What Is Stoicism? A Simple Definition & 10 Stoic Core Principles
Stoicism or Stoic Philosophy… sounds boring and daunting and like the last thing anyone would want to learn about.
A few years back I would have gone a long way around this topic. Today, I’m writing about it because I fell in love with so many of its beliefs.
So they didn’t call it Supermanism but Stoicism, and as boring as this may sound, it contains some of the most powerful tools we can use in today’s modern world.
The best advice I can give to become more of a doer, more confident, and ultimately happier: Read (and practice) Stoicism. Seriously, it’s that big. If I could bring one book to a desert island, it would be Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.
I’m glad you’re here, giving the philosophy of Stoicism a chance.
In short, Stoicism is a tool set that helps us direct our thoughts and actions in an unpredictable world. We don’t control and cannot rely on external events, but we can (to a certain extent) control our mind and choose our behavior.
In the end, it’s not what happens to us but our reactions to it that matter.
The main goal of the article is to answer the question ‘What is Stoicism?’ and to give you an overview. It is split up into three parts.
The first part gives you a quick history lesson on Stoicism. The goal of the second and main part is to give you an overview of the 10 key Stoic principles and beliefs. The third part gives you an idea of what a classic Stoic looks like, the characteristics of the ideal Stoic, and it clears up whether or not Stoics are unemotional. Also, I’ll hand you some useful and practical Stoic beliefs to take along so you can start practicing and learn how to hack the ultimate computer: your mind.
Part 1: Quick History Lesson of Stoicism
Stoicism was a school of ancient philosophy founded in Athens by the Phoenician merchant Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. It was originally called Zenonism but came to be known as Stoicism because Zeno and his followers met in the Stoa Poikilê, or Painted Porch.
The Stoics met outside in the public, on this porch, and anyone could listen to the debate. You could argue it was somehow a ‘philosophy of the street’ for ordinary people, not only aristocrats.
From the onset and for nearly five centuries Stoicism was one of the most influential and highly-regarded schools of philosophy. It was one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the poor, the powerful and the sufferer alike in the pursuit of the Good Life. But over the centuries, nearly two millennia, the once so essential knowledge faded from view and almost got forgotten.
It was only since the 1970s that Stoicism has grown in popularity again. Mainly because it’s been the philosophical inspiration for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and because of authors like William Irvine and Ryan Holiday who wrote about the philosophy.
So how come that we know about Stoicism since it’s nearly been forgotten?
Against the odds, old documents from Stoic teachers and practitioners have survived. Meet the 3 Stoic principal leaders:
- Marcus Aurelius: The last good emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each evening to reflect on the day and write down in his private diary. This private diary has been published as the book Meditations and it’s the most significant source of Stoic Philosophy.
- Epictetus: Born a slave, gone a legend. He found his own school and taught many of Rome’s greatest minds, one of which was Marcus Aurelius. His teachings have been written down by one of his students, Arrian – Discourses and Enchiridion. As a side note, Enchiridion often gets translated as “handbook“ but it literally means “ready at hand“ – more like a sword than a handbook, always ready to deal with life’s challenges.
- Seneca: Tutor and adviser to Nero (the Roman emperor who later forced Seneca to commit suicide) and Rome’s best playwright and wisest power broker – the modern day entrepreneur if you will. Many of his personal letters survived and serve as a great source of Stoic philosophy.
Together the documents from these principal leaders form the bedrock of Stoicism. Remember their names, you will hear them so often.
Let’s dive into the deep water of Stoicism.
Part 2: What Is Stoicism? 10 Key Principles and Beliefs
For those who like it super quick, here’s my version of Stoicism in a sentence:
“Stoicism teaches how to keep a calm and rational mind no matter what happens to you and it helps you understand and focus on what you can control and not worry about and accept what you can't control.”
This, of course, covers only a fraction of what Stoicism is all about.
In this main part I want to answer your question, “What the heck is Stoicism?” in a simple and yet profound way by introducing you to the main Stoic principles.
#1 Live in Agreement with Nature – The Stoic Goal of Life
The ultimate goal of life was agreed by all ancient schools of philosophy to be Eudaimonia.
This goal of life – Eudaimonia – is a bit tricky to translate. Think of it as the supreme happiness or fulfilment attainable by human beings. The Good Life – a flourishing, lofty, and smoothly flowing life.
The goal of life = The Good Life *wink*
This is not very helpful and brings us to the main concern of the Stoic Philosophy, “How to live one’s life?”
How to live to get to the Good Life?
The Stoics came up with many practical strategies to progress to the Good Life. We will look at specific strategies and ideas in the next principles. First, let’s learn how the Stoics summed up their goal of life:
‘Living in agreement with nature.’
This abstract maxim is the best-known definition of the Stoic goal of life. (The Stoics often expressed their philosophy in such short statements and used them as daily reminders.)
So ‘living in agreement with nature’ was a central slogan of Stoicism, but it requires further explanation as it begs the question, “What exactly does it mean?”
Let’s hear out one of the principal leaders, Epictetus:
“For what is Man? A rational animal, subject to death. At once we ask, from what does the rational element distinguish us? From wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and the like. Look to it then that you do nothing like a wild beast, else you destroy the Man in you and fail to fulfil his promise. See that you do not act like a sheep, or else again the Man in you perishes.
You ask how we act like sheep?
When we consult the belly, or our passions, when our actions are random or dirty or inconsiderate, are we not falling away to the state of sheep? What do we destroy? The faculty of reason. When our actions are combative, mischievous, angry, and rude, do we not fall away and become wild beasts?"
The human being is a rational animal. That’s what separates us from sheep and beasts. We are different from all other species on the planet Earth, both for better and worse. The point of interest is not that we have smaller teeth, different skin, or weaker bones, but our social and mental abilities – the very abilities that let me write this article you care to read.
