'Stoicism is for Life not Just One Week' by Ryan Holiday

Stoicism is for Life, not just One Week

Ryan Holiday


Here we are, with Stoic Week upon us once again.

This is exciting to me because thousands of new people will be exposed to philosophy for the very first time. I say that half-jokingly, knowing that many people including some who majored in it, think they studied philosophy in school. They didn’t–what they read about and did was an interesting intellectual stimulation but it was not philosophy.

Philosophy, as the Stoics saw it, was not abstraction. It was not theoretical. It was designed to help with the problems of life. And in Ancient Greece and Rome, the problems of life were quite real: murderous tyrants, war, plague, civil strife and banishments existed as very real and daily threats–alongside all the other things we deal with today like jealousy, injuries, greed, sickness, envy, and fear.

The Stoics developed a practical philosophy to make sense of this world, one designed to help its adherents thrive, succeed and live good lives. In my eyes, stoicism posits a very simple premise: We do not control the world around us; we control only how we respond. And so we may as well respond well–respond virtuously.

Stoicism, as passed down to us by Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and a host of other ancients, is a tool for that response. Epictetus’s “handbook” was picked up by everyone from James Stockdale to George Washington. Seneca was widely admired by the Christians, Thomas Jefferson and the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Marcus Aurelius proved to be equally inspirational to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson as he has been for statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Wen Jiabao and Bill Clinton.

What does this all mean? It means that whatever problem you’re dealing with this week–or in this life–stoicism can be of help.

A few favorites:

On Ambition:

“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do.

Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.

Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Temptations:

“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like the gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Self-Criticism

“What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a people will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.” – Seneca

On Other People:

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Distractions:

“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Objectivity

“Don’t let the force of an impressions when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” – Epictetus

On Success or Failure:

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Marcus Aurelius

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus

On Fortune

“The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca

On Endurance

“Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish–a lie–for death.” – Seneca


I was fortunate enough to be introduced to stoicism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Not during a week of practice and contemplation, but a week where I nonetheless needed it very badly. I was going through a terrible break up. I was stuck in this apartment with some roommates who I absolutely detested. I was in my second year of college, not sure in which direction to take my life.

A chance encounter led to me picking up Marcus Aurelius and his wonderful Meditations. The wisdom in this book not only helped me with my immediate problems–helped me see some perspective about my romantic woes and helped me realize there was no reason to resent these people I was living with. But more importantly, it set me on an intellectual journey (going “directly to the seat of knowledge” as Marcus put it) that changed my life and set me on a course I never would have expected.

In the years since, stoicism has something that strengthened me in failure, comforted me in pain, gave meaning to events and cautioned humility and conservatism in moments of success. It helped me publish three books–one of which, I can proudly say, is about stoicism. How this all would have played out otherwise, I really have no idea. But what stoicism teaches is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened and that we must be grateful for it–the good and bad alike.

I am. I am so grateful for the windows and doors that stoicism opened. And I hope for everyone participating in 2014’s Stoic Week that you feel the same. And don’t let it stop after 7 days either.

About the author:

Ryan Holiday is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business. After dropping out of college at nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He served as director of marketing at American Apparel for many years, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, theNew York Times, and Fast Company.

His first book, Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator—which the Financial Times called an “astonishing, disturbing book”—was a debut bestseller and is now taught in colleges around the world. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, and writes at RyanHoliday.net.

He has written a bestselling book on Stoicism, The Obstacle is The Way.

The Stoic Mayor

Jules Evans on Sam Sullivan, mayor of Vancouver, and his inspirational strength of character which led him to enter politics…

At the age of 19, Sam Sullivan, a lanky, athletic teenager from Vancouver, British Columbia, broke his spine in a skiing accident, and lost the use of his arms, legs and body. For six years, he battled with depression and suicidal impulses. Then he managed to get a philosophical perspective on what had happened to him, so that his spirit wouldn’t be crushed along with his body. He says:

I played many different mind games to get a perspective on what had happened to me – I don’t mean games in a frivolous sense, but in the philosophical sense. For example, I imagined I was Job [the Old Testament prophet], and God was looking down on me and saying, ‘anyone can manoeuvre through modern society with two good arms and two good legs, but let’s take away the use of his arms, legs and body – now things are starting to get interesting,now let’s see what the guy’s made of’.

The young Sam displayed a typically Stoic approach to disaster, seeing adversity as an opportunity to test one’s powers of agency and
resilience. As Epictetus wrote:

Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that God, like a wrestling master, has matched you with a rough young man. For what end? That you may become an Olympic victor, and that cannot be done without sweat.

