13 Reasons Why Modern Stoics Should Live a Minimalist Lifestyle
I’m in love with Stoicism.
For the past 18 months I’ve been an avid student of Stoic philosophy. It resonates with me and it helps me to stay calm and optimistic in the most annoying situations.
Before my romantic relationship with Stoicism I had an affection for minimalism. It, too, resonated with me and helped me bring order and awareness into my life.
Long love story short, I’ve found some parallels between the two philosophies.
Stoicism shows certain tendencies towards minimalism. This is why I believe that modern Stoic students should live a minimalist lifestyle if they take it for real. I’ve put together 13 reasons to support this belief.
But first, let’s very quickly look at the two philosophies.
What Is Stoicism? What Is Minimalism?
In this part we’ll shortly look at the definitions.
Stoicism and the Modern Stoic
(Check out my detailed article 'What is Stoicism' for more.)
Stoicism is a reviving ancient philosophy. Its aim is to help you live better in an unpredictable world. It provides tools to stay calm and clearheaded in times of chaos and hardship.
The main idea is that we only control our mind (thoughts and actions) and that everything else is outside our control. We ought to focus on what we control, try to make the absolute best of it, and take the rest as it happens.
The modern Stoic then is someone who’s interested in this philosophy and tries to practice some of its tools. Basically, it’s a student of Stoicism. In the words of Donald Robertson, author of the book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, “If you’re interested in Stoicism and didn’t die more than four hundred years ago then you’re a ‘modern Stoic.’”
(Check out the Stoicism Cheat Sheet for a quick overview of the Stoic Philosophy.)
Minimalism and a Minimalist Lifestyle
“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” – The Minimalists
For me, it all started with this Ted talk a few years back. It made sense to me to get rid of stuff I don’t need. It’s just clutter. And with less, it’s easier to focus on the important, and it’s easier to appreciate the things you do have. The things that are truly important to you.
Minimalism doesn’t restrict you on what you are allowed to own or invest in. It’s just there to make you more aware of all the stuff you have and whether you actually need it. Whether it’ll make you happier or not. You can still choose to buy a Tesla. You can still own a house. You can still wear expensive jewelry.
It’s not really about what you own and do but more about how you do so and why you choose to do so.
Living a minimalist lifestyle is to intentionally choose to live with less and mostly the essential. It’s to get over the urge to own and buy more, more, more. It’s to live freer, to care less about what society and other people tell us to do. It’s to live more aware.
For more on minimalism check out the Minimalists, Joshua Becker, or Miss Minimalist.
13 Reasons Why Modern Stoics Should Live a Minimalist Lifestyle
When studying Stoicism I’ve found many similarities to minimalism.
You could say that the minimalists adopted certain Stoic attitudes and strategies, or, and this is much more likely, the Stoics had some tendencies towards minimalism. This is why I think students of Stoicism today should live a minimalist lifestyle, because it’s what the Stoics taught. They just didn’t call it so.
Let’s look at 13 points that support this idea that the Stoics show some minimalist tendencies.
#1 Material Possessions Are Indifferent
“Material things are indifferent, but how we handle them is not indifferent.” – Epictetus
Let’s keep this simple.
For the Stoics only their thoughts and actions can be good or bad, because that’s the only thing under our control. Everything else is classified as indifferent, because it is ultimately not under our control.
However, some indifferent things are nevertheless preferred – such as pleasure, friendship, health, wealth, good looks, etc. Health is preferred to sickness, wealth to poverty, and pleasure to pain, but ultimately those things do no matter because they are not entirely up to us. What matters are your actions with the given circumstances. (I wrote in detail about it here)
Material possessions are indifferent to the Stoics, they don’t give them too much meaning, and they don’t get attached to them.
Marcus Aurelius has some great advice: “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.”
Once we get attached to things we have difficulties to accept change, and we don’t want to let go. We become slaves to the status quo. And we feel that if we’d lose those things, we’d be less happy, free, or worthy.