What distinguishes humans from all other species is our capacity for rationality. We should not behave like sheep or beasts because doing so negates our humanity, the most precious and natural thing we have.
‘Living in agreement with nature’ is about behaving rationally like a human instead of randomly (and out of passion) like a beast. In other words, we should always apply our natural ability ‘reason’ in all of our actions. If we apply reason we live in agreement with nature, because we act like humans are meant to act.
Humans are meant to apply reason and act like humans, not like animals.
So far so good. But this is very abstract and difficult to grasp. So to better understand how this ‘applying reason’ looks like in the real world, let’s explore another Stoic maxim they used to express their goal of life: ‘living in accord with virtue.’ This brings us to the next Stoic principle.
#2 Live by Virtue – It Is the Highest of All Goods
Achieving ‘virtue’ is the highest good.
Let me explain.
What the Stoics meant with ‘virtue’ was excelling or flourishing in terms of our rational human nature. Basically, when you live according to virtue, you are living the Good Life. This human excellence happens in different forms of virtue, or simply put, we can excel in different ways. The Stoics classified these different forms of virtue under four broad headings, the four cardinal virtues:
- Wisdom or Prudence: Includes excellent deliberation, good judgment, perspective, good sense.
- Justice or Fairness: Includes good-heartedness, benevolence, public service, fair dealing.
- Courage or Fortitude: Includes bravery, perseverance, authenticity (honesty), confidence.
- Self-Discipline or Temperance: Includes orderliness, self-control, forgiveness, humility.
Now, when you act according to these virtues, you progress towards the Good Life, or Eudaimonia, the ultimate goal of life. So the key to living the Good Life, then, is the perfection of reason and living according to virtue, or being ‘virtuous’.
In the Stoic sense, you can only be virtuous if you practice all the virtues. For example, if you act courageously throughout the day and then get wasted at night, you are not truly virtuous (because you break the virtue of self-discipline with all the binge drinking). Virtue is an all-or-nothing package.
To the Stoics it was clear that virtue must be its own reward. You do something because it is the right thing to do. You act in agreement with nature, with reason, and according to the cardinal virtues for its own sake. It does not matter what you get out of it, since acting according to virtue is rewarding in itself as you are progressing towards the Good Life.
Doing the right thing is enough, it’s your nature and it’s your job.
Again, the term ‘virtue’ really refers to excelling at one’s own character and applying reason in a manner that’s healthy and praiseworthy.
(You see, Stoicism is a lot about doing the right thing, it’s a lot about the actions you take and about who you are. It’s the character and your actions that matter.)
Sometimes acting according to virtue brings further benefits (e.g. the feeling of joy because you acted fairly). However, these benefits should be interpreted as ‘added bonus’ and cannot be the primary motive for action because they are not entirely under our control.
So always apply reason and try to do the right thing. Act according to the virtues (practical) wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. The results of your virtuous actions are not entirely up to you and therefore should not be the motive for the actions in the first place. Focus on what you can control, which is to act excellently in terms of your character.
This brings us to the next Stoic idea.
#3 Focus on What You Can Control, Accept What You Can’t
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” – Epictetus
This passage is found right at the beginning of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, because it is fundamental to the teachings of Epictetus and to Stoic Philosophy. This so called ‘Stoic dichotomy of control’ is actually the most characteristic principle of Stoicism.
We must carefully distinguish between what is ‘up to us’, or within our own power, and what is not. Up to us are our voluntary choices, namely our actions and judgements, while everything else is not under our control.
Here’s an overview of what is up to us and what is not.
So yeah, our body, for instance, is not up to us, or at least not entirely. Yes, me too, I believe there are many things I can do in order to get a healthy and attractive body. But this is only possible to a certain extent. I can control my actions and eat a healthy high-fat diet, exercise systematically, and move a lot, but I have no control over other things such as my genes, my early exposure and experiences, and other external factors such as illnesses and injuries.
I only control my own actions and I have to accept the outcome with equanimity. I get my satisfaction and confidence from knowing that I am doing my best and trying everything in my power to get where I want to be. So either I can easily accept the result because I know I have done my best, or I can’t because I (secretly) know that I haven’t done my best.
In my eyes, this is a massive confidence booster. You do everything you can and everything that is in your power to achieve your goals. And then you go into the moment of truth confidently, because you have done your very best. If the outcome is not satisfying, you can accept it easily and say, “Well, I have done my very best.”
This works well for me. I focus on what I can control and accept what I can’t. I only feel like I need to explain myself when I know that I haven’t done my best or I haven’t acted correctly.
The things which are up to you, your thoughts and your actions, are the most important things in life. Donald Robertson said it well in his book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness:
“The philosophical conclusion that the chief good, the most important thing in life, must necessarily be ‘up to us’ and under our direct control is at once the toughest and most appealing aspect of Stoicism. It makes us completely and utterly responsible for the single most important thing in life, depriving us of any excuses for not flourishing and attaining the best possible life, because this is always within our grasp.”
In short: The most appealing aspect of Stoicism is that we are responsible for our flourishing because all that truly matters in life is up to us.
So the key lesson to take away here is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe take care of the rest. The Stoics used the archer analogy to explain this:
An archer is trying to hit a target. He has a number of things under his control, such as training, which bow and arrow to use, how well to aim, and when to let go of the arrow. So he can do his very best up to the moment when the arrow leaves his bow.
Now, will he hit the target?
That is not up to him. After all, a gust of wind, a sudden movement of the target, or something could go between the arrow and the target. And the Stoic archer is ready to accept all possible outcomes with equanimity, because he has done his best and left the rest (what he could not control) to nature.
This reminds me of modern soccer. How often do you see players taking a free kick and then getting annoyed by the negative outcome? Not very Stoic…
Again, what did we learn? I find Massimo Pigliucci put it best in his book How to Be a Stoic:
“This is precisely the power of Stoicism: the internalization of the basic truth that we can control our behavior but not their outcomes – let alone the outcomes of other people’s behaviors – leads to the calm acceptance of whatever happens, secure in the knowledge that we have done our best given the circumstances.”
