A to Z: Everything you need to know about Stoicism

Zeno of Citium, in 3rd century BC, popularized the teachings of Socrates and Heraclitus when he taught philosophy to his students. Zeno’s teachings became the basis of stoicism when the three personalities Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca started practicing it as a way of living.
Before we delve into the topic, I’d like you to know the three best practitioners of stoicism-
  1. Marcus Aurelius: The Roman emperor – the strongest person of his time.
  2. Epictetus: A person who was born as a slave, and later on became a teacher.
  3. Seneca: An adviser to the emperor and one of the richest people of his time.
Among the initial and most famous stoics, you could see the diversification in their lifestyles.
Interestingly, that’s the very base of stoicism as a lifestyle philosophy; that everyone from a king to a rich man to a slave- can and should practice it.
 
Here are the top lessons we can learn from stoicism:
 

A. Memento Mori (Remember, you’re going to die)

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. (Marcus Aurelius)

Remember the last time you spent your day fighting with someone, and maybe you patched up after a while too?

What was the use of that fight?
Are you utilizing your time well? What if you die with a heart attack right away?
Or you meet with an accident by the end of the day?
Keep this in mind every time and you’ll hesitate to waste your time again.
And having a reminder of your mortality pushes you to do valuable work and not indulge in petty things.
Death is an inevitable truth. In fact, it’s the only constant in our lives.
We can choose to be depressed about it, or we can make use of the time we have on this planet.
“Every third thought shall be my grave.” (Shakespeare)
 

B. Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been. (Marcus Aurelius)

Epictetus was born as a slave, who went on to become a professor and later started his own philosophy school.
His leg was disabled, probably broken by his master. (Source unconfirmed)

But that didn’t stop him to overcome his obstacles.

In regard to this, Epictetus used comment-  “Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”
 

C. The impediment to action advances action. What comes in the way, becomes the way. (Marcus Aurelius)

There are three types of people in this world –
1. Ones who get destroyed by tough situations.
2. Ones who somehow survive the tough times.
3. Ones who actually change their tough situations to get the advantage of them.
What kind are you?
Do you get destructive when the times get hard, or do you somehow let the tough time pass through and survive it…
OR
Are you the one who turns the obstacles into a stepping stone?
 
(This is the primary idea for the book Obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday which happens to be one of the best books on stoicism written in the contemporary world.)
 

D. Amor Fati (Love for Fate)

When Thomas Edison was 67 years old, one fine day, while he was having dinner at his home, his laboratory caught fire. He went outside to see his office building burning in flames – all the five-six stories of the building.
All of life’s work would be ashes in a few hours.
He immediately told his son, “Go call your mom and her friends. They might never see a fire like this again!”
Sounds laughable. So far, yes.
Edison calmed his coworkers saying- “We probably got rid of all the rubbish.”
And the story doesn’t end here.
Fast forward one month later, Edison was working with his workers, double shift, to nullify the loss. They had suffered a loss of $1M (of that time), and due to their efforts and hard work, Edison and co. generated revenue of $10M that year.
That’s not an example of only loving what’s happening, but let go of what you can’t control.
No matter how powerful, strong, wealthy you are – you can never overcome fate.
So, it’s a thing you can’t control- no matter what. Period.
 
So instead of fighting with it, struggling against the fate, stoics were taught to love their fate.
“Come what may” could be their motto.
Well anyway, it’s not about how you were born.
It’s about what you did after you were born the way you were born.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote – “To accept without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.”
 

E. We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” (Seneca)

You overslept on an important event day.
You are running late to the event. You must be having all the crazy thoughts in your mind, thinking ‘Oh, I’m dead now’.
And when you reach there, you see the event is running just fine, even without you.
Your presence wasn’t even that much necessary.
And hence goes the words of wisdom from Seneca- “…we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Did it really hurt you as much as you thought it would?
Probably not.

