16 Rules Every Stoic Must Follow
How to be a Stoic?
We all enjoy some ancient Stoic wisdom. But what does it mean to live like a modern Stoic? What principles should we live by? And how to follow their advice?
As you’ll learn in the first rule, Stoic philosophy is really a matter of practice. You want to be a warrior of the mind and what matters most is not your ability to recite Stoic principles but to actually live them out in the real world.
Stoic teacher Epictetus asks, “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
And so today, we’d like to share some “do” stuff – highly actionable Stoic principles that you can and should do on your quest to become the best you can be. We’ve created 16 rules that guide the behavior of aspiring Stoics – we try to live by them every day here at NJlifehacks. These rules help you calmly navigate the world, live more mindful, and deal more effectively with whatever life throws at you.
Put in the simplest way possible, by following the Stoic rules, you will live like a Stoic and develop the Stoic mindset.
Now, to make this as practical and useful as it gets, we decided to make it pretty to look at. So that you can print it out, keep it at hand, and own it fully.
To that end, we proudly present you the very first How to Be a Stoic INFOGRAPHIC!
It includes 15 principles derived from Stoicism.
In the title of the post, you’ll notice we said 16 Rules, and the infographic only displays 15.
What’s the 16th rule then? Simple: make up one of your own. Stoicism isn’t a hard-core philosophy, so you can take whatever helps you most, and add another principle-rule you choose to live by. It’s not for us to decide how you should live your life. That falls to you, aspiring Stoic.
And of course, please pick up The Little Book of Stoicism, the book we used as a guide to write these Stoic rules. This would mean a lot to us.
We really love this infographic, and hope you do, too. So please share it! We’d also love your comment. Share your thoughts and let us know what rules do YOU live your life by? Let’s get the TOP THREE rules.
What follows are the rules in more detail. Enjoy.
(By the way, I was inspired to write this post and create the infographic by John Romaniello's 16 Rules Every Alpha Must Follow.)
1. Practice the Art of Living as a Warrior of the Mind
A “philosopher” literally translates from the Greek into a “lover of wisdom,” someone who loves to learn how to live. Epictetus says that just like someone who wants to be good at handwriting must train and know a lot about handwriting, you must train and learn a lot about how to live in order to get good at living.
Philosophy is really a matter of practice, to learn how to sculpt our lives. It’s an essential craft for everybody who wants to learn how to live (and die) well. Thinking and philosophizing about the blank block of marble won’t teach us how to skillfully use chisel and mallet.
The Stoics were particularly concerned with applying philosophy to everyday life. They saw themselves as veritable warriors of the mind and thought the primary reason to study philosophy is to put it into practice.
This great comparison was made by author Donald Robertson in his book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: In ancient times the ideal philosopher was a veritable warrior of the mind, but in modern times “the philosopher has become something more bookish, not a warrior, but a mere librarian of the mind.”
You want to be a warrior of the mind and what matters most is not your ability to recite Stoic principles but to actually live them out in the real world. Epictetus asks, “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
Stoicism is relevant today, and as a warrior-philosopher take every life situation as a blank block of marble that you can sculpt and train on, so that over a lifetime you can master the art of living.
2. Live like Your Ideal Self and Reflect upon Your Actions
Imagine the best version of yourself. Look inside, do you see and know who that highest version of you is, the one who acts right in all situations, the one who makes no mistakes and seems unbeatable?
As Stoic students we should try to express our highest self in every moment and close the gap between who we’re capable of being (our ideal self), and who we actually are in that very moment.
As a guideline we can use the four broad character traits the Stoics adopted from the Socratic philosophy known as the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. Living by these qualities makes a strong character and helps us take generally honorable and praiseworthy actions.
Now, it’s obvious that we can’t always express our best self. Even the exceptional Stoic philosophers weren’t able to do so. This imperfection is perfectly natural and something the Stoics observed in their own lives. Here’s an example from Seneca:
“When the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent, aware as she is of my habit, I examine my entire day, going through what I have done and said.” Seneca pleaded his case at his own court every night and shared some examples of inappropriate actions in his letter On Anger.
