If you’ve heard all the hubbub about Stoicism in recent years, you might be wondering exactly how to be a Stoic.
Luckily, learning how to be a Stoic doesn’t require that you sign up for any expensive courses. All it takes is a genuine desire to live a good life, a dedication to the truth, and a willingness to continuously improve yourself over time.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy that you can carry with you everywhere you go. Rather than being something you achieve and then move on from, Stoicism is a practice that you can continue honing for your entire life.
Stoicism was founded all the way back in the 3rd century BC in Athens by a man named Zeno of Citium. After a shipwreck and a fated encounter with a famous Cynic philosopher, Zeno began discussing his philosophy in an area known as the Stoa Poikile in the Athenian Agora.
Over time, a regular group formed that would debate and talk about how to live a good life and how to be happy. These people were the very first Stoics.
Stoicism was a dominant strain of thought in the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD. It has seen a number of revivals since then, most notably during the Renaissance and in the present day.
Though there are many ideas in this fascinating and practical philosophy, some important ones include:
Through Stoicism, you can learn to not let your desires or emotions control you and your actions. You can identify what is and isn’t in your control and focus your energy on the things you can change. On top of that, you might just be able to learn how to live a good life that ultimately gives you that deep sense of happiness we all grave.
A central idea in Stoicism is that virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. Everything else is indifferent– though some thinkers divided these into preferred and dispreferred indifferents.
The Stoics believed that living a virtuous life is both necessary and sufficient to live a happy life.
In this philosophy, there are four cardinal virtues that are believed to constitute a unity. This means that they are all interrelated, and you must have all of them to truly have one of them.
The four cardinal virtues of Stoicism are:
The opposite of virtue is vice. The four vices are foolishness, injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.
If you’re on the fence about whether you should practice Stoicism, you might be interested to learn how it could benefit you. After all, Stoicism is a practical philosophy that you can apply to your everyday life. This means you can experience some substantial changes when adopting a Stoic mindset.
Some of the advantages of being a Stoic include that you’ll:
These are only a handful of the good things that could come your way if you started to take Stoic thought seriously in your own life. Stoicism might not be the only path to a better life, but it certainly seems that many wise men and women have used to it guide them on their journey.
Though this might seem like a lengthy list, you’ll find that all of the following points are interconnected and overlap with one another. Stoicism is an entire worldview, not just a five-minute practice you add to your morning ritual.
This is a set of concepts and ideas that you can return to over and over again. Remember, the philosophy of Stoicism is a practical one that you can use in just about every corner of your life. It isn’t something you should expect to perfect in a week– instead, it’s a lifelong journey.
If you are brand new to the world of Stoicism, one of the first steps toward becoming a Stoic is learning to be self-aware.
It’s all too easy to go through life without ever stopping to look at yourself in the mirror– figuratively, that is. There are many people who go about their lives without examining their own thoughts, urges, emotions, feelings, beliefs, and actions. Commonly, these people are stuck in a cycle of reacting to the world without ever wondering why they’re reacting the way they are.
Self-awareness is important in Stoicism because you need to be able to identify how you are feeling throughout the day and work to realize that you are in control of your thoughts, opinions, and actions.
There are a number of benefits to self-awareness that have been identified by researchers, including improving our:
These are only a handful of the benefits of being more self-aware. Ultimately, self-awareness– though it can be a difficult process when you first start encountering it– can improve our overall well-being.
There are a number of ways to improve your self-awareness, including:
These days, it’s easy to be constantly pulled in a thousand directions at once. We are more connected to the rest of the world than ever thanks to technology, and our lives can be hectic and busy.
One of the consequences of our modern lives is that it’s easy to never stop to appreciate the present moment. If we do find a free second to ourselves, we can get into the habit of turning to social media, shows, or other distractions that take us out of the experience of the present.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” – Seneca
The Stoics talk about the present moment a lot, with Seneca even saying that enjoying the present is true happiness.
Think about it. When you aren’t focused on the present, it means you’re ruminating on the past or fixating on the future. While there’s nothing wrong with reflecting and planning, you could put yourself in a situation where you never experience true happiness if you never let yourself stop and enjoy the moment.
If you are troubled by constant anxiety, this might really hit home. It’s possible to put all of your energy towards worrying about what will happen in the future, even if most of the things you’re concerning yourself with never actually come to pass.
