A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved.
This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices. The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those. We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature. However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts. Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.
Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims. However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them. Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background. For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:
And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)
The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)
The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life. The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism. The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.
The Basic Philosophical Regime
Stage 1: Morning Preparation
Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.” In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control. Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue. Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life. You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.
Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day
Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts. Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires. When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.” Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things. Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.
Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows. Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not. This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice. If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.” Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome. In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation. Look for ways to remind yourself of this. For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.
Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.
You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.
Stage 3: Night-time Review
Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep. Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.
- What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What went well?)
- What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing? (What went badly?)
- What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What was omitted?)
Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one. What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future? Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction. You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control. However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.
This article first appeared on Donald Robertson’s blog in February 2013, and is reproduced here with his kind permission. In February, the article went viral, with over 20,000 hits, and 280 shares on Facebook.