What is Stoicism? The Answer Lies in Wisdom and Virtue

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Marcus Aurelius

In the past month or so, I stumbled upon the teachings of an ancient Stoic philosopher through a book that I discovered on Audible. It was about the life of the renowned Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and it resonated with something deep inside of me.

Maybe, just maybe, it was one of those philosophies that I had practiced in a past life, or perhaps we’ve just shared many values and beliefs, but ever since I’ve discovered Stoicism, I’ve just wanted to learn more and more about it. So, I may as well briefly share the Stoic philosophy with you in a nutshell sort of way, and if you are interested in learning more than I highly recommend “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson!

So… What is Stoicism?

Well, the philosophers who followed Stoicism in ancient times believed that a love for wisdom and virtue should be prioritized first and foremost in order to live the best life possible. They thought that it was far more important to seek control of what is inside of us (our thoughts, fears, anxieties) and how we react to external events through self-discipline rather than attempting to control external events–which is more often than not–impossible.

Stoic philosophers believed that the judgments we placed on external events caused us more suffering than the events themselves when accepted without judgment (ex. “I was fired from work, this is a disaster!”). Stoics believed in combating catastrophic thinking by describing events in very objective terms without strong emotional language in order to be best equipped for reacting to the event with wisdom and virtue (ex. “I am no longer employed at work, this is a challenge, but any challenge can be overcome. I will begin my search tomorrow for new employment.”)

Stoic philosophers practiced indifference towards wealth, pleasure, health and fame, but they did not deny themselves these things either. They also understood that it was better to have wealth than to be poor, because it gave them greater potential to practice their virtues and to do good for others, so as long as living in accordance with their values was paramount pleasures in life were okay in moderation (such as sex, alcohol, wealth etc.).

Do not be like kitty

Stoics also believed that they were living in accordance with nature. They thought it natural that human beings were social creatures and that they were put here on Earth to help one another, not to harm one another. Stoics believed that it was best to view all other human beings and creatures, including the difficult ones as kin, our brothers and sisters. They believed that no man or woman does wrong willingly, but only does wrong because they are ignorant of what is actually good or evil in accordance with nature. Marcus Aurelius would say that we ought not to hate those who transgress us, but to feel sympathy for them, for they are ignorant of what is truly good. In this way, Stoics were able to act gently even with their adversaries and they regularly sought to make friends of their enemies. They chose to act truthfully and justly, even with those who were neither true nor just, and if we could not teach others how to live in accordance with nature, than we ought to do our best to tolerate them.

Marcus Aurelius was known to be a quite frail man throughout his life, but never sought to avoid the discomforts or dangers of a life in the military while a plague ravaged the Roman empire. He trained himself mentally to become more emotionally and physically resilient in a number of different ways; sometimes through meditations on the challenges before him and on his own mortality, at other times by exposing himself to regular discomfort. Stoic philosophers were known for wearing garments which left their bare arms and shoulders exposed to the elements in order to gain tolerance to the cold and the heat. They also believed that suffering, although unpleasant, could be a shortcut to developing greater virtues, because it develops resilience and character.

So… What does it take to live like a Stoic philosopher?

  1. Identify your core values, so that you can live by them closely. This can be done by taking a piece of paper or two, and identifying all of the traits and virtues which you admire in others. Then make a list of all the traits and virtues which you want for yourself. How do you want to be remembered? And then ask yourself, what would your life be like, if you had those virtues which you admire in others as well? Once you identify those values, always keep them in mind.
  2. Live according to your values and be tolerant of others who do not live according the same principles. Care for others as your brothers and sisters, but it does not mean that you must allow them to walk all over you. As Marcus Aurelius once said, “the best revenge is not to become unto them”. Treat others with dignity regardless of the circumstances.
  3. Seek to do as much as you can for the greater good of all and in accordance with wisdom and virtue, but always remember that there is a “reserve clause”. Sometimes fate will have other plans, our goals will not work out but we should continue to walk our path of virtue and wisdom.
  4. Believe that the only things in life which are truly “good” or “bad” are our own actions. Everything else outside of our control ought to be taken with some indifference, because we can not control these things and so it is counter-productive to dwell on them. Remember to be as objective as possible when considering events and how you will respond to them.
  5. When you are tempted by anger, take space until your anger subsides, then determine how your future will look if you follow your passion for anger, and on the other hand, how your future will look if you deal with the provocation with wisdom and virtue instead. Who has transgressed you? Try to describe their character as a whole rather than just those traits which irritate you. What virtues has the Universe given you to help you overcome this challenge?
  6. Practice gratitude frequently for the people around you, for life, and for your short time in existence.
  7. Avoid vulgarities as much as possible. Be concise with your words. Say no more or less than what ought to be said using proper vocabulary and a style appropriate for your audience.
  8. View life’s challenges as opportunities for character growth, rather than something to be feared. Remain indifferent, and look objectively for the best route forward.
  9. Remember that no person or creature is more or less than ourselves.
  10. Maintain a daily log of virtues that you would like to work on and a review of how well you practiced those virtues throughout the day.

It might be interesting for some of you to know that cognitive behavioral therapy which is well known in the psychology world was actually somewhat based around these ancient Stoic philosophies. Now, I will leave you with some quotes from the teachers of ancient Stoic philosophy…

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

Marcus Aurelius

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.

Marcus Aurelius

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Marcus Aurelius

To accuse others for one’s own misfortune is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.

Epictetus

No man is free who is not master of himself.

Epictetus

Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

If we were to measure what is good by how much pleasure it brings, nothing would be better than self-control- if we were to measure what is to be avoided by its pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control.

Gaius Musonius Rufus

Wise people are in want of nothing, and yet need many things. On the other hand, nothing is needed by fools, for they do not understand how to use anything, but are in want of everything.

Chrysippus

How do you feel about Stoicism? Thoughts? Comments? Leave them down below!

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