Stoicism is an Ancient Greek school of philosophy founded in Athens. It is based on personal ethics, a system of logic and seeing the world as it is, not as you want it to be.
The Stoics differentiated between 3 things: good, bad, and indifferent things.
- The good things include the cardinal virtues wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.
- The bad things include the opposites of these virtues, the four vices folly, injustice, cowardice, and indulgence.
- Indifferent things include all the rest and its opposite: wealth and poverty, health and sickness, pleasure and pain, material things…
The most important concept of Stoicism is to draw the line between what is in your control and what is not. There are only so many things you can control in life, and a lot of things you cannot. Learn to live with that reality and to make the most out of it.
The main reason Stoicism has regained in popularity over the past years is because in a world of constant evolution, temptation and conflict, Stoicism helps bringing stability, simplicity, and peace of mind. It only asks you to focus on what you can control, to reason with logic, and to ignore everything else.
I recently started reading more about Stoicism, and have come across a lot of quotes from the 3 most famous Stoics: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. In this article, I present my favourite quotes from them.
“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 . . .”
This takes us back to the number one principle in Stoic philosophy: focus on what you can control, let go of the rest. I was actually working on this myself before begin introduced to Stoicism, and it is such an important rule in life.
Worrying, arguing or fighting over things that are completely independent of your control is a huge waste of time and energy. As a recent example, think of all the people who had their summer plans crushed because of the Coronavirus outbreak. All the cancelled flights, trips, the lost money… There’s absolutely nothing you can do to change that, so the only way out is to move on. In the case of Corona, it’s true not just for you but for a lot of people, so it’s even easier to see the obvious: you can’t change this.
“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled — have you no shame in that?”
Especially in our fast-spending capitalism world, so much of our mind and opinion are controlled by ads, TV spots, the news, social media… It gets even more problematic when people are convinced that their opinion is based solely on what they think they know, that they came to their own conclusions without any external influence. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Your Facebook feed is designed to only show you things you agree with, support, and relate to. The same goes for Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest… If we’re only shown things we agree with, when is our mind being challenged? When do we learn to think on our own, to reason and analyse? Well for the most part, we don’t anymore.
We give people and organisations the power to control our minds and we want freedom at the same time. Social media nurtures the hugest cognitive bias of the modern world: the confirmation bias. The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior personal beliefs or values, without challenging any of it. If you favour this political party, you’ll only see ads for this party, and you won’t question anything outside of this option anymore.
Learn to open your mind to new horizons, challenge what you think you know, don’t let external factors dictate your mind what to think.
“Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you’ll feel compassion, instead of astonishment or rage. For you may yourself have the same notions of good and evil, or similar ones, in which case you’ll make an allowance for what they’ve done. But if you no longer hold the same notions, you’ll be more readily gracious for their error.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Trying to understand the people who hurt and/or annoy you can have a huge impact on your life. It’s so much easier to be grumpy and remorseful in life, than it is to be happy and compassionate. Most of us choose the easy option.
Learn to see the bright side in people, even the ones you assume only hold negative energy. A core principle of Stoicism is also that everything happens for a reason. People are not mean just for the sake of being mean. This is not how it works. People are mean because they hold a certain amount of pain inside themselves. Everybody goes through hardships, things they don’t understand. Everybody gets hurt, or blindsided, once in a while.
Whether you start looking for beauty in people, or try to understand why people do things, it will help you deal with the ones causing you trouble in your life, and it will help alleviate part of your own pain.
“Were you to live three thousand years, or even a countless multiple of that, keep in mind that no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living, and no one ever lives a life other than the one they are losing. The longest and the shortest life, then, amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses. No one can lose either the past or the future, for how can someone be deprived of what’s not theirs?”
— Marcus Aurelius
Memories are in the past. Future is uncertain. Present is right here, right now. Our world spins so fast, it’s so easy to forget to enjoy the moment. Of course you should plan your future, have goals, and aspire to do things in life. But once in a while, remember to focus on the present.
Focusing on the present helps removing worries, even just for a little bit. Don’t think of yesterday. Don’t anticipate tomorrow. Just focus on this very moment right now.
“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”
Beautiful people are beautiful because they make beautiful decisions, not because they spend 1 hour in front of the mirror every morning. When you are aware of your decisions and how they align with your values, that’s when you’ll find beauty and serenity. You are the choices you make, so choose wisely.
“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, or in the mountains. You are very much in the habit of yearning for those same things. But this is entirely the trait of a base person, when you can, at any moment, find such a retreat in yourself. For nowhere can you find a more peaceful and less busy retreat than in your own soul — especially if on close inspection it is filled with ease, which I say is nothing more than being well-ordered. Treat yourself often to this retreat and be renewed.”
We always look for the next weekend getaway to finally be able to relax, the next vacation to let go of our worries. But the truth is, peace of mind can be reached much sooner. You can travel anytime by sitting down, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breathing.
When you take 5 to 10 minutes to meditate in the morning, you create your own little retreat. You don’t need to go anywhere. When you feel overwhelmed during the day, stop everything for a minute and focus on your breathing. Let go.
This constant need for getaways also comes from a pervasive modern urge to escape. We want to run away from our responsibilities, the people we avoid, a place we dislike, because it feels like everything is too fast, too scary to deal with.
When you take time to breathe and meditate, you will not only regain energy to face and deal with your day-to-day obstacles, you will also realise that a lot of these obstacles are only created by yourself. You feel the need to avoid people because you set your mind to think his way. You dislike this place because you chose to. Try to change your angle.
“First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do. For in nearly every pursuit we see this to be the case. Those in athletic pursuit first choose the sport they want, and then do that work.”
How many of us go about life without a plan? How many of us go about our day out of habit, without ever questioning the reality we set up for ourselves? Have you ever wondered what you wanted to do, who you wanted to be, before following the path you’re on? Do you know where you’re going?
Leon Tec said: “A sailor without a destination cannot hope for a favourable wind”. First choose your destination, then adjust your sails. You don’t control the wind, the waves, and other external factors. Stoicism’s first principle tells us to focus on what we can control. It also tells us to focus on the present, which is a lot easier and more enjoyable when we know where we’re going.
Having a plan helps worrying less about the future, because even though you don’t know what will come your way, you know you will do everything in your power to get where you want to get. Nobody know how this will play out, but you can stack the odds in your favour.
If you feel like life is passing you by, if you feel caught in a storm of priorities, responsibilities and people, and if you’re losing your bearings, go back to basics. Ask yourself: what person do I want to become? Then, list down the actions you have to perform in order to become that person. Do what you have to do.
“We like to say that we don’t get to choose our parents, that they were given by chance — yet we can truly choose whose children we’d like to be.”
You don’t choose where you were born, who your parents are, where you grew up. We all have to play with the cards we are dealt in life, and there’s no point in cheating, complaining, or quitting the game. Are you a product of your environment, or can you take responsibility for it and start shaping your environment?
Many successful people in this world would have never gotten where they are today if they had decided to let their environment shape them too much. You don’t choose your cards, but you choose how you play them. In any game, there is wiggle room for luck, and that can drastically change the course of things for anyone. Stoics tells us to acknowledge luck, but never rely on it. Know that it might come your way to help you one day, but never ask anything of it.
Focus on becoming the child you want to be, that’s all you can do. The rest will happen.
Finally, one quote that speaks for itself.
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible — and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Build your life. Deal with the obstacles. Keep going.
And remember to enjoy the journey.