Wow. And guess at what we can always try our best? At living in accord with virtue. Yes, we can always try to apply reason, act with courage, treat people justly, and exercise moderation.
Let’s look at one of my favorite practical exercises of Stoicism. It’s an idea from Epictetus:
“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”
I love it! Check your impressions and ask yourself whether it’s up to you or not. If it’s up to you, then do something about it, if not, take it as it is. (This takes a certain amount of mindfulness, which we’ll cover in #10.)
So either something is up to you or it’s none of your business. In other words, it’s ‘indifferent’. This brings us right to the next big Stoic idea.
#4 Distinguish Between Good, Bad, and (‘Preferred’) Indifferent Things
The Stoics differentiated between ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘indifferent’ things.
The good things include the cardinal virtues wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. The bad things include the opposites of these virtues, namely the four vices folly, injustice, cowardice, and indulgence.
Indifferent things include all the rest, but mainly life and death, fame and bad reputation, pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, and health and sickness. Indifferent things can be summed up as health, wealth, and reputation.
Now, what strikes me the most is the fact that the Stoic indifferent things are exactly what ordinary people nowadays would judge as good or bad. However, in Stoicism those indifferent things do not help nor harm our flourishing as rational beings. They do not play a necessary part for the Good Life.
In short: Indifferent things like health, wealth, and reputation are completely indifferent for the Good Life. They simply do not matter. They are not good or bad but indifferent. Whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, it does not matter for your ultimate happiness. Therefore we should learn to be ‘indifferent towards indifferent things’ and learn to be satisfied with whatever nature puts on our plates.
Indifference does not mean coldness. (In the third part we’ll look at the misconception that Stoics are unemotional.) On the contrary, since indifferent things are not up to us, they are willed by something bigger than us and we get to love them equally. Being indifferent to indifferent things means to make no difference between them but to take them as they are and love them equally.
But being healthy is better than being sick, right?
Yes. Although indifferent things cannot actually be ‘good’, some are nevertheless more valuable than others and preferable to them. Therefore, the Stoics differentiated between ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred’ indifferent things.
The Stoics took quite a logical interpretation. Positive indifferent things such as good health, friendship, wealth, and good looks were classified as preferred indifferents, while their opposites were dispreferred indifferents.
Makes sense. However, the Stoics made the harmonious, eudaimonic life a reachable goal for everyone, regardless of social status, health, wealth, or looks. While all of these qualities are preferred, they are still indifferent and are not necessary to live a virtuous life.
People will always prefer joy over pain, wealth over poverty, and good health over sickness – so go ahead and look for those things, but not when doing so endangers your integrity and living in accord with virtue. In other words, it’s better to endure pain, poverty, or sickness in an honorable manner than to seek joy, wealth, or health in a shameful one.
Let’s look at some examples:
Friendship is a preferred indifferent. It’s better to have friends than having no friends. However, when it comes down to making a decision either for your friend or for virtue, the Stoics would always choose virtue.
A Stoic would not neglect morality by lying in order to save a friend. Justice weighs more than friendship, at least for the Stoics.
Character and morality > Friendship and love
Always remember that even when some things are preferred, they are nevertheless indifferent with regard to achieving the Good Life. Preferred but still indifferent.
- The only good is virtue (wisdom, courage, justice, self-discipline), which is completely up to us.
- The only bad is vice (folly, cowardice, injustice, indulgence), which is completely up to us.
- All else is indifferent and does ultimately not matter for the Good Life, because it is not up to us.
So it’s not what you have or don’t have but what you do with it that matters. Your actions are what counts. It’s all that you control.
It’s preferred to be rich than poor, and it’s preferred to be healthy than sick, but what matters for the Stoics is what you do with the given situation.
Your behavior is what counts. And that brings us to the next main Stoic principle.
#5 Take Action – The True Philosopher Is a Warrior of the Mind
Can I even do something about my own life?
Because most things are not within my control and I should look at them with indifference.
So, can I just lay back, do nothing, and don’t care about anything?
This is called the ‘Lazy Argument’ and does not work for the Stoics. In the words of Donald Robertson, “Events are not determined to happen in a particular way, regardless of what you do, but rather along with what you do… The outcome of events still often depends on your actions.”
You control your actions. And just laying back and doing nothing will not get you to the Good Life, and it won’t make you a good person.
Even though the Stoics looked at external things as indifferent, they were not at all indifferent to their own actions.
Since the Stoics wanted to live in accord with virtue to get to the eudaimonic life, they had to try to ‘do the right thing’. Always.
Stoics were doers.
Yes, Stoicism is a very practical life philosophy. For the Stoics it’s not enough to think about how to live one’s own life, but to actually go out in the world and practice its ideas. You must earn the Good Life by taking the right actions.
You should not be satisfied with learning of abstract ideas about how to live one’s life, but you must vigorously apply those ideas. Talk and knowledge are cheap and useless if not applied. If we don’t apply what we learn, we end up doing the opposite…
Here’s a great comparison Donald Robertson used in his book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The true philosopher, a warrior of the mind:
“The ancients conceived of the ideal philosopher as a veritable warrior of the mind, a spiritual hero akin to Hercules himself, but since the demise of the Hellenistic schools, the philosopher has become something more bookish, not a warrior, but a mere librarian of the mind.”
Back in the old days, a philosopher (literally a ‘lover of wisdom’) was a warrior of the mind. He fought battles with his own mind in pursuit of self-mastery, he went out there to practice the philosophy.
Today, a philosopher is much more a librarian of the mind. Instead of fighting the battles he rather collects the ideas as theoretical knowledge and stores them in his brain. But he forgets the most important part of the process, which is to actually live the ideas.
