Despite the name, Stoicism is not a life philosophy about ignoring your emotions and keeping up the appearance of being unaffected in the face of hardship.
The Stoics are often construed as cold, stone-like figures, but this is a misconception. In actuality, the Stoics had the full range of emotion that we all do, but they chose to focus on positive ones and let negative ones run their course.
The basic aim of Stoicism is to live in accordance with the flow of nature. Nature is unstoppable as well as unpredictable. We can’t predict the future, and we can’t prepare for every foreseeable outcome. Yet we must adapt and react to whatever comes our way somehow. We must still persist. We must thrive, even, in the face of hardship. How is that possible?
Most of the Western world in antiquity once was ruled by a Stoic: the eponymous Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161–180 AD, who was often referred to as the philosopher king for his writings. Most of our conception of modern Stoicism comes from his diary, later turned into a book, Meditations.
Stoicism is not a religion, though at times it bears striking resemblances to some—Taoism for instance, which you’ll read about next. But that’s only because the end goals are the same, and as it turns out, there are only so many ways to peace, fulfillment, and harmony. Stoicism, however, is a direct system of thoughts for living better—that is the sole purpose, and it is unencumbered by having to pay tribute to a deity or set of spiritual beliefs. Stoicism is a way of living that places your fate into your own two hands.
Above all, Stoicism teaches the path of mental control to living a good life. Perhaps ironically this is done in large part by recognizing that we have control over very little in our lives except for our thoughts themselves. When we let go of the fantasy that we can control life, we can better deal with whatever comes our way.
Stoicism, as you might guess with the reference to Marcus Aurelius, was born in ancient Greece. The term Stoic comes from the Greek word stoa poikile, or painted porch, which refers to the public space in Athens where teachers and students regularly met and pontificated on life. The stoa was, in many ways, the center of Greek life. In the midst of this intellectual outburst, sometime around 300 BC, the man now considered the father of Stoicism first made a name for himself.
This was Zeno. Zeno’s philosophy can be described simply enough: happiness comes as a result of living in accordance with nature’s flow.
From Zeno’s origination of Stoicism, the next notable Stoic was Epictetus, who is credited with the wisdom behind The Enchiridion, a handbook of thoughts on Stoicism. It begins in a compelling manner: “Some things are in our control and others not.” Accepting that truth launches you on the way to being a Stoic.
Epictetus is where things really started to take on the modern form we know today. He went on to state, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Among the most fundamental tenets of Stoicism is the idea that we should attempt to control our lives. Investing emotional energy into things we cannot change or control, similar to Buddhism’s avoidance of attachment, is what causes unhappiness, not the actual negative event or outcome itself.
He believed that focusing on things you can influence—your actions, responses, words, thoughts, and emotions (eventually)—were the real keys to happiness and fulfillment. We cannot change what happens to us, but we can change how we view them.
Epictetus spent his childhood as a Roman slave, and he lived most of his life on essentially one leg. He may have had a unique view on what it was to persevere and weather the storm of misfortune and still come out with a bright view of life.
Along the way in Stoic history, we also meet Seneca, whose personal letters remain instructive to this day. Finally, we shift to Marcus Aurelius, the renowned philosopher king himself.
This is his life philosophy in a nutshell:
Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.
Aurelius saw life as a giant neutral. Events will occur, happy and sad, but in reality, all events become how we choose to feel about them. Emotions, which ultimately determine our mood and satisfaction, come entirely from within and are a matter of our choosing. We only suffer as much as we allow ourselves to.
Accepting all of the above, much of Stoic philosophy then is about how to train ourselves to detach from our negative emotions and deal with the uncertainty of a lack of control. This is mentioned in the first of the three Stoic disciplines.
The Three Stoic Disciplines
The principles upon which Stoicism was founded have shifted dramatically due to different schools of thought and a gap of centuries between the most prominent practitioners and the founder, Zeno. Originally, Stoicism placed emphasis on the principles of ethics, physics, and logic.