The point is: You and I, we’ll never be perfect in all our actions. And it doesn’t matter as long as we’re trying our best to be a good person with concern for others and nature as a whole.
And, like Seneca did, reflect upon our actions in order to do better the next time.
3. Be Aware of Your Every Step
The whole idea of expressing your highest self in every moment is based on the ability to be present in the moment fully aware of what’s going on. How else do you want to actively choose your best action?
Today, we call this “mindfulness,” the Stoics used the term “attention” (prosochê). In the words of Marcus Aurelius, we should pay “vigorous attention… to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice.”
Imagine you’re walking barefoot along the beach when suddenly a section is full of bits of broken glass. Now you walk very cautiously and watch every step like a hawk so you don’t hurt yourself – that’s the attention the Stoic student must pay to every action.
If we let our thoughts drift away our actions become mindless, we stumble into folly, and act in the opposite way of what we think is best. And it’s exactly in the moments when we stumble when mindfulness is needed most: “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation,” Seneca says. “You have to catch yourself doing it before you can correct it.”
“Attention (prosochê) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude,” author Pierre Hadot explains. “It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully.”
Epictetus says it’s not possible to be faultless, but we can try and “we must be content if by never remitting this attention we shall escape at least a few errors.”
4. Know You Are Disturbed Not by What Happens But by Your Opinion About It
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.” Marcus Aurelius often reminded himself that how he feels comes from himself, not from what happened in the world around him.
Nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind.
A troubled mind, then, comes from judging an event as undesirable or bad, often in the form of complaining. We give an event value by judging it, and forget that the event itself is neither good nor bad; it is empty and carries no meaning at all. We give it the meaning by judging, resenting, and wanting it to be different. This causes the emotional suffering.
The emotions you feel, as real as they are, don’t come from the outside, but from the inside. You generate those emotions, you generate your pain. A broken glass is a broken glass. It’s your judgment of being clumsy that makes you feel like a loser. Don’t blame the event, blame your reactive self for feeling the way you feel.
As a Stoic, you prefer taking the event as they come, without judging them good or bad, and free of disturbing emotions you try to make the best with the given circumstances.
That’s why Epictetus advises to always have two rules ready at mind:
- There is nothing good or bad unless we choose to make it so.
- We shouldn’t try to lead events but follow them.
Resistance is futile, take things as they come, and make the best of what’s in your power.
5. Always Test Your Impressions
If something happens, we get an impression about it, often take this impression as the truth, and then react accordingly to that impression. Many times, this reaction happens automatically without us thinking about it.
Mindlessly going with our default impressions, however, holds the risk of getting jerked around by outside events. We become dependent on what happens to us.
Fortunately, there’s a small gap between what happens and your reaction to it. Your power lies in that gap. The gap means that you have the chance to withhold your approval of the first impression, test it, and then choose your voluntary reaction (or non-reaction).
This is immensely powerful and enables you to think before you (re-)act. It hands you the key to your ideal behavior as you can choose to act in a wise, serene, and forgiving way.
A true Stoic must avoid rashness in his actions. As Epictetus says:
“Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say: ‘Wait for me a little, impression: allow me to see who you are, and what you are an impression of; allow me to put you to the test.’”
If you’re able to avoid rashness in your actions and have the necessary self-discipline, then you become the person who’s able to say no to the things others can’t resist, and able to do the things others dread doing.
You see, testing your impressions is really a core quality of every aspiring Stoic.
6. Focus on What You Control
“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.” These are the very first words in Epictetus’ Enchiridion.
His central teaching was this: There are things which are up to us and things which aren’t; we should always “make the best use of what is in our power, and take the rest as it happens.”
