After much deliberation, I have decided to break up the article into two posts. This is a comprehensive introduction to Stoicism, but I did not want it to become your typical pop-psychology 5-minute article. To read part two, click here.
All relevant sources will be linked at the end.
WHAT’S YOUR OS?
There is a lot of talk nowadays about computer and smartphone operating systems (they’re known as “OS”). Some people swear by the practicality and user-friendliness of Apple’s iOS, whereas others prefer the customizable and less restrictive Android OS. Some people like Windows, others prefer Linux… at least, I think. But there is remarkably little talk about our own operating systems.
What OS are you running, as a human being?
Let me rephrase that: What’s your philosophy of life? What lens do you view the world through? What do you consider good, evil, virtuous or disgraceful? What guiding principles do you represent? How do you defend them? and, most importantly, how are your actions coherent with them?
We all know we should take care of our hardware by exercising rigorously, adjusting our eating habits, optimizing our hormones and sleeping 8 hours a night. But what about our software? Why do we just take it for granted?
It would be a shame to die having only thoughtlessly consumed information, without ever considering what we truly think, why it is we think it and how we can align our actions with it.
After Socrates was sentenced to death for having “corrupted the Athenian youth” with his uncanny ability to make people think, a magical explosion took place in ancient Greece. Even though the man died, his students were very much alive — and they were not willing to give up their new discovery of philosophy. Leaderless, they decided to start their own philosophical movements and, soon, the city was sprinkled with many different schools of thought.
As a result, an Athenian citizen could decide to join the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Physicists, the Moralists, the Hedonists… all with different interpretations of the world and of their place within it.
Essentially, Athenian citizens were able to consciously pick and choose their own operating system. They could try installing SkepticOS and, if it did not work out for them, migrate to HedonistOS instead.
Although I do not advocate sticking to one rigid belief system (dogmatism is dangerous), I can’t help but be fascinated by this phenomenon. Compare this historical gem to what we have nowadays. Our postmodern societies are riddled with uncertainty and we have no idea how to deal with it. We are free to think whatever we want… but we don’t know what we want.
We live at the paradoxical crossroad between total information and total uncertainty. As a result, most individuals nowadays seem to be running on some faulty version of StressOS, AnxiOS or even DepressOS.
In all seriousness, let’s take a quick look at some overwhelming numbers:
- The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 322 million people live with depression worldwide.
- Almost 1 in 10 American adults suffered from a Major Depressive Episode in 2017, and 4 out of 10 battle with Anxiety Disorder.
- In this same country, the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 14-25 is death by suicide. For this age group, suicide takes more lives than cancer, heart disease, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, human immunodeficiency virus, and stroke combined.
- In 2017 alone, at least 1.4 million people attempted to end their lives in the US. That’s one attempt every 28 seconds, with male rates being x3.5 higher than female ones.
Clearly, we are doing something wrong.
In 1955, famous psychologist, psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm defended that:
“The poorest countries have the lowest incidence of suicide, and the increasing material prosperity in Europe was accompanied by an increasing number of suicides and alcoholism. […] We find, then, that countries in Europe which are among the most democratic, peaceful and prosperous ones, and the United States —the most prosperous country in the world— show the most severe symptoms of mental disturbance.”Erich Fromm (The Sane Society)
The scope of this problem is immense, and many famous individuals have already contributed in finding their pieces of the puzzle. Sigmund Freud attributed the problem to civilization itself, Viktor Frankl pointed towards a lack of deep existential purpose, Émile Durkheim talked about anomie, and countless philosophers have discussed the dangers of nihilism.
The purpose of this article is not to discuss why these issues arise but rather how we can address them, even if only a little bit. I have no intention of writing a critique of our society and blaming capitalism, socialism, postmodernism or any other -isms here. The sole purpose of this article is to pique your curiosity and provide you with a set of tools that will better allow you to confront daily problems, worries and anxieties.
Hopefully, by the end of it, we will have understood how to develop what bestselling author Tim Ferris calls “an Operating System for high-stress environments”. If you manage to install it properly, you will notice a few things change for the better.
First and foremost, you will sense that unnecessary suffering will be reduced dramatically. You will start becoming less reactive to your circumstances, and will develop a sense of calm and control over your emotions. You will make better decisions under pressure and you will deal with external opinions and criticisms without a struggle. To top it all off, you will make these things happen whilst making your life and that of those around you flourish.
Sounds interesting? Let’s get to it.
I am not a psychologist. I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a medical professional.
This article, therefore, should never be taken as medical advice.
If you suffer from depression and/or have suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help. Similarly, if someone you know is exhibiting depressive and/or suicidal warning signs, please take immediate action and seek professional help.
THE ABC’S OF CBT
During a conference of the American Psychological Association in 1956, a man named Albert Ellis presented a revolutionary psycho-therapeutic approach to help people resolve their emotional and behavioral problems. He called it Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and it focused on solving problems pragmatically (helping patients recognize false beliefs, improve their behavior and emotional regulation, and develop powerful coping mechanisms to face their current problems).
CBT has since then been the gold standard for treating patients and supporting them in leading happier and more fulfilling lives. 50 years later, the famous magazine “Psychology Today” reported the following about Albert Ellis:
“No individual —not even Freud himself— has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy.”Psychology Today (2001 issue)
Albert Ellis knew that his new form of therapy was “by no means entirely new”, and he took inspiration from many of his contemporaries (like Alfred Adler and Erich Fromm himself).
However, Albert’s greatest source of inspiration did not come from other psychology and psychoanalysis theories of his time. It did not even come from theories of his generation… or his century… or his millennium. Albert Ellis’ theory was actually based on teachings written two thousand years before him.
I guess it’s time for a throwback.
In 161 A.D., Marcus Aurelius woke up one morning and became the ruler of the world’s largest empire. He went from man to Emperor of Rome in a single night’s sleep. He was not just Marcus anymore; he was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, which basically translates to “Emperor Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Emperor” (just to make sure you know who’s in charge).
Marcus went on to rule until 180 A.D., and his reign is considered to be one of the most successful in Roman history. He was renowned for his righteousness and love of justice. When it comes to the qualities of an ideal ruler, Marcus checked pretty much every box. For centuries after his death, whenever historians and philosophers talked about “virtuous men” or “honorable men”, most of them had Marcus in mind. Even the legendary Niccolo Machiavelli —the father of modern political science— described him as a role model for all rulers.
In hindsight, it seems like the emperor was made for the job… but at the time, Marcus himself was not so convinced of that.
And to be honest, can you blame him?
Most of us complain when our days are slightly disturbed by unexpected responsibilities. Your Sunday evening is ruined if you have to suddenly take care of some paperwork or keep an eye on your little cousin. Imagine being handed an empire instead. Here, it’s yours, no pressure… but the entire known world is watching.
To make matters worse, that’s not even your biggest concern. Not only do you have to run an empire now, you also have to take command of the biggest monster of them all: yourself.
The pressure is not just external, it’s mostly internal.
Suddenly becoming Emperor of Rome means suddenly having access to whatever you wish for. Seriously: anything. You are the richest, most powerful, most glorified human being in existence. You don’t need a genie, you are the genie. Ask ahead, what do you want? The best food and wine in the world? Here you go. To cut the head of anyone who disrespects you? No problem. Dozens of women and men with whom to indulge? Easy.
Imagine putting up with such a colossal temptation for nineteen years. Imagine being tempted at that level every. single. day. How many of you can say —with a straight face— that you would not fall victim to your own desires?
Come on, you can barely stop yourself from binge-watching Netflix, are you saying you would not binge on everything you ever wished for? It’s no secret that “with great power comes great responsibility” (RIP uncle Ben), or that, as Lord Acton put it:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”Lord Acton
But Mr. Acton should have put a little asterisk next to his quote; something along the lines of [*Unless you are Marcus Aurelius]. Seriously, the man was truly remarkable. How the hell did Marcus go beyond all expectations, stand above all previous and upcoming emperors, and come within touching distance of being the personification of Plato’s ideal ruler (the Philosopher King)?
Well, you see, Marcus had a trick up his sleeve. He was running on perhaps the most practical and honorable human OS to have ever existed. It’s known as Stoicism.
To put it simply, Stoicism is one of the most badass philosophies ever.
It’s Stoicism that gave Marcus the ability to handle the stress of ruling the world’s most powerful empire; it’s Stoicism that gave Marcus impeccable control over his emotions; and —you guessed it— it’s Stoicism that inspired Albert Ellis into creating his legendary Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
So, if this particular philosophy helped the most powerful man on earth righteously lead his empire for almost two decades, and one of the most renowned psychologists in history create a wildly successful approach to therapy, chances are you and I can also benefit from its teachings.