But today’s understanding of Stoicism focuses more on Epictetus’s three principles.
- “The Discipline of Desire,” which has to do with acceptance of our fate.
- “The Discipline of Action,” which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind.
- “The Discipline of Assent,” which has to do with mindfulness of our judgments.
Marcus Aurelius was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself. One of the emperor’s teachers introduced him to Epictetus’s writings, and from that point, he was powerfully influenced by Epictetus. He also makes extensive mention of the Three Disciplines, which are important to understanding what informs his own writings.
- The Discipline of Desire
This entails having an attitude of acceptance toward what comes our way. In a sense, it is similar to fatalism and being resigned to the gates. What happens is necessary for your growth and will help you in the long run.
Today we call the goal of this discipline amor fati or the loving acceptance of one’s fate. This discipline is summed up in a passage from The Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”
But Stoics are not passive doormats with no ambitions and who allow life to happen to them. They simply accept what comes and think ahead to the next step in the best way possible.
For instance, Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes. He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory. If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed. As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action?
In amor fati, you must embrace everything that has happened to you, as well as what will happen in the future. All events leading up to this moment were necessary precursors to the exact world you’re standing in.
Suppose something happened we wish had not. Which is easier to change: our opinion and level of emotional impact or the event itself? The answer is obvious. The event lies in the past and cannot be changed. No matter how much you prepared, it still happened. But the way you view it can easily change. We do this by embracing amor fati. Stop fighting what reality is rather than resisting based on fantasy (that which did not happen). That’s what happens when we can only (and sometimes even barely) control our actions in a volatile and unpredictable world.
The Stoics used the metaphor of a dog leashed to a moving cart. The dog can walk along with the cart despite having no control and still enjoy his walk and surroundings, or he can resist the cart with all of his might and be dragged for miles. It’s our choice every single day whether we choose to be the dog that accepts his fate or be dragged. If we are dragged, we end up in the same destination, but have a dramatically poorer experience. If we can simply walk with the cart, we will be able to find the positive in that path.
- The Discipline of Action
The discipline of action is living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve happiness. No matter how malicious or deceptive they may be toward you, you must turn the other cheek, remain unaffected, and wish them well.
We cannot control others, but we are always in control of our own actions and responses. We always have the choice to act virtuously to help others reach happiness. It is similar to amor fati because our most frequent sources of unhappiness and tension will most likely be other people, yet we have to embrace their actions and words.
If someone is angry, we do not need to react in kind with anger or feel offended. We can choose to accept their anger, let it not impact us, and be reminded that it is meant to be instructive to our own happiness.
In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the actions of others in a somewhat detached manner, whether pleasant or not. We should not let mere words hold such power over us.
- The Discipline of Assent
The discipline of assent involves paying attention to our inner workings. We must be mindful enough to know what we are thinking—this is key to controlling your thoughts and emotions. There must be a measure of objectivity, otherwise you are lying to yourself and being overly impacted by your emotions.
Stoics are primarily interested in monitoring their judgments of good and bad. These simple judgments have the ability to influence our entire worldview. We may realize that we are viewing external events and the actions of people as negative or bad—but this is to ignore the fact that they are negative purely because we label them as such. This is unnecessary. Recall that emotions are a purely internal creation. The discipline of assent is the practice of catching yourself in this act of creating negative narratives around your life and quite literally changing your worldview.
In fact, nothing needs to be bad, negative, or unfortunate. This is a choice of judgment and labeling. Not everything needs to be transformed into a positive that makes you sing, yet certainly nothing needs to have the power to ruin your day.
So what do we get when we combine these three Stoic disciplines of acceptance, philanthropy, and mindfulness? We create a life philosophy that preaches introspection and self-awareness to remain calm and rational no matter the circumstances, even to those who would seek to maliciously hurt you. Focus only on what you can control (your emotions and actions), and let everything else play out as it will. This is a recipe for moving through life by rolling with the punches and coming back even stronger.
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