Stoicism is about finding your power within—your self-control and discipline to live a good life. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who championed Stoic philosophy, advanced the idea that the quality of your life would depend on your ability to use reason as the ruling element in the way you conduct yourself, deal with others, and handle situations. He advocated mental toughness amidst adversity and fortitude of character amidst miseries. Stoicism recognizes the hardships inherent in life as well as the reality and inevitability of death. Acknowledging that such are inescapable in the human condition, adherents of Stoic philosophy strive to veer away from complaining about such things and instead shift their focus to those that are within human power to change and control—the perspective and attitude taken in the face of challenge and adversity.
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The Stoics were all about finding your own personal power within, and creating a life of purpose, wisdom, and courage.
For them, self-discipline was essential for a good life—it’s the thing that keeps you going through adversity and teaches you to turn challenge into mastery and wisdom.
Though modern analytical philosophy is obscure and can seem impenetrable to the layperson, the ancient Greeks were very much concerned with philosophy as a means of uncovering humankind’s true purpose in a practical way.
They were interested in what was good, moral, and useful.
They wanted to understand the best way a person ought to conduct themselves through life.
Stoicism was one school of thought that was so successful in outlining these principles, thus it’s no surprise it’s still loved and revered today.
Though the word “stoic” now has certain connotations—i.e.
denoting something bare, joyless, or fatalistic—this worldview is in fact a very realistic, empowering one that offers real wisdom for living a meaningful life.
The Stoics lived in a very different world.
They looked around and saw that adversity, tragedy, and suffering were an inevitable part of life, and knew that a mature philosophy had to do better than merely pretend such things didn’t exist.
There is a well-known Christian prayer that says: God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, The courage to change what I cannot accept, And the wisdom to know the difference.
1 It’s a sentiment that could have been written by famous Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the best-known Stoic writers.
For these philosophers, life was tough, and there was no getting around it.
There is no point in blaming others, getting despondent, or crumbling, though.
Rather, if we hope to live a good and honorable life, we can learn how to conduct ourselves through adversity with grace, restraint, and temperance, using challenges to grow in wisdom and strength.
Marcus Aurelius had a very pragmatic view.
He believed that the quality of our lives came down to our thoughts and our actions.
He favored mental toughness and fortitude of character—yes, life is hard, but it can make you better if you approach it with the right mindset.
Like many of the other Greek philosophers, Aurelius emphasized the virtuous life—and virtue often meant tempering extreme emotions to cultivate a sense of serenity and poise somewhere in the middle.
In a way, you could say that the philosophy of the Stoics took the idea of self-discipline and expanded it to a complete way of life.
Life will be hard sometimes, but we can always control ourselves and the way we choose to respond to it.
Say you happen to be walking on your way home from a particularly bad day at work, and the sky suddenly thunders and rains down on you, hard.
You can curse the heavens for kicking you when you’re already down, or blame the weather forecast for (yet again) failing to accurately predict the landfall of the thunderstorm, or berate yourself for failing to bring an umbrella.
Or, you can follow the Stoic way and accept that the rain is something out of your control and therefore not worth having an emotional upheaval over.
You calmly take cover under a nearby roof, or even continue walking under the rain, unfazed by this sudden occurrence.
Resilience, according to the Stoics, is about having the good sense to know what can and cannot be changed in life.
There is simply no use railing in rage and resentment against the unfairness or cruelty we sometimes encounter in life— this is just a waste of time.
Rather, focus yourself diligently on those things you do realistically have control over: yourself.
Rather than this being a fatalistic or apathetic attitude, it’s actually a very empowering one—it focuses our attention on our true scope of action, while teaching us to patiently endure those things that are simply beyond our control.
Epictetus, another Stoic thinker, claimed that, “No man is free who is not master of himself.” It’s a profound sentiment that is more or less the heart of this entire book.
It is not realistic or desirable to control everything in the external world, but it is certainly a life’s work to cultivate a strong and moral character despite (and even because of) adversity.
Justice, wisdom, courage, temperance, and modesty—these are rather old-fashioned values advocated by the Stoics, but many people still find immense power in them today, even though they were first expressed way back in the third century.
At the heart of this way of thinking is self- discipline—the will and the drive needed to direct your fate as far as you are able, and to build your own life with virtue, action by action.
Rather than waste time debating what a good person is or creating excuses why you can’t be one, Stoics have a simple directive: Simply be one.
It can be difficult to outline a single strand of argument in Stoic thought—the philosophy is a comprehensive one that spans every practical area of life.
That said, we can find several repeated themes and principles in Stoic writings:.
• Anything valuable takes time, so we need to be patient. Nothing happens overnight.
The muscles you train (including the mental ones) will grow stronger the more you use them— but this takes consistent repetition.
• It’s not about what you say or think or believe or hope or justify.
It’s about what you do.
And not just once, but over and over again.
It’s your actions that make up the fabric of your life, not whatever’s in your head.
• Be modest.
Keep your ego in check, because you always have something to learn.
Develop yourself not just so you can boast, but because you truly desire to reach your full potential.
On the other hand, don’t be self-hating when you fall short of your own standards—you can stand with pride and dignity if you know you are always doing your best.
• Life is short.
We may die tomorrow, and nothing we enjoy today is ever guaranteed.
Rather than avoiding this fact, we need to embrace it so that we take meaningful action with what we can, while we can.
• Obstacles are a given—don’t complain, blame others, or become apathetic when you encounter them.
Obstacles can be a gift, if you are willing to engage with how they can make you stronger• No matter what you feel about it, there are things in life you cannot and will not ever control.
Save your energy for what you can control: your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
• Endless rumination gets you nowhere.
Focus your mind on the simple, obvious things: the present moment and your ability to act within it always.
• Emotions are part of life, but ultimately, in the grand scheme, they are insignificant.
Intense emotions, whatever they are, are transient.
The Stoics believed that you should be in control of them, rather than the other way around.
• It is a human being’s moral duty to develop themselves as far as possible, not just in a few ways, but in all areas—physically, mentally, ethically, materially.
Nobody can do this work but you.
• Guard against delusion, excuses, comforting but false narratives, blame, denial, and avoidance. Cultivate what will serve you best in life: courage, wisdom, and serenity.
• Don’t bother competing with others, dominating them, or judging them.
Their lives are their own business— yours is yours.
Be kind when dealing with others, even if they seem weak or treat you unfairly.
You can have perfect authority over yourself—you don’t need to have it over others.
Don’t look to others for approval, but find that value within yourself.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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