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A Complete Guide to Stoicism: How You Can Use this Ancient Philosophy to Live a Better Life

A Complete Guide to Stoicism: How You Can Use this Ancient Philosophy to Live a Better LifeUpdated on October 28, 2020 | Published on October 24, 2020

Stoicism

Stoicism was a distinguished school of thought in ancient Greece and Rome. Nowadays, the term “stoic” is loosely implied to describe someone who represses his feelings or has great enduring capacity. But in reality, stoicism is a deeper philosophical doctrine. Stoicism has its relevance even today. The doctrine is still practiced by wise people in our society because of its practical and simple approach. 

Stoic Definition

Stoic is someone who has achieved a state where they are not affected by any emotions.

Let’s check the definitions of “stoic” as given by the popular dictionaries.

Cambridge dictionary gives this definition for stoic – “determined not to complain or show your feelings, especially when something bad happens to you.”

On the other hand, Merriam Webster gives the following two definitions:

• “A member of a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 B.C. holding that the wise man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law.”

• “One apparently or professedly indifferent to pleasure or pain.”

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary suggests: “A person who is able to suffer pain or trouble without complaining or showing what they are feeling.”

Collins dictionary states: “A member of the ancient Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, holding that virtue and happiness can be attained only by submission to destiny and the natural law.”

What is stoicism?

SUMMARY
Stoicism was an ancient school of thought that taught it’s followers to accept life as it comes and cultivate some virtues to lead a meaningful life.

Stoicism was a concept formulated by the Greek philosopher, Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century B.C. in the Hellenistic period.

After losing everything in a shipwreck, Zeno became a student of the Cynic school of philosophy. When he decided to start his school he did not even have the money to buy or rent a space. So, it was on the streets of Athens where Zeno met his students. He taught his ideas under the roofed colonnade, Stoa Poikile, hence his philosophy got the name stoicism.  

His school was open for anyone who would listen. According to this school of philosophy, “virtue is the only good.” This philosophy is based on the idea of seeking a path to happiness or eauda imonia.

The basic concept of stoicism revolves around 3 major ideas –

• View yourself and the world with its people objectively and accept their nature as they are.

• Discipline your mind to prevent yourself from being controlled by pleasure or pain.

• Realize what is within your power and what is not. And then act on those factors under your power and leave those beyond your control.

A Complete Guide to Stoicism
A Complete Guide to Stoicism

Stoicism beliefs

SUMMARY
Stoicism belief was centered on self-control and fortitude.

The Stoics believe that we are not affected by events. It’s only how we react to them. Stoicism does not teach you to let go of your emotions. Rather, it formulates to transform them by Asceticism which is the voluntary practice of abstinence from worldly pleasures. As a result of that, a person will develop clear judgment, attain inner calm and would be freed from his sufferings.

Stoicism beliefs are based on self-control and fortitude to overcome all destructive emotions in our minds. Stoicism is not a set of rules or beliefs. Rather, it is a daily practice, a way of living life. It involves training and practice of logic that is based on natural laws.

Stoic philosophy

SUMMARY
Stoic philosophy was the most practical of all the ancient school of thoughts because it urged to lead an idealistic life based on courage and self-control.

In ancient Greece and Rome, there were 5 main philosophical schools, Stoic being one of those: Aristotelian, Platonist, Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic. The Stoic school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium. It was considered as the most practical philosophy because it preached to live in the present moment.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is considered as the most important stoic philosopher who popularized this school of philosophy. This Hellenestic philosophy as taught by the early stoics was not a religion. It was an art of living. The philosophers urged their followers to live in agreement with nature. The Stoic philosophical thought became the most widespread of all five schools of thought because it had a simplistic approach.

The Stoic philosophers did not give complicated theories instead they formulated simple rules to live life to the fullest. Stoic logic introduced by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece is called propositional logic. This was considered as one of the two best systems of logic in ancient times.

The three most important stoic teachers were – 

Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD), the Roman Emperor

Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – AD 65), the political advisor

Epictetus (50 AD – 135 AD), the slave turned teacher

One of the most famous stoic practitioners was Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger. He was a remarkable Roman senator who opposed Julius Caesar. Another notable figure was the Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus of the 1st century AD who was sent into exile during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. He was the teacher of Epictetus.

The Stoic philosophy was initiated by the Hellenestic Greeks and later embraced whole-heartedly by the Romans. Stoicism became immensely popular because of its realistic approach. It taught people to lead a morally idealistic life. Its simplicity has a strong appeal to people even till date.

