How Stoicism Applies in Today’s World (Episode 4-39)
The timeless relevance of ancient Stoic practice
Stoicism asks the question, as initiated by Socrates; ‘How does a person live a good life?’ The study of Stoicism offers lessons on living well. My project of 39 Ideas for Life asks the same question, actually. As you probably know by now, the purpose of this project is to identify, study and analyze 39 ideas that make life better, both for myself and others. Hence, this fourth post is about what we can learn from Stoicism and how it applies in today’s world.
I imagine, that at our current day and age, we are confronted with the greatest abundance of choice and stimuli. At first sight, this might be perceived as a good thing, but I have my doubts. In all these options, it becomes increasingly difficult to decide what is important for us, and where we chose to focus our attention, and how to make good decisions. With this great wealth of stimuli, it becomes ever more difficult to be and stay present. We are continuously drawn into the future or the past, away from the here and now. While it is here, in the present moment, where living actually happens. Building on the findings from my previous research on How to Be Present, I’ve come to understand, that the importance of cultivating presence, was already imperative at the time of the ancient Stoics. So, who are these Stoics? And what key principles are at the center of Stoicism, this ancient teaching, which still seems relevant today?
In his book ‘Your User’s Manual’, author Anderson Silver speaks of the fact that as human beings, we have about 3 billion heartbeats in a lifetime (Silver, 2018). With every heartbeat, we’re getting closer to death. Every day, we are dying, a little. Think about it. Only 3 billion heartbeats... I’m exercising a lot. My mind and body do well on it. Last Saturday I had biked to a converted landfill site, the ‘Col du Vam’, 44 meters high. It has been transformed into a bike course where people train for uphill riding in a country where everything is flat. Later that day, I shared my training data with a friend. He jokingly commented it having been a ‘Sunday ride’, with my maximum heartbeat being limited to 165 bpm. Having read about our 3 billion average heartbeats a lifetime, makes me want to have more lower-heartrate ‘Sunday rides’.
What I’m trying to say is that life is extremely short. I’m 39 years young right now, but one could argue I’m probably around-, or close to the halfway point of my life. Did I already use my 1,5 billion heartbeats? And did I use them well? As I found out, the principles at the center of Stoicism help me gain perspective on these questions. One of these principles is, actually, “Memento Mori”, which is Latin for “remember death”. Remembering our mortality helps us distinguish between what’s important and what is not. It brings us back into the present moment where we can use rationality to make the best decisions, being our highest self. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…
‘The soul of Stoicism lies in its simplicity. It fundamentally teaches that human beings are rational beings’ (Beckett, 2015). As I know from personal experience, I myself am far from rational in more occasions than I’d like to admit. Nuancing Beckett therefore, I believe Stoic practice is about the continued pursuit of attempting to be rational (and virtuous) as much as we can, moment to moment. Therefore, ‘Stoicism can be defined as a way of life that teaches a person methods and ways to maintain a rational, calm state of mind no matter what events unfold in front of us’ (Turner, 2019). Or as Nauvall, defines it, ‘Stoicism is a toolset that helps us direct our thoughts and actions in an unpredictable world’ (Nauvall, 2019). Stoicism is the practice of being our highest- and best self. ‘The Stoics had an overarching goal of life. It’s called Eudaimonia and comes from the Greek Eudaimonia, (Eu-daimon-ia). It means being on good terms (eu) with your inner daimon. The ancients believed that we have an inner daimon, a highest self, an inner spirit, or a divine spark within all of us. And if we’re on good terms with our highest self, that is, if we live out our very being, then we will flourish in life’ (Salzgeber, 2020). Stoicism, in essence, has identified three things that contribute to this Eudaimonia, the Greek word that commonly translates to happiness, or welfare. Or in better wording; “human flourishing”, “prosperity”, or “blessedness”. According to this age-old practice, there are three principles (also referred to as the Stoic Happiness Triangle) that result in our flourishing:
Firstly, it’s about focusing on what you can control. It is easy to get carried away in our emotions and frustrations. This pulls us away from the present. It also diminishes our control. Instead, take a breath and recognize what is in our control. Accept the rest for what it is. Take a step back, and honestly reflect on what you can merely influence, and what you can really control. Spend your energy on the latter. Instead of trying to control things we cannot, Stoicism teaches us to love faith “Amor Fati”, and to welcome whatever comes our way.