What is it then that we have control over? Only two things: our voluntary judgments and actions. We can decide what events mean to us and how we want to react to them. And we can choose to align our actions with our ideal self.
“This is wholly up to you – who is there to prevent you being good and sincere?” Marcus Aurelius often reminded himself of the power he was granted by nature – the power to choose his actions and craft his own character.
He said people can’t admire you for what’s been granted to you by nature, but there are many other qualities to cultivate. “So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.”
You are the only one to stop yourself from cultivating these qualities.
In poker as in life, you can win with any hand. Sure, you prefer double Ace and a healthy wife, but that’s not up to you. What’s up to you is what you do with the given situation. Once the hand has been dealt, you have no choice but accept what’s too late to change, and wish no longer for a more preferable hand but for the strength to play it the best you can.
As a Stoic you have realized that giving your best in the process will affect the outcome.
The hallmark of an admirable player, then, is that he plays his best regardless of his cards and that he calmly accepts whatever comes out. It’s all he can do – giving his best with whichever cards he’s been dealt.
7. Take Responsibility
Stoicism teaches that we’re very much responsible for our own flourishing.
Accepting this responsibility will improve our chances of attaining a happy and meaningful life. Passing this responsibility and taking the victim mentality by blaming external circumstances for our unhappiness will make the good life an impossible goal to reach.
We must refuse to let the hands we’re dealt decide over our wellbeing. The Stoics say that outside events and other people may have the power to affect how and even whether you live, but they don’t have the power to ruin your life. Only you yourself can ruin your life by getting jerked around by things you don’t control and by failing to act as well as you’re capable of.
You must make sure that your happiness depends as little as possible on outside circumstances.
Nature equipped us with the necessary tools to create a satisfactory life no matter the hardships we face in life. So, if we want to gain contentment, we must change ourselves and our desires. We cannot change the things that happen in the world around us, we can only change the way we look at those things and what we choose to make with them.
Keep in mind that happiness depends more on what you make of what happens than what happens in the first place. No matter what happens to you, your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune by responding with your best self.
Recognize that you’re response-able to choose how to respond to situations.
While the desired outcome can be prevented by external events, the process and your intentions are completed in the present moment and cannot be prevented by anything outside your control.
As Epictetus said, “If you want anything good, you must get it from yourself.”
8. Take Back Your Time: Prioritize and Make Time for What Matters
Time cannot be brought back. Once the grain of sand trickled down your life-glass, it’s gone forever.
Despite its value, people hand over their time freely to passersby, to screens of any kind, and other nonessential activities. “We’re tight-fisted with property and money,” says Seneca, “yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
As an aspiring Stoic, you spend your time wisely. You choose to spend more time on what’s important, and less and what’s unimportant.
Otherwise, you invest your time in the wrong things, and what truly matters – family, friends, commitments, and expressing your best self – gets neglected.
“At the end of your time on this planet,” author Ryan Holiday asks you, “what expertise is going to be more valuable – your understanding of matters of living and dying, or your knowledge of the ’87 Bears? Which will help your children more – your insight into happiness and meaning, or that you followed breaking political news every day for thirty years?”
It’s clear: We need to set priorities and spend the lion’s share of our time on what matters. We need to say no to the nonessential, and yes to the essential things.
Make sure you won’t be the old person with no other evidence besides your age and white hair to prove you’ve lived a long life. Take back your time and protect it like a mother her child. Focus on the things that matter and stop wasting time on things that don’t.
9. Accept rather than Fight What Happens
“Suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens,” explains Dan Millman in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Events can give us physical pain, but suffering and inner disturbance only come from resisting what is, from fighting with reality.
This is fighting with the Gods, says Epictetus, things are as they are because that’s how it’s meant to be. Our emotional pain emanates from confusing the things which are up to us and those that aren’t.
The Stoics want us to cultivate acceptance to whatever happens because most events happen without us having a say in the matter. You can either take it as it comes and try to enjoy it, or you can be reluctant and get dragged along anyway.
