How to Be Wiser: 13+ Thoughts from Stoic Philosophers

Updated January 6, 2023

Wisdom is one of the four Stoic virtues, along with courage, temperance, and justice. Learning how to be wiser isn’t something that happens overnight, but you’ll find a lot of great advice that you can apply day in and day out in these thoughts from Stoic philosophers.

In their writings, the Stoics teach us a number of ways that we can become wiser, including understanding what is in our control, having a purpose in life, focusing on the truth rather than our egos, realizing that we are disturbed by our thoughts and not events, and much more.

A Brief Overview of the Virtue of Wisdom

In Stoicism, the virtue of wisdom refers to a person’s ability to tell the difference between what is good, what is bad, and what is neither– a category that the Stoics called ‘indifferents.’

Before we get too deep into Stoic advice about how to be wiser, we’ll want to understand a little more about how they divided the world into good, bad, and indifferent.

In short, the Stoics believed that virtue is good by definition and vice is bad by definition. Engaging in virtuous actions is, according to the Stoics, the way toward a happy and good life. On the other hand, falling prey to vices will pull you away from the path to a good life.

It would be easy to write an entire book about the Stoic virtue of wisdom, but let’s just break down the general concepts of what is good, bad, and indifferent to help you put the tips on how to be wiser in context.

  • What is good: Instead of being greedy, lazy, or indulgent, you choose moderation. When you see someone in need, you help them. When you confront a situation that is stressful or scary, you act with courage despite your fear and anxiety.
  • What is bad: Being greedy, lazy, or indulgent. Taking advantage of people for your own personal gain, blaming other people for your problems and lying to others, and falling prey to your fears and anxieties rather than exhibiting courage.
  • What is indifferent: Everything that can be used for either good or bad and “neither contribute nor detract from a happy life.” The Stoics distinguished between “preferred indifferents” and “dispreferred indifferents.” These are, respectively, life, pleasure, health, strength, beauty, wealth, noble birth, and good reputation on the positive end and death, pain, disease, weakness, ugliness, poverty, ignoble birth, and low repute.

Before we jump in, we’ll leave you with a quote from Zeno that outlines the Stoic concept of what it means to be good:

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with nature.”

– Zeno of Citium

Think About the Right Things

If you want to be wiser, you need to be self-aware of your thoughts and realize you have control over them (we’ll get deeper into this idea in the next section.)

There are an infinite number of things vying for our attention in the modern world, and it’s all too easy to spend your life thinking about things that ultimately aren’t of much consequence and certainly don’t contribute to your desire to live a virtuous and good life.

Marcus Aurelius outlines this idea in the following quote, expressing that concerning yourself with what other people are thinking or doing when it isn’t of any mutual benefit is simply a waste of time.

“Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbors, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming -- in a word, anything that distracts you from fidelity to the ruler within you -- means a loss of opportunity for some other task.”

– Marcus Aurelius

It’s incredibly tempting to fixate on the actions and thoughts of other people. You can fill hours or days hypothesizing why the neighbors always leave their basement light on or whether they talk about you after you wave hello from the driveway. The truth is, though, that these things really aren’t of any consequence, and you’re thinking about them at the expense of more meaningful (and purposeful) ideas that could be occupying your mind.

This idea doesn’t just apply to your neighbors or other people, though. Becoming wiser requires that you take control of your thoughts and don’t let them mindlessly and uselessly.

For example, have you ever spent an entire day laying in bed watching garbage reality TV shows or scrolling the internet in a thoughtless way? Sure, maybe this can be a useful way to pass the time when you’re ill or desperately need rest, but this type of activity generally leaves you feeling worse than you started.

You can choose what you think about. What you think about has a huge impact on what you do and who you become.

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”

– Marcus Aurelius

What do you spend your time thinking about? Are they thoughts that contribute to your desire to be a good and virtuous person? Are they helping you on your path to a purposeful and meaningful life? Even starting to ask these questions will help you become wiser.