“We might be fluent in the classroom, but drag us out into the practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked.” – Seneca
Don’t get shipwrecked. Choose to be a warrior and get out there to practice Stoic Philosophy.
An easy way to start is to ‘practice misfortune’.
#6 Practice Misfortune – Ask “What Could Go Wrong?”
Vaccines. What is their job?
In simple: Vaccines prepare your body to fight off disease before the disease actually befalls your body.
The Stoics used a similar tool for their minds. In a sense, they vaccinated themselves for misfortune. They prepared mentally for bad stuff to happen. This was a main reason for studying the Stoic philosophy, to prepare oneself for future events in order to stay calm in the face of adversity.
“The Stoics trained themselves to maintain equanimity and freedom from emotional suffering in the face of seeming ‘misfortunes’ by regularly visualizing and preparing to cope with them long in advance.” – Donald Robertson
Let’s discover one of the Stoics’ most valuable tools: Premeditation of adversity.
Author of the book A Guide to the Good Life, William Irvine, described it as “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ toolkit” and termed it ‘negative visualization.’ However, for the Stoics, the key point is that these imagined “misfortunes” are not actually negative at all, but completely indifferent.
It’s exactly this indifference to feared outcomes that the Stoics want to strengthen so that they don’t worry about them and could face them calmly, rationally, and patiently if they actually occur.
For example, you plan to go on a weekend vacation. It’s the night before you leave. You have booked a place, you have packed your necessities, and you have prepared the car. You have a plan and you are ready. Now ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” “What could happen contrary to the plan?”
Be ready for things to go differently than planned. Have a backup plan.
What if such and such happens?
Then I will do such and such…
Then I will…
Then I will…
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectations.” – Seneca
The wise man mentally prepares perfectly well. Nothing can happen that he did not see coming. He even anticipates the fire-breathing dragon that destroys his car. It’s not very likely to happen, and there’s not much he could do about it, but he will be prepared mentally and may have a backup plan.
Look, our anticipation of bad stuff to happen does not magically make everything easy-peasy to endure. But it helps us not to go to pieces when shit happens. We can face adversity much calmer, analyze it rationally, and decide to take smart action.
“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.”– Seneca
What Seneca is saying here, is, that we’d be crazy to want to face difficulty in life. But we’d be equally crazy to think that it isn’t going to happen. We must prepare for difficulty to happen so that we’ll be ready to face it rather than getting surprised by it.
“Devastation – that feeling that we’re absolutely crushed and shocked by an event – is a factor of how unlikely we considered that event in the first place.” – Ryan Holiday
This is brilliant. And it reminds me of the time when my first girlfriend broke up with me. I was devastated. I was completely crushed. If I would have considered that to happen (and it was very likely), then it would still have sucked a ton, but I would have been prepared much better to deal with it.
Quick recap: The idea of premeditation of adversity is to repeatedly imagine potentially “bad” scenarios in advance, so that they will not catch you by surprise, and you’ll be able to face them calmly and act according to virtue.
Remember, no matter how catastrophic a situation might look, to the Stoics such external events are neither good nor bad, but indifferent. Only our responses can be good or bad.
So get your mind vaccinated and expose yourself to difficult situations through imagination and you’ll be stronger and less vulnerable in real life situations. Donald Robertson adds, “Psychological resilience tends to ‘generalize’, so that even situations that are neither anticipated nor directly rehearsed may be experienced as less overwhelming, as long as a wide of variety of other adversities have been anticipated and coped with resiliently.”
Try it right now. What are you planning to do in the next days? What could possibly go wrong?
#7 Add a Reserve Clause to Your Planned Actions
Remember that virtue is the highest of all goods?
And that we only control our own actions?
Great! Because those ideas build the foundation of the ‘reserve clause’.
We, as Stoic students, are meant to do the right thing and try our best to get there, but we are also meant to accept the outcome with equanimity.
- Do your very best to succeed…
- ... and simultaneously know and accept that the ultimate outcome is beyond your direct control.
Seneca defines the reserve clause with the formula, “I want to do such and such, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my decision.” Elsewhere he gives the example, “I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me.”
Now, this is super powerful.
If you ask me, this is the key to ultimate confidence and trust in yourself:
Simultaneously (1) do your very best, (2) know that the results are out of your control, (3) accept whatever happens, and finally (4) continue to act in accordance with virtue.
Basically, we have a plan and try everything to achieve our goal, but at the same time we know that something may intervene and prevent us from achieving our goal. We accept that and adapt our plan to the new circumstances and again try to make the best we can.
We can call it The Process. In sports, for example, you focus on the process, you focus on your effort, your training, preparation, and everything that’s under your control, and then take the results as they come. Winning is not the ultimate goal, being the best player and playing the best you can is.
And hey, this is no invitation for laziness. Just because you do not control the outcome does not mean you should passively accept whatever the result, but focus on what you can do and do your best.
Sometimes things will not go our way even if we try our best and even if we deserved it. Regardless of the outcome, we can always play our best.
Massimo Pigliucci said it well in his book How to Be a Stoic:
“Not to confuse one’s aspirations, even well-grounded ones, with how the universe will (or ought to) act is one of the hallmarks of a wise person.”
This is just a fantastic Stoic idea: Undertake action with a reserve clause, add a caveat such as ‘fate permitting’, ‘God willing’, or ‘if nothing prevents me’ to whatever you set out to do. And then accept (or even love) whatever happens.
Remember the Stoic Archer? He will hit the target if fate permits. He tries his best and then accepts the outcome with equanimity. And this acceptance of what happens brings us to the next Stoic idea.
#8 Amor Fati – Love Everything that Happens
“Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.” – Epictetus
This is one of my favorite quotes. For me, it’s the recipe for a happy and joyful life.