“The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.” – Seneca
Marcus Aurelius gives great, simple advice in this regard.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” – Marcus Aurelius
What if instead of spending your nights laying awake worrying about what will happen in the future you took the attitude of “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there”? Sure, easier said than done, but it is definitely possible. As you continue on in your Stoic practice, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to set your anxieties aside in favor of what is happening right here, right now.
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius
It can be terrifying to realize that so much of what happens in life isn’t ultimately within our control. You can spend your whole life obsessively focusing on eating healthy and staying fit, only to receive a cancer diagnosis from your doctor. You can put all of your free time into building up substantial retirement accounts, only to lose them in a market crash.
One essential concept in Stoic thought is that much of what we experience is out of our control. Rather than weeping and screaming and freaking out about how unfair this is, though, they propose something different.
Focus on what you can control.
You can find a lot of great information about what we can and can’t control in the writings of Epictetus. The story of Epictetus is truly remarkable– he was born a slave and lived his entire life in poverty. You’d think that he would have every reason to complain about his unfair lot in life, but this isn’t what he did at all.
Instead, he realized that his opinions, desires, aversions, and thoughts were fully within his control regardless of what else was happening in his life.
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. – Epictetus
When you are correctly able to identify what is in your control and what isn’t, it can completely change your life.
Because you stop fixating on things that you can’t change and instead pour your energy into the things you can change. You realize that whenever you worry about something that you don’t have control over, you’re actually stealing time away from the things you do have control over.
So what are you supposed to do about the things that are outside of your control?
This isn’t something that will happen overnight, and it can be difficult at first. But with practice, self-awareness, and dedication, you can learn just how beautiful it is to accept the things that are outside of your span of control.
How do you spend your days? What do you do with your time?
“We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” — Seneca
The Stoics understood that the most valuable resource at our disposal is our time. Money is something that comes and goes. Even if you lose it all, you can get it back.
Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
We all probably spend too much time being distracted by things that don’t really contribute to our growth or the betterment of the world. Whether your drug of choice is social media, TV, video games, or, well, drugs, the demands of modern life can leave us seeking refuge in escape whenever we have a free moment.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people never waste time in this way. However, they end up giving all of their time away to others and martyring themselves in order to please everyone but themselves.
Both of these approaches are problematic. As a part of your self-awareness practice, consider tracking (either mentally or actually writing it down) how you spend your time for a week or more. Heck, start with a day if that's too big of a commitment for now. You might be absolutely shocked to find out how much time you put into certain activities.
Remember, your time on this earth is finite. What do you want to accomplish in your life before you die? Who do you want to become?
If you don’t know, that’s ok– it just means that you should put some serious time into figuring that out. If you do know what you want out of life, what are you waiting for? Time is of the essence!
We have a nasty habit of resisting reality because it doesn’t fit what we believe it should be. Pretty much everyone would agree that there are major issues in our current world, even if they have completely opposite ideas about what those issues are. However, the first step to making the world a better place (if that’s what you hope to do) is to fully understand what it actually consists of, rather than assuming we know the nature of reality without ever exploring it.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one ever was truly harmed. Harmed is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius
It seems increasingly common that people are attached to one worldview or another in a pretty severe way. They seem to view it as a part of their identity, their sense of self. This can make them blind to what is really happening when it doesn’t fit with their pre-determined picture of the world or existing line of thinking on a topic.
Consider the advice of Marcus Aurelius in the above quote. How often have you seen someone change their mind or actions because someone presented them with a truth they hadn’t yet encountered? Sadly, it seems quite rare.
When you do see this occur, though, you are witnessing a person that is more concerned with the truth than with being right and protecting their ego. It's a beautiful thing.
“No one can be happy who has been thrust outside the pale of truth. And there are two ways that one can be removed from this realm: by lying, or by being lied to.” – Seneca
When we delude ourselves, we are further from nature and further from a happy life. It doesn’t have to be this way.
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius
He makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? The more you work on a commitment to truth, though, the better able you will be to view the world with a Stoic mindset.
“I cannot comprehend how any man can want anything but the truth.” – Marcus Aurelius
If the idea of seeking the truth is uncomfortable to you, it’s ok. We all walk the path of life with our own rhythm, speed, and direction. It’s a big first step to even contemplate that you might be wrong about some things, or that you’ve been deluding yourself about others.
