6 things the ancient Stoics can teach us about modern life.
By Brad Beckstrom
I don’t recall enjoying anything about philosophy class in college. It might’ve been that the class was early in the morning and the professor spoke in a whispering monotone voice, reading texts from ancient, long dead philosophers. I was too busy looking forward to have much concern for these lessons from the past.
I hadn’t learned much about Stoicism. The Stoics had largely gotten a bad rap and their philosophy nearly vanished thousands of years ago. These ancient Greeks, and later Romans, were depicted as stern characters that expressed little or no emotion in the face of tragedy, or even life’s grand victories. They internalized things and were indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain. That last sentence is right out of the dictionary. Holy crap, these guys seemed like a bunch of downers.
As it turns out, they are still largely misunderstood and only parts of their philosophy of life have been communicated over the years. The Stoics were actually full of joy and had truly advanced thinking on how to live the best life.
Over the past few years, writers, entrepreneurs, artists started talking about the Stoics again. It started with a trickle, a few books by respected authors then thousands of articles, blog posts podcasts all mentioning this strange Stoic philosophy. Authors including Tom Wolfe, Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Alexander Green, William Irvine and Nassim Nicholas Taleb were writing, speaking, and teaching this ancient philosophy. Their books sell in the millions so that trickle turned into to a river.
I recently listened to an interview where Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday discussed why Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, and Epictetus, a Greek slave, both subscribed to the idea of Stoicism. In fact, both of their writings “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and “The Art of Living” by Epictetus survive and are still selling today over 2000 years later. I was fascinated by this, but wasn’t quite ready to check out ancient philosophy books from the library. I decided to start with Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way.”
I proceeded to work my way through books by each of the authors above and was amazed by all of the applications that Stoicism could have on modern life. The fascinating thing about all of these books is that they are not the type of slow-moving academic philosophy tomes you might expect. They are interesting, engaging reads, filled with modern examples of successful application of a Stoic philosophy.
So here’s my take on Stoicism and some links to further reading.
6 things the ancient Stoics can teach us about modern life.
A deep sense appreciation for life. The Stoics were best known for using something called negative visualization. What I found is that they were masters at finding joy in daily life. They did this with a deep appreciation for what they had by imagining what life would be like without it. It was called negative visualization by others because often it involved envisioning losing friends, loved ones, their home, all their possessions. In fact, what this helped them do was develop an appreciation for what they had today versus always wanting more. They treated people as if this may be the last time they ever see them. They really did live in the now. Think of how you might treat a friend, or even a walk with a pet, if this were your last time together.
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love,” – Marcus Aurelius
They looked on all people with compassion. When they encountered people with grave illnesses or living in poverty, they put themselves in these people’s shoes and got a better understanding of suffering. They developed a deep appreciation for the talents they had by imagining themselves without those talents. They understood that no matter how difficult your life may be, there are many others that deal with far greater struggles every day.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus
They were fearless and did not have concern about things outside of their control. They were adept at overcoming fears by focusing on only the things within their control and leaving the rest to a higher power. In modern life, we often get hung up on things outside of our control like the latest political scandal, traffic, or the economy. The Stoics were able to focus on the now, avoiding worry and fear with the understanding that the future has not arrived and the past is gone forever.
“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” – Epictetus
They were chill. They strived for tranquility and understood that people who hate or engage in misdeeds do not deserve an emotional response. They knew that emotions like fear and anger and hate were personal choices regardless of other circumstances. They had an early understanding, despite their surroundings, for the value in rehabilitation and education versus punishment.
“When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger” – Epictetus
They understood that dark days matter. When things go wrong, the Stoics believed they were teachable moments. Difficult events are teaching us new virtues like patience, understanding or the wisdom to turn an obstacle into opportunity.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” -Seneca. Also used in the Semisonic song Closing Time.
They lived their lives based on a set of core principles, versus wealth, rewards or recognition. They strived to build their lives around virtues like wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. They understood that wealth and possessions often led to an insatiable desire for more. The Stoics called this overcoming insatiability.
“The more pleasures a man captures the more masters he will have to serve.” – Seneca
As many Christians can probably tell you, this type of thinking was not popular during the decline of the Roman Empire. The Stoics were often publicly executed or banished to remote Greek islands. (I will take option 2 please). Their views fell out of favor and many of their great texts were lost or destroyed.
The Stoics are hot again. Like an ancient rock band that gets back together and kicks off a successful world tour. A whole new generation discovers their underappreciated early work.
Here is a list of further reading, starting from the most accessible to the great early stuff, by the original band members.
- The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
- Beyond Wealth: The Road Map to a Rich Life
- A Man in Full
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
- Meditations: A New Translation
- On the Shortness of Life (Penguin Great Ideas)
- Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics)
- Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness
See these books and others on living, working, and traveling lean on my bookshelf.