This is a summary of a talk I delivered at Stoicon-X in Athens and Toronto. It is based on a 10-week course on Stoicism developed by the Stoic Gym and is available in a book form, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. The actual course expands on these ideas, and is supported by 30 readings along with 10 specific exercises, one for each week, to reinforce the principles outlined below.
Stoicism, like most philosophical systems, has scores of concepts which could be confusing to a beginner. If we want to understand the basics of Stoicism to apply it to our daily life without having to master too many of the concepts, we can start with answers to some basic questions.
What is the purpose of Stoicism? Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy. So, Stoicism is a philosophy whose aim is to steer us toward a happy and flourishing life or the good life.
What is the raw material we can use to create the good life? The raw material of the good life is not what most people think it is. It is not money, education, fame, reputation, or any of those but what Stoics call impressions. All our thoughts are impressions: ‘it is too hot’, ‘it is too cold’, ‘he is stupid’, ‘she is beautiful’, etc., are all impressions. Impressions are stimuli as they appear to us.
Someone gives $10 to a charity. You can see it in many ways: ‘He gave $10,’ or ‘He cares about helping,’ or ‘He is so stingy.’ Such impressions are the raw material from which we need to construct the good life. We commonly accept our impressions to be true. However, to be happy, we need to judge the impressions to see if they correct or incorrect. If we consistently make correct judgments about our impressions, it will lead to the good life.
How do we make sure that our judgments are correct? To make sure our judgments are correct, we apply four special skills (known as ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can reinforce these skills through the use of three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.
This, in essence, is how I see barebones Stoicism. (This is not the only way to understand Stoicism, but just one of the many possible ways we can frame our understanding.)
The Stoic house: A metaphor
From here on, I will the use the metaphor of a house, with the foundation going in four different directions, with four walls, three widows and a roof sloping in two directions.
What is happiness or the good life? It’s a life without friction, “a life that flows smoothly” (Zeno). This means that we are not at odds with ourselves or with the world. But our life seldom flows smoothly. It’s full of complaints: the wifi is too slow, the coffee is too cold, the room is too hot, I should have done this, she should not have done that, what if the interview doesn’t go well, I wish I had more money, this list of complaints is stupid … it goes on and on. We are not gliding on the highway of life but are stuck on a crowded city street full of potholes and stoplights with tailgaters behind us and erratic drivers ahead of us– and we are already late.
Why do we have all these problems? Why can’t we glide on the highway of life? Simple, the Stoics said. We have all these problems because we don’t live in accordance with nature. What does that mean?
Our problems are created by our inability to live in accordance with nature. Living in accordance with nature means two things: Living in accordance with human nature and living in accordance with the world outside of us. What is our nature? Rationality. What distinguishes us from all other animals is that we can use our reason – something that other animals cannot do. What is the nature of the world outside of us? The nature of the world is the totality of what’s happening, the way things are. Therefore, those who live in accordance with nature are not at odds with themselves or with the world.
Our problems are created by our reactions to what happens to us. We often believe that we are happy or unhappy because of what happens to us. In reality, we process what happens to us and label them good or bad. This is what leads to happiness or unhappiness. Two people may lose their jobs under similar conditions. One may think that it is disastrous and get depressed. The other person may look upon it as an opportunity to review one’s life and career path and perhaps find a better career alternative. Two people may get very similar medical reports highlighting some health issues. One may be dismayed to get such a report and the other might think that it is a good wake-up call to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Our happiness depends on how we react to what happens to us.
What we cannot control should be nothing to us. We spend a considerable part of our mental life trying to fix things that cannot be fixed. Let us look at some common expressions, “You shouldn’t have done that,” “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Of all days, why is it raining on my day off?” They are all expressions of trying to mentally rearrange what cannot be changed. We do it whether it is a minor crisis (“I should have taken the earlier train”) or a major one (“It’s terrible that I got sacked. Why me?”). Most of our problems will disappear if we learn not to fight or worry about what we cannot control. They are nothing to us.
We should act on what is under our control. While we are busy controlling what is not under our control, we fail to control what is under our control. When you lose your job, instead of spending the day trying to mentally justify why you shouldn’t have been fired, you can enjoy your next meal and look for another job. When you are sailing, you can blame the wind that is against you (not under your control) or adjust your sails (under your control). If we are after the good life, we not only need to ignore what is not under our control, but act on what is.
The foundations, critical as they are, cannot make a house. The fundamental principles of Stoicism tell us what is under our control and what is not and what leads to unhappiness. But not everything that is under our control is worth doing. To decide whether our judgments are correct or not we need four special skills (also called ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues’): wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. In our Stoic model, the walls of the house correspond to these virtues.
|Wisdom||What to do and what not to do|
|Justice||Who things belong to and who deserves them|
|Moderation||What to choose and what not to choose|
|Courage||What to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of|
Wisdom answers the question of what to do and what not to do. We confine our actions to what is under our control and do not waste our time and energy on things not under our control. This is the first cardinal virtue of Stoicism and the basis of all other virtues as well. Wisdom tells us that externals such as wealth, health, and reputation are not under our control while internals such as what we choose to think, feel, and act upon are under our control. To act wisely means treating externals with indifference and valuing our thinking, feeling, and actions as the sources of our happiness.
Justice is giving everyone their due. It is the realization that we are not isolated islands in the sea of humanity but a part of a larger whole. We are a part of our family and friends, which are a part of the society we live in, which in turn is a part of the world, and so on. So, our connection starts with people who are closest to us and extends outwards. We cannot hope to be happy if what we do is not good for our society. The special skill of justice urges us to understand that
What is not good for the hive cannot be good for the bee.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
and develop a sense of justice that will eventually contribute to our happiness.