Buckle up buttercup, this is…
A PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY
What would you say a “philosopher” does?
Generally, people tend to answer this question starting with the word think. Philosophers think about important questions; they think about the meaning of life and our place in the universe; they think about logic and arguments; some even think about thinking. These are fair answers.
As a matter of fact, it’s very possible that many philosophers have spent a little too much time thinking. Pierre Hadot, the author of “Philosophy as a Way of life”, pointed out in his book that…
“Modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for modern specialists.”Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life)
This is one of the main reasons why philosophy seems so unappealing nowadays. There is little time for theory in our world. We care about action, results and change. We want to walk the walk, not talk the talk! We don’t waste our precious time studying the discourses of archaic bearded men with too much time on their hands. We have a rent to pay and food to put on our plate! Leave the esoteric thinking to those who can afford it.
If you have ever shared this sentiment, then I have good news for you. Ancient philosophy —and in particular, Stoicism— was just as concerned with practice as it was with theory — maybe even more so.
Ancient philosophers had, after all, one very specific goal in mind: to teach you how to live a good life. Further, at this time in history, philosophy was what professor Michael Sugrue called “the great equalizer of men”. It was not limited to an elite minority, it was meant for the people. Even Stoicism takes its name from the painted porch (stoa poikilê) in which Stoics held their lectures, right in the middle of the Agora, the busiest spot in Athens.
Perhaps there is no better example of how practical and universal Stoicism is than that of Epictetus.
Epictetus was one of the highest authorities in Stoicism and, during Marcus Aurelius’ time, he was considered the Stoic par excellence. Marcus Aurelius himself admired Epictetus and mentions him many-many times during his Meditations. This wouldn’t be particularly interesting if it weren’t for a beautiful irony… Epictetus was a slave who never wrote anything. Let me say that again: what’s probably the biggest authority in Stoicism was a servant who, incidentally, didn’t care enough about theory to write it down.
Isn’t this fascinating? On the one hand, you have an emperor; on the other, a slave. Under the law, two opposites; under Stoicism, two men.
THE BIRTH OF A STOIC
Stoicism was founded by a guy named Zeno. You may have heard the name before if you’ve ever come across Zeno’s famous Achilles vs Tortoise Race paradox. Well, that’s not the Zeno I’m talking about. Our Zeno is a different Zeno.
In a nutshell, Zeno of Citium was the philosophically-inclined son of a merchant who, after suffering a devastating shipwreck, ended up in Athens. There, he decided to join the Cynics — one of the most hardcore schools of philosophy in the city. Cynics were willingly homeless and had no possessions. Despite their terrible appearance, they were famous for being very witty and humorous. They were also —unsurprisingly— very cynical, and said things like “May the sons of your enemies live in luxury!” or even:
“What sort of woman should one marry? If she’s beautiful, you’ll not have her to yourself; if she’s ugly, you’ll pay for it dearly.”Antisthenes
After living on the streets for a while, Zeno decided it was time for him to diversify his philosophy portfolio and went on to learn from other masters. Soon, he gathered sufficient knowledge to start his own school of thought, and Stoicism was born.
From the beginning, Stoicism seemed like a very reasonable and useful philosophy, so it quickly became popular among the Athenians. Unlike the Cynics, Stoics did not despise physical possessions, and did not require you to live on the streets; in fact the Stoics had a very relaxed approach to wealth. Do you own a comfortable bed and can enjoy good food on your plate? As long as you are grateful for it, don’t let it dictate who you are and are not scared of losing it, enjoy it! If good things come your way, don’t deny them — but if they leave, don’t grieve them. This is best summed up with one of Marcus Aurelius’ best quotes:
“To accept without arrogance; to let go with indifference.”Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
That’s a life motto if I’ve ever heard one.
A SOLID FOUNDATION
The spot before the painted porch slowly filled up with people wanting to learn more. If you were an Athenian citizen at the time and attended one of their lectures, you would have found that their teaching methods were surprisingly similar to the ones we still use today. The class usually consisted of two main parts: a lecture and a discussion.
First, the Stoic masters would teach you about theory and, when the class finished, the students would stay and ask questions with regards to its application. As you can imagine, the latter was the most popular portion of the class.
I know the word theory is slumber-inducing for many people in and of itself, so I will be quick. Despite their pragmatism, the early Stoics did consider theory to be fundamental. Their philosophy was divided into three parts (topos, or topoi in plural):
- Logic: The study of arguments and the proper use of reason.
- Physics: The study of the the world, both physical and ethereal.
- Ethics: The study of living a good life.
Wait a minute, these terms do not mean what I thought they meant.
Well, in Ancient Greece, when people talked about physics they were not necessarily talking about matter, motion and whatnot. Instead, physics was concerned with the natural world, its place in the universe, and its relation to the gods (basically, you can think of it as our science and theology combined).
Similarly, ethics was not so much concerned with labeling things as good or evil, but with studying how to live a life worth living. The technical term for it is eudaemonistic ethics, which roughly translates to “ethics for the good spirit”. The ultimate goal of the Stoics was to live a life of eudaimonia a concept of that goes way beyond “happiness”. Living a eudaemonistic life meant living in harmony with your highest self (more on this later).
It’s no wonder, then, that out of these three areas, the study of ethics was the most important one.
However, in order to “qualify” for studying ethics, Stoics believed you should have previously studied the other two. You would start learning logic (because it taught you how to reason properly) and then physics (because it taught you about the world you live in and your human nature) before finally moving onto ethics.
It is usually said that logic and physics were only related to theory whereas ethics was only related to practice. This, as Hadot notes, is not true: both theory and practice were made up of the three topoi, but their approach was a little different.
When it comes to theory, the subjects of logic, physics and ethics were separate. Think of it like different classes at school; one day you learn about history, the next about maths. Pretty normal. However, in practice, the three parts fused together. Hadot explains it as follows:
“On this level, we are no longer concerned with theoretical logical, we are concerned with not letting ourselves be deceived in our everyday lives by false representations. We are no longer concerned with theoretical physics, we are concerned with being aware, at every instant, that we are parts of the cosmos, and that we must make our desires conform to this situation. We are no longer concerned with ethical theory, we simply act in an ethical way.”Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life)
Before you run away — don’t worry! We’re here to talk about ethics, not boring logic and physics theory (unless they help us understand their life reasoning).
Given that ethics itself is quite a broad topic, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize its essence through simple maxims to live by. These are by no means official, but hopefully they’ll be good enough to not make Marcus Aurelius roll over in his grave.
If Stoicism has caught your eye and you were thinking of implementing more into your life, then it would be a good idea to start by understanding these major rules. I encourage you to read them, research them (I’ll provide plenty of resources at the end) and start meditating on them throughout your day. Once you have familiarized yourself with them a little more, you can check out our next article on Stoicism where we will go over a lot of detailed practical exercises for the modern stoic.
Sounds good? Awesome.
4 STOIC MAXIMS TO LIVE BY
Maxim #1: Know the difference between what you can and can’t control
Even though Epictetus never wrote anything, Arrian of Nicomedia —one of his best students— decided that his teachings were too precious not to have on paper. So, he wrote them down for us. Today, you can buy Epictetus’ “Manual” for life (known as Enchiridion) in pretty much any bookstore. The text cuts to the chase right from the start by explaining to us what’s probably the number one rule of the Stoics:
“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.”Epictetus (Enchiridion)
The Stoics took this rather obvious statement very seriously. Very.
Most of us already know that some things are within our power and others are not — but few of us act according to it. You still get mad when the train arrives late or when it rains unexpectedly. You still get frustrated when your online orders don’t arrive by the expected date. You still get disappointed when your steak is slightly overcooked.
Even if you —in particular— don’t get worked up about these things, remember they are just petty examples. We can take them up a notch.
What about death, disease, accidents or heartbreak? How many lives have been ruined by past traumas? How many people have never been able to get over a disease they caught, a divorce, or the death of a loved one? How many men and women die crying?
The Stoics were famous for having built a citadel inside their minds: an impenetrable fortress in which, no matter how bad things were out there, they could always be at peace. This citadel —this emotional stronghold— was built on a sturdy foundation known as the Dichotomy of Control, which is just a fancy way of saying: “some things are up to you and some things are not up to you”.
The Stoics could not stress enough how important this distinction is. If you spend your time and attention with things that are not under your control, what you are actually doing is engaging in a state of self-imposed slavery, for you will always be at the mercy of external circumstances. That the train arrived late is not your fault — that you got mad and remained moody all afternoon, is.
The Dichotomy of Control becomes even more persuasive when we contextualize it within the Stoic framework.
Remember how we just talked about physics? Well, the Stoics thought that the entire universe was harmoniously ruled by one underlying principle (basically, God). But they also believed that everything that exists is also corporeal, even God (though they obviously recognized some incorporeals like the void, time and meanings). This is why they often refer to God as Nature. When Stoics speak of Nature, they are not talking about trees, grass and rivers; they mean… everything. Nature is the very fabric of existence, and all the rules it operates under.
Here’s why this matters: one of those fundamental rules is cause and effect. Everything is determined by previous events. The fact that you’re reading this right now has been coming since the dawn of time. The fact that it’s sunny here in Spain today was already written down before our galaxy even existed.
The book of Nature was already written down — we’re just reading the pages as we go. This sort of belief is known as determinism; it’s the idea that all events are pre-determined by previous causes. Marcus Aurelius said:
“Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.”Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
In a way, adopting a deterministic worldview feels a lot like taking a burden off of your shoulders. Paradoxically, giving up control over external circumstances makes you feel more in control (of the internal ones).
A lot of people tend to blame themselves for the injustices that they’ve been subject to. However, even though you should aim at taking responsibility for as much of your life as you can, you should also realize that most things could never have been otherwise… and that’s okay. If you were born short, ugly or with bad skin… it’s okay. If you were raised in a dysfunctional family… it’s okay. If you recently lost a family member… it’s okay.
Is it ideal? No. Is it unfair? Maybe. The only thing we know for certain, though, is that it could not have been otherwise. From the very first second after the Big Bang to that horrible event you would give everything to change… it was all meant to happen. It’s just Nature doing its thing.
This is why you need to draw a line between what is up to you and what isn’t. The minute you start mixing the two —the minute you start projecting your judgement, values and imagination onto events completely outside of your control— things get dangerous.
Remind yourself of the dichotomy of control on a daily basis and perhaps one day you will be able to internalize the 2nd maxim of the Stoics:
Maxim #2: Realize nothing good or bad ever happens to you
You just got sick.
You have a headache, a slight fever and your nose is runny. You sift through your house looking for some aspirin, gather a couple extra blankets and crawl back into bed. Curled up like a burrito, you say to yourself “Thank God! Now I have the perfect excuse not to go to that gym class today.”
Do you see where this is going?
At the heart of Stoic philosophy lies a shocking idea: everything that has ever happened to you —and everything that will ever happen to you— is neither good nor bad; all positive/negative attributes come from your own judgement. It was Epictetus who best put this into words when he said:
“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by their opinions about them.”Epictetus (Enchiridion)
This sentiment was echoed a millennium and a half later by William Shakespeare in his masterpiece Hamlet. There, he wrote:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”Shakespeare (Hamlet)
In the example we just went through, what is usually interpreted as a negative (getting sick) became a positive (skipping a workout). We don’t need to go much further than this example to realize how malleable interpretations are. Had the person behind the story been someone who really looks forward to working out (probably because he or she is aware of the incredible benefits behind it), then getting sick would have been interpreted as a negative once again.
In other words: getting sick is neither good nor bad. Similarly, anything that happens to you is like water, neutral in all of its aspects, and your judgement is like food colorant. You can taint the water red, green or whichever color you like… but it’s still going to be water.
The Stoics were notorious for adopting this mindset in their everyday lives. Zeno called it phantasia kataleptike (which apparently is an extremely difficult term to define, but that we can sum up with “objective representation”). Basically, one of their goals was to refrain themselves from adding judgement to reality. For that reason, the ideal Stoic (known as the Stoic Sage) would theoretically be capable of enduring the worst possible suffering with a smile on his or her face.
Consider the extreme example of Stilpo the Megarian, one of Zeno’s early teachers.