That’s why we should take Epictetus’ advice to heart: “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.”
You accept rather than fight every little thing. And from that acceptance, you do not resign but try to make the best given the circumstances. That’s what you control.
Marcus Aurelius has a trick to bring his will into harmony with reality: He compares what happens to us to what a doctor prescribes to us. Just like you take some medicine when a doctor tells you to, we should take external events as they are, because they’re like medicine there to help us.
Think: What happens to us happens for us, not against us. Even if it doesn’t seem so.
Here’s what helps me: Nature is immensely complex and it’s impossible to tell whether anything that happens is good or bad. Because you never know what will be the consequences of misfortunes. And you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune. Therefore, I try to accept everything as if I had chosen it.
The Story of the Chinese Farmer explains this beautifully:
10. Act Despite the Emotions: Endure and Renounce
The Stoics identified strong emotions as our ultimate weakness, especially when we let them dictate our behavior. They said it’s impossible to flourish in live while being tormented by irrational emotions.
Therefore we need apatheia, the ability to overcome these interfering emotions. That’s where the word “apathy” comes from and it’s a main reason for the classic misunderstanding that the Stoics were somehow unemotional or seeking to suppress their feelings.
Stoicism is more about taming rather than getting rid of our emotions.
Strong emotions are immensely powerful as they activate an action tendency – when you feel angry, for example, you have the tendency to clinch your fists, shout, and throw stuff.
Now, this is only a tendency that we don’t need to follow. We can train ourselves to act calmly despite feeling angry, and act courageously despite feeling anxious.
The goal isn’t to eliminate emotions, the goal is to not get overwhelmed by them.
If we’re aware enough we can follow Epictetus’ advice to endure and renounce in everyday situations:
- We should endure what we irrationally fear and dislike with courage and perseverance.
- We should renounce (or abstain from) what we irrationally crave through discretion and self-discipline.
As a Stoic student you want to detect irrational fears and endure them with courage and perseverance. And you want to abstain from what you irrationally crave with self-discipline.
You choose to be above your emotions and can say no to what others can’t resist doing and say yes to what others dread doing.
11. Buy Tranquility Whenever Possible
“Starting with things of little value – a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine – repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price I buy tranquility and peace of mind.’”
Epictetus’ practice is one of my favorite Stoic ideas.
How often do we get angry at trifles? How often do we lose our mind for something as insignificant as a fart in the bathroom?
As an aspiring Stoic you shouldn’t let small things arouse your anger.
Before you react to whatever arouses your anger, say to yourself: “I buy tranquility instead.” Then smile, do what needs to get done, and move on with your life.
Nothing happened. You realize that the small things that often irritate others are not worth your hustle. You just swallow whatever feelings arise within and move on.
You’re aware enough to observe the arising feelings, are able to step back from your first impression, and have the necessary discipline to buy tranquility and not react at all.
You always remember that it’s not events that upset us, but our judgment about those events. That’s why you choose to buy tranquility whenever possible.
12. Don’t Complain and Take it as Training
As a warrior-philosopher you don’t whine and complain about adversity but choose to use it to practice being the best you can be.
While other people see adversity as bad, as something preventing them from achieving their goals, you recognize the opportunity for growth and flip it around – you see opportunity where they see evil.
Every minor accident that happens to you presents an opportunity to practice virtuous behavior. Every headache is a chance not to curse. Every annoying person is a chance for patience, kindness, and forgiveness. Every challenging situation is a chance for perseverance and hard-work.
Also, you choose to be grateful for what you have rather than to complain about what you’ve lost.
Here’s a divine law Epictetus generously shares with us:
“And what is the divine law? To keep a man’s own, not to claim that which belongs to others, but to use what is given, and when it is not given, not to desire it; and when a thing is taken away, to give it up readily and immediately, and to be thankful for the time that a man has had the use of it.”
