A Short Guide to the Practice of Stoicism

Stoa_of_AttalosIn the spirit of both Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism is a version of eudaimonic virtue ethics that asserts that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve happiness and contentment.

Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 300 BCE, Stoicism has a rich history and several prominent historical adherents (including Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius), making Stoicism an eminently practical philosophy, concerned primarily with ethics, proper conduct, and emotional mastery.

What follows are three Stoic principles for mastering emotions, advancing goals, and developing greater mental strength and resiliency. Each principle is introduced by a quote from one of the three later Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca). These principles, taken together, capture the spirit of the philosophy and provide the mental framework for daily practice and reflection.

1. Focus only on what you can control

Epictetus“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” – Epictetus

If there is one foundational concept of Stoicism, it is this: we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about events, and our judgments are entirely up to us. As Marcus Aurelius said:

“If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment.”

Each day, countless events happen to you and around you, and much of this activity has nothing to do with you or your actions. Perhaps you come down with an illness, or you lose your job, or you’re passed up for a promotion. In each case, the event in question is simply a fact about the world—a fact beyond your direct control.

If you lost your job, for example, ruminating about the event will not reverse the outcome, and in fact will accomplish nothing at all. It will do no good to succumb to negative emotions that depict the event as “bad” or “detrimental.” There is only the event that has occurred as a fact, along with the actions that you can take now and in the future.

The appropriate response is one of action and forward thinking. Here’s a simple way to remind yourself to practice this: each time a dispreferred event occurs, ask this simple question: What next?

If you lose your job, it’s unproductive to ruminate over the reasons you were fired or how you’re going to meet your financial obligations. Ask, instead, what can I do next? Maybe this is the perfect opportunity to return to school and complete your degree. Perhaps this is an opportunity to get a better and more meaningful job, one where you’ll be happier and more productive. Either way, an event has occurred and you must respond by engaging in productive activities to meet your goals and make the best of the situation.

It’s important to note that the Stoics did not advise against having preferences (what they called preferred indifferents); what they advised against are negative and self-destructive reactions to events. Sticking with the job loss theme, if you blame someone else for losing your job, will that help you to achieve your next goal and land your next job? Will ruminating about your missed opportunities help you to create new ones? Of course not, and that is why the Stoic, instead of yielding to negative emotions, will always say, What next?

This approach takes some practice and does not come natural. As Epictetus said:

An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Someone who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

There are only events, judgments, and actions. Greater contentment and productivity is achieved in those who learn to separate events from judgments and to align their actions with achieving the best outcome for any given circumstance.

The larger point is that it is a waste of time to expend mental energy on things outside of your control, including other people’s thoughts and actions and events of the past. Invest your time exclusively on the things within your power, including your thoughts, judgments, and actions in pursuit of your goals. Everything else is unproductive.

This Stoic principle actually aligns with contemporary research on the personality trait called “grit.” As the psychologist Angela Duckworth and colleagues discovered, grit, or passion and perseverance toward achieving a goal, regardless of setbacks, is a better predictor of success compared to other traits such as IQ or educational level.

As a final example, in regard to reputation, you can never know for certain what someone else is thinking or whether or not they truly hold you in high esteem. What you can do—what is in your control—is developing your own character and building the traits that are most conducive to achieving a good reputation. Others will think what they will, which is not your concern. Your concern is the perfecting of your own character. Here’s Marcus Aurelius:

“We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

“Tranquility…comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.”

“It can only ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.”

2. The impediment to action advances action

Marcus_Aurelius“Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

I hesitate to use an example from Nassim Taleb, but he was right to point out the difference between fragile and antifragile systems. Fragile systems break under stress, as when a glass is dropped and shatters on the floor, whereas resilient systems can withstand stress without change, as when a plastic mug is dropped on the floor without damage.

As Taleb pointed out, the opposite of a fragile system is not a resilient system but an antifragile system, or a system that gets stronger under stress and strain. A good example of an antifragile system is the body’s musculoskeletal system: in response to stress and injury—from a vigorous workout at the gym, for example—the body responds by growing stronger, adapting to the stressors.

