Lessons from the Stoics
The Stoics provide useful and practical principles and behaviors for living. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy created by the Greeks and Romans. Many of the original Stoic writers were not philosophers by profession but people who looked to philosophy as a means for becoming better people and living a good life. Perhaps the most famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, was a Roman emperor. His perennially popular book, Meditations, is his personal diary, used as self-help in meeting life’s challenges, and never intended for publication.
Stoicism is useful because it is intended as a philosophy on how to live. It provides practical ideas on how to think and to act. Stoicism is not esoteric or focused on obscure theoretical philosophical issues that most of us would consider irrelevant to our daily life. Stoicism is the opposite. It is a philosophy that is best practiced every day.
As with the other schools of philosophy, I will briefly review the ideas and practices of Stoicism I have found worthwhile and have influenced my thinking, attitudes, and behavior. These are highlights and my focus is on their application to living. For those wanting more, there are many excellent books of Stoicism including the original works of the Greek and Roman Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
Table of Contents
Recognize and accept what you cannot control
The Stoics divide the world into what we control and what we do not. They recognized that people often have no choice in what has or will happen to them. Much in life simply happens. People do not choose their parents, where they were born, or their genetic inheritance. The past cannot be changed. The future consists of many events that we have no or inconsequential control over. The Stoics counsel understanding and accepting this reality. I have found this has many benefits.
Accepting what has already happened should be easy though often it is not. We know logically we cannot change the past; the arrow of time has only one direction. But how much time is spent endlessly rehashing events we wished has turned out differently as though that could change the outcome? How often have we felt badly about something we have done, wished the past were different, or simply blamed past events for our current problems. That is all wasted time since it does little or nothing for making our future better. Yes, spend time to understand the past as there may be important lessons to be learned. But accept what has happened as now beyond your control and instead focus on the future where you have options.
There are many events in our present and future we cannot control. Individually we do not control national economies or the weather. There are powerful physical, political, economic, and social forces affecting our daily lives where our individual actions cannot fundamentally change trends or outcomes.
There is also a significant random element to our future. It is tempting to think everything happens for a reason; that there is logic, intention, and causality for what we experience. That may be true in some cases but often we must recognize that chance plays a big role. By its nature chance is neither good nor bad because there is no intention behind it. It is not predictable and thus uncontrollable. The mixing of DNA when we were conceived is random. The invisible nail that punctures our tire causing an accident is random. We cannot control the “roll of the dice” events that happen to us daily.
It is more difficult understanding and accepting uncontrollable future events compared to past ones. For some events it is easy – we know we can’t control the weather. But many situations are murky. Determining what is controllable and what is not is often hard. We tend to feel we control more than we do. For example, I thought I could train my Border Terrier behave like a Golden Retriever – obedient and eager to please. But terriers have a distinct nature and trying to change it is futile. I know that now, but I wasted time learning it. We all have experienced situations where we learned the hard way what we can’t control.
There are also degrees of control for future events. Sometime a person can have a big impact on something and other times practically none. An assessment is required and a judgment about whether acting to change something is worth effort.
Wisdom is the key ingredient for separating what can be changed from what cannot for for future events. That wisdom will come more quickly is we are looking for it. Just realizing that some things are beyond our control gets us asking that question and learning what we can do nothing about.
A big benefit to knowing and accepting what is beyond our control is in setting our priorities. We can avoid wasting time on what does not matter. Instead, that time can be applied to doing a good job at changing what we can.
We can make better decisions and be more effective if we understand and accept the unchangeable facts of the situation. It gives us a clearer view of reality which helps avoid foolish decisions based on a naive view of our situation.
Serenity and peace of mind is another benefit from understanding the limits of our control. We can avoid the emotional toll from worrying about situations and forces that are beyond us. It is easy to be paralyzed with anxiety and worry about all the chaos around us and our natural desire to bring order to the chaos. Acceptance can give us the inner calm and composure to determine how best to live.
Finally, it is particularly useful when faced with adversity. There is much misfortune in everyone’s life. In Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, he refers to enduring the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” It is easier to endure misfortune when we accept what has happened and focus on what to do now.
Change what you can control – character, attitude, and actions
The flip side of learning what is beyond our control is learning what we can control. This entered my life early as I recall my father explaining how people can control how they react to what happens to them. We have choices in thinking and actions. Recognizing and using our control is necessary for our thriving.
The idea is fundamental to Stoic philosophy. The Stoics emphasize that our thoughts and reactions are entirely ours and within our control. Our external environment may be entirely controlled but what is within ourselves is always our own. The Stoics point to many examples of people who have been imprisoned, tortured, and exiled who have nonetheless maintained their sanity and peace of mind. They survived, even thrived, because they took control of their thoughts, attitudes, and responses.
