Today, I want to talk about stoicism, why I admire it, and why I believe it is essential for everyone’s life.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is “an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” (Google Search).
Stoicism is about enduring the hardships of life with virtue and strength. Why is this important? Because life is hard and full of random, pedestrian challenges. From hating your job to dealing with sickness and death, life is a constant struggle. However, through Stoicism, you can become stronger and capable of resolving these difficulties with grace, honor, and virtue.
For example, you may dislike your job. The quick solution is to quit and betray the people you work with and your family, who may depend on your steady income. With Stoicism, you can accept the hardships of disliking your job. From here, you can focus on embracing this difficulty, relishing in it, and finding long-term solutions to the problem. With the latter approach, you’ll build your character, strengthen your emotional control, and achieve the best results for yourself and everyone.
How To Practice Stoicism
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is also about controlling yourself and your impulses. Additionally, Stoicism helps you focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t. To practice Stoicism, you need to reflect on your actions, shift your mindset, and pursue virtue.
Firstly, you have to reflect on your actions. Journalling is the easiest way to reflect on what you’ve done and your responses to your actions. You can ask questions such as “what did I feel during this time? Why?” or “How could I have approached today’s challenges better?” Asking these questions allows you to evaluate your behavior and to make you aware of your actions.
Secondly, Stoicism is about shifting your mindset. For example, instead of expecting everything to go your way, keep in mind how random, chaotic, and unfair life can be. Reflect on death and misfortune. Additionally, remember to be grateful for how much better your life is compared to what it could be. Yes, your car needs a quick repair, but you could also be without a car. Yes, your home is not as lovely as it could be, but you could also be without a home. And so on.
The shifting of your mindset requires cherishing everything you have instead of accumulating stuff or ignoring the blessings you possess.
What is Stoicism? Stoicism is a foundational philosophy
Lastly, Stoicism is about the practice of virtue. The pursuit of moral excellence is difficult. There is difficulty in being frugal when you could waste what you have. There is difficulty in persisting when you want to give up. Lastly, there is difficulty in being courageous when you want to cower while facing the masses. However, virtue is the only way to live a good life or a life filled with a meaningful purpose. Additionally, when you are virtuous, you help others by becoming the best individual you can.
Stoicism, with these three tenets, is a foundational philosophy. It is compatible with a variety of religious, political persuasions, and economic theories. However, Stoicism is incompatible with philosophies that promote ease of living, ingratitude, personal weakness, and individual vice.
Now that we’ve looked at what Stoicism is let’s look at what Stoicism isn’t.
What Isn’t Stoicism?
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.” – Seneca the Younger
Here, I want to detail the more common misinterpretations of Stoicism.
Firstly, many people believe Stoicism is emotionlessness. However, Stoicism is focused on controlling one’s emotions and expectations, especially when referring to the randomness of life. Many Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, frequently cried during inevitable tragedies. However, he would chastise himself for expecting the world to be perfect or for everyone to act correctly. When he did experience tragedy, he trained himself to process the pain without denying it. He did not allow his grief to control him.
Therefore, the goal is to control your emotions and remain stable in the face of hardship.
Secondly, Stoicism is not apathy and pessimism. The lives of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca show that Stoicism is a philosophy of doers. The goal is to avoid investing yourself in the outcome. Instead, you should put your focus on your efforts, because you can’t control the outcome. For example, a Stoic would argue you should focus on making yourself a better person and allow the world to respond as it chooses, instead of trying to make the world a better place.
Lastly, Stoicism is not a religion. A Stoic can be religious or atheistic or deistic or anywhere between. Stoicism does not contradict or reject religion. Additionally, Stoicism is not a political philosophy. Stoicism is focused on how to live a good and virtuous life through personal change.
Why I Admire Stoicism
So, why do I admire Stoicism? Overall, Stoicism is an individualistic, foundational philosophy with clear societal benefits. Emotional control, self-restraint, self-reliance, personal improvement, and other tenants make Stoicism the perfect philosophy for any and all individualists.
Stoicism is an individualistic philosophy with societal benefits
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” – Epictetus
Collectivists are forever addicted to controlling others through laws, labels, and manipulations. However, Stoicism is about controlling the self instead of obsessing over what is external.
As I’ve argued before, you cannot control the world. Focusing on what you have little to no control over is a recipe for despair and anguish. Why? Because humans need to act, and we need to see our actions affecting the world. When you focus on what you can improve, you invest time in growing the quality of your life. This growth has a measurable effect and will lead to your long-term happiness.