Stilpo had a reputation for being wise and having a profound understanding of the nature of reality. One day, as he was travelling around the Hellenic hills, he received some terrifying news: his city had been burnt to ash by barbarians, all his property had been seized, and his wife and children had been murdered. Shortly after, Stilpo was seen taking a walk around the city and many people rushed to talk to him. When they asked him about the incident, Stilpo famously looked up towards them with a soft smile and said: “Nihil perditi. Omnia mea mecum sunt.” or, in English:
“I have lost nothing. I have all my goods with me.”Stilpo the Megarian
(I understand this is an extreme example and that most of us would not want to emulate this sort of behavior — myself included. If you want to know why, make sure to check out our very first article, where we try to find wisdom in bestial emotions, ecstasy, suffering and chaos.)
This behavior is partly a consequence of believing that reality has no moral value (as we will see in a bit, it is also partly due to Maxim #4). Sickness, accidents, death… these things are —by the very laws of Nature— amoral. They’re neutral. All interpretations of them come from us — because reality mirrors our morality. If you chose to stop yourself from projecting your morality onto the neutral objects of your life, you would suffer a lot less.
Now, I imagine by this point some of you have a couple of objections to make. Let’s start with the most technical one:
“If the Stoics believe in determinism, then why do they say we should stop ourselves from doing certain things? Aren’t they inevitable?”You, objecting
This is a great point, and it would be totally valid if it weren’t for the fact that the Stoics weren’t technically deterministic. They were the first ones to defend a belief called compatibilism, which champions the idea that free will and determinism can coexist.
Compatibilists believe that human beings are still free to act according to their beliefs, motives and desires, even if they live in a deterministic world (think of it like us being a Sims character gone rogue). This was one of their major achievements in philosophy, and it has heavily influenced other great thinkers like Aquinas, Hobbes and Hume. Famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl summarized this interplay beautifully when he said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)
Not only is this quote brilliant, it’s also the perfect gateway into objection numero dos:
“But we can’t always stop ourselves from either judging the world, or from having natural emotional reactions to events!”You, objecting, again
You are killing it today because this is, frankly, a very good point again. I’m afraid in order to address it I’m gonna have to call my next witness to the stand…
Maxim #3: Take full responsibility for that which you can control
In the ancient times, the Stoics asserted that, ultimately, there are three things which fall under your full control. To remind ourselves of that fact is to engage in what they called the Three Disciplines:
- Discipline of Desire (orexis)
- Discipline of Action (hormê)
- Discipline of Judgement (sunkatathesis)
When it comes to first, the Stoics believed you are unhappy because you probably wish for things that are outside of your control (money, fame) rather than inside of it. The ultimate goal of this discipline is one that was famously shared by Nietzsche hundreds of years later: Amor Fati, a loving acceptance of one’s fate. He said:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is Amor Fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”Nietzsche (Ecce Homo)
Amor Fati does not mean you should become a passive character in your life. Not in the least. The passive thing to do would be to let your surroundings dictate your perceptions. Nietzsche and the Stoics are asking you to take the wheel in how you perceive whatever happens in your life. The goal is not to “be okay” or to “feel good” about whatever befalls upon you, but to love that it did. Because if it happened then it was meant to happen. Because it could not have been otherwise. The truth is, you are left with a very simple choice: are you going to cry about it? Or are you going to make the best of it?
For the second discipline, they believed everyone has a set of duties (kathekonta) to make the communities they live in prosper (such as your family, city or state). This discipline requires both constant action and constant acceptance. Obviously, the future of your country does not depend on you —individually— but the actions that you engage in to make it prosper or decay, do.
In this regard, the ultimate goal of the Stoics was to expand your desire for human flourishing to humanity at large, whilst also becoming outcome independent. In other words: do the absolute best you can to make your communities prosper, but know that the final result does not depend only on your actions.
Finally, the third discipline is that of assent, our ability to stop ourselves from tainting the objectivity of reality with our subjective judgement (what we discussed in Maxim #2). Its primary interest is to monitor and evaluate your own implicit value-judgements. According to Hadot, the ultimate goal of this discipline is being able to detect early-warning signs of irrational or upsetting judgements that would probably swing you into unhealthy behaviors (such as irritation or rage), and putting out the fire through the power of reason and objectivity before it even begins.
Now, you may have noticed that the disciplines did not include things like “your health” or “your body”, and that’s for very good reason. Without getting into the contradictions between free will and consciousness here (maybe another time), it would be wise to assume that you are not your body. Consider this:
If your body suddenly decided to stop producing white blood cells, you would be the victim of its decision, not the perpetrator. Further, the more we have learned about neuroscience, neurophysiology and psychoanalysis, the more we have discovered that our brains are incredibly complex, and that our bodies and our unconscious determine much of what we feel, think or desire without our approval or even our awareness. It’s not like we think all of our emotions into existence not everything is logos.
