What Stoicism Is And How It Can Be A Guide To Living A Better Life
Updated: Jan 27, 2018
Stoicism is a philosophy that was developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. It teaches the development of self-control and how to gain courage while experiencing adversity or pain. It was practiced by Epictetus (a born slave who became a famous philosopher), Seneca (a statesman and dramatist) and Marcus Aurelius (a roman emperor). Stoicism was more common in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, but it hasn’t garnered as much attention as it should have in the western world today.
The three important components of Stoicism are logic, physics, and ethics. The Greeks emphasized on ethics a lot and their primary ethical goal was the attainment of value. The Roman Stoics expanded on this and added a second goal which is the attainment of tranquility.
Tranquility is the quality and state of being calm, and it is such an important idea of Stoicism because the Stoics believe that the majority of our troubles are due to our negative emotions. If we are calm then we won’t have negative emotions which cause us to make irrational decisions.
Being logical is another important component of Stoicism and once it is understood that negative emotions can be the root cause of making poor decisions, you can see the importance of the emphasis that Stoics put on getting rid of negative emotions.
One thing the Stoics are very popular for is their idea of negative visualization. Negative visualization is when one imagines something bad happening to them in order to help themselves prepare for pain or adversity. We know that life isn’t always sunshine and there will always be moments of rain.
In my last paragraph, I mentioned that the Stoics stressed on ignoring negative emotions, so this idea of thinking about negative things that can happen to them in the future may confuse you but it shouldn’t. Imagining some type of adversity happening in the future is a great way to help us prepare ourselves for whatever may come our way.
When an unexpected even happens, it can catch us off guard and anger us. But if we mentally prepare ourselves for it then we will have a much better idea of how to deal with it and it won’t affect us as much as if we were caught off guard.
Some other practices that the Stoics have are meditation and taking a day out of their lives every once in a while to live well below their means. Meditation helps them calm their minds and helps them gain a better self-awareness of themselves as they ponder their actions throughout the day. Taking a day out of their lives every once in a while to live well below their means is a good practice to help them remember the importance of what they already have.
Stoics believe that one of the greatest causes of our negative emotions is our desires. Our desires force us humans to live on a hedonic treadmill. Once we buy a BMW, we get tired of it and then we want a Ferrari. Once we buy a 4 bedroom house, we then want a 5 bedroom house or we may want a 4 bedroom house overlooking the water instead.
It is essentially wired into our DNA to continue to strive to want more. Stoics deal with this by taking the time to appreciate what they already have. One way of doing this is to live well below your means every once in a while.
An example is if you have the luxury of owning your own car and driving it to and from work everyday, you can occasionally use public transportation to get to work. The crowded bus or train plus the delays are likely to upset you, but you will then appreciate the convenience of owning your own car much more.
All of these ideas plus many others about striving to live a better life are all inside William B. Irvine’s book A Guide To The Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy. I found this book to be a great read. Especially if one is looking to learn more about Stoicism.
I posted some ideas from the author below that I highlighted in the copy of my book to give you some more interesting thoughts on Stoicism. The words below are the author’s, not mine unless they are in brackets.
“The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions — including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy — will not be a good life. They therefore become acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at prevention failed.”
“Let me describe here in a preliminary fashion some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life. We will consider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire — most notably, fame and fortune — are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue.”
“We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control.”
“Although much has changed in the past 2 millenia, human psychology has changed very little.”
“[Humans] differ from animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. [Zeno asserted that this ability to reason was the function that people were designed for.]”
“Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus [Aurelius] says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours. Along these lines, we should think about how we would feel if we lost our material possessions, including our house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance; how we would feel if we lost our abilities, including our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how we would feel if we lost our freedom.”
“We should keep in mind that any human activity that cannot be carried on indefinitely must have a final occurrence. There will be — or already has been! — a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch. There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.”
“The Stoics argued that the best way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy whatever desires we find within us but buy learning to be satisfied with our life as it is — by learning to be happy with whatever we’ve got. We can spend our days wishing our circumstances were different, but if we allow ourselves to do this, we will spend our days in a state of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, if we can learn to want whatever it is we already have, we won’t have to work to fulfill our desires in order to gain satisfaction; they will already have been fulfilled.”
“What is the primary function of man? Our primary function, the Stoics thought, is to be rational.”
“Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence.”