This is the beauty of Stoicism. You cannot control outside events, but you can manage your response. You cannot eliminate evil, but you can minimize suffering wherever you go. Additionally, you cannot defeat death, but you can live a virtuous life. The more emotional, intellectual, and physical effort you put on what you can control, the more effective and productive you will be, and the more people you can help.
Emotional Maturity: the control of one’s emotion and expectations is always a good thing
Managing your emotions and better integrating them into your actions is a net benefit for everyone, yourself included. The great Stoics speak about directing your emotions by overcoming your anger, sadness, disappointment, and other negative feelings. Being able to regulate your feelings will help you reserve emotional energy as well as operate rationally during difficult times.
For example, if you go to a restaurant and receive poor service, you may be quick to anger. However, if you take a step back and control your emotions, you’ll stabilize yourself. By thinking, instead of emotionally reacting, you may notice the waiter is overworked and trying his hardest to do a good job. You may see the other customers demanding too much attention and slowing down the effectiveness of the staff. Or, you may notice the rudeness of the manager towards her employees. By controlling your immediate anger towards your waiter, you can gain a deeper appreciation of the difficulties going on.
Such management of our emotions and expectations helps on a societal level as well. Would political conversations not benefit from people practicing patience and recognizing issues are more complex than we give them credit for?
Such control of one’s expectations and emotions can only be accomplished on the individual level. There are no laws or regulations which can influence an individual’s emotional maturity. You have to develop emotional maturity internally.
Always be Grateful: Stoicism teaches constant gratitude and an awareness of life’s delicate nature
“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.” – Seneca the Younger
Stoics valued the importance of gratitude in an individual’s life. Gratitude improves one’s outlook and increases happiness. However, more people, especially collectivists, are incapable of acknowledging the blessings they have. They want more and are less and less willing to accept how great their lives are.
For example, everyone complains about their jobs. For me, I think about how grateful I am to have steady employment in a field that utilizes my skills. Additionally, I reflect on how far I have come and the fact I can go to other places if I wanted. I’m not stuck at my job, and I seek to enjoy the time I have while it lasts.
The Stoics were aware of how delicate life was. We can die at any moment or lose people we love. Remember how precious and fragile life is. With constant reflection, you’re less likely to rage at every small inconvenience or lose sight of how miraculous your existence is. Such gratitude will keep you focused, entertained, and happy.
Acta Non Verba: Stoicism is a philosophy of action
Because Stoicism is focused on individual efforts and changes, it is a philosophy of action. Stoics do not whine about the course of society or cry about “systems of oppression.” Stoics identify problems in society, such as greed and political hatred, and seek to resolve such flaws within themselves.
If you believe people become angry at the smallest things, then you have to control your rage at minor issues. If you dislike the lack of meaningful political discourse, then you have to decrease your tendency to demonize your political opponents. Furthermore, if you believe the poor are not being helped, then you need to do what you can to help those who are less fortunate.
As a Stoic, you are part of the whole. If you view a flaw within the whole, then you decrease the fault by eliminating it from yourself. Therefore, if you are not wasting your life complaining about others, you can focus on improving your wellbeing and happiness.
Become A Stoic; Become an Individual
“Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.” – Ryan Holiday
The most significant flaws of Stoicism, if I can call them that, is the lack of critique towards society and its natural predation on individuals. Additionally, the ancient version of Stoicism was deterministic. However, Stoicism has much to offer the individual seeking complementary philosophies to help with personal growth and develop.
I suggest reading the greats and reflecting on their words. Lastly, I encourage you to try to embody what they discuss, and you’ll find it easier to control your emotions and deal with the difficulties of life.
Good luck and per ardua, ad astra.
Articles offering nuanced critiques of Stoicism:
- The False Promise of Stoicism by the Ayn Rand Institute
- Does Stoicism Extinguish the Fire of Life? by Art of Manliness
- The Problem with Stoicism by Steven Gambardella
Books about Stoicism or by well-known Stoics:
- Daily Stoic and The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium by Seneca the Younger
- Discourses of Epictetus
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson
- Have you ever heard of Stoicism? If so, where did you hear about it?
- What are the techniques you use for integrating your emotions and managing your impulses?
- What are you grateful for? Furthermore, what is one thing you should be grateful for but aren’t? For example, do you ever stop and experience gratitude towards modern medicine?
- What is action you could do to improve your life? Even by a small amount?
- What is one good thing you can do for yourself, which will improve the lives of others?
Please remember that it’s important to do the actionables. You’re not on this earth to simply read but to do. To become an individual, you must act more than you consume.
*Image credit to Unsplash.