“Letting go all else, cling to the following few truths. Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal life is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth; and little, too, is the longest fame to come - dependent as it is on a succession of fast-perishing little men who have no knowledge even of their own selves, much less of one long dead and gone.” – Marcus Aurelius
In the above quote, Marcus Aurelius gives a great synopsis of some of the truths that we should remember as we go through our lives.
Where does your happiness come from? Do you seek from other people and their acceptance, or do you find it within yourself?
A lot of us are motivated by the desire to be liked by others and the fear of social disapproval. This is reasonable to some extent– after all, there can be some serious repercussions to being disowned or shamed by a group. That being said, living this way certainly comes at a cost.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics believed that you don’t need anything outside of yourself to be happy. Chasing power, money, popularity, fame, social status, etc. isn’t going to give you the deep sense of life satisfaction you might think it will. Instead, you can only find contentment and happiness by engaging with your inner resources.
Your inner resources aren’t just there to make you happy, either. They are incredibly valuable when you face adversity.
“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.” – Epictetus
That’s right– when you deal with difficult experiences you actually might find out that you have strengths you didn’t know about, so long as you dig deep into inner resources.
Related to the previous point, a major mind-shift you can make as you work to become a Stoic is actually embracing hard times. This might sound crazy and impossible– who wants bad things to happen to them?
It’s not that you actively want to experience difficulty, but that you embrace it when it arises.
Why would you do this, you might ask?
Because it will make you stronger. Because it will help you become the best person you can be.
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” – Seneca
That’s right– it’s actually the people that never encounter difficulties that are the least happy. Though adversity doesn’t seem like a great time when you’re dealing with it, you’ll find that you learn that you had more inside you than you realized when you come out the other side alive.
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” — Seneca
The Stoics even went so far as to practice misfortune in order to prepare themselves for the bad things that could happen down the road. If you are worried about something or fearful, you can visualize exactly what would happen if your fears came to pass. This can help you overcome anxiety and fear and be better able to deal with misfortune when it knocks on your door.
In the moment, the things we’re going through can seem like a huge deal. Maybe you’re fixated on a job interview for a position you must land, or perhaps you’re fuming at something your father said last night. Maybe your entire being has been consumed by your Ph.D. thesis, or maybe you’re feeling high and mighty because of your net worth.
No matter what’s happening, whether you identify them as “good” or “bad” (remember, in Stoicism, the only good is virtue and the only bad is vice– all else is indifferent,) it isn’t permanent.
Realizing that we are caught in a universe that “is change” (according to Marcus Aurelius) can help you gain a healthier perspective on the day-to-day occurrences your experience. Whether you’re on top of the world or feeling like you’ve hit rock bottom, the recognition that everything is ephemeral can leave you best able to deal with the surprises of life in the long run.
There are billions of people on the planet, and each of us is just one. We get caught up in our day-to-day life, but we are ultimately very small. History is long, the universe (multiverse?) is enormous, and our lives on earth are quite brief.
“Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a bird’s- eye view and see everything all at once— of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets— all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.” — Marcus Aurelius
At the same time, this isn’t a recipe for nihilism. Instead, we can tap into the reality that we are mutually interdependent on all other humans as they are on us.
Another important practice to pick up if you’re trying to be a Stoic is meditating on your death. It actually isn’t grim or depressing, at least it isn’t if you’re not missing the point. When you remember your mortality, it can actually give you a new zest for life and a humbled perspective you can carry with you throughout the day.
Meditating on your death will help you realize that your time is finite. It will help you find that oomph you need to pursue your goals and live a good life. Believe it or not, thinking about your own mortality might just be the thing that finally gets you off the couch and really engaging with life.
Though it’s most often associated with Nietzsche, the concept of amor fati was embraced by the Stoics thousands of years before. Meaning “a love of fate,” this idea is something you can meditate on and use to make sense of everything that happens to you.
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” – Epictetus
Instead of wishing things were otherwise, can you be glad that things happen as they do because you believe them to be a part of your fate? If you do, you might just find your entire life changes.
Stoicism has helped countless modern people escape anxiety and take control over the things they can actually change in their lives. There is so much valuable information in the writings of the great Stoics that you could easily spend the rest of your life parsing through their works and contemplating them. At the same time, the principles of Stoicism are easy enough to understand that you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to learn how to apply them to your life.
Are you looking for more Stoic quotes and articles to inspire you and help you learn about this ancient philosophy? If so, be sure to check out StoicQuotes.com.