The Stoics realized, long before the publication of Taleb’s books, that the mind is also an antifragile system that grows stronger in response to stressors. As Aurelius said, motivations and intentions can not be impeded, and the mind will adapt to the obstacles thrown in its way when motivation is sufficiently high.

We can use the analogy of the gym to drive home a key point: to make our bodies stronger, we don’t avoid the stress of physical exertion; rather, we actively seek it out at the gym, progressively increasing the weight or reps for each exercise.

In the same way, we can view each obstacle or challenge to our goals as an opportunity to improve our knowledge, skills, or abilities, or our mental fortitude. When negative events happen, it is not an opportunity to become discouraged; just as when the Stoic asks “what next?” in response to a dispreferred event, he or she can also recognize the opportunity to improve in some respect as part of the process of overcoming adversity.

Once again, we see ancient wisdom anticipating modern psychological research, as this Stoic frame of mind anticipates Carol Dweck’s research into the benefits of having a growth mindset. Research has confirmed what the Stoics have long known: people with growth mindsets, who believe that increased effort leads to increased intelligence and skill, will achieve more than people with fixed mindsets, who believe that intelligence and skill is fixed or innate and who easily give up in the face of adversity.

Combing the Stoic principles with Dweck’s modern research, we can conclude that those who achieve the most are not only those who handle adversity better, but are those who actively seek adversity out as a means of improving their ability. This also helps to clarify a common misconception regarding the 10,000 rule, which says that expertise in a particular skill can be achieved by practicing that skill for around 10,000 hours.

Simply practicing a skill, without feedback and without constantly increasing the difficulty—i.e, without seeking out adversity—will not result in the achievement of greater skill. Greater skill comes to those who practice deliberately and iteratively, constantly increasing the difficulty based on constructive feedback.

3. Find a historical role model and practice daily reflection

Seneca“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them…The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed…Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” – Seneca

We should start by pointing out that the Stoics had a different conception of the mentor relationship than most do today. The Stoics did not advise people to find a mentor that they could physically shadow, or to blindly follow a guru that would do their thinking for them.

Instead, the Stoics advised that each person think of a prominent historical figure, or some other person of high character, and imagine that this figure is always watching their every thought and action. This person represents a hypothetical ideal to which every action can be measured.

As Seneca noted:

“It is, indeed, nobler by far to live as you would live under the eyes of some good man, always at your side; but nevertheless I am content if you only act, in whatever you do, as you would act if anyone at all were looking on; because solitude prompts us to all kinds of evil.”

We tend to deviate from our principles most frequently when no one is looking, so this practice helps to keep us in check during our most vulnerable times.

As Aristotle pointed out, developing virtue is a habit; whatever actions we routinely perform are the actions that become part of our character. If we are constantly thinking and acting in self-destructive ways, this becomes habit and will manifest itself outwardly. Having someone of high character to always look over our shoulders helps us to practice the habits that lead to virtuous behavior.

As an example, let’s say I choose Socrates as my historical role model. I can then judge my actions according to the ideals I identify within his character, such as physical toughness and resilience, temperance, altruism (teaching others without receiving pay), courage (even in the face of death), humility, curiosity, and intelligence.

Then, at the end of each day, I can reflect on my actions and judge where I may have deviated from the ideals. Here’s Seneca:

“The mind should be summoned every day to render an accounting. Sextius used to do this. At the end of the day, when he had withdrawn to his nightly rest, he would interrogate his own mind: “Which of your wrongs did you correct today? Which fault did you resist? In what way are you better?” Anger will leave off and be more moderate, if it knows that it must each day come before a judge. Is there anything finer than this habit of searching through the entire day?”

The Stoics viewed each day as an opportunity to practice virtue, but also realized that, regardless of intentions, this will be done imperfectly. Humans are fallible, emotional, and easily distracted, and in the course of the day will tend to deviate from principles when faced with practical demands.

However, the prospect of “coming before a judge” at the end of the day, as recommended by Seneca, can act as a check on our impulses and diversions. The habit of evaluating and rating your day—and just knowing that you will do so—is often enough to steer your behavior in the right direction toward the achievement of your goals.

Further Reading

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

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual by Ward Farnsworth

Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness by Sharon Lebell

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus