In many, the word philosophy and its underlying content evoke unfavorable feelings. Maybe public education trained us like this, maybe we just came across too complicated thoughts before, we didn’t get the right books in our hands at the right time.
Not on my first try, but I found the right book that has something to say and is useful. This book was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Meditations contain practical wisdom. I felt I could use its lessons right away in my everyday life.
The question arose in me as to whether there was any other book like this. It turned out there is a whole school of philosophy. That's when I found Stoicism.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of philosophy with a practical approach that can be used in everyday life. Its main thoughts are based on concentrating on the things we can influence, preparing for the worst, and contemplating the shortness of life.
Nowadays, thanks to the books of Ryan Holiday and the writings of Tim Ferris, Stoicism is gaining much popularity. Many in Silicon Valley turn to Stoic thoughts as a remedy for stress caused by a hectic pace, as well as to clarify their goals.
However, Stoicism is not new.
The Cypriot-born Zeno has founded it in Athens around 310 BC. Its name comes from the word stoa (column hall, market), as Stoic thinkers gave their lectures in the market hall of Athens.
Originally, Stoic philosophy covered three major disciplines: logic, natural philosophy, and ethics. Stoicism was widely known by Roman thinkers who focused only on ethical issues that could be put into practice.
Among the most significant Stoic thinkers were Epictetus, the slave philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor, and Seneca, the playwright.
Many refer to Stoicism as the philosophy of slaves because it focuses on things that can be changed and ignore elements that are independent of us. However, Stoic philosophers from different social classes proved the wide applicability of their chosen school of thought.
Significant Stoic thinkers
Although Stoicism originated in Athens, the greatest attention was paid to Roman thinkers. This can be attributed to the fact that fewer written memories survived in the wake of the first Stoic philosophers, or to the fact that by the time of Epictetus, the emphasis on Stoicism shifted from logic and physics to practical ethical issues.
“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
Epictetus was born as a slave in Hierapolis (present-day Turkey). Presumably, he had been lame on one leg since he was born, so fate played a strange game with him.
His master allowed him to study science, so he became a disciple of Caius Musonius Rufus, from whom he learned the basics of Stoic philosophy. He later gained his freedom and then founded a school.
Perhaps referring to Epictetus, it spread that the Stoic way of thinking was the philosophy of slaves. Undoubtedly, many can draw strength from Stoic thoughts, but the teachings of Epictetus go beyond a social class. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, often referred to Epictetus in his writings.
Epictetus meditated much on the things he could and could not control.
Why would you get angry at things you can’t change?
Instead of frustration and anger, he accepted the factors independent of him and focused more on the thoughts and events he could shape.
According to another eternal truth of the teachings of Epictetus, set an example before you and cling to the values you profess. Don’t just talk about your values, act like that and set an example with your actions.
One of the most interesting facts about Epictetus is that he never wrote down his thoughts. His disciple, Arrian, described his teachings so that the reflections of one of the most influential Stoic thinkers could survive.
Compared to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus ’writings are more complex, less readable, but they can still have a big impact on our thinking.
If we think that Marcus Aurelius was also inspired by the teachings of the slave-philosopher, why not go after the source ourselves?
"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature."
The role of role models is indisputable even according to Epictetus.
This is how the philosopher sums up his thoughts:
"One of the best ways to elevate your character is to emulate worthy role models.”
We could not find a better candidate for a role model than Marcus Aurelius. From 161 for two decades until his death he was Roman emperor. He was the most powerful man of his age. In addition to his imperial duties, he always devoted time to his thoughts and philosophy. He was humble and wise.
While the thoughts of several philosophers are known only from records, Marcus Aurelius wrote his letters himself.
We cannot think that the emperor had a luxurious or easy life.
During his reign, he had to contend with the gaining Persian Empire, the northern peoples besieging the empire, and his inner opponents. He spent most of his life in a camp tent while defending the peace of the Roman Empire. British historian Edward Gibbon mentions Marcus Aurelius among the five good emperors, while the end of his reign also marked the end of the Roman Golden Age.
He saw philosophy not as an occupation but as conduct.
During the meditations of the Roman emperor, he kept a diary, which he did not intend for the general public, but himself. This diary is Meditations, one of the best known and most easily interpreted Stoic works.
Meditations are about self-discipline, humility, the shortness of life, and self-realization.
If you want to learn the basics of Stoic philosophy from the writings of a multi-disciplinary thinker in an understandable way, be sure to start with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations!
Seneca is the most interesting Stoic philosopher based on his career path. He was born in Hispania (present-day Spain) but studied in Rome. Preparing for a political career, things went well for the later playwright, until Emperor Claudius exiled him to Corsica for his relationship with Claudia (Claudius' sister).