Secondly, it’s about taking responsibility. ‘If you want anything good, you must get it from yourself’ (Epictetus). We are responsible for our lives. No one else. We are also responsible for our state of mind. It is our responsibility to decide how we act and react. We can’t control the world around us. But we can learn to control our actions and reactions. We can learn to take responsibility for ourselves, our thoughts and our actions. Cultivating the awareness that ultimately, we are responsible changes everything. When we take responsibility, our power over what we can influence and control increases. Anderson Silver differentiates between two types of responsibilities. The first relates to our responsibilities in society, as in the roles we have as a parent, business owner, lover, etc. Secondly, there is responsibility in relation to errors. How we own up to things, when we mess them up and make mistakes. In both cases, we are responsible for approaching every problem, decision and error as rationally and objectively as possible. Moment, by moment.
Thirdly, it is about areté, striving for virtue. Areté is about expressing your highest self in every moment. It is about knowing what is the right thing to do, comprehended by rational thought, and then, actually doing it. Again, moment, by moment.
On being upset or disappointed
On the other side of flourishing, and being our highest self, lay upset and disappointment. It’s easy to get swept away by life at times, when our best intentions and the hardest work fall on death ears. In those moments, we can’t help but feel that we’re owed something, and that things aren’t fair. However, those are feelings. There is no fair, no unfair. What is, simply is. ‘The universe is going to do what it does and you don’t have a say in it. When bad things happen, they are not actually bad, they just are. There is no good nor bad, because this would imply there would be another reality where things would happen differently, and that you could go to that reality. There is just the one reality, and you cannot change it. So just go the way things are’ (Silver, 2018). The universe doesn’t owe us anything. It will do what it does in disregard of our wishes and hopes. Therefore, reason dictates that we should not hope for things to be a certain way. As the outcomes are out of our control. Since we’re at the mercy of what faith will serve us, hoping for a certain outcome doesn’t help us. By doing so, we are negatively labeling any other outcome, other than the one we’re are hoping for. Following Stoic reasoning, and rational thought, this doesn’t make sense. Because, whatever is, just is (Silver, 2018). Marcus Aurelius also shed light on this. He states that when we’re upset with something happening, we’ve simply forgotten that: everything that happens, happens in accordance with universal nature; whatever fault that is committed, is not your concern; and finally, everything that happens has always happened, and will always happen. And is, at this very moment, happening, everywhere. Don’t get upset about the way things are. Just go the way things are. Then everything is your way. (Silver, 2018). Therefore, instead of worrying about things we do not have direct control over, let us focus our attention to the things we can control. There, applying rational thought, objectivity and self-discipline, we are able to shape what we can control by our direct actions in the present moment. From that moment, to the next, and the next thereafter. Go the way things are, as opposed to getting upset by them. Stoicism is using the good, and being good in the present moment, as often as possible (Silver, 2021).
Our big loud voice, and our small voice (inside)
In those moments of upset, disappointment and frustration, we tend to experience big emotions. During our interview on Stoicism, Anderson Silver makes a useful analogy in this regard. He distinguishes between the big and loud voice we have inside of us, versus the tiny and small voice. The big and loud voice represents our emotions, sweeping us away in sudden reactions to our environment, based on past experiences, or fears for the future. It’s the voice that shouts “Asshole!”, when someone suddenly cuts us off in traffic. It’s the voice that tells us “The world is going to shits, and there is no reason for hope” when we face setback, upon setback. This big voice is loud, and very prominent. However, it’s not a good advisor. We need to learn to pay attention to the tiny, small voice inside of us. It’s the tiny voice that asks, “Okay, we’re getting setback after setback, and all is shaken-up, but what can I do?” It’s tiny voice inside of us that is rational and logical. That seeks objectivity, and to understand. Learning to listen to that small and tiny voice inside of us, is what Stoicism aims to practice and teach. “Stoic principles teach you how to calmly face challenges, develop resiliency, enjoy a meaningful existence and excel in the art of living well” (Salzgeber, 2019). The big voice is the visitor; emotions come and go. But the little voice is always there inside of us. We can’t switch off the loud voice. Emotions will be there. The point is to just hear them, allow your feelings and emotions to be experienced. And then, with tranquility and calm, listen to that little voice in the background. Listen to your rational mind. We deal with our emotions by acknowledging them. Allowing space to feel them. Anderson suggests an internal conversation with oneself where we express understanding for the emotions felt. From there, it’s time to hear our small voice and let our rationality help us determine the best course of action forward. Being rational is not being emotionless. Being virtuous is the capacity to be rational while being emotional (Silver, 2021).
Our judgement is everything
In order to attain calmness in the face of challenges, we have to always make the most of the here and now. We need to be rational. Not to be led by our emotions. We need to recognize that our perspective and judgment of a particular situation defines how we perceive it, and how our life unfolds moving forward. As Epictetus said, we suffer not from the events in our lives, but from the judgement about them. Whatever happens, happens. Whatever happened, happened. We have no recourse. Just accept, as is. Our situation is good because of our judgement. It’s up to us. The only trouble and evil is within us. It resides in our judgement and how we see and perceive things. In the way we represent things to ourselves.
