The Book in 3 Sentences
- Presents basic stoic techniques and principles
- Gives a historical overview of the stoics
- Provides a modern approach to stoicism
The stoics encourages both theory and practice, but emphasizes practice .
While the stoics have ideals that they strive for, they recognize that they are just that; ideals.
Stoics focus on becoming virtuous, which depends on one's excellence as a human being—on how well one performs the function for which humans were designed.
The roman stoics, besides virtue, also valued stoic tranquility. It "was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy."
Besides asserting that the pursuit of virtue will bring us tranquility, I think the Roman Stoics would argue that the attainment of tranquility will help us pursue virtue. Someone who is not tranquil—someone, that is, who is distracted by negative emotions such as anger or grief—might find it difficult to do what his reason tells him to do: His emotions will triumph over his intellect.
Seneca, by the way, argued along similar lines: God, he said, “does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his own service.” In particular, the adversities we experience count as “mere training,” and “those things which we all shudder and tremble at are for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come.”
Negative Visualization — What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
In short: Visualize that you've lost something which you value. Remind yourself that you can lose it, and you will value it more.
We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire.
Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires. (Page 0)
This is called hedonic adaptation. We ended up taking what we so much desired before, but have now, for granted. Hedonic adaptation doesn't just happen for material things. Also relationships and accomplishments.
How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have?
The stoics thought they had an answer to this question.
They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.5 It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.
“we should love all of our dear ones . . . , but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.”
We want to try to live each day as if it were our last; to make it less likely that we squander it.
If something happens, and we're experiencing anger, a way to avert it is to imagine how we would feed if the incident had happened to someone else. Wouldn't we say "these things happens — it's ok"?
Any thoughtful person will periodically contemplate the bad things that can happen to him. The obvious reason for doing this is to prevent those things from happening.
But things can still happen. So another reason to contemplate the bad things is that we lessen their impact on us, when they inevitably do happen. Seneca: "“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”"
Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours. Along these lines, we should think about how we would feel if we lost our material possessions, including our house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance; how we would feel if we lost our abilities, including our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how we would feel if we lost our freedom.
Most of us are “living the dream”—living, that is, the dream we once had for ourselves.
Yet, we become accustomed to a new standard of living, once we upgrade our old lifestyle. Then it isn't enough anymore.
Negative visualization does not have to be done every hour. It's important to simply remember to do occasionally; once a day, for example.
It's okay to grieve. The stoics recognized it as something natural. But after we have grieved for a moment, we should begin to rationally examine the situation.
The Dichotomy of Control — On Becoming Invincible
In short: We should concern us with two things; those things we control, and those we partly control. Consequently, we should disregard that which we do not control.
It is worth noting at this point that playing to the best of your ability in a tennis match and winning that match are causally connected. In particular, what better way is there to win a tennis match than by playing to the best of your ability? The Stoics realized that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state. In particular, if we consciously set winning a tennis match as our goal, we arguably don’t increase our chances of winning that match.
In fact, we might even hurt our chances: If it starts looking, early on, as though we are going to lose the match, we might become flustered, and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game, thereby hurting our chances of winning. Furthermore, by having winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. If, on the other hand, we set playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match[…]
Do not make it your goal to win, but to do your best. Doing your best is causally linked to winning; but you will not become angry if you don't. Nor will you become flustered if you are losing.
as Epictetus points out, “It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”3 A better strategy for getting what you want, he says, is to make it your goal to want only those things that are easy to obtain—and ideally to want only those things that you can be certain of obtaining.
While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires. And he is not alone in giving this advice; indeed, it is the advice offered by virtually every philosopher and religious thinker who has reflected on human desire and the causes of human dissatisfaction.4 They agree that if what you seek is contentment, it is better and easier to change yourself and what you want than it is to change the world around you.
Indeed, says Epictetus, you will become invincible: If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.
It's not about never trying to accomplish anything. It's about aiming at the right goal.
restating Epictetus’s dichotomy of control as a trichotomy: There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control. Each of the “things” we encounter in life will fall into one and only one of these three categories.
Focus on those things over which you have complete control, and those over which you have some — but not complete — control.
Epictetus suggests, quite sensibly, that we are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us; because they are not up to us, worrying about them is futile.
We have complete control over which goals we set, but not whether we accomplish them. It is important to set internal goals (whether we do our best or not) rather than external goals (winning a contest — which is not up to us).
It will clearly make sense for us to spend time and energy setting goals for ourselves and determining our values. Doing this will take relatively little time and energy. Furthermore, the reward for choosing our goals and values properly can be enormous. Indeed, Marcus thinks the key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value. He adds that because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life. More generally, Marcus thinks that by forming opinions properly—by assigning things their correct value—we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety and can thereby achieve the tranquility the Stoics seek.
Fatalism — Letting Go of the Past . . . and the Present
When Epictetus advises us to want events “to happen as they do happen,” he is giving us advice regarding events that do happen—that either have happened or are happening—not advice regarding events that will happen.
We cannot change what has happened. But we can try to change the future outcomes through action.
Like the past, we cannot change what happens in the present either. So we must focus on the future.
In saying that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, the Stoics are not suggesting that we should never think about it. We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future.
The Stoics, as I have said, argued that the best way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy whatever desires we find within us but by learning to be satisfied with our life as it is—by learning to be happy with whatever we’ve got. We can spend our days wishing our circumstances were different, but if we allow ourselves to do this, we will spend our days in a state of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, if we can learn to want whatever it is we already have, we won’t have to work to fulfill our desires in order to gain satisfaction; they will already have been fulfilled.
And what about worldly success? Will the Stoics seek fame and fortune? They will not. The Stoics thought these things had no real value and consequently thought it foolish to pursue them, particularly if doing so disrupted our tranquility or required us to act in an unvirtuous manner.
They would not seek it, but often gained it anyway.
Self-Denial — On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure
What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets.
As an extension of negative visualization, we could live as if it had happened. A form of "practice poverty", for example.
by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort— by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed—we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will.
A second benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort comes not in the future but immediately. A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him
pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces. Or, changing the metaphor a bit, he tells us that intense pleasures, when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, “the more masters will he have to serve.”
If we cannot resist pleasures, we'll become a slave to them. Therefore, must practice self-control regularly.
As he goes about his daily business, then, the Stoic, besides sometimes choosing to do things that would make him feel bad (such as underdressing for the weather), will sometimes choose not to do things that would make him feel good (such as having a bowl of ice cream). This makes it sound as if Stoics are antipleasure, but they aren’t. The Stoics see nothing wrong, for example, with enjoying the pleasures to be derived from friendship, family life, a meal, or even wealth, but they counsel us to be circumspect in our enjoyment of these things. There is, after all, a fine line between enjoying a meal and lapsing into gluttony.
Another benefit is that, when practicing self-control, and you resist a temptation, you'll be satisfied with yourself. It'll feel good.
It's a good idea to sometimes do a cost-benefit analysis of whether performing the act itself, or the long-term benefit of not doing it will be best.
Say, for example, if you're contemplating eating ice cream. It might be better not to do so in the long run, even if you will experience pleasure here and now.
Meditation — Watching Ourselves Practice Stoicism
Meditations of a stoic is not like those of a Zen Buddhist. It's more reflective; "Did something disrupt his tranquility? Did he experience anger? Envy? Lust? Why did the day’s events upset him? Is there something he could have done to avoid getting upset?"
We should try to be both the participant and spectator. In a sense, we should create a stoic observer who watches us and comments on our practice of stoicism. Similarly, we should ask if we are governed by reason or that of an animal.
We can use a sort of mental checklist:
Are we practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics?
Do we, for example, periodically engage in negative visualization?
Do we take time to distinguish between those things over which we have complete control, those things over which we have no control at all, and those things over which we have some but not complete control?
Are we careful to internalize our goals?
Have we refrained from dwelling on the past and instead focused our attention on the future?
Have we consciously practiced acts of self-denial?
We can also use our Stoic meditations as an opportunity to ask whether, in our daily affairs, we are following the advice offered by the Stoics.
We should also judge our progress as Stoics.
Did our relations with other people change?
- You should find that you aren't hurt when a person insults or slights you.
- We would also shrug off any praise. Epictetus: “If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”
Did we live in accordance with the stoic principles in our daily living?
- Seneca's teacher, Sextius, asked himself at bedtime: "What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?"
Other signs (Epictetus):
- "We will stop blaming, censuring, and praising others"
- "We will stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know"
- "We will blame ourselves, not external circumstances, when our desires are thwarted"
- "And because we have gained a degree of mastery over our desires, we will find that we have fewer of them than we did before; we will find, Epictetus says, that our 'impulses toward everything are diminished.'"
- "And quite significantly, if we have made progress as a Stoic, we will come to regard ourselves not as a friend whose every desire must be satisfied but 'as an enemy lying in wait.'"
- Our philosophy consists of actions rather than words. "What matters most, says Epictetus, is not our ability to spout Stoic principles but our ability to live in accordance with them."
- Don't even care to mention your philosophy to others - what is most important is that you live in accordance with it.
Marcus spent his adult life practicing Stoicism, and even though he had a temperament well suited to it, he found that he would hit low points, during which his Stoicism seemed incapable of providing him the tranquility he sought. In the Meditations, he offers advice on what to do at such junctures: Continue to practice Stoicism, “even when success looks hopeless.”
Duty — On Loving Mankind
We should love others, even if we find them annoying.
Our function is to be rational and social. This is Aurelius on being social.
And when I do my social duty, says Marcus, I should do so quietly and efficiently. Ideally, a Stoic will be oblivious to the services he does for others, as oblivious as a grapevine is when it yields a cluster of grapes to a vintner. He will not pause to boast about the service he has performed but will move on to perform his next service, the way the grape vine moves on to bear more grapes. Thus, Marcus advises us to perform with resoluteness the duties we humans were created to perform. Nothing else, he says, should distract us.
Indeed, when we awaken in the morning, rather than lazily lying in bed, we should tell ourselves that we must get up to do the proper work of man, the work we were created to perform.
Though Marcus Aurelius was not fond of other humans, he did not turn his back on them. It is important that we do the same.
Indeed, if we do the things we were made for, says Marcus, we will enjoy “a man’s true delight.”12 But an important part of our function, as we have seen, is to work with and for our fellow men. Marcus therefore concludes that doing his social duty will give him the best chance at having a good life. This, for Marcus, is the reward for doing one’s duty: a good life.
Social Relations — On Dealing with Other People
To begin with, the Stoics recommend that we prepare for our dealings with other people before we have to deal with them.
Thus, Epictetus advises us to form “a certain character and pattern” for ourselves when we are alone. Then, when we associate with other people, we should remain true to who we are.
We can select our friends. Befriend virtuous people. Enjoy their company and learn from them. Avoid those whose values have been corrupted, for they may corrupt you.
The people around you influence you. So be very careful about who is in your circle. Their vices are contagious.
Avoid people who complain.
Marcus recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying. More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him. When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing.7 In other words, by letting ourselves become annoyed, we only make things worse. (Page 0)
Don't bother caring about what others think or do. Don't be jealous of others.
Most important, Marcus thinks it will be easier for us to deal with impudent people if we keep in mind that the world cannot exist without such individuals. People, Marcus reminds us, do not choose to have the faults they do.
Consequently, there is a sense in which the people who annoy us cannot help doing so. It is therefore inevitable that some people will be annoying; indeed, to expect otherwise, Marcus says, is like expecting a fig tree not to yield its juice. Thus, if we find ourselves shocked or surprised that a boor behaves boorishly, we have only ourselves to blame: We should have known better.
Suppose that even though we follow the above advice, someone succeeds in annoying us. In such cases, Marcus says, we should remind ourselves that “this mortal life endures but a moment,” meaning that we soon will be dead.11 Putting annoying incidents into their cosmic context, he thinks, will make their triviality apparent and will therefore alleviate our annoyance.
According to Marcus, the biggest risk to us in our dealings with annoying people is that they will make us hate them, a hatred that will be injurious to us. Therefore, we need to work to make sure men do not succeed in destroying our charitable feelings toward them.
[...] Thus, when men behave inhumanely, we should not feel toward them as they feel toward others. He adds that if we detect anger and hatred within us and wish to seek revenge, one of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.
In the Meditations, he provides us with a technique for discovering the true value of things: If we analyze something into the elements that compose it, we will see the thing for what it really is and thereby value it appropriately.
For example: wine is just fermented grape juice. Darkness is just the absence of photons.
Insults — On Putting Up with Put-Downs
If you value the opinion of the critic, then thank him for his critique, because it will help you learn. If not, be thankful, for you are going the right way.
One other important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.
“Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.” As a result, he says, “another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.”7 From this it follows that if we can convince ourselves that a person has done us no harm by insulting us, his insult will carry no sting.
This last advice is really just an application of the broader Stoic belief that, as Epictetus puts it, “what upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.”
Use humor to deflect insults. Self-deprecating humor seems to be especially effective.
If you can't come up with a humorous response, then just don't respond. Act as if they said nothing.
There are times where it appropriate to respond. Therefore you might want to.
One of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset.
[...] Suppose, for example, that someone mocks us for being bald when we in fact are bald: “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?”
Do the things that happen to me help or harm me? It all depends, say the Stoics, on my values. They would go on to remind me that my values are things over which I have complete control. Therefore, if something external harms me, it is my own fault: I should have adopted different values.
Suppose, for example, you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter knew you well enough to criticize you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other, much worse failings.
Laughing at the insults is much better than firing back. That exactly is what they expect you to do. Laughing disarms them.
Refusing to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible. For one thing, as Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.
Grief — On Vanquishing Tears with Reason
Grief is natural — an emotional reflex.
We might not be able eliminate grief (any maybe we shouldn't), but Seneca thinks that it is possible "to take steps to minimize the amount of grief we experience over the course of a lifetime."
And if that is the case, we should take them.
Negative visualization, which was described earlier, is a way to do this.
Retrospective negative visualization. We imagine never having had something that we have lost. So instead of feeling sad that we lost it, we might be thankful that we ever had it.
When grieving death, remember that they wouldn't want you to suffer with tears. If they did, they aren't worth grieving over.
Anger — On Overcoming Anti-Joy
Being angry is a waste of time.
Some say that anger can be helpful. Seneca responds:
It is true, he says, that people sometimes benefit from being angry, but it hardly follows from this that we should welcome anger into our life. Notice, after all, that people also sometimes benefit from being in a shipwreck, yet who in their right mind would therefore take steps to increase their chances of being shipwrecked? What worries Seneca about employing anger as a motivational tool is that after we turn it on, we will be unable to turn it off, and that whatever good it initially does us will (on average) be more than offset by the harm it subsequently does. “Reason,” he cautions, “will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority.”
More generally, when someone wrongs us, says Seneca, he should be corrected “by admonition and also by force, gently and also roughly.” Such corrections, however, should not be made in anger. We are punishing people not as retribution for what they have done but for their own good, to deter them from doing again whatever they did.
When punishing, feign anger to 'motivate' the punished.
To avoid becoming angry, says Seneca, we should also keep in mind that the things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into a tranquility-shattering state of agitation.
Furthermore, as Seneca observes, “our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.” What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things.
If we, however, are not able to control our anger, and we lash out, we should apologize immediately.
Personal Values — On Seeking Fame
Fame is not something you want to pursue. It comes at a costly price — it far outweighs any benefit.
Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.
If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.
I don't think this should be taken too literally. You can thank someone for their praise, but disregard it in your mind. You don't have to create unnecessary friction.
While we cannot stop people from sneering at us, we have it in our control not to do things that deserve sneering. Focus on what you can control.
Realize that many other people, including, quite possibly, your friends and relatives, want you to fail in your undertakings. They may not tell you this to your face, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t silently rooting against you. People do this in part because your success makes them look bad and therefore makes them uncomfortable: If you can succeed, why can’t they? Consequently, if you attempt something daring they might ridicule you, predict disaster, and try to talk you out of pursuing your goal. If, despite their warnings, you make your attempt and succeed, they might finally congratulate you—or they might not.
This is another reason to disregard praise and critique.
It is, of course, possible for this woman to win the approval of these naysayers: She need only abandon her dream of becoming a novelist. If she does this, the naysayers will recognize her as a kindred spirit and will welcome her with open arms. They will invite her to sit with them on a comfortable couch somewhere and join them in mocking those individuals who pursue their dreams despite the possibility of failure. But is this really the company she wants to keep? Does she really want to abandon the pursuit of her dream in order to win these individuals’ acceptance?
Personal Values — On Luxurious Living
Another value, besides fame, is wealth.
We seek wealth often because we believe that it can buy us the admiration of others. Since fame is not worth pursuing, then pursuing wealth for fame is not either.
Often, when one becomes wealthy, they become hard to please. They only want "the best". The Stoics would pity those.
Indeed, the Stoics value highly their ability to enjoy ordinary life—and indeed, their ability to find sources of delight even when living in primitive conditions.
Luxury, Seneca warns, uses her wit to promote vices: First she makes us want things that are inessential, then she makes us want things that are injurious. Before long, the mind becomes slave to the body’s whims and pleasures.
"He who knows contentment is rich" — Lao Tzu
If you, however, find yourself well off, despite not pursuing wealth; what do you do?
You don't have to renounce your wealth. You can enjoy it and use it to your benefit. But make sure that your enjoyment is thoughtful. Remember that it can be snatched from you. You can lose it. Practice negative visualization here.
Wealth can undermine your character and your capacity to enjoy life. You should stay clear of the luxurious lifestyle: "the Stoic’s enjoyment of wealth will be strikingly different from that of, say, the typical person who has just won the lottery."
