The title of this post, as you’ve probably noticed, is a variation on Jordan Peterson’s recently released book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I think a better title for Peterson’s book would actually have been 12 Judeo-Christian Rules for Life, due to the overemphasis on biblical scripture and religious themes.
Nonetheless, despite the major issues with Peterson’s book, there is clearly a demand for a set of guiding principles on how to live the good life. The question is, if Peterson’s work falls short, what’s the alternative?
The answer, I believe, is found in Stoicism, an ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in early 3rd century BC Athens. Stoicism teaches a kind of self-mastery where “virtue is the only good” and externals—such as health, wealth, and fame—are neither good nor bad independent from how we judge them.
If I had to summarize Stoicism with one quote, it would be from Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Using the book The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth as inspiration, I’ve put together 12 Stoic rules for life as an alternative to the hyper-religious Peterson version. Here is my list:
1. Take full responsibility for your thoughts and dispositions
The foundational principle of Stoicism is this: we don’t react to events, we react to our judgments of events, and our judgments are entirely up to us.
We can see this principle clearly when we consider that our reactions to events can change depending on circumstances and that two people can react very differently to the same events. Some people are willing to die for their religious beliefs, for example, while others are completely indifferent to those same beliefs.
All events are filtered through our judgments, and our judgments are not necessarily always beneficial. They may have been conditioned by our upbringing or our culture, but we need not keep them should we find them harmful.
The chain of events is as follows: some event occurs, we judge that event, and then we react to the judgment. Once we learn to separate the event from the judgment, we can control the judgment and therefore control our reactions and emotions, leading to equanimity and tranquility. We also can learn how to distinguish between the things we can control—our judgments and actions—and the things we can’t—other people’s opinions of us, wealth, fame, etc. Then, we can stop wasting time and energy on things outside our control.
Note that, with this line of thinking, “archetypes” are filters through which events are judged, and therefore can be accepted or dismissed depending on whether they are beneficial or not. But the fact that an archetype exists does not mean that we have to accept it, use it, or abide by it. Stripping the filters from the events means the ability to reject archetypes at will.
Application: if you are dissatisfied with your life, you have no one to blame but yourself. If events will not adapt to your judgments, you must adapt your judgments to events.
2. Stop wasting time on things you can’t control
It’s natural for all of us to have preferences, and the Stoic should be no different. Stoics prefer wealth to poverty and health to sickness. But the Stoic does not become attached to these things, known as “externals,” which are largely outside of our direct control.
If your happiness is attached to externals, then your happiness will forever be dependent on other people and on things outside of your control, leading to inevitable frustration, never-ending desire, and despair.
The Stoic achieves a constant state of equanimity because she is content with what she has and values, above all, the things that are entirely within her control—her own thoughts, actions, and deeds.
Application: stop worrying about what other people think about you, or what other people will or will not do. Your energy should be spent entirely on your thoughts, actions, and deeds.
3. Practice humility and let go of your ego
The events of your life appear significant because they are close to you and have immediate bearing. But considered in relation to the expanses of space and time, each human life is inconsequential.
What’s the difference between living 20 or 80 years compared to 14 billion years of cosmic history? How important is our ordinary solar system within a universe that is 93 billion light-years across, containing 1 billion trillion stars?
Life is perpetually changing, works and individuals are forgotten and lost. Within this perspective our deepest concerns are rendered insignificant. We can no longer operate under the view that the universe was created just for us by a creator that listens and cares deeply to our prayers. This is childlike wishful thinking that we would best outgrow.
Instead, we should bring our concerns back down to earth and see them for what they are. We must simply enjoy life and make it the best it can be, with what we are given. And, knowing everyone else is in the same situation, we should empathetically make life easier for them as well.
Application: realize that the universe was not designed for your benefit (or your tribe’s) and that your concerns are not inherently more important than others. Recognize humanity’s shared predicament and lead a good life by helping others.
4. Overcome your fear of death
Death is, understandably, a source of great fear—perhaps the greatest fear. But upon rational reflection, death is nothing to fear, for several reasons:
- We have no reason to believe that our state after death will be any more unpleasant than our state before birth, and so death is something that happens but is not experienced.
- After we die, we either continue to live in another state, or we cease to have sensations and therefore do not suffer.
Death therefore should not be our concern; our concern should be to live well. When we accept and reflect that death is always present, we lose our fear of it and live each day as if the last.
Application: as Marcus Aurelius said, “The perfection of moral character consists in this: to spend each day as if it were the last, to be neither agitated nor numb, and not to pretend.”
5. Curb your desires and value what you have
Desire is our most prevalent delusion, and it is addressed in virtually all philosophical and religious traditions. All sages throughout history, in addition to the Stoics, have said some variation of the following in regard to desires:
- It is human nature to want most what we do not or can not have.
- We overvalue what we don’t have and undervalue what we do have.
- Possession of something decreases its perceived value, and we are never as satisfied in obtaining something as we anticipated.
- We compare our situation in terms of those that have more than us rather than to those with less.
In response to this, the path to happiness is:
- To be satisfied with what we have.
- To understand that accumulating more wealth and possessions will only lead to the desire to accumulate even more.
- To value the journey towards achieving goals more than the goals themselves.
- To compare our situation, material wealth, and talents to those below us, those less fortunate, rather to to those above us, so as to promote gratitude.
Application: our natural desires (hunger, thirst, etc.) are finite, while unnatural desires are infinite. We chase wealth and fame as end goals when there is no end to our acquisitive nature. Establish and pursue your goals, but do so in moderation, with humility, and in gratitude for what you already possess.