Learn What’s In Your Control

One of the ideas in Stoicism that has proved incredibly useful to countless modern people that have rediscovered the ancient philosophy is the dichotomy of control.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius

This principle states that some things in our lives are in our control while others are not.

Epictetus breaks it down in this way:

  • What’s in our control: “Opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing.”
  • What isn’t in our control: “Our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

There are a lot of things we try to control that we simply don’t have any influence on– traffic, the weather, geopolitics, and time, for example. At the same time, we often don’t take responsibility for the things that are in our control, such as our values, beliefs, perspectives, and actions.

This can be a major shift for many people. Here is Epictetus’ advice on how to deal with the fact that some things are and aren’t in our control in life:

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.

– Epictetus

When you become aware of what you have power over and focus your energy on those things (i.e., your thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, values, actions, etc.), it can radically change your life. You stop burning energy stressing about things that are outside of your control. This both makes you a more effective person and more capable of becoming who you want to be while also allowing you to have a lot more peace in your mind and life.

Realize That It’s Your Thoughts That Disturb You

If you want to be wiser, the Stoics would also advise that you learn that when you are bothered or disturbed by something, it isn’t that thing that is upsetting you. What is upsetting you, in reality, are the thoughts that you’re having about that thing.

“We are not disturbed by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens to us.”

– Epictetus

When you fully understand this idea, it will change your whole perspective. You can look at the exact same situation and see it from a wide variety of angles and choose how you react rather than being a ping pong ball in the game of life. This is one of the important tools that will allow you to become wiser in the eyes of the Stoic philosophers.

Learn From the Mistakes of Others

Making mistakes is an important part of personal growth and becoming more competent over time. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessary for you to needlessly make mistakes if there are other examples you can learn from.

marcus aurelius image and quote about being wiser by learning from others misfortune

“The wise man sees in the misfortune of others what he should avoid.”

– Marcus Aurelius

In this quote, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we can always be learning lessons about how best to act if we will simply pay attention. Other people are constantly giving us the gift of information if we are willing to look.

For some reason, humans seem all too capable of assuming that the things they see happening to others won’t happen to them. The wiser approach, however, is to always have your eyes open when other people are telling you about their experiences or when you’re witnessing them firsthand. Not only can you start to notice patterns of what seems to contribute to a happy life, but you’ll also certainly realize that certain behaviors, mindsets, and actions tend to lead to undesirable outcomes.

Focus on the Truth– No Matter How Painful or Difficult

We’ve all experienced it before– you state something that seems to you to be unquestionably true, and the listener balks. Maybe your friend is in an abusive relationship, and you take them aside to try and help them, only to find that they become enraged by the idea.

It’s scary how easy it is to lie to ourselves and others. We are prone to fixate on certain pieces of information and exclude others, all while letting our emotions run the show and try and protect us from discomfort.

At the same time, we are terrified of admitting that we were wrong about something that we had once so adamantly claimed we were right about.

marcus aurelius image and quote about being wiser and the truth

“I seek the is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance that does harm.”

– Marcus Aurelius

In this quote from the great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius reminds us that the truth doesn't harm us; what is harmful is remaining ignorant and lying to yourself. Right before this statement, he writes:

“If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change.”

– Marcus Aurelius

If you want to be wise, don’t fixate on being right all the time. Instead, focus on the truth and be willing to admit when you were wrong. This is the only path– otherwise, you’ll just be another person deluding yourself.

Be Grateful For What You Have

We all know that money isn’t supposed to buy happiness, but that doesn’t stop us from projecting our happiness into the future when we get that better job, that nicer car, or that bigger house.

In fact, modern Americans are much more affluent than their grandparents but, at the same time, less happy and more at risk for depression and other social pathologies.