Let’s say something happened we wish had not. Now, which is easier to change: our opinion or the event itself?
The answer is obvious. The event lies in the past and cannot be changed. But our opinion can. We can accept what happened and change our wish that it had not happened. Stoicism calls this the “art of acquiescence” – to accept rather than fight every little thing.
Ryan Holiday added in his book The Daily Stoic:
“And the most practiced Stoics take it a step further. Instead of simply accepting what happens, they urge us to actually enjoy what has happened – whatever it is. Nietzsche, many centuries later, coined the perfect expression to capture this idea: amor fati (a love of fate). It’s not just accepting, it’s loving everything that happens.”
Basically, we can look at this in two steps:
- The first step is to accept that we don’t control everything that happens, and that whatever happens is okay. It’s someone else who makes the weather. We simply must accept it.
- The second step is to not only accept, but even love everything that happens. It's someone else who makes the weather. We simply get to enjoy it.
It’s a bit unnatural to feel gratitude for something we never wanted to happen. What helps is this: Think of a greater power that spins the world and decides on everything that happens. And all the events – whether desired or unexpected – happen specifically for you. At the moment when something happens, it may feel wrong, but it serves something greater that you don’t yet understand and in the end, will benefit you.
Don’t fight what happens, it happens for you.
With that attitude, nothing can throw you off track.
The Stoics used a wonderful metaphor, the dog leashed to a cart:
Imagine a dog leashed to a moving cart. The leash is long enough that the dog has two options: (1) either he can smoothly follow the direction of the cart, over which he has no control, and at the same time enjoy the ride and explore the surroundings, (2) or he can stubbornly resist the cart with all his force and end up being dragged for the rest of the trip anyway.
We are that dog. Either we make the best of the trip or we fight against every little decision the cart driver makes. One way is effortless and joyful, the other is exhausting and miserable. You choose.
The cart always keeps moving. Change is inevitable. In the words of Ryan Holiday, “To get upset by things is to wrongly assume that they will last… To resent change is to wrongly assume that you have a choice in the matter.”
To be clear, accepting the direction and speed of the cart, accepting whatever happens, has nothing to do with giving up. In Ryan Holiday’s words, “This has nothing to do with action – this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.”
Let’s be a real man or a real woman and take things as they come and make the best of it.
Be a wise dog and enjoy the ride. Even if the cart driver chooses an obstacle rich road.
(Read my article on Amor Fati.)
#9 Turn Obstacles into Opportunities – Perception Is Key
What is perception?
It’s how we see and understand what happens around us, and what we decide those events will mean.
Our perceptions can be like a lead ball chained to our feet, holding us back and making us weak, or they can be a great source of strength like a magic potion.
How we see the world around us, how we interpret what happens to us, makes a massive difference in how we get to live our lives. What we already learned from the Stoics, is, that they see external events not as good or bad but as indifferent. So it’s not these events, because they are ultimately indifferent, but your own judgment of these events that matters.
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
– Marcus Aurelius
This makes you responsible for your life. You don’t control external events, but you control how you choose to look at them and then respond to them. And, in the end, that’s all that matters.
We are disturbed or delighted not by events, but by our judgment about those events.
For example, it’s a rainy day (an external event).
- Luke gets upset because he wanted to go to the beach.
- Farmer Ben is happy because he thinks it's good for his crop.
- Auntie Charlize is furious because she hung up the laundry in her garden.
The same event gets perceived in different ways. It’s the judgment about the rain that causes suffering or joy, not the rain itself. Maybe the rain sucks, but if you blindly follow your first impression it sucks even more.
What the Stoics tried to do, was to not get carried away by their initial impression about external events (which lie outside their control anyway), but (1.) to look at the events objectively and (2.) choose to use them for their best.
Something happens and we automatically get an impression about it. We can’t do much about that. But what we can do something about is whether we choose to go with that impression or not.
So first we need to check our impressions. We may ask, “What happened exactly?” And then look at the event objectively, or look at it as it happened to someone else. The latter works, because with other people we’re much more objective. For example, when a friend comes over for dinner and breaks a glass, you’re okay, it’s just a glass. But when you break the glass, you’re way stricter and judge it as bad, clumsy, or careless.
So look at what happens objectively – It’s raining. The glass is broken. – And then choose your best reaction.
“Remind yourself that misfortunes can only be predicted for your body or your property but your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune by responding with virtue.” – Epictetus
You can always respond with virtue. You can see everything as an opportunity to respond with virtue.
For example, I remember a time when I often got annoyed by my younger brother. Instead of getting annoyed by my little brother being a little brother, I could have chosen to look for an opportunity in these situations. I could have seen him as a perfect training partner who helped me to develop patience, fairness, and kindness. Instead I just got annoyed and spread bad mood.
Try it now. What happened lately contrary to your plans? How could you have used it to practice virtue or another form of excellence?
The Stoics had this idea that you can turn every obstacle into an opportunity. Marcus Aurelius described it like this:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
The key to recognize these opportunities lies in your perception. How you see things is way more important than the things themselves. You can find good in everything. Stoicism teaches us to regard everything as an opportunity for growth. This enables us to turn everything, obstacles and gifts alike, into causes for opportunity.
Look, things suck sometimes. This is not about wearing rose-tinted glasses and jumping around smiling when it’s hailing and your mom died. Shit happens and we need to acknowledge that. But you can either bury your head in the sand or you can decide to look for an opportunity and use it for your best.
However, there’s a catch to this. Before we can question our own impressions and choose to find an opportunity, we first need to spot our impressions when they’re happening. We need to be mindful in the first place.
#10 Be Mindful – Stoic Mindfulness Is Where it All Begins
Guess what, if you want to live according to any philosophy, you need to be mindful of your actions.
Take Stoicism, if you want to live according to virtue, you know, applying reason (wisdom), courage, justice, and temperance, then you necessarily need to be mindful of what you’re doing. How else can you be present enough to choose the required rational actions?
