About Suppressing Emotions? Common Misconceptions
- Stoicism’s Revival in Pop Culture
- Top Resources for Deepening Understanding
A Quick History of Stoic Philosophy
Stoicism began in the streets of ancient Greece. Around 300 BCE, a merchant named Zeno founded Stoicism in Athens. He taught philosophy on a stoa poikile, or painted porch, hence the name “Stoicism.”
Zeno and his followers believed that virtue was the greatest good. To be virtuous meant living logically and resisting destructive emotions. By following nature and using reason to make proper judgments, Stoics could obtain eudaimonia or fulfillment.
The later Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius expanded on these teachings over the next few centuries. Their guidance on gaining wisdom, overcoming hardship, and focusing only on what we control remains insightful today.
Now, Stoicism is seeing a modern revival. People are drawn to its practical techniques for facing life’s chaos with poise. Stoicism offers tools to minimize suffering and maximize tranquility.
Let’s explore the core principles that served as the foundation for this influential school of thought.
The Main Principles of Stoic Philosophy
The teachings of Stoicism rest on these central ideas:
- Live in agreement with nature – Accept that we are part of a greater natural order and cosmic plan. Don’t fight against nature’s course.
- Differentiate control – Recognize what is up to us and what is not. Focus energy only on what we have the power to change.
- Pursue virtue/wisdom – Seek to live wisely and morally through reason. Make virtuous choices that align with nature.
- Practice mindfulness – Stay present in each moment to act thoughtfully instead of rashly. Remain calm under pressure.
- Master your passions – Manage destructive emotions through logic and self-discipline. Don’t be ruled by your desires.
- Contemplate mortality – Reflect on death to appreciate life’s impermanence. This steers priorities towards meaning.
Let’s break down each core principle into actionable ways to apply Stoicism in daily life. Think of these as the key ingredients for cooking up your own inner tranquility.
Live in Agreement with Nature
For the Stoics, living in harmony with nature means accepting what we cannot control. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “What injures the hive injures the bee.” We flourish when working for the common good.
This perspective aligns with the fact that humans are social animals. We evolved to help each other, not just ourselves. Life is more meaningful when serving a purpose bigger than our individual desires.
How to apply it:
- Consider how your actions impact others, from your family to society. Strive to contribute positively.
- Get involved with groups and causes that further humanity’s progress.
- Show kindness even when it goes unnoticed or unrewarded.
- Reflect on how you fit into nature’s larger design. We’re all connected.
By aligning with nature’s plan, as the Stoics advised, you’ll act with more wisdom. Chasing money, fame, power, and pleasure often leads to emptiness. But working towards the greater good is always deeply fulfilling.
Differentiate What Is Within Your Control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” – Epictetus
This quote perfectly sums up the Stoic practice of differentiating control. Life throws many curveballs our way – hardships, loss, disappointment. Stoics recognized we must accept what we can’t control and focus our energy where we have agency.
For example, you can’t control whether it will rain today. But you can control whether you carry an umbrella. You can’t make someone love you back. But you can control how gracefully you handle rejection.
How to apply it:
- When facing adversity, pause to assess what parts you can and cannot influence.
- Let go of dwelling on the externals. Shift attention to your choices in the moment.
- Avoid wasting mental energy on hypotheticals and past regrets. Stick to the present.
- Remember that you always control your thoughts, principles and actions.
Learning this discernment releases a lot of useless anxiety. It prevents us from trying to bend reality to our wishes. By directing power only where we have it, we can make measured progress.
Pursue Virtue and Wisdom
The Stoics placed virtue as the supreme good in life. To be virtuous meant excelling in reason, justice, courage, and moderation. A virtuous person acted morally through disciplined thought and logic.
Virtue led to eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness.” But it’s better understood as a sense of fulfillment from living wisely and contributing.
How to apply it:
- Consider virtue an end in itself, not a means to fame or fortune.
- Make choices that align with your principles rather than just chasing pleasure.
- See yourself as part of the human family. Our shared bonds matter more than status.
- Reflect on how to integrate morality into your decisions big and small.
- Read books on ethics to strengthen your knowledge. Discuss with others.
- Pick a virtue and find ways to develop it through practice. Patience, courage, justice, temperance.
By continuously refining judgment and character, the Stoics believed we fulfill our highest purpose. The payoff is a life of meaning, tranquility and integrity.
Mindfulness was central to Stoic practice. They saw it as key to responding thoughtfully over reacting rashly. As Marcus Aurelius put it:
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Being present helps maintain emotional equilibrium. It enables pausing before judging. We consider context and consequences thoroughly.