Character is ours alone. I believe character is the most important thing we control. Our character is all that is truly ours. All else can be taken away from us – our possessions and our physical freedom – but we always have our character. Character means those mental and moral qualities that are unique to an individual. It is expressed in what we think, say, and do. It is the combination of the virtues and vices we exhibit during life. It describes the quality of our interact with the world and society.
A common exercise for personal growth is writing your obituary. This encourages thinking about what is important in life and what we hope others would say about us when we are gone. A good test of whether a life was well lived is what people would say about a person’s character. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech touches on this: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” If there is to be judgement, it should be on character since it is the best exhibit of who we are, not the conditions within which we lived.
A focus on character minimizes the role of fate and fortune in evaluating success in life. Much that we have in life is only partly ours. Luck, good fortune, and help from others often contributes to our material success and our achievements. Conversely, fate, fortune, and the actions of others may make us poor, thwart our dreams, and bring illness and loss. When considering how to live to thrive, it would be foolish to put too much weight on goals we have only some control over. Instead, emphasize character because, regardless of our circumstances in life, we control our character. We have it in our power to make what we want.
Attitude, our frame of mind in facing life, can make a big difference in our happiness. Attitude is part of character and is under our control. It deserves to be highlighted because of its impact. Another Shakespeare quote from Hamlet captures the idea: “..for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” When something bad happens, we can get depressed, angry at the unfairness, and spend our time blaming others. Or we can adopt a positive attitude. We can acknowledge misfortune but quickly focus on making the best of the situation. A positive attitude leads to using reason and action to recover and even benefit. This simple change makes all the difference. My experience is that life changing bad events can lead to life changing positive outcomes when approached with the right attitude. Our attitudes and action in response to events will often determine whether we are happy and thrive or are oppressed and unhappy.
We control our actions. Our environment may pose constraints on what is possible, but we can choose among the viable options. This may seem obvious but in practice we often fail to take control and act consciously. We default to actions dictated by forces other than ourselves. We do automatically what we are told without making a conscious choice. We act instinctively based on emotions and override conscious choice in the process. The excuse “I wasn’t thinking.” is common.
It is important to understand that we have free will and, while options may be limited, we can choose to act in certain ways. Our thriving requires conscious choices. Once we take the steps to be able to control our actions, we need the knowledge to act wisely and make good choices.
Stoicism emphasizes virtues and falls within virtue ethics school of moral philosophy. It builds on a rich philosophical tradition with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics providing a firm foundation.
The Stoics teach that practicing virtues was how to become a good person. What you do and how you act matters. The emphasis on virtues and action attracted me as a practical approach to living well.
The Stoics focused on four universally applicable virtues. This classification originated in Plato’s Republic and is common in philosophy references ever since. These are good place to start understanding virtue and putting virtue into practice in daily life.
Wisdom in this context is the knowledge and experience necessary for making good choices. Wisdom is necessary to select the best courses of action for each situation and to carry it out. Wisdom involves logic and an understanding of how the world works. It is knowing what to do and how to do it. Wisdom is knowing the difference between what we can change and what we can’t.
Wisdom is a lifelong pursuit. Other virtues may be more quickly learned and practiced. Wisdom requires time and is gained in degrees. Acquiring wisdom requires the ability to reason through complex situations, anticipate consequences, and assess risks. It involves developing or adopting principles and guidelines for acting. There is no end point to wisdom.
A desire and commitment to become wise and act wisely is the first step. This is not a small step. Few people have gaining wisdom it on their to do list. But I believe wisdom is essential for happiness and worth the effort to acquire it.
We gain wisdom by developing our reasoning ability. We also become wiser by learning from the experiences of others. There is little in life that others have not already experienced. Hard lessons have been learned that we can benefit from. We have a rich and well documented history to draw wisdom from. While experience may be the best teacher, a well-prepared student learns faster.
It is important to learn from our own experience. We all know people who don’t learn from experience and are destined to repeat mistakes. It helps to regularly examine the events in our life, how we responded, and the consequences to glean lessons on what to do the next time.
Justice is complex, contentious, and long debated. There is no easy answer to what justice is. Well intentioned and thoughtful people can disagree. What I find useful about the Stoic view of justice is its perspective and premise. It provides a way to think about justice in practical terms that facilitates agreement and understanding of differing viewpoints.