It’s obvious, then, that the line between a) things you can control and b) things you cannot control is a little blurry. This is perhaps one of the faults that Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control has. Thankfully, we can easily adjust it in two ways: first, by redefining it; then, by specifying it.
First things first. In his book “A Guide to the Good Life”, professor of philosophy William B. Irvine states that viewing the world through a bifocal lens can be a little misleading, and he proposes a Trichotomy of Control as an alternative.
It’s very simple.
Just as before, there are things you can fully control and things you can’t even influence. However, he also recognizes there are some things over which you have partial control. Consider, he says, the example of a tennis match:
“This is not something over which I have complete control: No matter how much I practice and how hard I try, I might nevertheless lose a match. Nor is it something over which I have no control at all: Practicing a lot and trying hard may not guarantee that I will win, but they will certainly affect my chances of winning. My “winning at tennis” is therefore an example of something over which I have some control but not complete control.”William B. Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life)
William B. Irvine then proposes that there are in fact three different things over which you have total and complete control (these are his “Three Disciplines”):
- Your goals
- Your values
- Your character
For all other things, you either have partial control over them or none at all.
This is great news! After all, you don’t even need to spend that much time and effort into developing those three areas to build them beautifully… and yet, many of us don’t. Sure, we all know we should have goals (we might even be acquainted with fancy SMART goal acronyms and whatnot) — but how many of us do?
What are your goals, specifically? If you have some, why did you choose them? Do they align with your values? Do you even know what your values are?
I’m not trying to put anyone on the spot here, but these are not trivial questions.
Think about it: if you lost everything you “own” (all your friends, family, house, possessions, and even voice, sight or mobility) what would still be yours? Simple: the things you aim at, the things you hold in value and the actions that align yourself between the two (goals, values and character).
Nobody can take those away from you. So, rather than taking them for granted, take the time to really define them instead. Remember, they only depend on you, so you can actually do this pretty easily — the ROI on this is as good as it gets.
Now, as for the things we have partial control over, do you think a Stoic would just refrain from participating in them, become a passive vegetable and just let the pieces fall where they may? Of course not. The wise way to go about them is to adjust your perspective so as to have as much control as possible, and simply let the rest play out.
Take the example of the tennis match once more: if your goal is to win the tennis match, you will get emotionally disturbed if you lose it. That’s your fault: you chose to have that goal — and the Stoics would say it’s a stupid goal. But what if your goal was to play the match to the best of your ability? Aha, now that you can absolutely do.
By simply adjusting your perspective, you have managed to align your goal (i.e. playing the best you can) with your values (e.g. grit, effort) and your character (e.g. humility, diligence). Now, even if you lost the match, you would not be devastated. You could even be happy! Some would also argue that, because you are solely focused on your abilities, you actually have a better chance of winning the match anyway.
Maxim #4: Aim at Your Highest Self
Hopefully by now we are starting to paint a clearer picture of Stoic ethics. However, I’m afraid there is one giant elephant in the room that we have not addressed yet: virtue.
If you know a little about ancient philosophy, then you know most people back then were obsessed with living a virtuous life. Open up any random book of the Stoics and you will surely find either the word virtue or the expression to live in accordance with Nature written all over it. But what does any of this mean? What is virtue and how do we achieve it? How can we live in accordance with nature?
As you can imagine, this topic has a lot of depth to it, so I will do my best to keep it as short as possible.
First of all, whatever prior definition of virtue you have in your head… throw it in the garbage. As with many other ancient terms, the meaning of virtue has changed over the centuries. The original Greek word for it is aretê, and we think it was first coined by either Plato or Socrates.
In the simplest of terms, we can define virtue as excellence of being. In this sense, then, being virtuous means being an excellent human being. Professor Irvine gives, once again, a really good example to clarify this:
In the same way that a “virtuous” (or excellent) hammer is one that performs well the function for which it was designed —namely, to drive nails— a virtuous individual is one who performs well the function for which humans were designed. To be virtuous, then, is to live as we were designed to live.William B. Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life)
Okay, that’s a good start. It raises two questions though: What life were we designed to live? And how can we live it?