We cannot influence the past. Judgement, by definition is about the past. As Anderson Silver explains, ‘[o]ur sensory nerves are fast. Very fast. They speed information about our surroundings to our brain in microseconds. However, as we form our judgement about an event, remind yourself the event, albeit by microseconds, is already in the past. Using a past event to behave one way or another is a false justification. Whatever we judge, is per definition in the past’ (Silver, 2018).
How do we train and improve our judgement? ‘The answer is philosophy. Asking the right questions. Reflecting on these questions. Reflecting on ourselves, our surroundings, and then meditating and reflecting on these. Question everything. Everything we have heard, seen, observed. Never take anything at face value. Never take someone’s words, simply because they are spoken. Remind yourself that you do not know what you do not know. The pursuit of knowledge must go hand in hand with the pursuit of philosophy. Read opposing ideas and texts. Listen to opposing ideas’ (Silver, 2018). Knowledge and our rational mind are the most important tools for Stoic practice. Remember, it is up to us, our judgements and thoughts, to determine if something is good or bad. Good, bad, fair, unfair are all constructs of our own imagination. Marcus Aurelius writes about the discipline of judgement. He states that things are as you see them. Therefore, we need to make sure we see things rationally and objectively. It is not things that affect us, it is our judgement of things affects us.
Rationality is the central premise in Stoic thinking and practice. A way to see our rational mind is to imagine it as a bridge standing in a river of emotions and feelings. Yes, our emotions and feelings influence our state of mind. But we should recognize their fleeting nature. Like the water of the river under the bridge, it never stays in one place, but always flows passed. It may temporarily affect us, but we need to recognize that these emotions and feelings will pass. After their passing, we can return back to our tranquil and calm state. It is the bridge, our rational mind, where we can always come back to. Anderson Silver suggest to meditate on this bridge and the water underneath. Contemplate it. See how the water, and the feelings and emotions it represents, come and go. Whilst all of this, the bridge, your rational mind, stands firm. Doing the right thing and being able to choosing the right thing is the rational mind in action (Silver, 2021). In order to stimulate our rationality, Silver suggest the Stoic practice of journaling. Writing (by hand) forces our rational thinking. Therefore, make difficult decisions on paper. To ensure you’re making the best decision, rationally possible. This has been daily practice for many of our ancient Stoic examples. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, had the practice of journaling daily. For a substantial part it is because of the preservation and later publishing of these writings, that Stoicism has expanded its importance and relevance up until today.
Key thinkers in Stoicism
Marcus Aurelius: Emperor of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man on earth at his time of reign. Every evening he reflected on the day passed and wrote down his thoughts and observations in his diary. Later published as “Meditations” this diary would become one of the most important, profound and significant sources of Stoic Philosophy. I’ve read “Meditations” multiple time throughout my life, and continue to take lessons from it, and gain new insights and perspectives.
Epictetus: Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery, but ended founding his own school where he taught many of Rome’s greatest and most influential minds. Marcus Aurelius was one of his students. His teachings have been methodically recorded by his student, Arrian in the books called Discourses and Enchiridion. “Enchiridion”, which means “ready at hand”, is a practical handbook for dealing with life’s challenges.
Seneca: Seneca was known as many things, ranging from Rome’s best playwright, to the wisest broker, to Nero’s tutor and adviser. Seneca’s personal letters survived and served as some of the most sought-after sources of Stoic philosophy. These manuscripts survived despite being forced to commit suicide by Nero. The documents from these leaders of stoicism form the foundations of Stoicism.
Marcus Aurelius 3 golden rules
With Marcus Aurelius being the most famous individual from the list of Stoics above, let me share his 3 golden rules below:
Train yourself to fight the autonomous loop so as to see the world as it is, not as you see it. The autonomous loop enables us to focus on the voice of the person we’re talking too, even in a noisy room. However, this also leads to us missing many important, and especially new, things. Therefore, instead, investigate all that comes under our observation, systematically and carefully. Take a step back to see all there is, not just what we see through our autonomous loop, our conditioning and learnt behavior.
View things in an objective manner, by looking at them through other pairs of eyes. Our views and observations are dependent on, and shaped by our unique senses, mental models, experiences, fears, wishes, and wants. All our views are therefore biased. Seek out therefore actively to imagine different perspectives. For example, how does the person whom disagree with me see things? What can I learn from this perspective?
Routinely declutter the mind. A negative thought, event or issue to be dealt with, might never be addressed, and float around in our mind in the background, becoming a proverbial thorn. Without being rationalized, this can fester up and cause angst. To avoid this, we must declutter the mind. Grab a pen, and write your thoughts on paper. As Silver mentioned during our interview, writing by pen triggers our rational thinking. It cannot be done on autopilot. Through the process of writing down our thoughts, we can rationally deal with them and make sense of things. Declutter once or more, each day.