If you’re guilty of this type of thinking, the Stoics would advise you to realize that you have everything you need to be happy right now. Marcus Aurelius tells us that “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

– Epictetus

Do you want to be wiser? An easy place to start is to work on being grateful for what you have rather than despairing over what you don’t have. Epictetus also tells us that “desire and happiness cannot live together.”

Even if you’re going through a particularly rough time, don’t be so certain that you won’t nostalgically miss these days once they’re gone. As Sigmund Freud said, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Practice Self-Control

Other failings of our culture are the apparent values of instant gratification, comfort, and convenience at all costs. We think we should be able to feel comfortable and experience pleasure at all times while also not experiencing any negative consequences from this.

epictetus image and quote about how to be wiser

“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.”

– Epictetus

We’ve all known people that were a slave to their pleasures. Whether it’s a relative with a drinking problem, a friend that spends their entire paycheck on unnecessary material objects as soon as it arrives, or a neighbor who does nothing but play video games and neglects his other responsibilities, it’s easy to see that letting desire control you doesn’t usually work out well in the end.

At the same time, the Stoics didn’t advocate for asceticism (the practice of abstention and severe self-discipline from all forms of indulgence) but moderation.

“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.”

– Seneca the Younger

In this Seneca the Younger quote, we see that the Stoics aren’t telling us not to enjoy pleasurable things that are present in our lives. The trick, however, is to do so with moderation, so we don’t reduce the chances of enjoying them in the future.

See Adversity as an Opportunity

Building off of the last point, another problem with our culture of comfort is that we are very averse to adversity. If you really want to be wise, though, you will want to learn to see obstacles and difficulties as an opportunity to become stronger, smarter, and more capable.

“Difficulty shows what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.”

– Epictetus

Bad things are going to happen in your life. Sometimes these are things that you bring on yourself by your own actions, sometimes, they are completely external events that are out of your control, and sometimes they are a perfect storm of both.

You can choose how you view these events. You can see yourself as a victim and mope around, asking, “why me?” Or, you can see it as an opportunity to “become an Olympic conqueror,” as Epictetus says. The choice is yours, but only one of these paths will help you become wiser.

Live in the Present

Another way that you can become wiser is to learn to live in the present. Epictetus reminds us that focusing on what we don’t have at the moment makes happiness impossible in this quote:

“It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”

– Epictetus

Marcus Aurelius tells us that “every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.” If you focus your energy and attention ruminating over the past or anxious about the future, you will struggle to utilize the Stoic virtue of wisdom.

“Don't stumble over something behind you.”

– Seneca the Younger

Living in the present doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future or learn from your past mistakes. It does mean, though, that you should learn to be fully aware of the moment.

Remember, the present is when the things you have control over occur– your thoughts, your actions, your mindset, etc. This is where your power lies, including your power to work toward being increasingly wise.

Practice Humility

We’ve all known people who were technically smart but also completely unaware that their own pride was negatively affecting them. Being smart and being wise aren’t the same thing, and exercising humility is an important part of the path toward wisdom.

“These are the signs of a wise man: to reprove nobody, to praise nobody, to blame nobody, nor even to speak of himself or his own merits.”

– Epictetus

In this quote from Epictetus, he outlines how to identify a wise man in your midst. This is a unique figure indeed– have you ever met someone that fits this description? It truly speaks to a pinnacle of human capabilities to have such a grasp over the nature of reality that they don’t fall prey to blaming or praising others or themselves, at least occasionally.

“He who seeks wisdom is a wise man; he who thinks he has found it is mad.”

– Seneca the Younger

The desire to become wise is a wise thing to do, according to this Seneca quote. Believing you're wise, though, means that you’ve fallen off the path. This is the paradox of wisdom– you’ve found it when you’re looking for it, and you’ve lost it when you think you’ve found it. For this reason, humility is key.

Don’t Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You

Marcus Aurelius once wrote that “the first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Easier said than done!