So, in a sense, all the Stoic ideas inevitably lead to greater mindfulness.
What does that mean?
In short, you are mindful when you self-monitor and observe your thoughts and actions, as they happen, in the here and now. So that you are fully aware of what you are doing at each instant. For example, when you try to focus on what you can control, when you take action with a reserve clause, or when you check your impressions, then you always need to be aware.
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to practice Stoicism, but it also gets further developed by practicing. It works both ways. Again, being mindful is about being aware enough to take a step back from your own thoughts, and then being able to choose the best action rather than running on autopilot.
When you experience an emotion, in that exact moment you need to realize that you are feeling that emotion, only then can you choose whether the emotion is helpful or not and what your best response is. If you do not realize that you are acting out of emotion, then it’s incredibly difficult to choose and change your behavior.
You need at least some mindfulness to practice Stoicism.
“Stoics should continually be mindful of their volition. Their voluntary thoughts and actions are, by definition, the only things completely under their control.” – Donald Robertson
We basically give up being philosophers, and Stoics, when we are not mindful, when we act on autopilot and forget about what we’re doing.
For example, we drive to work and the next thing you know, we’re ridiculously annoyed by the driver in front of us. Or we sit down to eat lunch, and baam, we’re lost in thoughts about that annoying customer we dealt with in the morning. Or we watch a soccer game with friends and suddenly we find ourselves jumping in front of the TV, yelling and swearing about that bad call by the ref.
In these moments, we are not very Stoic. And it may take a long time to bring back our awareness to the present moment, and chances are high that we won’t even realize that we‘ve acted like morons.
That’s why the Stoics integrated daily practices of reflection – the day in review.
“When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by. For why should I fear any consequence from my mistakes, when I’m able to say, ‘See that you don’t do it again, but now I forgive you.’” – Seneca
Reflect on your day. You can write things down or you can go through them in your head. Ask questions:
- What good did I do today?
- What could I do better?
- How could I be the best version of myself? What do I want to change?
Take 5 minutes each night before you go to bed and ask yourself these or similar questions. Go through your day and find opportunities where you could improve.
This will also help you be more mindful throughout the day because you train your mind to look for actions you’ll be able to reflect on in the evening.
Marcus Aurelius, the great emperor of the Roman Empire, wrote his Meditations this way. He sat down to reflect on the day and wrote privately to himself. So go ahead and write down your very own meditations and who knows, maybe in two thousand years people will read it…
(Have you ever heard of the Japanese indigenous religion Shinto? Turns out that they share some values with Stoicism. If you're interested you should read the detailed article Shinto Beliefs: 5 Core Values.)
Part 3: What Does a Stoic Look Like?
Until two years ago, all I ever heard about Stoicism was the German saying that translates into “Doing something with Stoic calmness.”
This saying sounds good to me now, but in society it is still negatively associated with an unemotional and indifferent “whatever”-attitude.
Take Mr. Spock from Star Trek. He’s the classic stiff upper lip guy who represses all his emotions. And he was actually modeled after a naïve understanding of Stoicism.
In this last part we’ll look at the misconception that Stoics are unemotional, the Stoic attitude of friendship and affections towards others, and at the beauty of character. And finally, you’ll learn about the ideal Stoic – the Stoic Sage.
The Classic Misconception – Stoics Are Unemotional
The modern image of a Stoic is that of an unemotional and feeling-repressing person.
This is definitely not what it originally meant. It’s not what Stoicism is about.
The misconception stems from the Stoic idea that we should not get carried away by the unhealthy (and therefore irrational) “passions” of desire, pain, pleasure, and fear. It’s natural to feel these emotions, but it does not match our rational human nature to act because of these emotions.
The feelings are normal. But the Stoic tries to not act out of feeling but out of reason. Therefore he feels the emotions but he chooses to respond in what he thinks is the best way to respond.
I like to think about automatic feelings that arise within me and I can do nothing about. It’s like an involuntary emotional reflex like the heart beating faster, sweaty armpits, blushing, or watery eyes. Even cravings, feeling sexually aroused, or fear of heights.
You don’t control these things, therefore you need to accept them. However, you do not need to go with them. You do not need to act because of them.
The Stoics tried to use reason and training to not act out of feelings. So that they could respond with reason and virtue to whatever they felt.
It’s what animals can’t do. If a dog smells fish, he goes, “Oh fish, I’ll eat it.” Or if he sees that Dalmatian beauty in heat, he goes, “Oh, I’ll hump her.”
We, as human beings, are able to step in between our emotions and our actions.
If we smell that cookie (or fish), we can decide if we want to eat it or not. If we see that woman, we can decide if we want to go after her or not.
The Stoic is therefore not a man of stone without any feelings. He does have feelings but he is not enslaved by them. This is not the same as being hard-hearted and insensitive. If you think about the virtues of courage and self-discipline, then you can imagine that the Stoics experience something like fear and desire – otherwise there would be no feelings to overcome in the first place.
Donald Robertson explains it best:
“A brave man isn’t someone who doesn’t experience any trace of fear whatsoever but someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety. A man who has great self-discipline or restraint isn’t someone who feels no inkling of desire but someone who overcomes his cravings, by abstaining from acting upon them.”
This is brilliant.
The Stoic is not unemotional but he is just not guided by his emotions. He rises above his initial emotional reactions and applies reason instead. If an emotion won’t improve his situation, then it is likely an unhelpful one and he will choose not to go with it.
But this emotion is what I feel, someone might express. The modern Stoic Ryan Holidays has the perfect answer to this:
“Right, no one said anything about not feeling it. No one said you can’t ever cry. Forget ‘manliness.’ If you need to take a moment, by all means, go ahead. Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.”
Domesticate your emotions, don’t pretend they don’t exist.