Mindfulness also combats overthinking. We get lost in worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. Staying grounded in each moment focuses energy on the only thing we can change – our current response.
How to apply it:
- Set aside time for stillness through meditation, deep breathing, or nature walks. This cultivates presence.
- Notice thoughts and feelings without attaching to them. Let them pass like clouds.
- Bring awareness to daily routines like eating, walking, and chores. Appreciate the simplicity.
- When reactive emotions arise, pause before responding. Consider your options.
- Prioritize sleep, health, and renewal. A well-rested mind is more mindful.
- Spend less time staring at screens which distracts from the moment.
Mastering attention takes practice. But mindfulness pays dividends in wiser choices and interactions. It enables acting from reason over reflex.
Master Your Passions Through Reason
Another key for the Stoics was mastery over destructive emotions. They saw passions like anger and envy as disturbances to equilibrium. By using reason and will, these could be resisted.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
This doesn’t mean Stoics thought suppressing feelings was healthy. They knew accepting emotions was important while preventing being ruled by them.
How to apply it:
- Notice when you start ruminating on grievances, obsessing over desires, or panicking.
- Rather than suppressing emotions, calmly acknowledge them and let reason guide you.
- When passions arise, take time to consider the bigger picture.
- Ask whether reacting in anger or jealousy would make things better or worse.
- Manage expectations and avoid catastrophizing. How big of a deal is this really?
- Surround yourself with people who use level-headedness to handle ups and downs.
Using logic protects us from being blown off course by the winds of fleeting emotions. It secures long-term fulfillment over chasing temporary highs.
“We must make haste to live, knowing that to have died is to have no longer the chance to do so.” – Seneca
The Stoics saw reflecting on mortality as a profound tool. Contemplating death inspired appreciating life and focusing on what matters.
Imagine this is your final day. How would you spend it? Reflection reveals how little importance externals like fame, money, and appearance hold compared to relationships, values, and service. It shows life is too short for pettiness.
How to apply it:
- Vividly visualize that you have one week left. Write how it would ideally be spent.
- When faced with a choice, consider which options you would regret not taking if looking back on your deathbed.
- Don’t take people for granted. Recognize that time together is precious and finite.
- Try to spend more moments appreciating the temporary gifts of nature, loved ones, and art.
- Make your lifestyle align with what you would wish you had done differently at life’s end.
Memento mori, remembering death, has been central to wisdom traditions worldwide. The Stoics ingeniously applied it to tap into gratitude and meaning.
Stoicism in Action: Hypothetical and Historical Examples
Let’s explore how these principles might play out through hypothetical scenarios as well as looking at Marcus Aurelius’ life.
Say your boss unfairly denies you a promotion and gives it to a less qualified co-worker. Everyone agrees you should have gotten the job.
What would the Stoic approach be?
- Accept that you cannot control your boss’s decision. Reflect on the parts of the outcome you can influence.
- Request a meeting to hear your boss’s reasoning. Calmly explain why you feel qualified without accusation.
- Determine if there are skills you could develop to increase future promotion chances. Redirect energy there.
- Release unhealthy emotions like spite, jealousy, or rage. Those only breed more negativity.
- View the experience as an opportunity to build patience, grace, and resilience in adversity.
You develop chronic back pain that limits your active lifestyle. Doctors say it may linger for years or be permanent. You feel depressed and defeated.
What Stoic approaches could help?
- Accept that you cannot control the injury or instantly cure the pain. But you have power over your perspective.
- Refocus energy from what’s lost to what remains possible. Find new hobbies compatible with limits.
- Lean on philosophical insights about impermanence. All health eventually deteriorates. Make the most of it now.
- Surround yourself with friends who don’t dwell on limitations but explore the potential.
- Use logic to avoid magnifying despair. How large is this setback measured against life’s full scope? Keep sight of the bigger picture.
Marcus Aurelius in Action
No article on Stoicism is complete without marveling at Marcus Aurelius. He perfectly embodied its principles as a 2nd-century Roman Emperor.
Though one of the most powerful men in the world, Marcus led modestly and generously. He sought to live rationally, calmly, and virtuously rather than exploit his status.
In his personal journal Meditations, Marcus wrote timeless wisdom:
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
When faced with war, plague, death of loved ones, and treacherous politics, Marcus endured with grace. He focused only on what he could control – his character.
Reading Marcus’ insights, penned almost 2000 years ago, illustrates the relevance of Stoicism today. It’s an approach perfectly suited to navigating life’s joys, sorrows, and uncertainties with poise.
