A few years ago, when my daughter Poppy was four, she began asking me to tell her stories. I didn’t know any children’s stories, so I told her what came to mind: stories about Greek myths, heroes, and philosophers. One of her favorites is about the Athenian general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora and the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, etc. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of other goods. So Xenophon went with him and became one of his closest friends and followers.
I told Poppy that most people believe there are lots of good things—nice food, clothes, houses, money, etc.—and lots of bad things in life, but Socrates said perhaps they’re all wrong. He wondered if there was perhaps only one good thing, and if it was inside of us rather than outside. Maybe it was something like wisdom or bravery. Poppy thought for a minute, then, to my surprise, she shook her head, saying, “That’s not true, Daddy!” which made me smile. Then she said something else: “Tell me that story again,” because she wanted to continue to think about it. She asked me how Socrates became so wise, and I told her the secret of his wisdom: he asked lots of questions about the most important things in life, and then he listened very carefully to the answers. So I kept telling stories, and she kept asking lots of questions. As I came to realize, these little anecdotes about Socrates did much more than just teach her things. They encouraged her to think for herself about what it means to live wisely.
One day, Poppy asked me to write down the stories I was telling her, so I did. I made them longer and more detailed, then I read them back to her. I started sharing some of them online, via my blog. Telling her these stories and discussing them together made me realize that this was, in many ways, a better approach to teaching philosophy as a way of life. It allowed us to consider the example set by famous philosophers and whether or not they provide good role models. I began to think that a book that taught Stoic principles through real stories about its ancient practitioners might prove helpful not just to my little girl but to other people as well.
Next, I asked myself who was the best candidate I could use as a Stoic role model, about whom I could tell stories that would bring the philosophy to life and put flesh on its bones. The obvious answer was Marcus Aurelius. We know very little about the lives of most ancient philosophers, but Marcus was a Roman emperor, so far more evidence survives about his life and character. One of the few surviving Stoic texts consists of his personal notes to himself about his contemplative practices, known today as The Meditations. Marcus begins The Meditations with a chapter written in a completely different style from the rest of the book: a catalogue of the virtues, the traits he most admired in his family and teachers. He lists about sixteen people in all. It seems he also believed that the best way to begin studying Stoic philosophy is to look at living examples of the virtues. I think it makes sense to view Marcus’s life as an example of Stoicism in the same way that he viewed the lives of his own Stoic teachers.
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 (Encheiridion) 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.
If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.
Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices
There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice. You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism. Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy. Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…
Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high watchtower.
Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
A 20 minute talk by Christopher Gill, professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, on the philosophical project and aims of Marcus Aurelius.
Questions covered include: what is at the core of Marcus philosophical project in writing his meditations? And how ‘Stoic’ was Marcus Aurelius? philosophical method? Includes discussion of key passages for understanding the aims of the Meditations as a whole.
For those with a very short amount of time for this, a one sentence management summary of the findings is
Extremely promising, interesting results, much scope for further , more focussed research
N.B. Please read the limitations of the research section of the full report before quoting from this post or the report. Although the findings are very promising, further research is required before more definitive conclusions can be drawn. 10 Things we know now as a result of Exeter Stoic week that we didn’t know before
1) Participating in Stoic week led to approximately a 10% increase on a number of well-validated and widely used measures of well-being.
2) Participants felt both that the one week had increased their knowledge of Stoicism considerably and also expressed a thirst for more knowledge about Stoicism
3) Some Stoic exercises are much more popular and perceived as much more useful than others
4) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to be much more effective at reducing distress than it does at facilitating positive emotions.
5) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with some aspects of life satisfaction more than others.
6) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with some aspects of flourishing more than others.
7) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with reducing some negative emotions more than others.
8) Many participants perceived that Stoic week had helped them roughly equally with various areas of their lives including relationships, becoming a better person and becoming wiser.
9) The detailed “Overall Experience of Stoic week” questionnaire provided us with participants’ experiences of a whole range of topics including :
b. Satisfaction with Stoic week
c. Use of social media
d. How participants would like to take their own experience forward
e. Feedback on the booklet
10) Whilst there are significant Limitations in the methodology and scope the of research so far, there is reason to think that further more focused research would be worthwhile.
To find out a lot more detail, download the full report on Stoic week here.
‘A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds,
armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and
markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.’