Let’s look at the example of grief. Everybody knows this feeling because we all have lost somebody who was close to us. Now we should try to conquer the feeling and not distract us with something else and pretend that we don’t feel anything.
Seneca said, “It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” So we should go ahead and feel the pain and accept it as a part of life rather than running away from it. We should face, process, and deal with the emotion immediately instead of going the more pleasant way which is hiding from it.
“We might say that a central paradox of Stoicism is therefore its assumption that, far from being heartless, the ideal wise man, called the ‘Sage’, will both love others and yet be undisturbed by the inevitable losses and misfortunes that life inflicts on him. He has natural emotions and desires but is not overwhelmed by them, and remains guided by reason.” – Donald Robertson
So the Stoics do feel emotions and they do have affection for all people. This brings us to the next point.
The Stoic Love for Mankind
“The Stoics believed that we are essentially social creatures, with a ‘natural affection’ and ‘affinity’ for all people. This forms the basis of Stoic ‘philanthropy’, the rational love of our brothers and fellow citizens in the universe. A good person ‘displays love for all his fellow human beings, as well as goodness, justice, kindness and concern for his neighbour’, and for the welfare of his home city (Musonius, Lectures, 14).” – Donald Robertson
Humans are rational and social beings.
Although we learned that friendship and other people are ultimately indifferent, they are very much preferred. The Stoics prefer to live with a friend, a neighbor, and a housemate, but they do not depend on them for the Good Life.
Basically, Stoics are able to live the eudaimonic life without a friend but they prefer not to go without one. Why? Because of their natural affection for mankind and because they can practice the virtues much better when around others (think about justice and courage).
“We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has born.”
– Marcus Aurelius
It’s our human nature to do good to others and we should not care whether they care or not. Marcus goes so far as to say that all our actions should be good ‘for the common welfare.’ This is our nature, it’s our job.
And he could practice this very well since he was the Roman emperor… Wouldn’t we like that the people in power only had the common good in mind rather than their own?
There’s a caveat to this: The main reason to act for the common welfare is the underlying virtue of justice. We live in accord with virtue and therefore benefit ourselves when we act for the common welfare. Also, the better a person has developed himself, the better he can serve mankind. As Rudolf Steiner said, “If the rose adorns itself, it adorns the garden.”
“Man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, and has received his quittance.” – Marcus Aurelius
Do good for the sake of doing good. Expect nothing in return, remember, virtue is its own reward.
And what if others do wrong?
The Stoics believed that nobody errs on purpose. People act the way they think is best for them. They don’t know any better. Massimo Pigliucci said it well:
“The wrongdoer does not understand that he is doing harm to himself first and foremost, because he suffers from amathia, lack of knowledge of what is truly good for himself. And what is good for him is the same thing that is good for all human beings, according to the Stoics: applying reason to improve social living.”
The wrongdoer does wrong to himself. We should not blame them but rather pity them. As Epictetus said, “As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. The man who remembers this, I say, will be angry with no one, indignant with no one, revile none, blame none, hate none, offend none.”
Don’t hate the wrongdoer, he does not know any better. It’s your job, because you see, to act as an example and do the right thing for its own sake. Do it for yourself (at the same time it will benefit everybody else).
It’s what you do that matters. It’s what you do that makes your character.
True Beauty Lies in Character
“The monk dresses in his robes. A priest puts on his collar. A banker wears an expensive suit and carries a briefcase. A Stoic has no uniform and resembles no stereotype. They are not identifiable by look or by sight or by sound. The only way to recognize them? By their character.” – Ryan Holiday
The only way to recognize a true Stoic is by character.
The door to develop one’s character stands open to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, tall or small, thin or chubby, you can always try to live a moral life and thus live the Good Life.
“To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper – but not fanatical – detachment from mere worldly goods.” – Massimo Pigliucci
The cultivation of one’s character is the highest good. Therefore, to the Stoics, true beauty lies in the excellence of our mind and character and not in our physical appearance. Epictetus says we should aim to “beautify that which is our true nature – the reason, its judgements, its activities.”
The true value of a person lies in their core, their character, and it does not matter if it’s a banker or baker.
Your character is the only true possession you will ever have. Everything else is temporary and can be taken away. A true Stoic will trade nothing if the prize is a compromising of his character.
“Your character is your best calling card, and if you interact with good judges of character, that’s all you’ll need.” – Massimo Pigliucci
I’d go a step further than Pigliucci and say that your character is your best calling card no matter what. All the bad judges of character out there may hinder you in the short term, but certainly not in the long term.
This is not poker where you can lose despite holding the best cards in your hands. In life you will win when you develop the best possible character cards.
So how does such a good character look like?
The Characteristics of the Ideal Stoic – The Stoic Sage
True beauty lies in character. So how does an Adonis of character look like?
The Stoics actually had a hypothetical ideal, the Stoic Sage. In short, he’s a perfectly wise and good person. In long, hear out Donald Robertson describing the Sage:
“The Sage is supremely virtuous, a perfect human being, and the closest mortal approximation to Zeus. He is a completely good person, who lives a completely good and ‘smoothly flowing’ life of total serenity, he has attained perfect Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia). He lives in total harmony with himself, the rest of mankind, and Nature as a whole, because he follows reason and accepts his fate graciously, insofar as it is beyond his control. He has risen above irrational desires and emotions, to achieve peace of mind. Though he prefers to live as long as it is appropriate, and enjoys the ‘festival’ of life, he is completely unafraid of his own death. He possesses supreme practical wisdom, justice and benevolence, courage and self-discipline. His character is absolutely praiseworthy, honourable and beautiful.”
Wow. No wonder he is hypothetical.
(By the way, this description of the ideal Stoic Sage summarizes quite well the main Stoic ideas. If you haven’t read it, go read it.)