The modern Stoic is minimalist in the sense that he doesn’t get attached to (indifferent) possessions. He knows that these possessions do not really belong to him.
#2 There Is But One Thing You Truly Own
“We may claw and fight and work to own things, but those things can be taken away in a second. The same goes for other things we like to think are ‘ours’ but are equally precarious: our status, our physical health or strength, our relationships. How can these really be ours if something other than us – fate, bad luck, death, and so on – can dispossess us of them without notice?” – Ryan Holiday
Anything that can be taken away is not your own. You might call it your own and you might have a paper that says it’s yours, but it isn’t – it can be taken away in a second.
Your house, your car, your watch, your wife, your son, your dog – you can lose all of them at once.
Your mind is the only thing you own in life. Your material possessions and loved ones are only borrowed gifts that can be taken away in an instant. Everyone you know will die. Everything you own can be destroyed.
Enjoy your family and material possessions while you have them, but remember that they are not your own. Sooner or later, you’ll need to return everything. Seneca put it well:
“We have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor.”
The modern Stoic is well aware that he doesn’t own but has only been loaned his possessions and loved ones and therefore he enjoys them more while he still can.
#3 Less Is More in Conversations
“The vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things?”– Marcus Aurelius
Leave unnecessary things away.
I think this is brilliant. Before you act or say something, ask yourself whether or not it is necessary. If it is not, then keep it for yourself.
In many cases, things are better left unsaid. Often we say something rather foolish just because we think it will make us look smart, cool, funny, or just part of the group.
Get Epictetus’ minimalist perspective on conversation:
“Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.”
For the most part, be silent and listen actively rather than speak. Silence will build strength and self-sufficiency.
Take Marcus Aurelius’ advice: “Don’t’ be a person of too many words.”
The modern Stoic says only what isn’t better left unsaid.
#4 Less Is More in Possessions
“So, concerning the things we pursue, and for which we vigorously exert ourselves, we owe this consideration – either there is nothing useful in them, or most aren’t useful. Some of them are superfluous, while others aren’t worth that much. But we don’t discern this and see them as free, when they cost us dearly.” – Seneca
Seneca is making an important point here: there is a hidden cost to all accumulating.
More is not always better. Free is not always free.
Many of our possessions are superfluous. By keeping those things stored somewhere – in a garage or in our mind – they rob us of our freedom.
The same is true for any kind of consumption. As Ryan Holiday puts it:
“You don’t get a prize at the end of your life for having consumed more, worked more, spent more, collected more, or learned more about the various vintages than everyone else. You are just a conduit, a vessel that temporarily held or interacted with these fancy items.”
We won’t get a prize for having more. So take into consideration whether something is actually useful for you.
The modern Stoic doesn’t accumulate stuff he doesn’t need, because he knows that there’s a hidden cost to everything, even if he can store it in the attic.
#5 Your Actual Needs Are Small and Cheap
“Your food should appease your hunger, your drink quench your thirst, your clothing keep out the cold, your house be a protection against inclement weather. It makes no difference whether it is built of turf or of variegated marble imported from another country: what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good as a roof of gold does.”
Luckily, for most people in the western world, and you who are reading this, food, drink, clothing, and a roof are always there. We all have the most necessary things. We have a place to stay and we have enough food and water to survive and even live well.
We don’t need silk pajamas, a cloud bed, and a golden roof.
If you think back a few years, you probably were okay with much less. A cheaper apartment, a rustier car, a smaller paycheck, and even a half size bed. Today, as you’re more successful, these conditions wouldn’t satisfy you anymore. Maybe you want even more than you have right now.
And it’s okay to want more. Just remember that your actual needs are small and cheap. Your parents or grandparents lived during times of war… they had to survive on rationed gas, potatoes, and butter.
Take Ryan Holiday's take on that: “When the people around you dump a fortune into trinkets they can’t take with them when they die, it might seem like a good investment for you to make too. But of course it isn’t. The good things in life cost what they cost. The unnecessary things are not worth it at any price. The key is being aware of the difference.”