F. Don’t talk about what a good person should be like. Be that Person. (Marcus Aurelius)

Our problem is that we talk.
We point out the scope of improvements in the government, in society, in the world. And that’s all we do.
We talk all day long about the job we want to get, the passions we want to follow, the book we want to write, the musical instrument we want to learn to play, the body shape we want to be in… and then we just finish the topic after talking about it.
That’s where we need to improve.
You won’t lose weight, by talking about ‘dieting’ and ‘exercising’. You have to actually work out and lead a healthy lifestyle.
Actions over intentions.  Any day. Any time.
 

G. “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” (Marcus Aurelius)

So, maybe another girl rejected to date you. And maybe it’s the third rejection you have received in the past month.
What are you going to do about it?
Well, for starters, you could cry about it. Most of us would.
But there’d be a stoic person who’d accept these rejections and start working on himself – making himself better and better.
Also anyway, if you don’t invest in yourself, who else will?
 

H. Summum Bonum (The Highest Good)

But what exactly would be the highest good?
In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”
And isn’t it the solution to most of our problems?
No matter what the situation is, there’s always one answer.
And that is- Do your job. And do it right. Period.
 

I. Only the educated are free. (Epictetus)

You start from level zero. Every day you decide if you want to move forward or backward.
Every day you get a chance of Reinventing yourself (James Altucher)
Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows. (Seneca)
As long as you live, keep learning how to live. (Seneca)
If you wish to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. (Epictetus)
A true student is like a sponge.
Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold.
A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for the ego there.
Source: Ego is the enemy by Ryan Holiday

J. Contemptuous Expressions

It’s a stoic exercise to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
Epictetus used to do this activity with his students. He’d ask them, whenever they quote some great philosopher, to picture themselves standing next to that person having sex. He’d be grunting, moaning, and inappropriately awkward like any of us.
And that’s how you see the human nature of that person.
It’s an art of seeing things objectively. The old wine is fermented grapes, and the roasted meat is just a dead animal.
When you decide to see things what they are, you’d distance yourself from the world of delusions.
 

K. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Don’t complain.

I didn’t go to an IIT because they have 90% caste based reservation.
Screw it. You belong to the 10% and you knew it from the start. Why didn’t you work harder?
It’s your fault. Stop complaining.
The boss didn’t give you a raise because he prefers female candidates?
Stop cringing and start your own company, or maybe change your job?
We blame government, system, society – for our own losses, while it’s our perspective and approach that’s truly at fault.

L. No man steps in the same river twice. (Heraclitus)

Right now is right now. Not the past. Not the future.
If you have the power to change something, it’s now- happening at this very moment.
And what do the past and the future do to us anyway?
Past bury us with the insecurities and future amplifies the doubt.
The present is what we have, what we can improve.
So, let’s do it?

M. It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own. (Marcus Aurelius)

“What will people say?” has crushed more dreams than anything else.
Opinions matter.
In fact, it’s the only way we can improve – by taking feedback.
Now it’s on us, how are we going to take the feedback – personally, or objectively!

N. The best way to avenging thyself is not to become like the wrongdoer. (Marcus Aurelius)

If a dog bit you, would you go chase the dog to bite him? Or would you let it go?
Understand how relieving it is to consider anyone who has ever done wrong to you like a dog, and just let the whole matter go. That’s it.
It’s your perception. Change it to your comfort.

O. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. (Epictetus)

You were robbed. You got shot in the leg during a fight. You lost your partner in an accident.
What’s next?
It’s never about what you have.
It’s about what do you do with whatever you have.
Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child. Whatever happened to him as a child, didn’t stop him to be one of the best soccer players of today’s time.
What’s your story?
What’s stopping you to achieve greatness?

P. External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. (Marcus Aurelius)

So, it’s the basic step of stoicism- to classify every problem and situation in two categories by asking the two questions to yourself-
“Is this something I control? Can I do something about it?”
Is it? Can you?
If yes, then do it.
If not, then move on.