Stoic justice is a group of virtues focused on how we treat others and our duty to promote cooperation and mutual thriving. Their premise is that we are social animals and cannot survive as individuals. We are more like bees than bears. We can succeed only by working together and helping each other.
Justice is treating others in a way that helps us live together peacefully and productively. Justice helps us benefit from our social nature. Since we are all in this together it is reasonable that we should seek justice.
There are several passages in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that relate to justice. I like this one:
I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him”
Justice for the Stoics is the crowning virtue because it focuses our other virtues. For example, wisdom is useful primarily when applied to our actions toward others. Wisdom is little good if it is never used or shared. Courage is useful in the pursuit of justice while courage in other contexts may not be a virtue.
Fairness is a virtue commonly mentioned as part of the justice category. We should exhibit fairness – giving each person their due – in our interactions with people. The Stoics emphasize proportionality in their view of fairness. Benefits should be in proportion to contributions. Punishment should be in proportion to the harm caused.
Law abiding is another often mentioned justice virtue. Laws are necessary for people to live together peacefully. Laws often enforce fairness. By living in a society governed by laws we commit to following them even while we may work to change them. That is the lesson of Socrates’ death. He had the opportunity to escape his death sentence but declined because he believed he had been fairly convicted and sentenced following the laws of Athens under which he agreed to live.
Kindness is also commonly mentioned as part of Stoic justice. We should treat our fellow humans with kindness and compassion rather than anger and hate. We should exhibit empathy and recognize that everyone has their own struggles. Kindness and compassion help us work with people we may not like and may disagree with to achieve mutual benefits.
The Stoic view of justice leads me to ask “Will my action help society thrive and prosper or will it only benefit me?” It is a practical question and the right one to ask even if the answer requires thought and wisdom.
Courage is the ability to persevere in life’s most difficult and dangerous tasks. It is the ability to do what is right even when it exposes us to risks, harm, and loss. It is persisting in doing our duty when it is painful and hard, and we want to do something else. It is the ability to control or ignore fear in pursuit of right action. It is the ability to face death, the ultimate risk, with calm and equanimity.
For courage to be a virtue it must serve good. Good is guided by the virtues of wisdom and justice. Fearlessness in doing something wrong is not a virtue but a vice. Courage can be viewed as a subordinate virtue to wisdom and justice since we need those virtues to determine the right course of action.
Courage is a virtue that is mean between extremes, as Aristotle repeatedly emphasizes,. Too much courage makes one foolhardy. Too little and you are a coward.
There are other virtues (sub-virtues) that are often necessary to be courageous. These include constancy (sticking with something through the tough times), industriousness (working hard to achieve a goal), and endurance (sustaining pain and hardship).
I find temperance a practical and immediately useful virtue. It improved my life long before I studied the Stoics. Wisdom and justice are much harder to understand and practice. Temperance is simpler and can be practiced today regardless of my success with other virtues.
Temperance means moderation and self-control. It is what Aristotle recommends as the golden mean – taking the middle course between extremes. Temperance is avoiding excesses on one hand and deficiencies on another. For example, moderate eating is healthy. We starve if we avoid eating and get sick if we overindulge.
This middle course is particularly relevant in a culture that values extremes. We look up to the athletes devoting their life to being the best. We applaud the workaholic entrepreneur who builds a world changing company from a garage start-up. Extreme achievements get the headlines and social media coverage. Moderate behavior is often view as dull and commonplace. Yet moderation is so helpful in living a happy life.
Happiness eludes us when we go to extremes. This is particularly true for seeking to fulfill some of our innate human desires such as those for physical pleasure (eating, sex, drugs) or social standing (power, fame, status). These desires are normal and are not necessarily bad. Humans would not survive without some desire for sex. Yet the sad fate for those who cannot control their desires can be found in the daily news.
Emotions are another area where temperance is good advice. I learned early in adult life that excess anger, while it may have been justified and felt good to express, did little to fix what I was angry about. Learning to control other feelings – jealousy, contempt, competitiveness, envy – made me more effective and more at peace in the world. This does not mean to eliminate them. Justified anger can be a good motivator for good actions. It is the excesses and deficiencies we should worry about.
The ancient Stoics were famous for their practice of periodically foregoing physical pleasures and living as poorly and simply as possible. The value in living simply is realizing it is not so bad. One can be happy with few of the materials possessions and luxuries we spend so much time seeking. John Stuart Mill said: “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than seeking to satisfy them.”
Moderation in all things is sage advice.
Life continues teaching me the practical value of good habits. Habits make me more efficient and more likely to accomplish my goals. Habits help with the daily tasks of life. More importantly, they are essential for virtuous behavior.
