Perhaps you have never heard of Stoicism, or perhaps you’ve heard it mentioned in a podcast or seen an article online about what it is. Perhaps, like me, you have begun to incorporate some of its principles into your life. When I first began learning about Stoicism, I was under the impression that it was a lifestyle built on emotionless living. The word “stoic” brings about an image of a rugged man who lives on the edge of the wilderness and smells like campfires. He always wears flannel and has owned the same pair of dirty boots for twenty years. The stoic communicates largely in grunts and not-quite-disapproving glances. This is the distant father figure, the emotionally detached guy, the passionless loner.
I was first introduced to the idea of Stoic philosophy through an application called stoic1. I was searching for a digital journaling application, and liked the minimalist design this application offered. The journal prompts seemed engaging and relevant to my own life, and I found great value in the daily quotes that were offered for me to reflect upon. From there I began seeking podcasts and books where I could explore further and found The Daily Stoic, a website2 and podcast3 run by Ryan Holiday, a modern Stoic philosopher himself.
Stoicism is founded on the principles and writings of four ancient philosophers: Zeno of Citium, Marcus Aurelius the Roman Emperor, Epictetus a slave who became a respected lecturer, and Seneca a playwright and adviser to Nero. The name Stoic is actually derived from the location where Zeno gave the majority of his lectures – the Stoa Poikile, or “painted porch”. Stoic philosophy is built upon the foundational values of Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom. These core values are designed to help lead a fulfilling and untroubled life. To be clear, this does not mean that challenges will not arise, or that you will be happy every single day. Nor does this idea mean that you will never feel anxious, doubtful, or sad ever again. Rather, these ideas are meant to serve as boundaries within the self so that when life does become challenging or painful, you can remain in control and persevere through whatever trial has arisen.
So let us now take a closer look at these four values:
Courage is the idea that one can be strong in the face of adversity. Stoics believe that challenges and adversity are a good thing in life, not because they are comfortable, but precisely because they are not. Seneca writes that “No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” Again, the idea is not to be happy with adversity, but to recognize that there are things we can change and things we cannot. The idea is to shift our focus toward the things that we can change. If it is outside of our control, what good does it do to agonize over it? What benefit do we receive from allowing ourselves to ruminate and stress? There is none, so let us instead push toward a resolution using what tools we do have at our disposal; and if we get knocked down, we learn from it. Courage comes only when we have faced adversity. Let that sink in. Courage does not come from triumphing over adversity, but from facing it. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes our opponent will be stronger, more cunning, or more charismatic than we are. Sometimes the obstacle we face will knock us on our asses. But courage does not come from triumph, rather courage comes when we acknowledge the opponent or obstacle in front of us, and make an effort to overcome or remove it from our path.
If courage can be pictured as a sword held ready for battle, then temperance would be the sheath that holds the sharp edge at bay. Courage is an important principle to be sure, but it is not the only Stoic value. Temperance is not as flashy or showy as courage, but it is foundational. Temperance is moderation – nothing in excess. It is the deliberate actions one takes. Self-control comes to mind here. This is not to say that you should not enjoy anything in life, but the phrase “too much of a good thing” exists for a reason. Likewise, a deficiency in our lives can be troubling. So, the idea of moderation, temperance, and discipline takes root and finds its place. Maybe you’re asking yourself “how do I incorporate temperance into my life?” My answer would be, to build positive habits. There are many good books and resources out there on building habits in your life. My personal favorite is Atomic Habits by James Clear. He writes of the idea that we should try to be one or two percent better than we were before. Minor adjustments in our lives can drastically affect our trajectory if practiced over a long period of time.
Justice is the core virtue of the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius called it the “source of all the other virtues.” It is justice, the drive to do the right thing, which influences courage, temperance, and wisdom. Justice looks at and recognizes the world for what it is, but envisions a better one and strives to bring the ideal closer to reality. There is something sacrificial about justice. It demands much, and can often return little. In many cases, the seeds of justice which are sown do not bear fruit until years later, perhaps even long after we are dead. Justice teaches us to see and anticipate the needs of our fellow human beings, and to acknowledge our duty to meet those needs.
Wisdom. If justice drives the virtues, wisdom is the learned experience from practicing them. As mentioned before, we will make decisions and sometimes we will make the wrong decision. This does not need to be feared unless we continue to make the same wrong or stupid decision repeatedly, for, in this, no learning has taken place, and no wisdom has been gained. The foundation of wisdom is the acceptance of foolishness and stupidity. As Epictetus was quick to point out “you cannot learn that which you think you already know”. Allowing yourself to be the novice in the room will allow you to develop the skill of wisdom. Socrates was known for his method of asking questions, of perpetually being the student. Wisdom is the measure of knowing when courage is called for, how much is too much or too little, and what is truly good for mankind and what is not. Wisdom is also knowing what is indifferent. For example, the Stoics believed that money and possessions, fame and recognition, were neither good nor bad. There were preferred states – wealth is preferable to poverty, and health is better than sickness, but none of these things were by themselves good or bad. Judgment was passed only on the actions and intentions of another.
This was just a glimpse at Stoicism and the foundational principles which guide it. If you are interested in this philosophy, I recommend starting with the Daily Stoic. Ryan Holiday has done a wonderful job of curating resources and writing blogs and podcast episodes that dive deeply into this topic.