6. Take the quickest path to wealth by limiting desire
There are two ways to achieve wealth: acquire more or desire less. The Stoics realized there is no difference psychologically between attaining something and not wanting it in the first place. The path to riches is freely available to most people immediately. Here’s a story recounted by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
“What the favorite of the King of Epirus said to his master, may be applied to men in all the ordinary situations of human life. When the King had recounted to him, in their proper order, all the conquests which he proposed to make, and had come to the last of them; And what does your Majesty propose to do then? Said the Favorite. — I propose then, said the King, to enjoy myself with my friends, and endeavor to be good company over a bottle. — And what hinders your Majesty from doing so now? Replied the favorite.”
We all believe that happiness is just around the corner, that we only need to make this much more money, or get this job, or buy this house. But once we achieve our goals, we simply set new ones and find ourselves just as discontented.
Application: True wealth, and happiness, is the acceptance of what one already has, and in enjoying the present moment and the things in life that have the most value—knowledge, relationships, and experience.
7. Stop worrying about what others think
The Stoics wasted no time thinking about the opinions of others, as these are a category of “externals” beyond one’s control. They were also suspicious of opinions that gain mass appeal, as the unreflective masses tend to value second-rate opinion.
The Stoics also made the keen point that many of us seek the praise of those that we ourselves do not praise highly. As Marcus Aurelius said, “I have often wondered how it is that, though every man loves himself most of all, he gives less weight to his own opinion of himself than to the opinion of others.”
Application: We cannot control the thoughts, opinions, and behaviors of others, or the praise or blame assigned to us; what we can control are our own thoughts and deeds and that’s where our attention should be focused.
8. Stop projecting your faults onto others
We all have a tendency to underestimate our own shortcomings and overestimate the faults of others. Often times, we project our own faults onto others so as to make ourselves feel better.
The Stoic doesn’t waste time in comparing himself to others or worrying about the actions of others. The Stoic understands that everyone has both good and bad tendencies, and focuses on improving himself and helping others to do the same.
Application: don’t engage in the action of propping yourself up by putting others down. Instead, do something worth recognition for its own sake.
9. Live by reason and moderation
Accurate judgements, as we have seen, depend on reason, not on emotion, tradition, culture, or popular appeal. In fact, most of the rules encountered so far run counter to common sense. To practice Stoicism requires effort and going against natural inclinations, which only reason can overcome.
As such, emotions often get in the way of reason. But we must remember that without emotion and motivation, there would be nothing to compel the use of reason. So, Stoicism is not about the complete repression of emotion; rather, it is about it’s control.
The Stoic feels and welcomes positive emotions, in moderation, as well as negative emotions in the same way. Emotions only become problematic when they impact the rational faculties, and motivate a life of anger, resentment, fear, and anxiety.
Application: Use emotion to your benefit: use motivation to achieve goals; use fear and anxiety as energy to perform better on a task; use sadness to reflect, remember, and realign goals. But do not let emotion control and dictate your thoughts and behaviors.
10. Seek the value in whatever happens and use adversity to get stronger
We often cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react to it. Adversity, by its very definition, is an unwanted occurrence, but, as an external, it is not something within our control.
As such, only our reaction is within our control, and it is our reaction that we should try to optimize. Adversity is often only initially problematic and it can lead to greater things.
Application: When adversity strikes, use it as an opportunity to prove yourself, to learn, to grow, or to build something new.
11. Attain virtue through the use of reason and in helping others
What makes humans unique from other animals? The Stoics would claim that it is reason and the free exercise thereof. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Stoics considered the use of reason to be the activity that makes us feel most human.
The Stoics did not live by the dictates of someone else, or someone else’s reasons—this would be living under tyranny. In fact, it would be living under the worst kind of tyranny—tyranny over the mind and tyranny over what makes us most human.
It is through reason that the above rules are discovered; reason tells us that events are different from our judgements, that wealth does not buy happiness, and that the quickest path to contentment is by decreasing our desires. These are not commandments from a higher power, or interpretations of a sacred book. These are principles anyone can arrive at through reason alone.
If the goal is living the good life, a life in which you can respect yourself, a life in which you are free of guilt and anxiety and fear, then reason will lead to virtue and the commitment to helping others. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Being wise consists solely in being just.”
Application: To live the good life, lead a life of purpose, meaning, and virtue. Immoral acts against others lead to regret, guilt, worry, anxiety, and self-hatred. Lead a life of reason, virtue, and helping others, and free yourself from negative emotions and anxiety.
12. Practice Stoicism as a way of life, not a set of commandments
Stoicism is about taking responsibility for your thoughts, judgments, and actions. It requires the use of reason, free-thinking, and confidence and reliance on oneself. As such, there are no commandments to study, only principles to practice.
Stoicism requires practice; just as it requires intense, directed practice to become an athlete, so it also requires intense practice to become virtuous. Stoicism is a philosophy of action, and so it is not sufficient to simply understand the principles—you must act on them every day.
The Stoics offer lots of advice on how to practice virtue: first, review each day to see where you made philosophical mistakes and where you could have improved. Second, imagine your favorite Stoic is watching over your actions. What would be his comments? And third, meditate on the principles and think of ways you can apply them to your life.
Application: practice Stoicism each day and reflect on your actions at the end of the day. Would the Stoics approve of your actions? Have your actions improved your virtue and character? Have you helped anyone today? Have your actions made you feel good about yourself? Are your actions consistent with what reason would dictate to others in the same situation, or with the advice you would give someone else in the same situation?
Your 12 rules for life
In the spirit of Stoicism, you don’t have to take my 12 rules as given. By studying the Stoic principles, meditating on virtue, and applying reason, you can develop your own rules for life that promote meaning, purpose, virtue, and the good life, all without submitting to the tyranny of dogma.