This ancient philosophy was based on the principles of self-control and the courage to overcome any destructive emotions. Stoicism teaches to become free from passion and accept adversities in life. However bad it seems we do not crush to pieces if we were to face a natural calamity. Why? Because we know those can happen. Then why should you be shocked if you face betrayal, loss, enmity, or any deep trouble?

Stoics do not believe in consoling someone when they face difficulties. Because to them hope will only raise you high enough to cause an inevitable fall that will be even more painful.

Therefore, instead of expecting and hoping why not stay open and aware that life indeed brings pain? According to Stoic philosophy, only then you can face the challenges of life bravely. You have to practice staying indifferent towards whatever incidents in your life so that you are not drowned in the sea of emotions.

The Stoics embraced an attitude called amor fati or the mindset in which you embrace every moment. Even if the situation is a challenging one, you accept it and make the best out of it instead of trying to escape from it.

The Stoics participated in worldly matters, performed all their duties but believed that one’s fate is determined by the divine power. Therefore, they believed if you are bound to suffer you must do so. You must uphold your virtues but you should not be disappointed if things do not happen the way you wanted.

The Stoics allowed participation of people of all ranks. So, their philosophy was popular among the aristocrats as well as the slaves. This was a unique characteristic in the conservative society of the Greeks and Romans that all people were welcome to practice this philosophy.

The Hispano-Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was charged with conspiracy against Emperor Nero and was sentenced to commit suicide. After trying to explain his innocence calmly when the Emperor did not believe him, he accepted his death sentence with dignity. This incident demonstrates the Stoic philosophy – courage in front of adversity.

Stoic virtues

SUMMARY
The four Stoic virtues were – Wisdom, Justice, Courage and Moderation.

The stoics believed in The Four Cardinal VirtuesWisdom, Justice, Courage and Moderation.

1. Wisdom

“The wise man is neither raised up by prosperity nor cast down by adversity; for always he has striven to rely predominantly on himself, and to derive all joy from himself.”

–Seneca

Stoicism teaches you to practice wisdom. It simply means to recognize and accept things as they are without labeling them as good or evil. You only have to choose your decisions and act accordingly. Between the stimulus and response, there indeed is a space. In this space, you choose how you would respond.

2. Moderation

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

–Epictetus

It is the knowledge of knowing what’s essential for you and doing only that. We have the desire to possess several materialistic things and to accomplish so much in one lifetime. But are those even necessary? Following this virtue, one can learn self-control. For if you don’t practice self-control you will keep wasting time from your limited lifespan and keep bringing more pain to yourself.

3. Courage

“If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.”

–Marcus Aurelius

We need the courage to persist and resist for thriving. Stoicism teaches this virtue to face any challenges, misfortune, or even death. Courage enables you to face any situation of life. Have the courage to hold your principles, to take risks, and to speak truthfully. Courage sharpens your character.

4. Justice

“Live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.”

–Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius stated that among the Four Stoic Virtues, justice is the most crucial one. Because it is the “source of all the other virtues.” What is so grand about courage if you use it only for your selfish ambitions? What good can wisdom do if you don’t apply it to help others? And what will you do with self-control if not for the benefit of mankind? This virtue teaches us to understand our duty to others. It is the act of being righteous and upholding truth over everything else.

Stoic Ethics

SUMMARY
Stoic ethics speculated the need to practice the virtues to stay happy.

Stoic doctrines have both faced criticisms and appreciation throughout history. The Stoic moral was to lead a virtuous life devoid of all passions. They believed that a man who practices all the virtues is a “wise man.” According to them, the only thing that leads to happiness is a virtue. And the only thing that is bad or evil and brings misery is vice or corruption of reason. All other things fall into the category of “indifferents” because they were neither good nor evil.

Within the class of indifferents, the Stoics marked a class that they called “preferred indifferents” which are “according to nature.” The preferred indifferents include life, pleasure, beauty, health, strength, reputation, wealth and noble birth. On the other hand, the dispreferred indifferents include pain, weakness, poverty, disease, death, ignoble birth and low repute.

Stoic principles

SUMMARY
The eight principles of the Stoics were – Nature, Law of Reason, Virtue, Wisdom, Apatheia, Pleasure, Evil and Duty.

“The goal of life is living in agreement with Nature.”

–Zeno of Citium

There were mainly eight principles of the Stoics. These are –

1. Nature

Stoics call nature a rational entity.

2. Law of Reason

The universe follows the law of reason. You cannot escape the natural laws, so follow those intentionally.

3. Virtue

If you lead your life following the natural laws, you are indeed virtuous.

4. Wisdom

It is the source of all other virtues. If you are wise you will not let external circumstances affect you.

5. Apatheia

Passion and emotions have no reasons. So, you should avoid all the intense emotions.

6. Pleasure

It is neither good nor evil. You can have pleasure as long as it does not interfere with your practicing the virtues.

7. Evil

Unexpected, unpleasant events such as illness, poverty or death are not evil.

8. Duty

You should practice virtue not for having pleasure but as a duty towards the world and its people.

Stoicism books

Whether you approve this philosophy or not you have no choice but to admit that stoicism is quite popular even today. Stoicism books have a wide reader base because its principle is relevant even at this age. Books on stoicism have been published by leading publications such as – Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and University of California Press.

Here are the 10 best stoicism books for you.

Meditations  by Marcus Aurelius

The Discourses of Epictetus by Epictetus

Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius by Seneca

The Enchridion & Discourses of Epictetus by Epictetus

Stoic Philosophy as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by Donald Robertson

Stoicism by John Sellars

A New Stoicism by Lawrence Becker

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

Stoicism symbol

The Christians have their crucifix and rosary as symbols. But did the Stoics believe in a symbol too? It has been found that the stoics used gestures to symbolize their ideology. But there is no clear evidence of any symbol in Stoicism. This was because stoicism was practiced as a thought or philosophy. It was not a religion and hence they had no traditional symbols.

Modern stoics have incorporated stoic symbols such as the stoic emblem . The emblem is represented as a flame or the Divine Fire. This flame consists of four elements – fire, air, water, and earth. It must however be remembered that it is a new creation that was not represented by the ancient Stoics.

Modern stoicism

At the end of the 20th century, a group of modern-day philosophers and change-makers revived the Stoic principles. Intellectuals such as – Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair Maclntyre, Dr. Albert Ellis, Aaron T. Beck, Lawrence Becker and Massimo Pigliucci, started popularizing stoicism through their books and lectures.

Modern stoicism advocates taking a practical approach towards life and handling situations as they come instead of worrying or blaming. The modern approach is not as stringent as the ancient one. You are not advised to control your emotions. But the modern stoics urge you to take accountability of your life. Also, you are cautioned against raising your hopes and living in a fantasy world. For if you do not accept the reality of your situation you will only bring more pain to yourself.

Modern-day Stoics also practice a form of negative visualization or imagining unpleasant things that can happen to you. It is a Stoic meditation, Premeditatio malorum or the “premeditation of evils” in which you are allowed to feel the negative emotions to be prepared beforehand.

The modern stoics have advocated the age-old concept in a refreshingly new way to bring a change in society. Because modern-day men and women need this practice more than ever! The New Stoa founded in 1996 is a hugely popular stoic group. You will find tons of information by the modern stoics in the form of books, blogs or podcasts.

How To Be A Stoic – How To Practice Stoicism

The real world of the 21st century is stressful. There is always something more to accomplish, something better to do, to achieve a bit extra. There is no end to our desires and ambitions. If only we could slow down a bit. If you achieve a lot of materialistic stuff but lose all your mental peace would that make you satisfied?

Implement Stoic practices in your life to make it simpler and enjoyable. Here are 10 useful Stoic Exercises you can practice daily to lead a better life.

1. Stop controlling things

There are things under your control and there are things beyond your control. Try understanding this fact if you want to be happy in life. For instance, you have no control over how your boss treats you. But you have control in searching for a new job.

Don’t try to control things which are not in your hands. The more you will try to make things happen, the more complexities you will create for yourself. Stop trying to be the control freak.

You can change certain things but not all. Whenever you are anxious, take some deep breaths and then think about the situation in hand. Can you do something about it? Yes? Then start taking action. If not, close your eyes, do a prayer and leave it to the universe or the higher power you believe in.

Sometimes we don’t find a solution immediately. But it appears later on. So, keep your calm and wait for the solution to arrive. If you can’t find an answer don’t panic. It will come to you sooner or later. Have patience.

2. Protect your time

Time is the most important factor in life. If you constantly misuse it, you will never do anything of importance. Observe how you spend your day. The things you do every day, the shows you watch, or the people you meet frequently. Do you need to spend time on such activities and people?

Answer honestly. Start protecting your time. You can ask yourself before doing anything – Is it really necessary? If not, don’t do it. Simple!

Read books on time management. Prepare a To-Do list at night for the next day. Jot down the most important things you need to do. As the day progresses keep ticking off your list. That way you will have a direction. Start spending time on things that matter to you.

Most of us waste a lot of time browsing the internet and scrolling on social media. Be vigilant of how you are using your time. You have accessibility to all types of entertainment in your fingertips. But does that mean you should be watching a movie every single day? Make sure you consume no more than 2-5% of your time in entertainment. For instance, watch a movie once a month, not every day or even every weekend.

3. Spend time in self-reflection

Most of us sleepwalk through our lives. How many of us pause to reflect? Wise people analyze their lives. They deeply reflect on whatever is happening in their lives.

Before going to bed, sit, and think about how the day was spent. In a journal write down the good and positive results you got for the day. Then think about what didn’t go well. Write those down. Now reflect on why those things didn’t go well. Do you need to change the way you deal with people? Is it that you need to communicate more clearly? Or, it could be anything else. Jot it down.

In your leisure time read your journal. Start implementing the ideas you have generated there. Your life will definitely start improving.

4. Seek happiness within you

Do you seek happiness in external events and people? If your happiness depends on your accomplishments, money or even your spouse, you will get more pain than pleasure in life.  

You have to center yourself. Take action towards your goals but do not stay attached to your goals. Similarly, love people, have a good time with them but never rely on them for happiness. For no one can make you happy but yourself.

Take life as it comes. Do not unnecessarily complicate things by setting unrealistic expectations on things or people. As we discussed already, there is no point trying to control people or things. When you expect people or situations to bring you happiness, you are just falsely raising your hopes.

It is your responsibility to stay happy and motivated. You are sufficient for bringing happiness into your life! Dive into your inner self. Practice meditation, affirmations, and read biographies of inspiring men and women. You have to take some action towards finding the path of happiness. The more you connect with your inner essence the more you will remain content in life. 

5. Stay focused

Most of the time, our mind just wanders aimlessly like a vagabond. If you can control your mind you will win half the battle! That is to say, life becomes extremely simple and enjoyable when you have a grip on your thought processes.

All great scientists, artists, writers, philosophers and sages have one thing in common. They have an intensely focused mind.

If you want to lead a fulfilling life and want to make it worthwhile,  start putting all your attention in the things you do. If you are working your attention should be there and while having dinner you should focus on your food, not on your work. Meditation can increase your focus.

6. Leave your ego

If you have a lot of ego you will never be satisfied in life. Whatever you will achieve will never be enough for you. Also, you will not enjoy it when others achieve success. We all are here to live only for a limited span. So, shed your pride and fancy.

Have self-respect but that does not mean craving for attention or expecting that people will always please you. You can have a unique understanding of life but maybe everyone will not appreciate that. Accept it.

7. Stand for your virtues

Set your standards. Hold your virtues confidently. Let no one divert you from your set standards. For instance, if you are a punctual person never change it for others. Make people understand that you value your time. So, if someone wants to attend a meeting after the destined time you can politely refuse them.

When something is virtuous for you, protect it. Do not compromise on your values, no matter what.

8. Be open to all types of situations in life

Life is unpredictable. It never follows a linear path. Unpleasant things happen in life. Instead of feeling depressed just start taking things as they come.

Always things will not happen according to your taste. When we experience good things unexpectedly our hearts fill up with joy. But when unexpectedly bitter things come our way, we feel miserable. You have to hold this belief that life will bring your share of both joy and pain.

Heartache, betrayal, loss of money, crisis, illnesses and death visit us in our path of life. As a true Stoic, hold a realistic approach towards life. Optimism can bring you pain. On the other hand, if you hold a realistic approach towards life, you will always be ready to deal with every situation that arrives.

9. Practice philanthropy

Contribute to society. You should not live only for yourself. Do something good for others because your existence is not only for fulfilling your ends. Make a decision today to help others in some way.

To practice philanthropy, you don’t have to be rich. Each person has something to offer. You can lend your service for free to help others. As you start becoming a giver, you start enjoying life better.

10. Connect yourself to nature

We are a part of Mother Nature. With the advancement of technology, we have become distant to nature. Cultivate a daily habit to connect yourself to nature. It could be walking bare-footed on the grasses in the morning, or sitting on the beach listening to the crashing waves or watching the changing colors of the sky in the evening.

Make sure to ground yourself every day. By doing so you connect yourself with the Source or Higher Power and in the process you start realizing the meaning of your existence.

Massimo Pigliucci explains how Stoicism can be applied to our daily lives 

Final Thoughts

Stoicism is a way of thinking. This philosophy was practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Recently, this concept is re-introduced by modern thinkers to improve the quality of our lives. This fast-paced, competitive world brings us anxiety and mental pain. By practicing this timeless wisdom you can release your worries and attain your peace of mind.