Returning to Rome after the exile, Seneca became the teacher and then counselor of the later bloody emperor, Nero. Thanks to the emperor, at one time Seneca was the richest man in Rome, and then his death was caused by the same person.
His life was rippling amid ever-changing political conditions, but he was always able to keep his composure. The framework of his life was provided by Stoicism. But how can Seneca talk about self-reflection, the brevity of life, and good acts at all?
Prepared as a senator, she had to flee because of his affairs, accumulating huge fortunes in Rome, becoming one of the richest people, and then becoming the educator of an emperor who performed terrible actions.
Seneca's moral compass was Stoicism, with which he was able to strike the right balance between ever-changing conditions.
Is Seneca be hypocritical or did he just play the game of life well?
"Life's like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters."
Seneca was the most productive Stoic writer, leaving several high-impact works for us. One of his most-read books is The Shortness of Life, which, in addition to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation, is a perfect introduction to Stoicism.
In The shortness of life, our only finite resource, time, is at the center.
The book includes three letters where Seneca talks about the waste of time, happiness, and goals.
Stoic values, practices
Proper navigation between courage, moderation, justice, and the complex situations of life. These are the fundamental values of Stoic philosophy from which politicians, soldiers, slaves, and captive prisoners have drawn strength throughout history.
But what other truths of life did the Stoics found and how can we unfold these universal values?
Memento mori - Remember you must die
You boarded, you set sail, you've made the passage. Time to disembark. - Marcus Aurelius
Along with the hospital record, we all received a fatal diagnosis at birth.
Our lives and our time are finite.
Memento mori in means: Remember: You must die!
Of course, this should not be taken negatively.
Although we don’t live forever, our time is still plentiful if we manage it well. Most people waste their time. In Seneca's words,
“Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”
Thinking about death must have an impact on our present.
Ask yourself the question:
- If today were my last day, would I do the same?
The Stoic Way of Journaling
Marcus Aurelius's Reflections are practically the result of the emperor's diary. In his writings, the Stoic emperor is not short of advice on the morning routine and diary writing. While Marcus Aurelius wrote in the morning, in preparation for the day before, Seneca was reflecting on the previous.
When everyone went to bed, Seneca always took the time to think back to the past day.
- What happened to him?
- What did he do?
- How did he feel?
Whether you’re reflecting on the past day with your diary writing or preparing for the challenges ahead, it has benefits for you.
Not enough to read. It is not enough to learn. What we have learned must somehow be fixed in our brains. Be it numbers, sentences, values , or emotions.
Tips for Stoic Diary:
- Following Marcus Aurelius, choose something you are grateful for, or someone you look up to and write a list of why you think of it the way you do!
- Imagine being a fictional person or someone spending an entire day with you. At the end of the day, write a letter to yourself advising yourself based on what you saw last day.
- Think about what values you consider important! Think through your day and decide how true you could be to your values!
- Choose an emotional moment, a conflict from your life, and write about it in a neutral tone!
- Imagine your successful self 10 years later! How do you look like? What are you doing? What are the events between your future and your present self?
“The wise man, he said, lacked nothing but needed a great number of things, whereas, the fool, on the other hand, needs nothing (for he does not know how to use anything) but lacks everything." - Seneca
Negative visualization is a technique that can be traced back thousands of years.
Take it as if it were constantly the what would you do if... question asked, but the second half of the question would be always something terrible.
- What if I lost my job?
- What if I were sick?
- What if my friends turned their backs on me?
Of course, these thousands of years of practice (which Marcus Aurelius and Seneca also loved to do) are in stark contrast to the “believe and come true” BS in modern self-improvement literature.
Why does negative visualization still make sense?
You’ll appreciate what you have: If you imagine the worst and realize that it was all just an exercise, you’ll appreciate what you have better.
You are preparing for different options: By preparing for the worst-case scenario, nothing will come as a surprise.
Stoicism, writers, sources
Stoic philosophy is more complex than characterizing it based on one or two ideas. Every thinker saw the world a little differently, translating stoic thoughts to a different age. However, there are timeless classics that have placed human nature at the center of their reflections.
If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, you might want to start with Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations. The emperor’s writing is easy to interpret and dissects several ethical issues. Another good choice might be Seneca’s work on The Shortness of Life, which contains three thematic letters.
Ryan Holiday has done much to translate Stoic thoughts into a 21st-century setting, seeking to explain basic Stoic thoughts in his books with the stories of today’s vomited and successful people.
It is worthwhile to proceed with the works in the chronological order of their writing, starting with The ego is the enemy.