Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. This school of thought emphasized rationalism and logic. The Stoic philosophy has long been a secret weapon of history’s greatest and wisest leaders – from emperors to artists, activists to fighter pilots. People from all walks of life are seeking out Stoicism’s unique blend of practicality and wisdom as they look for answers to the great questions of life.
Most people know that philosophy teaches us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also help us overcome life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thoughts are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are more practical. The principles within Stoicism provide some of the most relevant and practical sets of wisdom for people looking to discover the art of living. The Stoics focus on two things: How can we lead a fulfilling and happy life and how can we become better human beings? The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short-time allotted. It’s crucial that we understand the obstacles we face and not run from them. Our guides to Stoicism today include its three renowned leaders: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Here are six wisdom-filled principles that we can learn from them.
Our emotions come from within.
“Today, I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
When it comes to what we feel, it is not the outside forces that make us feel something, it is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings. The realization that anxiety and stress are states within our own perceptions and thoughts give us control over our situation. Instead of just going along for the roller coaster stress ride, you have the power within your control to turn the noise of stress down a bit. There are so many people who have no idea that they are giving anxiety immense power by choosing to believe that they cannot control it and cannot make a difference. But the truth is what we feel is our occurring and we are in control of how we see things.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
“But there is no reason to live and no limit to our miseries if we let our fears predominate” –Seneca, Moral Letters
In the early days of what would become known as the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in and gave his first inaugural address. Panic was in the air, banks were failing and people were scared. Most of us have heard the “nothing to fear but fear itself” soundbite that came from FDR’s famous speech, but the full line is worth looking at and applies to the difficult situations we face in life. FDR said, “Let me asset my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The Stoics were aware that fear was to be feared because of the miseries it creates. The things we fear are nothing in comparison to the damage we do to ourselves and others when we do everything in power to avoid them. Yes, an economic depression is bad but a panic is worse. The tough situations we face in life are not helped by terror. It only makes things harder. That’s why it’s so important that resist it and reject it if we plan on turning our situations around.
We can't always get what we want.
“When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few threats and you will get it out! Curb your desire – don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.” – Epictetus, Discourses
The mantra of our modern lives has become “We can have it all.” Work, family, purpose, success, leisure time are all things we want at the same time. In ancient Greece, the lecture hall was a place where students contemplated the higher things for the purpose of living a better life. It was about prioritization, about questioning the priorities of the outside world. In today’s world, we are so busy jamming our hands sown the jar filled with goodies that we don’t do this sort of questioning. Instead of focusing our hearts on many things, we can apply Epictetus’ philosophy. We should focus, prioritize and train our minds to ask: Do I need this thing? What will happen if I don’t get it? Can I make do without it? The answers you have to these questions will help you relax and help you remove the needless things that make you too busy to be balanced or happy.
We can benefit greatly from observing.
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.” –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
There is great power in observation. If you take the time to look at the world as an opportunity, that is exactly what you will see. Instead of looking at the world through a “know-it-all” lens, observe your surroundings with a beginner’s mind. When you do this, your entire perspective will change. Harnessing the power of observation can help you determine what to do and not do. When your heads up and the blinders are off, you have a better chance of seeing the path ahead when it comes to your projects and goals. It also enhances your learning. When we observe the environment we’re in, we’re able to gain more hand on knowledge to apply to our lives that will help us perform at a higher level.
Not only should we read purposefully, but we should also apply our knowledge.
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training waits of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one had made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” – Epictetus, The Art of Living
Doing a lot of reading on a particular subject will supply a wealthy amount of knowledge that will help you develop a more in-depth awareness, but what really makes this knowledge impactful is when we apply it to our own lives. Reading is a great way to prepare your mind and can even help you avoid poor decision-making, but at the end of it must be the result of some action: a failure, a success or a lesson. The purpose of education is not just to internalize knowledge, but ultimately spark action and facilitate wiser decisions. For example, reading self-help books will make you feel inspired for a change in that moment, but are those same self-help principles guiding you when you’re dealing with a rude customer, an internet troll or an episode of road rage? We should be applying our knowledge in ways that we will help us grow.
We can access the wisdom of those who came before us.
“We like to say that we don’t get to choose our parents, that they were given by chance – yet, we can truly choose whose children we’d like to be.” – Seneca, On the Brevity of Life
Some of us are fortunate enough to have parents who were great mentors and role models, but that isn’t the case for everyone. Maybe your parents were poor role models, or you lacked a great mentor. However, if we choose to, we can easily access the wisdom of those who came before us – those who we aspire to be like. We are blessed to live in a world where some of the greatest men and women in history have recorded their wisdom and folly in books and journals. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to the people who took the time to record their experiences to try and carry on the traditions and follow their examples.
The way we live our lives and do our work should reflect that principles that we practice. Instead of constantly comparing, criticizing and consuming, focus more on creating, learning and living. The wisdom from the Stoics can help you.