I in no way consider myself a stoic. I have found the philosophy interesting and tried to incorporate teachings I found useful to help make me less of a shitty person. This isn’t some guide to get into stoicism or discuss philosophy. It’s a guide to finding what has helped me achieve the goals I set out to do while digging through Stoic teachings and philosophy.
Super Brief History of Stoicism
Started in 300BC Greece by Zeno teaching his philosophy at the Stoa, “The Painted Porch”, which is where the name Stoicism comes from. Sadly for Zeno, most of his school of Stoicism has been lost in history. The three big names for making stoicism hail from the Roman empire. They were Seneca, tutor to Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a former slave; and Marcus Aurelius, himself emperor. These three each have the most popular books/teachings published today on Stoicism:
- Meditations – by Marcus Aurelius. This is not much of teachings, or philosophy as it was a journal. You can read MIT translations of Meditations.
- The Enchiridion – Epictetus. You can read the MIT translation of The Enchiridion.
- Letters from a Stoic – Seneca – this a is a modern published book of Senecas letters.
An Elementary Summarization of Stoicism
In case you don’t want to read them, I’ll summarize what I’ve learned. We come to live a virtuous life by accepting that there are things we can control and some that we cannot. That much of our unhappiness is caused for falsely thinking we can control our environment and actions when in fact, we can’t. It’s about perception and emotional control to live your life the best possible way. The deepest form of happiness isn’t obtained form getting what one wants over and over.
If you expect the universe to deliver what you want, you are going to be disappointed, but if you embrace whatever the universe gives, then life will be a whole lot smoother.Epictetus
The 3 Stoic Disciplines
Zeno writings made a distinction of three stoic principles which were then elaborated in great depth by the texts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which are filled with quotes that describe three of the branches in philosophy.
There are three departments in which a man who is to be good and noble must be trained. The first concerns the will to get and will to avoid; he must be trained not to fail to get what he wills to get nor fall into what he wills to avoid. The second is concerned with impulse to act and not to act, and, in a word, the sphere of what is fitting: that we should act in order, with due consideration, and with proper care. The object of the third is that we may not be deceived, and may not judge at random, and generally it is concerned with assent.Epictetus’s Discourses Book III, chapter 2
- Discipline of Desire – Study of self control and acceptance of our fate. Learn the calm acceptance of everything and not desire things that we can’t control.
- Discipline of Action – How we should behave toward others and to live life by four virtues that will guide us to a fulfilling life.
- Discipline of Assent – Mindfulness of our emotions and to understand whether the meotion deserves assent or dissent.
What Stoicism is NOT!
Stoicism often gets a bad reputation and is misunderstood as a way to eliminate emotions or considered a philosophy that things emotions are a negative thing. This is not true at all. Stoicism isn’t about being emotionless at all. A part is recognizing each emotion and learning to turn it into a meaningful and positive emotion if it’s negative.
It’s also not about avoiding issues or always being egocentric. It’s finding negative experiences and transforming them into opportunities. We see the world through personal biases we don’t recognize, and to overcome these biases to put forth more positivity within the world.
Staying Sad with Stoicism
The ancient Stoics were big on meditation but were a bit different. They focused more on taking time to take a step back and reflect on their day and interactions with people. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, is a perfect example of a journal and reflections they called meditations.
Seneca recommended doing an end-of-day meditation before bed, so you can reflect on the day. Criticize your day in a self-observation and examine your life day by day. What mistakes did you make for the day? How can you prevent them? Stoic mediation is taking a step outside yourself self and spot your mistakes and lessons learned. Don’t forget to keep a journal!
Some Stoic Exercises
The exercises listed below are practices from a modern stoic William Irvine who has a lot of awesome material.
- Negative Visualization: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils) – spending some time imagining bad things that could happen to us. A way to combat the hedonic treadmill, which is to learn to want the things you already have. Think about your life, possessions, relationships, etc. Then imagine them being taken away from you. I pick a topic I seem to be ungrateful for the most and then visualize me losing it.
- The Last Time – Since all life comes to an end, there will eventually be a last time we do anything. Something as minuscule like tying your shoes to more dramatic events like saying goodbye to a loved one. We live our days thinking we have more time than we ever know. Pause and think about what you’re doing that this could possibly be the last time you ever do it. Think about what is happening right now and savor what you’re doing.
- Living the Dream Life – We too often dream of wanting to live the life of someone else. These dreams often consists of living the life of someone much more wealthy or famous than us. We wish for nicer material possessions such a house or car. Instead, imagine living the life of someone who has to walk miles to get water or works in blistering weather conditions for a couple bucks a day? Imagine living somewhere where modern medicine is not available and an infectious cut could end your life since you can’t receive antibiotics in a timely manner. The chances are high you’re living the dream life a large portion of the world wishes they could. There are always people less fortunate than you are dreaming they could have your life.
Do not indulge in dreams of having what you do not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (7.27)