Moderation or self-control is the stabilizing influence. Its purpose is to guide us towards what we should choose and what we should reject. The skill of moderation avers that things carried to an extreme can be harmful. Stoicism is not ascetic, and it does not prohibit our enjoying a good meal or a glass of wine (as long as we don’t treat these things as indispensable for our happiness). However, even things that are not necessarily harmful such as food and drink, if indulged without restraint or can harm us and hinder our realizing eudaemonia.
We are often afraid of things we shouldn’t be afraid of and not afraid of things we should be afraid of. Courage is the special skill that shows us what is terrible that we should be afraid of and what is not terrible that we shouldn’t be afraid of.
We are afraid of things such as poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death. We are less concerned about our judgments. The special skill of courage teaches us not to be afraid of things like poverty, loss of reputation, illness, and death. They are all external to us. Things like illness and death are natural and therefore not terrible. Things we are commonly frightened about are not really frightening. What is truly frightening, and we should be afraid of, are our bad judgments. As long as an external thing does not the relate of our judgment, we have nothing to be afraid of anything external.
How do we develop these four special skills needed to achieve eudemonia? By practicing three disciplines: the discipline of assent, the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire. These are three windows of our Stoic house.
The discipline of assent: We defined impressions as ‘stimuli as they appear to us’. But impressions can be wrong. Someone who appeared rude to you because she ignored you may just be shy. Someone who you thought was unintelligent because he couldn’t focus on things could be going through a personal crisis. The discipline of action asks of us to review our initial impression to determine whether it is internal or external to us and whether we want to assent (agree with) our impression. A false impression will have no impact on us if we do not assent to it. So, the discipline of assent helps us to develop the skill of wisdom.
The discipline of action: When we understand that we are part of a larger whole, we act to make the whole better. So we act for the betterment of our family, friends, country, and the world. This is the discipline of action and it helps us develop the skill of justice.
The discipline of desire: To develop the skill of moderation we need to rein in our desires and to develop the skill of courage by not giving in to our aversions or fears. The discipline of desire, therefore, helps us hone the skills of moderation and courage.
Now we come to the roof of our Stoic house. The roof is sloping in two directions, corresponding to our daily practice and enjoying the festival of life.
Daily practice. Stoic philosophy is not a theoretical discipline created for the intellectual enrichment of scholars, but a practical philosophy created for the life enrichment of its practitioners. Daily practices are ‘spiritual exercises’, as Pierre Hadot pointed out. All theoretical principles we discussed thus far are of no value unless we put those principles into practice.
How do we put these principles into practice? There are many ways, such as:
- Doing Stoic exercises every day. One way is to explore the Stoic exercises described in books, articles, and blogs and select a few exercises to do on a daily basis. They can include morning and evening meditations, premeditatio malorum (‘negative visualization’), and the like. They will all help.
- Reading Stoic materials regularly. Or we may choose to read the Stoic literature first thing in the morning every day and think about it. This will help us remember Stoic principles when we need to use them.
- Using Stoic slogans. We can memorize a number of Stoic slogans and use them as occasions arise.
- Using metaphoric or humorous expressions. This usually makes light of the situation. For example, when we feel upset about any aspect of reality, we may want to repeat to ourselves the line from the song, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”:
“Cause I’m never gonna to stop the rain by complaining, because I am free.“
When we try to control an external thing and it doesn’t work, we might want to say to ourselves
Well, that handle didn’t work! (This is in reference to Epictetus’ comment that everything has two handles. If one handle doesn’t work, try the other.)
When you catch yourself worrying about what is not under our control.
This none of my business. Who put ME in charge?
In general, it doesn’t matter which method you use – reading daily, practicing Stoic exercises everyday, using slogans, or using humor to deflate the problem – as long as it is practiced consistently.
Enjoying the festival of life. Eudemonia is more than simply not feeling miserable irrespective of what happens around us or to us. It is also about enjoying the ‘festival of life’.
Why not enjoy the festival of life when it is given to you to do so?Epictetus
Above all, Lucilius, learn to feel the joy!Seneca
But where is this festival of life happening? Right here, right now. We don’t need to go to exotic places or exquisite restaurants to feel the joy. The beauty is all around us. Marcus Aurelius ruled the largest empire the world had ever known until then and was the most powerful person in the world. He could have had any pleasure his power and wealth could buy. What did he find charming and attractive?
We should also remember the casual grace and charm of nature. A loaf of bread splits open in the oven; random cracks appear on it. These unintended flaws are right and sharpen our appetite. Figs, when they ripen, also crack open. Olives, when they are about to fall just before they decay, appear more beautiful. So are drooping stalks of wheat, the wrinkling skin of a staring lion, foam from a wild boar’s mouth, and many more such sights. There is nothing beautiful about these sights when we see them in isolation. Yet, due to some other process of nature, they become charming and attractive.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.1
This charming and attractive world, this ‘festival of life,’ is given to us. It is for us to enjoy it.
How To Be A Stoic When We Don’t Know How
The foundation of Stoicism is understanding that we need to live in accordance with nature, that we create our problems by our judgments about the world, and that we can mitigate our problems by ignoring what we cannot control and acting on what we can. To implement the fundamental principles, we need four special skills: wisdom, justice, moderation, and courage. We can develop these four skills through three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.
Once we understand the fundamentals and have methods of implementation, we can sustain them through our daily practice and learning to enjoy the festival of life.
This is the house of Stoics. This, in my view, is how to be a Stoic when we don’t know how.
Chuck Chakrapani is the editor of THE STOIC magazine and the author of many books on Stoicism including How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How. He is the president of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.