Desire not what you don’t have, but appreciate what you do have. Always be ready to give back what you’ve been given, and be thankful for the time it was yours to use.
As an aspiring Stoic you keep such an attitude of gratitude at all times. For everything you have, and for everything that comes your way.
13. Eliminate the Nonessential
“Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little,” Seneca asks. Like a minimalist, seek the necessary, not the extravagant. The Stoics favor a simple lifestyle – a lifestyle that fits our needs.
Seneca says that it makes no difference whether your house is built of turf or imported marble: “what you have to understand is that thatch makes a person just as good as a roof of gold does.”
A Stoic doesn’t hoard stuff. Most is useless and superfluous anyway. As Epictetus observes, “Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.”
True wealth lies in wanting less. “No person has the power to have everything they want,” Seneca says, “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.” A Stoic’s goal should be to “seek riches, not from Fortune, but from ourselves.”
Keep in mind that living by values such as mutual respect, trustworthiness, and self-control are more valuable than wealth or external success. Never compromise your character to become wealthy. Being a good person is the highest good there is.
If you happen to be wealthy, then accept it without pride but also without clinging to it. It’s good to have it and you can enjoy it, but you must be prepared to let it go. Whether you have it or not shouldn’t make a difference. Seneca further says, “The influence of wealth on the wise person… is like a favorable wind that sweeps the sailor on his course.”
Enjoy that favorable wind when you get it, and be happy if you don’t get it. Ultimately, reality is good as it is – favorable winds and storms alike.
14. Be Kind and Forgive the Wrongs of Others
Stoicism calls for forgiveness.
Remind yourself of the ignorance of the wrongdoers. They don’t do wrong on purpose, what they do seems to be the right thing in their situation.
Therefore we should not blame people, even if they treat us rudely and unfairly. They don’t do those things on purpose. As Socrates said: “Nobody does wrong willingly.”
We must be patient with these people. It’s our special privilege says Marcus, “to love even those who stumble.”
Be forgiving, even if others aren’t. You lead by example, knowing that they don’t see what you see.
In a sense, they Stoics view stumbling people as misguided and lacking in wisdom, more like children than malicious people.
So who are we to blame them?
The only appropriate response is compassion and forgiveness. Don’t wish for people not to do wrong, rather wish for the strength to be tolerant and forgiving.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness,” says Seneca.
If you want to be your best, kindness is a great value to develop. And nothing can hinder you from being kind. It’s always possible.
“Kindness is invincible,” says Marcus, as long as it’s sincere. “For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness?”
“Most rudeness, meanness, and cruelty are a mask for deep-seated weakness,” says Ryan Holiday. “Kindness in these situations is only possible for people of great strength.”
Show your strength: Freely forgive the wrongs of others and be kind.
15. Listen and Say Only What Isn’t Better Left Unsaid
The Stoics advise to listen rather than speak.
If you listen, pay attention to what’s being said so you understand what the speaker is trying to express. Listen with the intention to understand. That’s called empathic listening and it’ll massively improve your relationships.
Resist the urge to speak. Accept that something within you always wants to respond immediately. It wants to add something to the conversation. But that’s often not necessary and even detrimental to the conversation.
Make it a rule to hold your fire. Be the person who listens most of the time, and says only what improves the conversation.
As Zeno of Citium famously said, “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.”
Next time you’re speaking with others, observe the conversation. You’ll see that everybody talks about themselves. Whatever the topic, everybody will find something from his own life to add to the conversation.
Hear out Epictetus:
“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.”
The Stoics are clear: Don’t gossip. Don’t blame. Don’t complain. Don’t talk too much.
Nobody wants to hear your exaggerated high school, sports, and party stories. It’s annoying and self-absorbed. You might feel great because you’re in the center of the conversation – but how is it for everyone else? Sure they smile and don’t say much, but how do they really feel?
Point is: Listen and speak only when you’re certain that what you’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.