On Stoic Philosophy

Posted on July 30, 2023 in posts


Throughout my life I have sought principles I could learn from and apply to live the best life I could. One of the greatest schools of secular thought on the subject is Stoic philosophy, also known as Stoicism. In this article, I embark to provide a concise synopsis of Stoicism, offering a mix of history, principles, and daily practices to give you a good place to start. I also threw in some of my favorite quotes, and a reading list for further study should this article peak your interest. Best of luck on your own journey into Stoicism!

Note: Since this blog is related to machine learning and AI topics, parts of this article were written with the help of Generative AI, but all were edited and fact checked by me

A brief history

Stoic philosophy originated in ancient Greece and evolved into a prominent school of thought in ancient Rome. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE in Athens. Zeno was influenced by the Cynics and Socrates. The name "Stoicism" is derived from the Stoa Poikile, a painted colonnade where Zeno taught. Zeno's teachings emphasized living in accordance with nature, self-control, and virtuous living. His successors, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, further developed Stoic philosophy, laying the groundwork for its principles and practices. Stoicism gained popularity in Rome during the 1st century BCE, with Roman statesmen, philosophers, and intellectuals embracing its ideas. Prominent Roman Stoics included Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. These three great Roman Stoics came to define the core elements of accesible Stoic literature, partially because their oral teachings and writings were well preserved and translated into English.

Seneca, a prominent Stoic philosopher and statesman, emphasized the importance of reason, self-discipline, and accepting one's fate. His writings on ethics, such as "Letters to Lucilius," became influential in Stoic teachings. Epictetus was born a house slave to a noble, but rose to become a respected philosopher. His teachings focused on distinguishing between what is in our control (our thoughts and actions) and what is not (external events). He emphasized personal freedom through inner peace. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the "five good emperors" of Rome and ruled in the final years of the Pax Romana period in Roman history. Marcus Aurelius practiced Stoicism in his rule. His personal diary "Meditations" remains a classic work of Stoic philosophy, reflecting on ethical principles and the transient nature of life.

Stoicism continued to influence philosophical thought throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. However, as the Western Roman Empire declined, Stoicism gradually declined in prominence. Stoicism experienced a revival during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. In more recent times, its ideas have influenced various philosophical and psychological movements. Despite its ancient origins, Stoicism's core principles and practices have remained relevant over the centuries. It continues to inspire individuals seeking wisdom, resilience, and inner peace in their lives.

Stoic principles

The Stoics believed that philosophy was a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline, so they developed principles which can be put into daily practice. The principles of Stoic philosophy revolve around the pursuit of virtue, rationality, and inner tranquility. Key tenets include accepting what is beyond our control, focusing on what we can control (our thoughts and actions), cultivating self-discipline, practicing gratitude, and embracing the impermanence of life. Stoicism emphasizes living in harmony with nature and understanding that external events don't dictate our well-being – it's our response to them that matters. The goal is to achieve eudaimonia, a state of flourishing and living a meaningful life.

Living a life of virtue, according to Stoic philosophy, involves cultivating certain qualities and behaviors to lead a morally upright and fulfilling life. Here are some deeper insights on how one can strive to live a virtuous life:

  1. Wisdom: Seek knowledge, embrace reason, and develop a deep understanding of the world and oneself. Cultivate wisdom by learning from experiences and reflecting on your actions.

  2. Courage: Face challenges with bravery and resilience, both in the face of adversity and in standing up for what is right. Embrace difficulties as opportunities for growth.

  3. Temperance: Practice self-discipline and moderation. Avoid excess and indulgence, practice moderation, find a balanced approach in your actions and desires.

  4. Justice: Treat others with fairness, kindness, and empathy. Recognize the inherent worth and equality of all people, and act in ways that contribute positively to society.

  5. Tranquility: Develop inner peace and equanimity by accepting the things you cannot control and not being overly attached to external outcomes. Let go of unnecessary worries and focus on the present moment.

  6. Gratitude: Acknowledge and appreciate the good things in life, no matter how small. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude to foster contentment and prevent feelings of entitlement.

  7. Humility: Remain humble and open-minded, recognizing that there is always more to learn and that you are part of a greater whole. Avoid arrogance and the belief that you are better than others.

  8. Purpose: Find a meaningful purpose or calling in life, aligning your actions with your values and contributing positively to the world.

  9. Self-Reflection: Regularly examine your thoughts and behaviors, seeking to identify and rectify any flaws or areas for improvement.

  10. Practice: Virtue is not just a theoretical concept but a way of life. It requires continuous practice and effort to embody these principles in your everyday actions.

Living a life of virtue is a journey, and no one is perfect. The Stoics emphasized progress over perfection, and by constantly striving to live in accordance with these principles, we can lead a more virtuous and fulfilling life.

Stoic Sayings

Stoic philosophy is filled with insightful quotes that offer guidance and wisdom for life's journey. Here are some famous Stoic quotes that can help inspire and guide:

Epictetus: >

  • "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."

  • "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?"

  • "The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have."

  • "No man is free who is not master of himself."

Seneca: >

  • "He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man."

  • "We suffer more often in imagination than in reality."

  • "Ignorance is the cause of fear."

Marcus Aurelius: >

  • "You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."

  • "The impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way."

  • "You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think."

These quotes encapsulate Stoic principles and can serve as reminders to focus on what is within our control, to cultivate virtue, and to find inner strength and tranquility amidst life's challenges. Reflecting on these quotes and integrating their wisdom into your life can help you navigate your journey with greater wisdom and resilience.

How to Stoic

Implementing Stoic philosophy in your daily life involves practicing specific techniques that help reinforce Stoic principles and cultivate virtue. Here are 19 useful Stoic practices you can incorporate into your routine:

  1. Morning Meditation: Begin your day with a moment of reflection and set your intentions for the day ahead. Remind yourself of Stoic principles and how you aim to embody them in your actions.