Key Exercises and Rituals for Practicing Stoicism
So how can we live more like Marcus and bring Stoic wisdom into the 21st century? Here are some key exercises and rituals to integrate.
- Set your intention while having tea or coffee
- Write in your journal gratitude for simply being alive
- Sit quietly and meditate, focusing on the breath
- Visualize handling potential ups and downs with reason and tranquility
- Pick a Stoic quote to reflect on throughout the day
- Leave your phone at home and mindfully observe nature
- Ponder the interconnectedness and impermanence of all things
- Listen to feelings and let them pass without judgment
- Reflect on how you fit into the larger world
- Spend a few moments remembering you will die and appreciate being able to walk at all
- Review your day – what went well, what principles did or didn’t you adhere to?
- Make notes on areas you’d like to improve without self-criticism
- Notice emotions without reacting or attaching meaning
- Write down things for which you’re grateful
- Prepare for restful sleep through light reading, no screens
Weekly Stoic Roundtable
- Meet with friends to discuss Stoic texts and principles
- Share examples of applying your growing wisdom in daily life
- Gently hold each other accountable for living virtuously
- Debate how Stoic teachings translate to modern times
- Emerge energized and motivated to progress on your Stoic journeys
How Stoicism Differs from Epicureanism
Epicureanism was another Greek philosophy that arose slightly before Stoicism around 300 BCE. Both schools sought contentment even amidst hardship. But they took different approaches.
Epicureans saw pleasure as the greatest good. These were relatively modest, sustainable pleasures – friendship, contemplation, community, and nature. Anything in access was seen as unnecessary and potentially disruptive.
Stoics viewed developing character and reason as life’s purpose. While they weren’t ascetics, neither did they emphasize pursuing pleasures. Moderation and self-control were valued instead.
Epicureans withdrew into close-knit communities. Stoics engaged in civic affairs to contribute to society.
Epicureans focused on the present. Stoics looked to the future and the greater good.
While Epicureanism largely died out, Stoicism evolved with influences like Christianity to remain relevant for centuries. It offers a sense of service the Epicureans lacked.
Now the two philosophies are seeing renewed interest. Each provides insights into living a rich life even lacking material excess or perfect health.
Isn’t Stoicism About Suppressing Emotions? Common Misconceptions
If you’ve heard anything about Stoicism, it likely falls into a few common misperceptions:
Stoics are emotionless: The Stoic ideal wasn’t to eliminate feelings but manage them through reason to avoid being controlled by passions. They sought calm, not complete apathy.
Stoicism encourages suppressing emotions: Stoics saw value in feeling emotions while responding thoughtfully. This prevents destructive overreactions.
Stoicism is pessimistic: Stoics focused on cultivating joy in each moment while preparing for disasters. They didn’t dwell on worst-case scenarios.
Stoicism is about pushing through pain: Stoics allowed space for grief and suffering while shifting focus to what they could control. The goal wasn’t avoidance.
Stoicism is joyless: Far from grim endurance, Stoics sought meaning, connectedness, and gratitude in life’s ups and downs.
Stoics don’t care about results: While accepting that external results can’t be controlled, Stoics still strove for excellence. Outcomes were secondary to living virtuously through the process.
Stoicism’s Revival in Pop Culture
From blog posts to bestsellers, Stoicism is ubiquitous today. What accounts for its renewed appeal?
For one, Stoicism meets needs that modern lifestyles and values often undermine. Consumerism traps us in chasing externals for happiness, leading to emptiness. Stoicism grounds us in what truly matters – character and contributions.
Ours is also an age of anxiety, outrage, and helplessness. Stoicism offers tools to cultivate calm, process emotions, and focus on the controllable.
The pandemic intensified this. Facing collective grief and uncertainty, many turned to Stoicism as a compass.
Stoic practices like mindfulness are now mainstream. Leaders across fields employ Stoic insights to navigate adversity. Stoicism helps temper both euphoria and defeat.
The philosophy’s realism and practicality resonate in a chaotic era. While life still holds suffering, Stoics show that inner peace is always possible. Their wisdom fills a timeless yet timely need.
Top Resources for Deepening Understanding
To dive deeper into Stoic practice, check out these excellent books, blogs, podcasts, and courses.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday – Bite-sized readings to integrate Stoic insights daily
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – The timeless classic written by a Roman emperor
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci – A modern handbook on key principles and exercises
A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine – An introduction to stoicism through the lens of modern psychology
The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth – An approachable guide to applying key ideas.
The Daily Stoic – Articles, profiles, interviews, and more
Letters from a Stoic – Extensive resources on all things Stoicism