Do you need shoes or do you need shoes with a legend on them? Do you need one pair or ten? Do you need a roof over your head or do you need a palace?
(We only want something until we have it, and then we want something else. That's called The Purchase Paradox.)
The modern Stoic knows which things he loves most and doesn’t care if those things don’t cost a dime. He seeks the necessary, not the extravagant.
#6 External Things Won’t Lead to Happiness
“Is it that controversial to say that there are things that people value (and pressure you to value as well) – and there are the things that are actually good? Or to question whether wealth and fame are all they are cracked up to be?” – Ryan Holiday
Maybe we’ve got it all wrong.
Chasing after wealth and fame while the really good is found somewhere else?
Here’s what Seneca observed in one of his plays:
“If only the hearts of the wealthy were opened to all!
How great the fears high fortune stirs up within them.”
Ryan Holiday used this to make his point, “For centuries, people have assumed that wealth would be a wonderful cure-all for their unhappiness or problems. Why else would they have worked so hard for it? But when people actually acquired the money and status they craved, they discovered it wasn’t quite what they had hoped.”
The point the Stoics were making is that wealth and fame do not cure all your problems, nor do they make you happy. The really “good” is not found in wealth but in virtue: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.
It’s your actions that make you happy. The really good is simple and your actual needs are small and cheap.
Wealth and external things do not fix internal issues. However, this does not mean that wealth automatically leads to fear and more problems. You actually can buy happiness and you can also live in a noble house or drive a fancy car, just don’t be a slave to those things.
The modern Stoic doesn’t chase after wealth and fame for he knows this won’t make him any happier. He knows that the really good is found in his everyday actions.
#7 What You Have Is a Blessing
“Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours. But watch yourself, that you don’t value these things to the point of being troubled if you should lose them.” – Marcus Aurelius
Three things here:
Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. There’s no sense in that. While you desperately try to keep up with them, they try to keep up with you. It’s a game that no one can win. More won’t make you any better or happier, it will only make you want more and more. The upward spiral will never end and it will leave you stressed out and miserable.
Don’t look for what others have but focus on what you already have. How much would you want those things if you didn’t have them already? Appreciate those things.
Remember: You don’t own these things. They are only borrowed and can be taken away in an instant. So don’t get attached. Appreciate and at the same time know that you can lose them.
The modern Stoic doesn’t care what other people have, he rather sees and appreciates what he already has and makes sure to not get attached to those things.
#8 Most Things Are Not Worth to Care About
“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters – don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” – Epictetus
You don’t need to know everything that happens out there. You won’t be able to keep up with the 24/7 media anyway. Scandal here, scandal there. Trump here, Trump there.
It’s better to just say, “I don’t know.” Or even, “I don’t care.”
The media broadcasts everything as extremely important. But are they really? No. And it doesn’t matter if we don’t know these things, people will tell us about the truly important anyway.
Sure, we owe it to our family and friends to know generally about events that affect them, but that’s about it.
So how about a drastic cut of our (social) media consumption? This will definitively give us more time, energy, and brainpower for the truly important. And we shouldn’t worry about looking foolish at the next dinner party for not knowing these things, because they do not matter. In the words of Epictetus, we’d rather “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”
It’s much wiser to spend your time on what actually matters.
The modern Stoic develops a minimalist approach to media consumption because he knows that not every fat headline is important. He is fine to look clueless in front of others.
#9 Wasted Time Cannot Be Brought Back
“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is – we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” – Seneca
We don’t know how long we are going to live, but sadly, we can be sure that we waste far too much of our lives.
We waste it sitting around staring in some screens, we waste it chasing after the wrong things, we waste it by not taking the action we think would be right.
Just think about the thousands of people sitting in their car in traffic somewhere. Or the people watching some TV series. Or the people working a job they hate.
We are all guilty of wasting a massive part of our lives on things that don’t matter. I’m guilty. You’re guilty. Everybody’s guilty.