  2. Negative Visualization: Take time to contemplate potential challenges or losses you might face. By mentally preparing for adversity, you build resilience and learn to appreciate what you have.

  3. Journaling: Keep a Stoic journal to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Assess how well you adhered to Stoic principles and identify areas for improvement.

  4. Moment of Pause: When faced with a difficult situation or strong emotion, pause and take a deep breath. Allow yourself to respond rationally and calmly, rather than reacting impulsively.

  5. Practice Gratitude: Each day, express gratitude for the things you have and the people in your life. Cultivating appreciation helps foster contentment and diminish feelings of lacking.

  6. View from Above: Imagine looking at your life from a higher perspective, as if observing it from space. This practice can help you gain clarity, see the bigger picture, and reduce attachment to trivial matters.

  7. Voluntary Discomfort and Self Denial: Occasionally, practice self-denial or minimalism. By embracing discomfort, you strengthen your willpower and reduce dependency on external comforts.

  8. Delayed Gratification: Related to the last one, practice self-control and delay gratification for greater rewards in the future. Avoid impulsive behaviors and focus on long-term goals.

  9. Stoic Reading: Regularly read Stoic texts and philosophical works to deepen your understanding and inspire your journey.

  10. Evening Reflection: At the end of the day, review your actions and thoughts. Acknowledge successes in aligning with Stoic principles and identify areas where you can improve.

  11. Acceptance of Impermanence: Remind yourself regularly of the impermanent nature of all things, including life itself. Embrace change and focus on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

  12. Practicing Equanimity: Maintain a balanced and even-tempered mindset in the face of both success and failure, joy and sorrow. Avoid excessive emotional reactions and seek a calm center.

  13. Charity and Kindness: Practice acts of kindness and charity towards others. Recognize the interconnectedness of humanity and be compassionate and supportive to those in need.

  14. Avoid Gossip and Criticism: Refrain from engaging in gossip and harsh criticism of others. Instead, focus on improving yourself and understanding the challenges faced by others.

  15. Contemplation of Death (Memento Mori): Reflect on the inevitability of death to remind yourself of life's preciousness and encourage you to live fully and virtuously. Prepare yourself mentally for the inevitable so you can leave the world in peace.

  16. Simplify and Reduce Attachment: Detach yourself from material possessions and reduce your attachment to external outcomes. Find contentment in the essentials rather than constantly seeking more.

  17. Mindfulness of Speech: Be mindful of your words and practice speaking with clarity, honesty, and consideration. Avoid harmful or excessive speech that may cause harm to others or yourself.

  18. Cultivate Resilience: View challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. Develop resilience by adapting to difficulties with a proactive and positive attitude.

  19. Visualize Virtuous Role Models: Imagine how virtuous role models from history or fictional characters would handle various situations. Use them as inspiration to guide your own behavior.

Consistent practice is key to incorporating Stoic philosophy into your life effectively, but remember that these practices are meant to be integrated gradually into your life. Choose the ones that resonate with you the most and incorporate them into your routine consistently. Over time, these Stoic practices can help you live with greater wisdom, virtue, and tranquility.

Modern Stoics

In modern times, there are several famous individuals who have exemplified virtuous qualities and can serve as role models. While no one is perfect, these individuals have demonstrated characteristics aligned with Stoic principles and have made positive contributions to society. Here are some good virtuous role models from various fields:

  • Nelson Mandela: Known for his forgiveness, resilience, and commitment to social justice, Nelson Mandela fought against apartheid in South Africa and promoted reconciliation and unity.

  • Malala Yousafzai: An advocate for girls' education and women's rights, Malala showed immense courage and determination in the face of adversity.

  • Mahatma Gandhi: A leader of nonviolent resistance, Gandhi's commitment to truth, nonviolence, and civil rights inspired change in India and beyond.

  • Nadia Murad: A human rights activist and Nobel laureate who advocates for survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking.

  • Malaika Vaz: An environmentalist and wildlife filmmaker, dedicating her work to raising awareness about conservation.

  • Greta Thunberg: A young climate activist who advocates for environmental protection and action against climate change.

Though these are examples of well known individuals, being a role model doesn't require fame or global recognition. Many virtuous individuals make significant impacts within their communities or personal spheres, and their actions can inspire those around them. Look for people who embody qualities like wisdom, courage, compassion, and a commitment to the greater good, and learn from their example as you strive to cultivate virtuous traits in your own life.

Stoic Readings

In my own Stoic journey I found the following writings to be incredibly powerful and to offer excellent guidance on the path to living a virtuous life - I can recommend them highly.

  • The Manual: A Philosopher's Guide to Life - Epictetus, Torode, Sam, Higginson, and Thomas Wentworth
  • Meditations: A New Translation - Marcus Aurelius, Gregory Hays
  • Dialogues and Essays - Seneca, Oxford World's Classics
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine

In Closing

In conclusion, Stoic philosophy offers timeless wisdom that resonates with people across generations. Its emphasis on virtue, self-discipline, and the pursuit of inner tranquility provides a roadmap for leading a fulfilling and purposeful life. By embracing the Stoic principles of acceptance, wisdom, and gratitude, individuals can navigate life's challenges with resilience and cultivate a profound sense of well-being. As we continue to grapple with the complexities of the modern world, Stoicism serves as a guiding light, reminding us to focus on what is within our control and to lead lives of virtue, wisdom, and compassion. By integrating Stoic practices into our daily routines, we can embark on a journey of self-improvement and find solace in the pursuit of eudaimonia - a flourishing life grounded in virtue and inner peace.

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