Cardinal Stoic Virtues
Following the 3 golden rules of Marcus Aurelius, the following are the cardinal Stoic virtues:
Practical wisdom: the ability to navigate complex situations, in a logical, informed and calm manner.
Temperance/self-discipline: the exercise of self-constrains in all aspects of life.
Justice: treating others with fairness, even when they have done wrong.
Courage: not just in extraordinary circumstances, but also when facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity. Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage (Seneca).
The current relevance of Stoicism
Some of the principles touched upon above trace back over 2,500 thousand years. However, it turns out that we as human beings, haven’t changed so much since. We still function in similar ways. We still have the same fears. The same weaknesses, and the same challenges to overcome. As Anderson mentions during our interview; ‘Our bodies have not changed. This vessel that we exist in, is still the same as it was 3,000 years ago’. As Anderson mentioned during our interview, ‘Stoicism is simple and it works, and that’s why it’s still around’. He later continued to define Stoicism as ‘using our rational mind to make the best possible decisions in the current moment’. That, of course, is a timeless custom, worth practicing.
Our negative, or positive responses to external events determine the quality of our lives;
Ask myself, “Why can’t I bare it?”, and be ashamed;
If it’s not right, don’t do it;
If it’s not true, don’t say it;
Remember that what you now have, was what you once hoped for (Epictetus);
If you seek tranquility, do fewer things, better;
Move from one selfless act to the next;
All that you say and do is always after the fact. Make sure that all that you say and do is virtuous and fits with your necessities (Marcus Aurelius);
A Stoic is always in a good place, regardless the circumstances;
Fight the battle in front of us, not behind us;
Justice, wisdom, self-discipline and courage are at the center of Stoicism;
Too often we see what is good as normal, and what is normal as bad;
It’s not the quantity. It’s the quality that matters;
The best way to get even with degenerate people is not to resemble them;
It is not what happens to me, but how I react to it what matters (Epictetus);
There is only the here and now;
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not;
See that your situation is still a good one compared to other worse situations;
No person has the power to have everything they want. But it is in their power not to want what they don’t not have and to cheerful put to good use what they do have (Seneca);
View the world as it is, not as you see it;
Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it (Epictetus).
To learn about Stoicism, and especially how the ancient Stoic wisdom applies in today’s day and age, I have interviewed Anderson Silver, both a student, practitioner and author on Stoicism. Anderson is the author of 3 books on Stoicism and Stoic principles and knowledge, and is the host of the podcast ‘Stoicism for a Better Life’ and the website by the same name. Anderson has worked, and is working, to enable others and himself to use ancient Stoic wisdom to live a purposeful and anxiety free life. By talking to Anderson, I learnt that this ancient practice is still very much relevant today. One could even argue perhaps, more relevant. This interview is filled with practical examples and nuggets of Stoic knowledge, ready to be applied and practiced. Enjoy! Stoicism for a Better Life podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/stoicism-for-a-better-life/id1490229179 Anderson Silver’s website: www.stoicismforabetterlife.com
Aurelius, Marcus, 2006, Meditations. https://amzn.to/3hSaJvu
Beckett, Thomas, 2015, Stoicism: Ultimate Handbook to Stoic Philosophy, Wisdom and Way of Life. https://amzn.to/2Uowz0P
Carter, Elizabeth, 2019, The Complete Works of Epictetus. https://amzn.to/3irmJDo
Epictetus, 2006, Enchiridion. https://amzn.to/3BllH4F
Epictetus, 2008, Discourses and Selected Writings. https://amzn.to/3wU0VWf
Holiday, Ryan, 2016, The Daily Stoic. https://amzn.to/3rjTqH5
Nauvall, Jonathan, 2019, Stoicism. https://amzn.to/3BgIYVf
Pigliucci, Massimo, 2020, The Stoic Guide to a Happy Life. https://amzn.to/3rvmr2F
Seneca, 2009, Dialogues and Essays. https://amzn.to/3BorJBs
Silver, Anderson, 2018, Your User’s Manual. https://amzn.to/2UXj3Rz
Silver, Anderson, 2019, Your Duality Within. https://amzn.to/3hLLwCY
Silver, Anderson, 2020, Your Dichotomy of Control. https://amzn.to/3zbEIV7
Salzgeber, Jonas, 2019, The Little Book of Stoicism. https://amzn.to/3BfgYBi
Salzgeber, Jonas, 2020, On Taking Responsibility. https://modernstoicism.com/on-taking-responsibility-the-stoics-in-exile-by-jonas-salzgeber/, accessed in 18 July, 2021.
Turner, John, 2019, The Power of Stoicism. https://amzn.to/3kxY2rA