The Stoics used this fictitious ideal to contemplate and compare themselves against. Just like a role model they can compare themselves to when they are trying to make progress towards virtue.
For Epictetus, Socrates was a real world embodiment of the Sage and he advised his students to live like Socrates:
“Socrates fulfilled himself by attending nothing except reason in everything that he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
We could all try to be a Socrates.
This is a great help in everyday life, ask yourself, “What would the Sage do?” Or “What would the Sage tell me to do?”
You can even modify the question depending on the situation you’re in. For example:
- “What would the perfect father do?”
- "What would the perfect friend do?"
- "What would the perfect employee do?"
The Stoics tried to keep such an exemplar constantly before their eyes so they themselves would live as an example and came closer to virtue. Epictetus said, “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”
In that sense, I have tried to make a visual portrayal of such an ideal Stoic personality. I tried to include different characteristics that match our ideal Stoic Sage.
(Btw, in the picture it could also be a business woman, a construction worker, or anybody else. It's the character that makes a Stoic, not the looks.)
Here are the 10 statements that in my eyes describe an ideal Stoic person:
- He is serene and confident no matter what you throw at him.
- He acts out of reason not emotion.
- He focuses on what he controls and does not worry about what he can’t control.
- He accepts fate graciously and tries to make the best of it.
- He appreciates what he has and does never complain.
- He is kind, generous, and forgiving towards others.
- His actions are prudent and he takes full responsibility.
- He is calm and not attached to external things.
- He possesses practical wisdom, justice & benevolence, courage & self-discipline.
- He lives in harmony with himself, mankind, and nature.
Phew. This is what Stoicism is all about.
It’s thorough. It’s a philosophy for life. But it’s hard to keep so many things in mind. This is why I created the Stoicism Cheat Sheet.
The Stoicism Cheat Sheet answers the question ‘What is Stoicism’ and gives you an overview of the 10 key Stoic principles. It’s basically an illustration of this whole article. You can print it out.
For those who like it less visual and more written out, here’s a quick summary:
Stoicism was founded around 301 BC by Zeno of Citium in Athens, Greece. It was nearly forgotten for two millennia. Fortunately various texts from the 3 principle leaders Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca survived and now build the bedrock of the reviving philosophy.
The philosophy is of great help in the unpredictable modern world because it helps to stay calm in difficult situations, direct our thoughts, and choose the best (re)actions. It offers many useful strategies, here are the 10 key principles/ ideas:
1. Live in agreement with nature. What separates the human being from animals are our mental and social abilities. We are meant to apply reason to all our actions. We are able to think about our preferred action before we act. This is the Stoic goal of life: To live in agreement with our nature by applying reason to our actions.
2. Live by virtue – Virtue is the highest of all goods. No matter what happens to us, we can always try to apply reason and choose to live in accord with virtue. We should always try to do the right thing, it’s all that we control.
3. Focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t. All we control is our mind and the actions we choose to take. We can try our best, and accept all that happens because we don’t control it. If we get disturbed by what we don’t control, we become helpless victims.
4. Distinguish between good, bad, and indifferent things. The only good is virtue – living by wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. The only bad is vice – folly, injustice, cowardice, and intemperance. Everything else is indifferent and does ultimately not matter for a happy life.
5. Take action like the true philosopher. The true philosopher actually lives by the ideas, he is a warrior of the mind. Today, many people learn and acquire knowledge only to store it in their mind. They forget the most important part: to live and practice the ideas.
6. Practice misfortune. This is a gem. Imagine potentially “bad” scenarios in advance and they won’t catch you by surprise, and you’ll be able to face them calmly and act according to virtue. Visualize shit before and you’ll be able to take it much more calmly.
7. Add a reserve clause to your actions. You only control your actions but not the outcome. You can give your best but maybe it won’t bring the results you wanted. Choose to do your very best to succeed and simultaneously know and accept that the ultimate outcome is beyond your direct control.
8. Love everything that happens (amor fati). Accept rather than fight every little thing that happens. You don’t decide everything that happens to you, in fact, you control very little. Imagine that everything that happens, happens specifically for you. Wish for situations to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.
9. Turn obstacles into opportunities. How you perceive things is highly important. Everything that happens can be looked at as an opportunity. Even if it sucks, because you can always see it as a chance to practice virtue.
10. Be mindful. You must bring your full awareness in your actions. Otherwise you act out of emotions instead of your rational decisions. Observe yourself and go through your daily actions before you go to bed so that you will make better decisions the next day.
Stoics often get misperceived as unemotional because they try not to act out of their emotions and they want to be indifferent to things they don’t control. This is a classic misconception. Stoics feel emotions just like everybody else, but they are not enslaved by them. Stoics don’t get overwhelmed by emotions and they act in a rational manner despite their emotions.
It’s not about not having emotions, it’s about the domestication of one’s emotions.
Although Stoics look at other people as indifferent they’re still social beings. More than most of us are today. They tried to direct every action for the common welfare. Everything you do should be good for mankind. It’s being rational not for egoistic ideas but for the whole. We are all connected and if we do wrong, we wrong ourselves first and foremost.
Therefore Stoics do not get annoyed by other people, for they know that the wrongdoer does not know any better. The Stoic tries to be an example rather than to seek revenge.
Ultimate beauty lies in your character. It’s what you do and who you are that matter most. Your character is your best calling card and it will pay in the long term.
The Stoics contemplate and compare themselves against the hypothetical ideal Stoic Sage. This is the perfectly good and wise person that can help you in difficult situations. Just ask yourself, “What would the Sage do?” and you will know what’s the best thing to do.
Now, the Sage would download these 13 Stoic Practices and see how he could still improve. (If you enjoyed some of the Stoic ideas in this article, you will love those Stoic Practices.)
Thanks for reading and downloading the 13 Stoic Practices. Let me know which practice and which illustration you like the most.
Stoic on, my friend.