12 Stoic Principles Explained
The Death of God and Why Stoicism is Important
What relevance could a 3000-year-old Greek philosophy have in today’s world?
Stoicism, the philosophy originally taught on the porches of Athens, and later practiced by the most powerful ruler in the history of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius, has been making a comeback.
In recent years it’s been promoted by entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss, and NFL coaches like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll.
And it may be more important today than ever before.
In 1882, when Nietzsche announced that “god is dead” he did more than just point out the fact that the modern scientific mind could no longer accept the literal idea of heaven, hell and an all-knowing father in the sky.
He took the moral backbone on which western culture was based and he snapped it into pieces.
Before god was declared dead, and whether true or not, people had a moral structure they could rely on in their society.
In the wake of the death of god it became apparent that people don’t do so well without a moral structure. As consequence, the 20th century saw new breeds of philosophy emerge.
Group identity philosophies like fascism and communism swept across the world and resulted in the horrific deaths of tens of millions of people in the 20th Century.
Nihilism, which views life as meaningless and our actions as ultimately inconsequential, also emerged.
And can be seen commonly today in benign form as the philosophy of “do what feels good”, or “live to be happy”, relying on the individuals own subjective, momentary perception to determine what is right.
However, this mode of living generally develops into a cyclical feeling of increasing dissatisfaction, and longing for more. Always returning shortly after the current sugar high or orgasm is over.
God may be dead or he may not be. I personally find the question of belief in an afterlife or a man in the sky to be totally irrelevant.
Focusing on god misses the point.
The real point is that ancient religion, philosophy, and wisdom such as Stoicism (whether taken literally, as metaphorical stories, or as works of pure fiction) are a combined intergenerational, collective wisdom that teach us histories lessons about how best to live our lives. Developed over thousands and thousands of years, through trial, error, and observation.
Simonides of Ceos said, “Time has sharp teeth that destroy everything.”
Ancient Wisdom has been filtered by time, and any part of it that has survived to us today, was sparred by time’s sharp teeth because people have found it useful, generation after generation.
People have been asking since the beginning of time. “What should I do with my life?”
Ancient wisdom has developed as our best collective answer to that question. To throw it away because “god is dead”, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Science asks, “what is?”
But ancient wisdom asks, “what should I do?”
The two studies are complimentary, not contradictory.
Stoicism in particular makes no claims about god. It was developed to be practical. To be used. It was the philosophy of action-takers, rulers, merchants, and most famously the most powerful ruler in the history of the roman empire (Marcus Aurelius).
Because of it’s focus on action over explanation, Stoicism is every bit as useful today as ever before. And much more palatable for rational people who don’t want to hear about god, heaven and hell.
It’s a philosophy that doesn’t ask you to be unscientific and pray to a man in the sky. It doesn’t tell you what is. That’s what Science is for.
It simply suggests that in practice, thousands of generations of people seem to have lived better lives if they followed these principles.
If you live this way, you’ll likely have a better life.
Try it and see.
12 Stoic Principles
1. What’s in Your Control vs What’s Outside Your Control
“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…” – Epictetus
Divide the world into two categories. Things you control (your actions, demeanor, emotional responses), and things you don’t control (everything else). Focus solely on what you can do and forget the rest. Life only gets better by working on it, not by complaining about or wasting time on things that aren’t directly under our influence. Want to change the world? Start with yourself and those things in your immediate surroundings.
2. Calmness is Strength
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.” – Epictetus
The space between stimulus and emotional response is yours to control. Take responsibility for stabilizing your emotional responses. No more crybaby. No more being a little bitch. Little by little take control. Emotional stability is a habit and like a muscle when trained gets stronger over time. Anger is weakness. Calmness is strength.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.” – Epictetus
Know yourself. Know your strengths so you can develop them to contribute more. Know your weaknesses so you can find partners who have complimentary skills. Know your biases so you can catch yourself when acting irrationally. Know the depths of your soul. That you are capable of good and evil. That you are human. That you are susceptible to influence. Study and observe yourself as deeply as you can.
4. Be Objective
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” – Marcus Aurelius
As much as is possible see things as they are, not as you interpret them. Life is actions and consequences.
Your boss yelled at you? Yes, her voice got loud and face got red. The door shut with force that made a boom sound.
If the report isn’t done by 3pm her face will get red again. Ok. Do I want to do the report?
Isn’t it better to see the situation as it objectively is rather than interpreting it as I am a worthless employee?
See things as they are, not what you think they mean.
5. Right Action
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one” – Marcus Aurelius
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism isn’t a philosophy for academics. It’s a practice. To be done every day. To be worked on. To be carried with you in every moment. It’s about action. If you recite the stoic principle that “calmness is strength” and then you get in a rage because someone cut you off in traffic. You’re not a stoic. You’re a hypocrite.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” – Seneca
Problems are the opportunities that define who we become. They shape us. Don’t run away from them. Take them head on.
Don’t be fancy. Don’t get upset because yours plans were foiled. Be practical. Change your tactic. Get the job done. Whatever it takes.
Be prepared for whatever life can throw at you. Visualize the worst-case scenario and equip yourself with the tools you’ll need to get through it. Don’t complain about fate. Prepare for it. Train your endurance so that when things go wrong you have enough in the tank to make it through.
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius
What’s easy or hard for you is not necessarily easy or hard for someone else. Have compassion for others. We all have strengths, weaknesses and personal histories. Everyone is who they are because of the life they’ve lived up until this point. Even your enemies don’t intend to hurt you.
10. Memento Mori (“remember death”)
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius
“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward to death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” – Seneca
We are dying a little every day and one day will be our last. There’s no way around it. Let that be a reminder to determine how you live today. Who you spend time with. What you do.
11. Amor Fati (“love of fate”)
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?” – Marcus Aurelius
Love of everything that happens. You cannot control fate. It happens no matter what you want. You can live in denial of it. You can curse it. Or you can love everything that happens. You cannot choose fate, only how you react to it. No matter how bad things get, not accepting them can only make life worse. Choose to react in the way that makes your life better.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” – Epictetus
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” – Marcus Aurelius
Leave the world better than you found it. That’s it. It doesn’t mean running around trying to fix everything. It means first, and foremost “fixing” yourself and living by example. Start by working on yourself. You’ll see that you are a big project that may even take a whole lifetime. Then maybe your family. Then your community. Then who knows…
If this article has peaked your interest and you’d like to dig a little deeper into Stoicism here are some resources.
For an introduction to stoicism:
The original stoic literature:
- Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
- Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
- Discourses and Selected Writings – Epictetus
A great study of ancient greek and early christian philosophy
My own book which is a guide for implementing the stoic practices into your life as habits
I discovered Stoicism and the study of philosophy during an intense time in my life. I was searching for meaning and have found this ancient wisdom to be incredibly powerful. In the past couple of years, it’s greatly impacted how I approach each day and how I derive meaning from life.
It’s a journey. No one will ever be perfect. But stoicism is about trying your best to improve each day and live your life to the best of your abilities according to these principles.
If you have any questions about Stoicism, philosophy or anything else feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.