Q. How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself? (Epictetus)

But my mentor wants me to do things his way.
Okay. Do things his way. Then do things your own way too.
We wander most of our lives seeking permission from people who don’t matter.

R. Premeditatio Malorum

It’s a stoic practice that stands for pre-meditation of the evil and accounts for imagining the worst in advance.
Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Premeditatio Malorum is the stoic practice for considering whatever is inevitable for us.
We live a life that’s unpredictable.
You could be hit by a bus today, or maybe a terrorist can attack your area. You don’t know what will happen next.
All these things are out of your control. Accept it willingly and live your life to the fullest.

S. How you do anything is how you do everything.

Pay attention to the task that’s in front of you. (Marcus Aurelius)
The road to success is from A to Z, divided into steps and stages.
We stand at step A or B and we keep dreaming and obsessing about step Z, forgetting the steps from C to Y.

T. Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. (Seneca)

Clarity in thoughts.

Clarity in actions.

Clarity in words.

If you are not clear with your thoughts, your actions, and your words, well, you are going to be messed up.

One step at a time. One action at a time. One thought in a moment.

U. Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can. (Seneca)

And that’s ego.

Ego is the delusion we create around our personality, that we are too important in this world.
Ego is the sense of superiority that is far beyond our talents and confidence combined. It’s an unhealthy belief in our self-worth.
Narcissism. Arrogance. Delusions.
These are the three best words to define ‘ego’.

V. I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you. (Seneca)

It was the same decaying organic matter that went on to become diamond because it went through extreme pressure. The same matter which wasn’t set to such extreme pressure could only be sold as coal.

And we know the price difference between diamond and coal.

Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men. (Seneca)

W. I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid. (Cato)

“But…”

“You know…”

“Wait, what if…”

Damn those interruptions we cause to others, just because we don’t want to listen.

We don’t want to listen, because it might hurt our ego – that someone is speaking the truth about us, or maybe someone is right and we are wrong. We don’t listen because speaking is easier than being humble and listening to someone else.

And we were given two ears and one mouth – so we could listen to double the amount of what we can speak.

Once we start living by this conviction, our words will start carrying more significance.

X. There’s the event itself, and the story we tell ourselves about the event. (Ryan Holiday)

What if I told you – “I just want to kick your butt really hard.”

Now you could either feel offended, or you can just laugh it off and give me even a sarcastic reply to this.
There’s the event itself, and the story we tell ourselves about the event. “Oh, Dipanshu is so rude and offensive!”
Or
“Dipanshu definitely likes being sarcastic in public, and don’t mind getting a more sarcastic reply in return.”
It’s on us what story do we tell ourselves about the event.

Y. Ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer. (Marcus Aurelius)

Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear. (Marcus Aurelius)

Here’s the timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life (Source)

1816 His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.

1818 His mother died.

1831 Failed in business.

1832 Ran for state legislature – lost.

l832 Also lost his job – wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.

1833 Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year, he was bankrupt.

He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.

1835 Was engaged to be married, sweetheart died and his heart was broken.

1836 Had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.

1838 Sought to become speaker of the state legislature – defeated.

1840 Sought to become elector – defeated.

1843 Ran for Congress – lost.

1848 Ran for re-election to Congress – lost.

1849 Sought the job of land officer in his home state – rejected.

1854 Ran for Senate of the United States – lost.

1856 Sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention – gets less than 100 votes.

1858 Ran for U.S. Senate again – again he lost.

1860 Elected president of the United States.

Did you notice the no. of failures Lincoln faced? And the end result? He was the elected president of the US.

If he’d lost his will to keep pursuing the path, what do you think the history could have been?

Z. Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it. (Epictetus)

Last, but not the least: There won’t be any use of reading and mugging up all the philosophical quotes… unless you take action.
Hence, this is the ‘Z’ of stoicism.
Work. Efforts. Action.
So resume your life, and live it in a better way with all of this stoic wisdom.
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