When you close your eyes and imagine, what kind of personality do you wish to achieve? A bold, confident and mentally fortified person with unwavering will and determination, isn’t it? Just like the superhero you see in movies.
We all wish to achieve such mental stiffness and resilience towards emotional extremes but always find out our internal self being controlled on the whim of those external events. Ancient people understood such nature of mind, so they designed some philosophies to help them teach themselves ways of mental fortification. Here I am gonna explain about one of those popular philosophical practices of ancient Greece known as “Stoicism”.
Stoicism was first founded by Zeno of citium, but his works survive very little till this modern era. So Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus are only those subsequent followers, whose literature has made a strong foundation for modern Stoicism to stand upon.
Stoicism isn’t a textbook of outdated thoughts made by dead people, to just ponder, argue for a while and forget about it. It ought to be learned via action, by incorporating it in a form of practice in day to day life. Stoicism is not to be preached rather to be Embodied.
The reason why we have very little literature for Stoicism is simply because, every Stoic of ancient times saw Stoicism as a particular way of their living and not some idea to be preached upon. We are now able to learn the stoic wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, all thanks to his nightly personal journal, which he never thought of publishing. That journal was to help him concretise the philosophy. Later, archeologists found it and published it with the name “meditation”. Seneca’s wisdom came To us from the letters he sent to his friend to help him overcome hardships of life. For Epictetus, we got his knowledge from a note taking students. None of these stoics had any intention of publishing their knowledge and preach. Marcus even wrote in his journal,” waste no time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Focusing only on the things we can control, is perhaps the greatest wisdom this ancient teaching has given us. Things in our control include our opinions, judgements, words and anything in our own action. Uncontrollable things are our body, wealth, prestige, luxuries and cravings. These things are nice to have but are temporary and any misfortune can strip them away from us. In those moments we will feel deep agony and dissatisfaction as if a part of ourselves is lost but when seen from a stoic perspective, those were just our attachment and clinging to unnecessary things. These uncontrollable things are neither good nor evil, it is upon our conscience to perceive them as anything.
In Epictetus words,“ The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…
We must constantly remind ourselves that one day everything and everyone we love has to go, even ourselves. “Memento Mori ” (which means to remember that you will die) is a stoic practice that Seneca and Epictetus believed that it can lead to more gratitude and virtuous action. When you are constantly aware that you are gonna die one day, it is easy for you to reason that uncontrollable things are better left to flow in its own natural way.
When uncontrollable things don’t go as planned We suffer not from those events but from our judgments towards them. Keeping a resilient attitude towards such misfortune helps us navigate difficult situations of life with confidence and integrity.
Since it is a practical philosophy, we can easily assess that the interpretation of stoicism differs from one practitioner to another but the ultimate goal, according to the Stoics, is the achievement of a virtuous life which is possible only by living in accordance with nature. Living with virtue, saying the truth, doing what is right is the way of the stoics. As Marcus Aurelius wrote,” if it is not true do not say it. If it isn’t right do not do it.”
Stoicism rests upon four Cardinal virtues:
Temperance: voluntary self control
Prudence: ability to judge between virtuous and vicious actions according to time and place
Justice : treat everyone fairly and justly
& Courage : do the right thing
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Vices are just the opposite of virtues namely: intemperance, foolishness, injustice and cowardice.
Between vast areas of virtue and vice, lies indifference such as death, body, wealth, beauty, ugliness, people and so on.
Wealth, beauty, good people and so on are considered as preferred indifference while poverty, ugliness, loneliness and so on are dispreferred indifference. Materialistic wealth shouldn’t be regarded as toxic by nature rather it is great to have them. But entitling such goods to oneself will be the source of misery. One must accept the temporary nature of those wealth and know that we can still live virtuously even without them.
The applicability of stoicism as a way of living is proved by modern psychology. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders and severe mental illness. The philosophical origins of this successful therapy can be traced back to the ancient stoics.
Stoicism was an active school of philosophy and was foremost popular philosophy among the education elites of ancient Greece and Rome. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion. As a formal institution it faded away but it’s wisdom has been passed down from generation to generation to this day. Many leaders and thinkers of the world like George Washington, Immanuel Kant, Theodore Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nelson Mandela and so on have studied, quoted or admired the stoic teachings.
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In a nutshell, stoicism is a way of living that has helped many people in the past to live the life of happiness. Although it’s principles is now used in psychotherapy, anyone can incorporate it into their life. Perhaps, this practice might help you to realize yourself and achieve contentment in your life as well.