Sam’s spiritual recovery from his injury involved a transformation from a passive victim of adversity to an active victor over it. He started to take control over the things he could take control over. He worked to regain the use of his biceps and interior deltoids. He contacted an engineering firm, and an engineer helped him devise technology to, for example, open the curtains, keep the freezer door open, cook TV dinners.

Continue reading “The Stoic Mayor”

Features: 'I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy' : Conversation with John Lloyd

 New to Stoicism Today? Check out Stoic Week 2014, Nov. 24th-30th!

This article first appeared on Stoicism Today as part of Stoic Week 2013, a week in which over 2,000 people worldwide followed this Handbook for daily living, which modernised the ancient Stoic philosophy as a way of life….

Jules Evans interviews John Lloyd, the TV producer behind Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image and QI, talking about how ancient philosophy helped him to get through five years of depression.

How did you come across Stoic philosophy?

I’d had 10 years of unalloyed success as a TV producer in the 1980s – I’d made three blockbuster telly shows, I’d got married, I had two children, two houses, two cars, one whole wall of my office covered in awards, I had money, I was in decent health. And then on Christmas Eve 1993, I woke up and couldn’t see the point of anything. It was like running into a wall. I’d had a couple of really awful betrayals, which seemed to happen to me serially – I’d help people then they’d shit all over me. I went right down the hole, became fantastically depressed, very angry and resentful, and spent a lot of time under my desk crying. I was a commercials director then, very successful. And the worst thing was I couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy because I had everything. I had no reason to be depressed.

So how did you cope?

The way I saw it was, I had to turn the same kind of determination and intelligence onto myself that I would normally apply to my programming.  I set out out quite specifically to look for the meaning of life. I needed to find a better reason to go on living than the usual one, which is ‘he who dies with the most toys win’. That didn’t work for me anymore, I’d got the toys and they weren’t satisfying to me. Let’s see if anyone has any better ideas.

I started reading frantically.  I started with physics, I learned about quantum mechanics, and it astonished me. I learned what E=MC2 means for the first time – that matter is equivalent to energy and there’s nothing solid there really. Then I read The Agony and Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. And in there it mentions how the Medici wanted to recover the wisdom of the ancients, particularly Pythagoras. I thought he was the guy who invented the triangle. I discovered he was one of the greatest philosophers in history. I thought: that’s it! My God! I’ve discovered Pythagoras, no one else knows about this. I went to Foyles, to the Classics section, and said rather smugly, ‘do you have any books on sixth and fifth century BC Athens’, thinking there would hardly be anything, and he pointed, there was a whole wall on those two centuries in Greece. I staggered back, thinking it would take ten lifetimes to read all that, and that it’s too late at 42.

Continue reading “Features: 'I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy' : Conversation with John Lloyd”

'The Obstacle is the Way': Interview with Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way (May, 2014)

Interview by Zach Obront

What jumps out to me about Stoicism is that while it’s become popular in a sense, it seems like the mainstream only sees the same couple of thoughts continuously reemerging, as if these were the core principles of the philosophy. When I first read straight from the source though, it struck me that Stoicism is much more like a collection of practices and exercises than a traditional philosophy. Do you agree that its focus is entirely practical?

So, what I like about Stoicism is that, historically, it was the philosophy for men (and, I’m saying men because it was only men then) of action. Leaders, generals, politicians, you know? For most of the later Stoics, the focus was very much of ethics or operating principles. And so, I see Stoicism as being adapted for people who do stuff in the world. Not college professors, but people who are leading soldiers into battle, running a government, representing the people, that sort of thing. So I think that, when you look at the exercises, you see all sorts of things that are supposed to be reminders or solutions to the problems that a person like that faces.

So whether it’s Marcus Aurelius or Seneca, their writings are reminders of the problems that you tend to bump into. So, you know, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself not to be stained by the robes that he wear, which is a way of saying, “Don’t let it go to your head.” Or, he’s talking about never being overhead complaining in court. He’s saying, “This is your duty. This is your job. Complain at home, but do your job when you’re doing your job.” Or Seneca, who writes this letter where he goes through this exercise where he says “I’m going on a trip. This is what I plan to do, but I’m also ready for things to go terribly wrong, and this is how I’m going to handle the plans going awry.”

I think all the exercises have a lot of implications for how to make you a better, more honest, virtuous person. But they also have the side effect of making you a more effective, efficient, dutiful, reasonable, rational leader or person of action. And so that’s what I tend to focus on in my reading and understanding of Stoicism.

Continue reading “'The Obstacle is the Way': Interview with Ryan Holiday”