I like to make lists. I list all the things that are truly important to me. My family, friends, hobbies, my work, private (nothing) time, etc. And then I list the activities I actually spend my time with. The two lists don’t look the same. The list with the important things doesn’t say anything about Facebook, TV, or sports news…
Take Seneca's advice on wasting time: “We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
Take back your time. Protect it like you protect your hard earned dollars. Your time is the only thing that you can’t get back.
The modern Stoic reclaims the time by focusing on the things that truly matter and not wasting it on the things that don’t.
#10 Conditional Happiness Robs You of the Present Moment
“People to whom such things are still denied come to imagine that everything good will be theirs if only they could acquire them. Then they get them: and their longing is unchanged, their anxiety is unchanged, their disgust is no less, and they still long for whatever is lacking. Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” – Epictetus
Longing for something we don’t have. This is so typical for our society.
We think that we’ll be happy when… we graduate, when we get the promotion, when we get that new dress, when we make it to the weekend, etc.
The happiness lies in the future, and it’s conditional. Right now, I can’t be happy, I can only be happy if or when… It’s like the horizon: You can walk as far as you want, but you will never reach it, you won’t even get any closer.
The Stoics knew that this yearning for more, better, and someday is the enemy of our happiness and freedom. The more we desire things and the more we have to do to acquire those things, the less we actually enjoy our lives. We don’t live to live but we live to get to live in the future. That way we will never truly enjoy our lives.
Already Epictetus knew this: “It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have.”
The modern Stoic locates this yearning for some pleasurable future scenario, while he does not necessarily dismiss it, he certainly chooses not to neglect the present moment for it. He can still look forward to it, but he chooses to live first and foremost in the here and now.
#11 True Wealth Lies in Wanting Less
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca
There are limits even when you’re the richest person on earth. You can’t buy everything you want. Certain things are just not for sale (think of respect, love, or fulfilment for example).
If massive wealth won’t get you everything you want, is there another solution to the problem? To the Stoics, there is: by changing what you want. Ryan Holiday put it best:
“There are two ways to be wealthy – to get everything you want or to want everything you have. Which is easier right here and right now? The same goes for freedom. If you chafe and fight and struggle for more, you will never be free. If you could find and focus on the pockets of freedom you already have? Well, then you’d be free right here, right now.”
Wealth basically consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.
If you want nothing, you’re basically as free and rich as it gets.
Wanting nothing does not seem within reach for anybody though, at least not for me or anybody I know. What seems more likely is wanting less. You don’t need to own an island, it’s enough to make a vacation on an island. You don’t need to buy a Tesla, a Prius is doing just fine.
It’s good to be ambitious, but it’s important to be ambitious for the right things. And what are the right things is up to you to decide. Wanting less shouldn’t be an excuse for laziness, but as long as you actually want less, you’re fine with less.
The modern Stoic doesn’t look for all the bling and luxury. He chooses to be happy and therefore free with a few wants.
#12 Certain Things Are only Worth a ‘No’
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.” – Marcus Aurelius
In short: Don’t spend your time on things that don’t matter.
When you spend a lot of time on things that actually don’t matter so much, you make them important by spending your life on them. And also, sadly, you make the truly important things, your family, health, and true commitments, less important by wasting your life with other things.
We need to learn to say no to the things that are not our highest priorities. Say no to invitations, to requests, to obligations, and to stuff that’s just not so important. And say no to time-consuming emotions such as anger, worry, or lust. They distract us from the essential.
The more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do.
First, you need to realize what you waste your time on. And then you need to choose to live by reason rather than convention. Follow what you think is important rather than blindly follow others. Hear out Seneca on this:
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them… One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention.”
The modern Stoic tries not to waste time on trivial matters. He chooses to focus on the essential matters. That’s how he accomplishes so much more.
#13 Essential Things Are Worth Your Focus
“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the reason of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.” – Marcus Aurelius
If you seek tranquility, do only what’s essential.
Ask yourself, “What are the most important things in my life?”
When we know what those things are, we need to prioritize and focus on those things. You’ll see that what matters is more about who you are inwardly than outwardly. Who you truly are is way more important than how people perceive you to be.
Ryan Holiday puts it very well: “Outward transformation – in our clothes, in our cars, in our grooming – might feel important but is superficial compared with the inward change. That’s the change that only we know about.”
The most valuable asset you have is your character. Again, who you are is what matters. And that’s why the modern Stoic chooses to spend the lion’s share of his time with improving himself as a person.
You, like everybody else, have 24 hours in a day. You choose how to spend that time. Of course, there are certain obligations you just have to do, but you can keep them to a minimum. The rest of the time you can focus on what’s important to you.
The modern Stoic finds clarity in what’s truly important to him. And focuses on that.
Thanks for Reading
Bet you can see some Stoic tendencies towards minimalism.
For me, the combination of Stoic practices with a minimalist lifestyle works perfectly fine.
What do you think of this combination?
Let me know in the comments below. Thank you.
Beautiful! I love your ideas and the thoughts that are bubbling up in me now.
Very interesting and thought provoking. Loved reading it. Thanks for sharing such lovely articles.
“Before you act or say something, ask yourself whether or not it is necessary. If it is not, then keep it for yourself.” – Lol, maybe I shouldn’t comment then!
Musonius Rufus may have been the most mimimalist Stoic, and has been called an ascetic. He is probably my favorite Stoic. If you haven’t read him, his Lectures and Sayings are great. He argues:
“Are not all these [material] things superfluous and unnecessary, without which it is possible not only to live but also to be healthy? Are they not the source of constant trouble, and do they not cost great sums of money from which many people might have benefited by public and private charity? How much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people. How much nobler than spending money for sticks and stones to spend it on men.”
Some people have accused Seneca of hyprocrisy on the matter of Stoic minimalism because he was one of the wealthiest men in Rome.
There was a lively debate a year back or so about whether it’s enough for modern stoics to be Senecan stoics, or wether we should go furthur towards Musonius’ or Epictetus’ type of minimalism:
Glad you commented, Leah 🙂
Thanks for sharing Musonius Rufus’ quote. This fits very well.
For me, it doesn’t really matter whether Seneca was a hypocrite or not. What matters is that what he said sparks a light within me. If it helps me, why not take it from an opulent Stoic hypocrite? 🙂
It might be interesting, but personally I don’t see the sense in putting energy into a discussion that will lead nowhere. We’re living now, Seneca lived hundreds of years ago and we only have some of his insightful letters remaining. It’s hard to get a clear view that would let us judge safely and fairly.
I’ll let that to other people.
Perhaps that was a poor choice of words on my part Jonas. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t like Seneca, or that I myself dislike him, or even if Seneca’s lifestyle was in fact hyprocritocal, that it somehow negates everything he ever wrote. I’m not arguing any of those things and I didn’t mean to imply them.
All that said however, if we are going to take inspiration from these philosophers on the matter of how to live, it’s a matter of serious scholarship to find out how they actually lived.
I enjoyed reading your post.
Yeah, I think I understood well what you wanted to say. I didn’t think you were arguing with what I wrote. Probably I didn’t choose the words well.
I just wanted to say that all the discussions about whether or not Seneca was a hypocrite are not so important to me. But I’m happy you pointed it out to other readers.
Agree, finding out how they actually lived is of great interest.
Thank you, Leah 🙂
Love your work keep doing it
Thanks Sandeep 🙂
I see you wrote this two years ago, so I’m wondering if you’ve achieved the lifestyle you describe? I am a minimalist except for my books. And yes, they’re a pain to move, but they make me feel “more me”.
Life is a process, so I guess I will never achieve a finite lifestyle. But surely I’ve incorporated many Stoic and minimalist ideas in my own life.
Hah, yeah, I know what you mean. We’ve got so many books as well. And plants, and supplements. Apart from those three things, we live a highly minimalist lifestyle – life is so much simpler. For me at least.
I really enjoyed this article. Thank you!
Glad to hear, Danielle 🙂
Great article – you really explain this well! I have been trying to understand the “indifferents”, and now I do! Thank you.
Thank you, Diana 🙂