The Little Book of Stoicism


Stoics had a curious approach to a life well-lived, because they argued that it is in our nature to thrive in life. In other words, living with Arete is to complete our nature, like a grape when it matures.

We all have the potential to live a happy, virtuous life led by reason, based on rationality. Living with Arete is the perfection of our nature, to become the best we can be.

  • They also use the idea of “living in agreement with nature”. The potential to thrive in life resides inside. Hence it is our nature to complete what has been planted within us and bring our potential to life.
  • To thrive in life is not something to be imposed or forced, it is what nature wants us to do — to become the highest version of ourselves.
  • They used different expressions to refer to the same thing: living in agreement with nature, being virtuous, or living how nature wanted us to live.

The sage

There are no perfect humans, that’s why the stoics used the Sage to depict an ideal character to look upon. The embodiment of perfection, virtue, and a source of inspiration.

The Sage mastered the four-character traits adopted from the Socratic philosophy, which they refer to as the four cardinal values:

  • Wisdom: how to act appropriately. It includes values such as perspective, good sense, or healthy deliberation.
  • Justice: how to act well in our relationship with others. It includes values such as good-heartedness, fairness, or integrity.
  • Courage: how to act when facing fearful situations. It includes values such as honesty, perseverance, or confidence.
  • Self-discipline: how to act right despite temptation. It includes values such as orderliness, self-control, or humility.

Unlike an artisan or a craftsman that uses wood or bronze, for the Stoics, life is the raw material for their practice in the art of living.

Focus on what you control

Some things are up to us, others are not. Stoics encouraged us to focus on what we control. To do this, they described three levels of influence:

  • High influence: our choices, actions, or judgment.
  • Partial influence: our health, or body.
  • No influence: the weather.

We can’t control random events, yet we can control our reactions to them. Which remains the core principle of Man’s Search for Meaning, and also influenced The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

It makes no sense to focus on the desired outcome because it’ll always depend on things we can’t control. It is better to focus on the process, preparation, and training.

Best practices

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

—— Hamlet

Accept, embrace, and love whatever happens. We don’t get to choose the cards we’re dealt, but how we play them is totally up to us. One can never tell if anything is good or bad, only time will tell. This idea is also related to The Obstacle is the Way, which stands behind the motto of “what stands in the way becomes the way”.

Nature has granted the use of life like a loan, without fixing any day for repayment.

—— Marcus Tullius Cicero

Memento mori is a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death, but also a core concept of stoicism. We should be reminded of the impermanence of people, health, or possessions. Everything is a loan from nature, and at some point, the lender will want it back. Hence it is a fool’s errand to pretend that anything will last forever.

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.

—— Archilochus

To prepare for the eventual repayment, Stoics suggest practicing the techniques of negative visualization, such as contemplating our own dead, voluntary discomfort (temporary poverty or get into uncomfortable situations). These activities will expand our comfort zone and get us ready for the day.

Following a minimal lifestyle is also part of this theme. We shall accept wealth, enjoy it, yet not cling to it. Being indifferent to riches will help us prepare for the moment when things are taken away from us.

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

—— Marcus Aurelius

Preparing for the day ahead was a common practice among Stoics. Not only by sticking to a strict morning routine but also by journaling and reviewing our actions at dawn. We shall start by focusing on just a few things, doing less, but better; tackling the most important duty first; dismissing the unimportant, such as the news, gossip, or social media; and spending time on what matters.

We shall always strive to seek wisdom. Being disciplined and doing what needs to be done. Never think of what others will think of us, dismissing fame and riches, to become a restless student.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

—— Mike Tyson

This principle is akin to the one described before around focusing on what we control and our reaction to events. It comes in many ways, but in the end, its core teaching tells that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind.

  • It is not what happens to us that matters, but our reaction to it.
  • We get disturbed by our opinion of the event, not by the event itself.
  • The Universe is not against us. It is not the other person’s actions that harmed us, but our interpretation of it. Our reaction to anything decides whether harm has occurred or not.
  • Things don’t happen against us, they just happen — anger is a pointless reaction. We shouldn’t give the circumstances the power to rouse anger, the circumstances don’t care at all.
  • Getting angry at a situation doesn’t change or improve a situation, on the contrary, it only magnifies the damage done to us.

We suffer more from imagination than from reality.

—— Seneca.

What we fear won’t happen in reality, but we’re held back and paralyzed by our fears. It is a projection into the future about something we don’t control that causes a lot of worries. We might be attached to something we don’t control, such as a loved one, a salary… yet we can’t desire things that are not up to us to keep.

Those who do not desire something outside their control can’t be anxious.

What we fear is a product of our imagination, not reality. We just think reality will be bad, but most of the time, it won’t. We shall stop, and beat fear with preparation and reason.

First published on August 05, 2021