Well, as we just touched on, the ancients believed we were meant to live a life in accordance with nature. Donald Robertson gives us a very helpful explanation as to what this means in his book “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius”. He claims that we can best understand this concept in terms of a threefold structure.
Living in accordance with nature is living in harmony with three different layers: first, living at one with your own nature, as a rational human being; then, living at one with other people, as a community; finally, living at one with fate, without complaint, fear or crave.
This puts together the pieces of the puzzle we have previously laid out. What I love about Robertson’s threefold structure is that it incidentally lines up with Irvine’s Trichotomy:
Being in harmony with yourself means taking full responsibility for the things you can control and pushing them towards your development as an individual; being in harmony with your community means taking your interpersonal duties seriously —even if the end result doesn’t entirely depend upon yourself— and helping your family, neighborhood and state prosper; finally, being in harmony with fate means being at peace with whatever the universe throws your way — since you know it could not have been otherwise. In a nutshell:
- Harmony with the self <-> Mastering what you can control
- Harmony with other people <-> Doing your best with things you have partial control over
- Harmony with fate <-> Regarding what you cannot control as indifferent
Beautiful. Let’s talk about virtue now. Consider this elegant quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
These words, as professor Michael Sugrue points out in his lecture on Marcus Aurelius, “might well have been stolen from one of the Stoics”.
The professor then goes on to define a virtuous individual as an organized soul which pursues —through his innate capacity for reason— the ends that are good for all human beings. A virtuous individual knows deep inside that excellence of being trumps all other things in life — even life itself. Just as Roman Stoic Cato the Younger put his own life on the line in his pursuit of moral virtue during the death of the Roman republic, we too should spare no means in our pursuit of good.
Okay cool, so is everything justified then? Can we do anything in our pursuit of good? Well, no; as you can imagine, there are certain rules. In order to define them, the Stoics resorted to the works of Plato.
Plato was the first one to put forth the famous Four Cardinal Virtues and, for the ancients, anyone who followed them was a badass and praiseworthy individual. The Stoics were no exception. Ancient philosophers believed that the pursuit of virtue was truly the only thing that mattered. To them, it did not matter how rich or influential you were, what mattered was your character. And remember how we said character is something you have complete control over? Well, for that same reason, anyone with the right approach could become virtuous.
You can think of the Cardinal Virtues as a Greek “code of honor”, each of them being necessary for human perfection:
- Wisdom (phronêsis): Love the truth, seek wisdom and be honest with yourself and others
- Justice (dikaiosunê): Act righteously, with fairness and kindness towards others
- Courage (andreia): Master your fears and build up your fortitude
- Temperance (sôphrosunê): Master your desires and live with self-discipline
Living a life that embodied these cardinal virtues meant turning your very existence into art. Not only did it help make our world more beautiful, it also required —like any craft— constant learning, adjustments and humility.
The Four Cardinal Virtues are, according to the Stoics, something every single human being should try to embody. They are part and parcel of the best and most honorable character everyone can bring to life in themselves. Most importantly, they pave the way to the highest form of life possible: eudaimonia, the state of supreme happiness or supreme human flourishing that is trademark of a life well lived.
It was this same path that men like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus took two thousand years ago, and it’s the one they confidently recommend for us to walk in our day too:
“If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, wisdom, temperance, courage —than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control— if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations —it must be an extraordinary thing indeed— and enjoy it to the full.”Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Did you find this interesting? Then stick around!
What you just read is part 1 of 2 for our introduction to Stoicism. On the next article we will provide a visual summary of their ethics and, most importantly, 7 practical exercises for the modern Stoic — with detailed descriptions and ideas on how you can implement them into your daily life.
See you then, my friend.
Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca are the three most famous Stoics. These books won’t bore you with any theory. Instead, they will show you how each of them applied Stoic teachings into their lives:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Enchiridion by Epictetus
- Discourses, by Epictetus
- Letters from a Stoic by Seneca
As you can imagine, many modern writers have also taken an interest in Stoicism. These are some of the most notable mentions:
- The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot
- Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
- A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
- The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
- How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson
For those of you who want to sit back and learn a little more:
- Great Lecture on Marcus Aurelius
- Tim Ferris on Stoicism
- Great Introduction to Stoicism
- Stoicism in The Shawshank Redemption
A bit of this and a bit of that: