Everything You Need to Know About Stoicism
The Origins of Stoicism
Throughout human history, problems have stemmed from scarcity – the problems of the modern world are caused by abundance. For decades humanity has been discovering new ways to connect and speed up life. Today we dream of moments of silence, without sound notification, unopened emails, and endless group chats.
It is therefore not surprising that more and more people are seeking peace from technology and form their own thoughts – and many of them find refuge in one of the great ancient schools of philosophy: Stoicism.
Stoicism originated in the 3rd century BC. Its founder is Zeno of Citium. The most popular and influential Stoic philosophers were practical thinkers. Epictetus was a slave, Seneca a lawyer, and Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor. From the bottom of society, across the middle, all the way to the top, these three ancient thinkers saw into the depths of the wisdom of living. Epictetus didn’t write. He talked to people who were zealous in their efforts to understand life. So one of his students wrote down his words. Unlike Epictetus, Seneca wrote notebooks. Yet much of his wisest thoughts are contained in personal letters and short essays he has compiled for instruction and inspiration to his friends. Marcus Aurelius had a notebook with thoughts for his personal use. None of these great minds have written books for self-help or personal growth, but from what they have written or said, from their very different but yet similar life experiences, we can get an excellent insight into their vision of a sublime and creative life, and apply it today.
The Basic Stoic Values
At the very core of this school lies the belief that man should live in harmony with nature, that the world functions on the principles of logic, (monistic) physics, and (naturalistic) ethics, and that happiness requires renunciation from endless urges and desires for pleasure as well as fear. In short, you’ll be happy and peaceful if you live in the moment, if you are aware of the passage of time, do not spend it on caring for things that have not yet happened, and live following the highest good – virtue. The basic (stoic) virtues are reasonableness, moderation, courage, and justice.
Although the term “stoic” is colloquially used today for people who manage to remain calm in the face of stress challenges, provocation, and other external factors, stoicism offers much more practical advice.
Stoicism differs from other philosophical schools in its focus on the reality of human life, including politics. Not so much a school of thought as a self-management training program, stoicism prepares us to always act and react most appropriately. Stoic teaching especially emphasizes control over emotions to maintain composure and balance, and the real test of this doctrine are extreme situations and temptations.
The Development of Modern Stoicism
Modern Stoicism (different from the philosophical direction of neo-Stoicism from the 16th century) developed, in various forms, in the 20th century through a renewed interest in the ancient school of thought. One of the basic differences to classical Stoicism concerns the imperative of living in nature, which is harder to perform today, so modern Stoicism tries to reconcile ancient ideas with the reality of the modern world.
Modern stoicism has been attracting more media and public attention since 2010 when the first major organized events began.
One of the biggest events that have been gathering Stoics and those interested in this topic since 2012 is Stoicism Week. It is an online workshop that challenges its participants: living like a Stoic for a week. It started as a course for philosophy students, but from year to year it attracts more and more people, and many of them have shared their experiences of Stoic life.
In addition to the online community, there are also offline gatherings – the annual Stoicon events are organized in London and New York and are mainly focused on applying Stoicism in everyday life.
In addition to the non-profit organization Modern Stoicism, there are numerous blogs and online platforms that deal with specific issues and directions of Stoicism in the modern world.
Elements of Stoicism
This philosophy consisted of the following few elements:
• Distinguish between things you can influence and things you can’t influence. The ones you can influence. To those you can’t, accept.
• Emotions do not control our behaviour. They are there, but it doesn’t mean we have to do what they require every time.
• In life we need to separate what actually happened from what it meant to us. Because it’s not what happened to you, but how you understood it for yourself.
Epictetus, one of the great Stoics, was a slave and became a philosopher. Marcus Aurelius, the last normal Roman emperor, was a Stoic. Seneca, one of the greatest speakers to ever walk the Earth was a Stoic. But Stoicism isn’t something far away or prehistorically dead.
If a professor has ever given you an undeserved grade, you do everything in your power to change that. If you can’t, you accept that it is so and don’t whine about it.
If you’ve ever been underestimated in your life for being you, and you’ve succeeded in your plan either way—congratulations. You’ve demonstrated stoicism.
If you’ve ever been to a bar and some guy pushed you and wanted to fight you, and you were boiling inside you to hit him, but you didn’t, you calmed down the situation and controlled yourself—congratulations. You’ve demonstrated stoicism.
The base of stoicism doesn’t go well with the way 90% of the world’s population thinks. This way is the mentality of the victim, when the person believes that he has absolutely no control over his life and that he is at the mercy of the environment, people, state, and city in which he lives.
Modern Stoicism: Interpretation
As is usually the case, new centuries have brought the rehabilitation and reinterpretation of this teaching in a modern guise, and sounding names such as Ryan Holiday, Phil Libin, David Goggin, Jordon Peterson, and Tim Ferriss consider themselves modern Stoics, and some of their advice may be valuable in the field of everyday life.
It is necessary to live a life full of virtue, but also to enjoy it. Modern Stoics saw virtue in a slightly different way than what Christianity commands us to do, so it is not surprising that medieval church leaders decided to ban the books of ancient Greek and Roman Stoics. According to them, but also according to their surviving followers, virtue is understood as the absence of negative emotions, such as hatred, sadness, anxiety, and fear, as well as the presence of positive emotions, which in the first place implies enjoyment.
The basic motto of the Stoics is that a person should be satisfied with what he has, instead of constantly longing for what he does not have. So, instead of trying his best to prevent things that will inevitably happen, he should accept them as they are and be grateful to life for giving them to him in general. The process of negative visualization is also interesting, and it consists of a simple principle. For example, if one of our friendship or romantic relationships ends, we shouldn’t fall into doubt and regret it. On the contrary, we should be grateful for the time we have been given to spend with that person.
It’s necessary to focus on things that we can influence, and that means what we will focus on, what it will mean to us, and what actions will we take. Complaining about something we can’t change is pointless, useless and a waste of time.
One of the most important lessons is the change of attitude towards the obstacles that are in our way. We must, according to the Stoics, figure out how to turn a certain disadvantage to our advantage. If everything in our life was dark, we would never learn certain things or become aware of how much we can do. Everything that happens to us is there for a reason, and we are the ones who need to discover that reason. That is why the Stoics recommend that we do not always avoid what is difficult or uncomfortable for any reason, but that we test our limits and improve our own personality. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should be exposed to life-threatening danger, but if we always stay in our comfort zone, it won’t bring anything good to the development of our personality.
The Stoics pay special attention to criticism, to the one that goes in both directions. They believe that we should re-examine ourselves well before criticizing someone, meaning we should pay attention to whether the criticism is constructive, whether it will be helpful to someone, and, above all, whether that someone can accept it. We should also reconsider the criticism that comes to our account, more precisely from who and with what intention. We shouldn’t be blind and deaf to criticism, but at the same time, we shouldn’t listen to everything that others tell us.
And, finally, one of the most applicable tips daily, and is understanding those that we do not understand, do not accept, or even irritate us. Again, the matter needs to be seen from a different perspective. We irritate many, so when we see things from that angle, we will understand our interlocutors or those to whom we are, by force of circumstances, doomed.
Of course, this is only a part of what Stoicism offers and advocates, and what is in the roots of this teaching is best to find out from the literature with the signature of the mentioned authors.
The thing that it connects LeBron James, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other successful people, without them even knowing it, even though they apply it in their everyday life, is a discovery of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers.
Some of the most successful and wealthy people in the world – although it is difficult to connect business and Greek philosophers such as Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius – actually practice Stoicism.
The great return to the philosophy of life and the principles that have guided the Stoics in recent years is very noticeable in answering the question of how to be happy or how to be successful in everyday life in the modern world. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and vice president of his company Berkshire Hathaway, is a fan of Seneca and often quotes him. Investor Nasim Taleb loves Stoics, and oil and gas billionaire Thomas Kaplan is funding a course on Stoicism at Brown University. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and one of the most successful businessmen in history, who reads a lot, is in fact a follower of Epictetus who constantly learned and reminded us of how little we know.
Stoics are all around you – they are people full of virtues who patiently and bravely endure life.
Stoics are health workers who often fight viruses in impossible conditions; volunteers rescuing and adopting abandoned animals; workers in bakeries and street shops who get up before dawn to open their shops on time and city bus drivers who are responsible for the people they transport. Stoic is a parent who sacrifices himself for his child, and a sports coach who develops moral values in the young people he trains. A Stoic is a friend who will show up at your door in the middle of the night to help you when you are in trouble.
Look around you, think of people you know personally. Surely there is someone you appreciate because of her / his exceptional character. When in doubt, ask yourself how that person would react if they were you. It is much easier to imitate real people, whether you know them personally or know them from the media than imaginary characters from literature.
Prejudices About The Stoics
Stoics are often perceived as brave and restrained. This is only a small part of the truth about the Stoics. Stoicism helps people become more resilient to life’s challenges, wiser in their decisions, and at peace with themselves and others. Those who actively practice stoicism experience a natural transformation where they become better and happier people every day.
Unlike some other philosophical directions, Stoic ethics managed to stand the test of time and survive as an active philosophy.
Thanks to the availability of information on Stoicism, this philosophy is discovered and adhered to by young and old. The universality and practicality of stoic ideas help them find answers to their doubts and choose the right path for progress in life.
Why Are People Turning to Stoicism Today?
Stoicism can help you deal with challenges daily, and can even further enrich the quality of your personal life? You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out how to implement it in your life.
We cannot control every factor that affects our life, but we can accept the lesson of stoicism and control our own actions and reactions. With that in mind, here are a few lessons from Stoicism that can help you live a better life:
1. How to Set Priorities
“If you are looking for peace, work less. Or (more precisely): you do what is essential. You work less but better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential. ”-Marcus Aurelius
Time is the most precious thing we have at our disposal. It is crucial to focus energy on the tasks that lead you forward, on the tasks that Aurelius called “essential”. Once you start doing this, you are more likely to achieve your goals.
2. How to Control Stress
Epictetus, a prominent Greek philosopher who is one of the most important representatives of late Stoicism, wrote that the main goal of Stoicism was “to identify and separate things and events that we can clearly say are external and not under our control and those that we can say are under our control and which we can influence “.
People face different pressures daily: deadlines, the number of commitments made, and different expectations. This pressure often turns into chronic stress. And this is not only not good bad for our health, but our plans and goals also suffer because, under stress, our level of productivity is constantly declining.
3. How to Stop Procrastination
An important principle of Stoicism is not to waste time and to live each day as if it were our last. The idea of becoming aware of your mortality may scare some people, but it should have a positive effect because it motivates you to live in the present and not procrastinate.
In a letter to his older brother, Seneca describes a method that helps him make the most of each day. He would ask a few questions at the end of each day:
How did I get better today?
What did I do with my time?
What were my results?
Incorporate this into your daily routine and you will develop a greater sense of responsibility and you will not leave jobs unfinished.
4. How to Move on Despite Fear
You might think that the best leaders are devoid of all fears, but that is not the case. They simply learned to deal with their fears and, despite them, to move on. And as any Stoic would tell you: it is useless to wish that things in the world were different. Instead, we should learn to act in the situation as it is, and that means learning to live with our fear that naturally occurs in certain situations.
To achieve this, the Stoics used a method called “premeditatio malorum” (premeditation of evil). Imagine the worst-case scenario and you will be psychologically ready for everything that the future brings you. You will realize that you are stronger than that worst-case scenario, and your original fear will no longer be so intense.
How to Practice Modern Stoicism
Living in the golden age of Rome, the three thinkers concluded that the secret of personal effectiveness is inner elasticity and it is this inner peace that is what most of us lack to achieve personal happiness. The sublimity of willpower and emotional self-control makes the key difference to living life fully managing its riches and enjoying true rewards. The Stoics saw what we needed. And they left us some good advice on how to find what we need in our own lives.
Human nature never really changes. The insights we need never really change. Thus the soul is more important than the body and the inner than the outer, and our character is that ultimate source of personal fulfilment. We need to learn what it is in our lives that we have control over, and what it is that often has control over us. We need to concentrate on what is really important to us, free ourselves from the deep philosophical enslavement to false life schemes, and focus on what good we can do for others as well as primarily for ourselves. These simple but powerful topics have the ability to change our lives. They can steer us in the direction of valuable achievements, and put the personal happiness that arises only when we live a righteous and fulfilled life within our reach.
If you want to embrace a stoic way of thinking, you can start with three steps. The first is to put all things in perspective. If you are facing a life problem, try to look at it from a position of higher values. Given the universe and the idea of infinity, everything suddenly loses its apparent importance, and the much-needed peace returns to us. The second step tells us about the importance of recording your thoughts. Take one notebook and write in it what seems important to you for life. The third step is to accept what we cannot change and to recognize what we can change. Any action needs to be based on these simple assumptions.
The Stoics did not think in an airless space. They were influenced by the actions of many other philosophers, but each of them individually embarked on a personal endeavour to experience and understand life. Encouraged by their example, each of us can try it ourselves. Ultimately, philosophy is an activity for every thinking person. It’s not the fun of esoteric speculation reserved only for ancient brains who don’t have a smarter job. It’s not a dusty museum of past teachers. Philosophy is an exciting exploration of knowledge, understanding, and finally action – with wisdom.
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