Upbringing had a role in teaching me habits early in life. There were expectations at home – make the bed, do the dishes, set the fireplaces (we had three), finish your homework. I learned it was best to do chores by habit rather than waiting for parental direction. Other important habits – regular saving for instance – were learned early and had a big impact on my life. While I may by nature be receptive to habits and structure, early instruction by parents helped build a solid base.
Later, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People pushed me further with habits. In particular, his habit “Begin with the end in mind” often helped me focus and avoid unnecessary activity.
I was primed for the Stoic wisdom of habits and practice when I encountered them later in life. The Stoics value practicing what they preach. It is a philosophy of ideas and action. Stoicism focused on thriving in the real world and the how to act with what happens daily. The Stoics realize that you must practice the philosophy if it is going to work. Stoicism is a lifelong practice. As Marcus Aurelius said, we should not spend our time arguing about what a good person is but instead work at being one.
An engaging example of this Stoic approach is in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Here we see his repeated attempts to remind himself of his Stoic principles and virtues so he can be a better person. His meditations are frequently repetitive, which is the point. We can see in his examples the common struggles we face when trying to follow our values in a messy and frustrating world.
Another example is Benjamin Franklin. In his biography he describes as a young man creating a list of the 13 virtues he thought were particularly important. Many are Stoic virtues. Then he tracked whether he followed them. It was his template or checklist for forming habits around virtues.
Aristotle preceded the Stoic philosophers, but they borrowed much from him. He too saw habit essential to being virtuous. This well know quote is attributed to him:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
What I learned from the Stoics has nudged me along in building habits around virtues. I learned that I need to remind myself daily, maybe several times a day, of the principles I want to live by and to act accordingly. Often this reminder is simply to stop and think before acting. That pause helps me avoid acting on instinct or emotion. Instead I can take the time to decide on a better response guided by my principles. The more I do that, the more automatic it becomes. I fail in living up to my standards. Good intentions are never enough. But habits make those failures less frequent.
I am as afraid of dying as anyone. I do not believe in an afterlife or reincarnation. I don’t have those beliefs to comfort me. I suspect there is nothingness when we die. Experience is on my side. In my early 60s I had a sudden cardiac arrest (an electrical malfunction that stopped my heart from working) in an airport. I was dead for over 5 minutes until strangers revived me with an AED. I regained consciousness in the emergency room. Only 1 in 10 survive a sudden cardiac arrest. All I experienced was darkness. There was no white light, no review of my life, just nothingness. Some see a miracle in my living. I suspect I was just lucky.
My experience gave the well-known Stoic saying “memento mori” (Latin for remember you will die) personal meaning. The Stoics frequently contemplated death to better live life. It is a central theme for the Stoics. They wanted to reduce fear of death and the unproductive behavior that fear causes. People do foolish things to avoid facing the inevitable. The Stoics also used death to focus daily life.
Seneca, a prominent Roman Stoic, said: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
This perspective on death and its role in learning how to live is not unique to the Stoics. The idea can be found in the teaching of Socrates and in Buddhism.
The Stoic obsession with death may seem morbid but I now know its value for living well. I liked the idea so much that I named our sailboat Memento Mori.
One benefit of accepting death is it reduces the fear of it. Some fear will always be there, but confronting reality, recognizing death’s certainty, puts life in perspective. It encourages living life rather than avoiding death. Rich or poor, famous or unknown, we all have the same fate. There is little permanence for what we do. The memory of our life will be completely obliterated a few generations after death. No one who knew us will be alive. Even the most famous, with their lives captured by monuments and books, will be lost to memory ultimately.
Accepting death is a paradox. The fleeting and impermanent nature of life should make it seem less valuable. What does it matter if all in forgotten? Instead it has helped me appreciate each day and to make the most of it. Each day is a rare opportunity. But just as it makes each day more valuable, it makes life a little less serious. Contemplating death make it harder to think too highly of myself and what I do. Perhaps moderation is the point. Care about each day, make the most of it, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
Not be remembered does not make life useless. We have impacts in the here and now. We can make others happy and their lives better off today. That is good even if it in impermanent. Providing a good example and influencing others may have ripple effects through time. And since no one really knows what happens in the end, perhaps I will be surprised.
Reminding myself that death is ever present helps with priorities and focus. It nudges me to figure out what is most important. I become more motivated to do what matters and to keep asking what does matter. Early in life I put off important things thinking there will be time to do that later. I am now aware there may not be a later. More often I ask if I am making the best use of my time and I rearrange my day to move up more important things.