Our emotions are, for the most part, a natural and normal response to the things that happen in life. Keeping an untroubled spirit truly takes a wise person, but it is possible to take steps toward this end every day.

“The best cure for anger is delay.”

– Seneca the Younger

Here, Seneca acknowledges that anger is something that occurs and argues that the best “cure” for it is to simply give it time. After all, you might not have control over the initial eruption of anger that well up inside you, and we all pretty much know at this point that repression isn’t the answer. What you do have control over is what you decide to do with that anger– what actions you will or will not take. On top of that, you have control over whether you accept and examine the anger you feel.

Find Your Purpose

Seneca the Younger advises us that the wise man doesn’t do anything unwillingly and that the ideal state of man is realized “when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born.”

“There is nothing the wise man does reluctantly.”

– Seneca the Younger

“Man's ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy– that he live in accordance with his own nature.”

– Seneca the Younger

Finding your purpose might sound like an overwhelming task, but don’t worry. You don’t need to stay up all night and invent a purpose out of thin air. According to Seneca, you simply need to live in accordance with your own nature. This might seem abstract, but as a part of building your inner world, you will likely find that you develop a sense of why you are alive and what you are here to accomplish.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

– Seneca the Younger

When you don’t have a purpose in life, you’re aimless by definition. You’re just letting the wind blow you around. If it is a stated goal of yours to be wise, you’ll want to figure out where it is you’re trying to get to in life.

“The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.”

– Epictetus

Once you know what your purpose is (or at least an inkling), you’ll find that the most amazing thing happens. Your life isn’t an abyss anymore. Ralph Waldo Emerson noticed the same phenomena mentioned in the above Epictetus quote when he wrote that “once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

Build an Inner World

If you really want to be wise, you’ll also need to turn inward.

“A good mind possesses a kingdom.”

– Seneca the Younger

Unless you live in a cave on a remote mountainside, you’re likely constantly inundated with external information. You can easily spend your life simply being entertained by YouTube videos and video games while rather thoughtlessly assuming the social and political opinions that are fashionable at the moment. You can wake up in the morning, go to your job, watch TV and eat dinner, go to sleep and repeat for the rest of your life without ever cultivating an inner world.

If you want to be wiser, this isn’t going to cut it. If you want to use the principles of Stoicism to your advantage, you’ll need to dive into the terrifying and fascinating universe that is yourself.

“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Do you balk at the idea of spending a few minutes alone in complete silence without scrolling through your phone? Are you completely guided by the opinions and actions of other people rather than having agency of your own? It can be scary to turn inward at first, but it’s a dark forest worth walking into.

Take Action

If you want to walk the path to wisdom in life, Marcus Aurelius would urge you to do something.

“The happiness and unhappiness of the rational, social animal depends not on what he feels but on what he does; just as his virtue and vice consist not in feeling but in doing.”

– Marcus Aurelius

The action that we take in life is where we can practice being virtuous. At the same time, a lot of ideas sound wise when spoken or written, but they actually fall apart when viewed through practical situations.

If we want to accurately understand what is good, bad, and indifferent, we need to be active creatures. If we want to learn from our experiences, we need to do stuff. Rather than getting caught up solely in philosophical ideas, you’ll want to actually get your hands dirty with some regularity.

Work At It

It might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying. You won’t wake up one day wise. It’s not something that will fall from the sky one day when you’re walking down the street.

It’s something you have to work at.

“No man was wise by chance.”

– Seneca the Younger

If you want to be wise, you’ll want to work on it deliberately. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with purposeful attention, you’ll find that next year you’re wiser than you are right now, in ten years your wiser than you will be next year, and so on.

Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe.”

– Epictetus

The pursuit of wisdom is a lifelong journey. Though it might feel frustrating right now, the fruits of your labor will be truly remarkable down the road.

Are you looking for more Stoic wisdom to help guide you as you work to lead a virtuous life? Check out our Stoic quotes blog for practical tips as well as motivational and inspirational quotes.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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