More generally, it is perfectly acceptable, says Seneca, for a Stoic to acquire wealth, as long as he does not harm others to obtain it. It is also acceptable for a Stoic to enjoy wealth, as long as he is careful not to cling to it.
The preceding comment s about wealth, by the way, also apply to fame. The Stoics, as we have seen, will not seek fame; to the contrary, they will strive to be indifferent to what others think of them. It is nevertheless possible for them to become famous.
Fame is, however, more dangerous than wealth in terms of corrupting you. So be careful. Only use it as a measure of your social duty.
On Becoming a Stoic — Start Now and Prepare to Be Mocked
It takes a lot of effort to be a practicing Stoic. It is not easy.
Some people, on hearing that it would take effort on their part to practice a philosophy of life, will immediately dismiss the idea. The Stoics would respond to this rejection by pointing out that although it indeed takes effort to practice Stoicism, it will require considerably more effort not to practice it.
Like the phrase "Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life."
Musonius goes on to suggest that we would also be better off if, instead of working hard to become wealthy, we trained ourselves to be satisfied with what we have; if, instead of seeking fame, we overcame our craving for the admiration of others; if, instead of spending time scheming to harm someone we envy, we spent that time overcoming our feelings of envy; and if, instead of knocking ourselves out trying to become popular, we worked to maintain and improve our relationships with those we knew to be true friends.
Changing our external goals to internal goals. That which we can control.
More generally, having a philosophy of life, whether it be Stoicism or some other philosophy, can dramatically simplify everyday living. If you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward: When choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life. In the absence of a philosophy of life, though, even relatively simple choices can degenerate into meaning-of-life crises. It is, after all, hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.
What will be our reward for practicing Stoicism? According to the Stoics, we can hope to become more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word. We will also, they say, experience fewer negative emotions, such as anger, grief, disappointment, and anxiety, and because of this we will enjoy a degree of tranquility that previously would have been unattainable. Along with avoiding negative emotions, we will increase our chances of experiencing one particularly significant positive emotion: delight in the world around us.
Seneca’s comment that although “to have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power,” it is in every man’s power “not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.”
Epictetus on practicing Stoicism
Practicing Stoicism, he adds, is like training for the Olympics but with one important difference: Whereas the Olympic contests for which we might train will be held at some future date, the contest that is our life has already begun.
The Decline of Stoicism
“Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally to believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.” — René Descartes
Stoicism does exist in some places, but it is not very popular — it pops up occasionally.
the Stoics did not advocate that we “bottle up” our emotions. They did advise us to take steps to prevent negative emotions and to overcome them when our attempts at prevention fail, but this is different from keeping them bottled up: If we prevent or overcome an emotion, there will be nothing to bottle.
In conclusion, although the Stoics’ advice on how best to deal with negative emotions is old-fashioned, it would nevertheless appear to be good advice. According to Seneca, “A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is.” He therefore recommends that we “do away with complaint about past sufferings and with all language like this: ‘None has ever been worse off than I. What sufferings, what evils have I endured!’ ” After all, what point is there in “being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy?”
It is not helpful to consider yourself a victim. If you do, you won't have a good life. "if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take."
The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation. More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances. The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.
You are responsible for your own happiness, and therefore your lack of it, too. Only when you claim this responsibility, you have a chance of attaining it.
This chapter recaptures some of the principles explained in the previous chapters. I will not repeat; so only new principles are included — or something that I wish to highlight.
The TLDR of Stoicism
- "We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions"
- "If, despite not having pursued wealth, we find ourselves wealthy, we should enjoy our affluence"
- "Other people are invariably annoying, though, so if we maintain relations with them, they will periodically upset our tranquility—if we let them"
- "The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness—our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control—and they developed techniques for removing these sources of unhappiness from our life."
- "To conquer our insatiability, the Stoics advise us to engage in negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things. We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones."
- "To curb our tendency to worry about things beyond our control, the Stoics advise us to perform a kind of triage with respect to the elements of our life and sort them into those we have no control over, those we have complete control over, and those we have some but not complete control over."
- "Having done this, we should not bother about things over which we have no control. Instead, we should spend some of our time dealing with things over which we have complete control, such as our goals and values, and spend most of our time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control. If we do this, we will avoid experiencing much needless anxiety."
- "When we spend time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control, we should be careful to internalize our goals. My goal in playing tennis, for example, should be not to win the match but to play the best match possible."
- "We should be fatalistic with respect to the external world: We should realize that what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us at this very moment are beyond our control, so it is foolish to get upset about these things."
And why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it have the ability to determine what they do with their life. Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.