A lot of the text is almost directly cited from Holiday's collection so if you find it interesting I recommend you to check out the book on Amazon or elsewhere.
The post consists of three sections:
- An Introduction
- A collection of my favorite stoic quotes
- On getting busy with your life's purpose
If you like this post, learn about additional principles of staying blanced and happy, read one of my best book reviews, the Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, or dive into Naval's summarized wisdom. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
The philosophy asserts that virtue (meaning, chiefly, the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom) is happiness, and it is our perception of things — rather than the things themselves — that cause most of our trouble.
Stoicism teaches that we can’t control or rely on anything outside what Epictetus called our “reasoned choice” — our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond, and reorient ourselves to external events.
The Stoics all held vastly different stations in life. Some were rich, some were born at the bottom of Rome’s rigid hierarchy. Some had it easy, and others had it unimaginably hard. This is true for us as well — we all come to philosophy from different backgrounds, and even within our own lives we experience bouts of good fortune and bad fortune. But in all circumstances — adversity or advantage — we really have just one thing we need to do: focus on what is in our control as opposed to what is not.
Right now we might be laid low with struggles, whereas just a few years ago we might have lived high on the hog, and in just a few days we might be doing so well that success is actually a burden. One thing will stay constant: our freedom of choice — both in the big picture and small picture. Ultimately, this is clarity.
Whoever we are, wherever we are—what matters is our choices. What are they? How will we evaluate them? How will we make the most of them? Those are the questions life asks us, regardless of our station. How will you answer?
These weren’t abstract questions. In their writings — often private letters or diaries — and in their lectures, the Stoics struggled to come up with real, actionable answers. They ultimately framed their work around a series of exercises in three critical disciplines:
- The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)
- The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)
- The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)
By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity. In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective. In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.
A well-known writer once complained that after becoming successful, wealthy friends were always inviting him to their beautiful, exotic houses. “Come to our home in the south of France,” they would say. Or, “Our Swiss ski chalet is a wonderful place to write.” The writer traveled the world, living in luxury, hoping to find inspiration and creativity in these inspiring manors and mansions. Yet it rarely happened. There was always the allure of another, better house. There were always distractions, always so many things to do — and the writer’s block and insecurity that plagues creative types traveled with him wherever he went.
We tell ourselves that we need the right setup before we finally buckle down and get serious. Or we tell ourselves that some vacation or time alone will be good for a relationship or an ailment. This is self-deceit at its finest. It’s far better that we become pragmatic and adaptable — able to do what we need to do anywhere, anytime. The place to do your work, to live the good life, is here.
That self-assurance is yours to claim as well. No matter what happens today, no matter where you find yourself, shift to what lies within your reasoned choices. Ignore, as best you can, the emotions that pop up, which would be so easy to distract yourself with. Don’t get emotional — get focused.
The Stoics were mercifully spared the information overload endemic to today’s society. They had no social media, no newspapers, no television chatter to rile them up. But even back then, an undisciplined person would have found plenty to be distracted and upset by.
Part of the Stoic mindset then was a sort of a cultivated ignorance. Publilius Syrus’s epigram expresses it well: “Always shun that which makes you angry.” Meaning: turn your mind away from the things that provoke it.
If you find that discussing politics at the dinner table leads to fighting, why do you keep bringing it up? If your sibling’s life choices bother you, why don’t you stop picking at them and making them your concern? The same goes for so many other sources of aggravation.
It’s not a sign of weakness to shut them out. Instead, it’s a sign of strong will. Try saying: “I know the reaction I typically take in these situations, and I’m not going to do it this time.” And then follow it with: “I’m also going to remove this stimulus from my life in the future as well.” Because what follows is peace and serenity.
The Stoics were pioneers of the morning and nightly rituals: preparation in the morning, reflection in the evening. Looking at the beautiful expanse of the sky is an antidote to the nagging pettiness of earthly concerns. And it is good and sobering to lose yourself in that as often as you can.
“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, Discourses
“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but its own corrupt decisions.” Epictetus, Discourses
“So in the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit. Since all that I’ve said is the case, the person in training must seek to rise above, so as to stop seeking out pleasure and steering away from pain; to stop clinging to living and abhorring death; and in the case of property and money, to stop valuing receiving over giving.” Musonius Rufus, Lectures
“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!” Seneca, On the brevity of life
“The diseases of the rational soul are long-standing and hardened vices, such as greed and ambition — they have put the soul in a straitjacket and have begun to be permanent evils inside it. To put it briefly, this sickness is an unrelenting distortion of judgment, so things that are only mildly desirable are vigorously sought after.” Seneca, Moral letters
“Don’t act grudgingly, selfishly, without due diligence, or to be a contrarian. Don’t overdress your thought in fine language. Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds… Be cheerful, not wanting outside help or the relief others might bring. A person needs to stand on their own, not be propped up.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“When you see someone often flashing their rank or position, or someone whose name is often bandied about in public, don’t be envious; such things are bought at the expense of life… Some die on the first rungs of the ladder of success, others before they can reach the top, and the few that make it to the top of their ambition through a thousand indignities realize at the end it’s only for an inscription on their gravestone.” Seneca, On the brevity of life
“Let’s pass over to the really rich—how often the occasions they look just like the poor! When they travel abroad they must restrict their baggage, and when haste is necessary, they dismiss their entourage. And those who are in the army, how few of their possessions they get to keep…” Seneca, On consolation to Helvia
“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” Epictetus, Enchiridion
“Indeed, if you find anything in human life better than justice, truth, self-control, courage — in short, anything better than the sufficiency of your own mind, which keeps you acting according to the demands of true reason and accepting what fate gives you outside of your own power of choice — I tell you, if you can see anything better than this, turn to it heart and soul and take full advantage of this greater good you’ve found.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Trust me, real joy is a serious thing. Do you think someone can, in the charming expression, blithely dismiss death with an easy disposition? Or swing open the door to poverty, keep pleasures in check, or meditate on the endurance of suffering? The one who is comfortable with turning these thoughts over is truly full of joy, but hardly cheerful. It’s exactly such a joy that I would wish for you to possess, for it will never run dry once you’ve laid claim to its source.” Seneca, Moral letters
“How disgraceful is the lawyer whose dying breath passes while at court, at an advanced age, pleading for unknown litigants and still seeking the approval of ignorant spectators.” Seneca, On the brevity of life
“At this moment you aren’t on a journey, but wandering about, being driven from place to place, even though what you seek — to live well — is found in all places. Is there any place more full of confusion than the Forum? Yet even there you can live at peace, if needed.” Seneca, Moral letters
“Silence is a lesson learned from the many sufferings of life.” Seneca, Thyestes
“It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest — by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.” Seneca, Moral letters
“Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.” Seneca, Moral letters
“Heraclitus would shed tears whenever he went out in public — Democritus laughed. One saw the whole as a parade of miseries, the other of follies. And so, we should take a lighter view of things and bear them with an easy spirit, for it is more human to laugh at life than to lament it.” Seneca, On tranquility of mind
“The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” Seneca, Moral letters
“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, On providence
“Consider who you are. Above all, a human being, carrying no greater power than your own reasoned choice, which oversees all other things, and is free from any other master.” Epictetus, discourses
“Try praying differently, and see what happens: Instead of asking for ‘a way to sleep with her,’ try asking for ‘a way to stop desiring to sleep with her.’ Instead of ‘a way to get rid of him,’ try asking for ‘a way to not crave his demise.’ Instead of ‘a way to not lose my child,’ try asking for ‘a way to lose my fear of it.’” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Leisure without study is death — a tomb for the living person.” Seneca, Moral letters
“But the wise person can lose nothing. Such a person has everything stored up for themselves, leaving nothing to fortune, their own goods are held firm, bound in virtue, which requires nothing from chance, and therefore can’t be either increased or diminished. Seneca, On the firmness of the wise
“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?” Epictetus, Discourses
“This is the true athlete — the person in rigorous training against false impressions. Remain firm, you who suffer, don’t be kidnapped by your impressions! The struggle is great, the task divine — to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility.” Epictetus, Discourses
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses to gain and avoid outside our own choice, we should set a contrary habit against that, and where appearances are really slippery, use the counterforce of our training.” Epictetus, Discourses
“You have proof in the extent of your wanderings that you never found the art of living anywhere — not in logic, nor in wealth, fame, or in any indulgence. Nowhere. Where is it then? In doing what human nature demands. How is a person to do this? By having principles be the source of desire and action. What principles? Those to do with good and evil, indeed in the belief that there is no good for a human being except what creates justice, self-control, courage and freedom, and nothing evil except what destroys these things.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Don’t trust in your reputation, money, or position, but in the strength that is yours — namely, your judgments about the things that you control and don’t control. For this alone is what makes us free and unfettered, that picks us up by the neck from the depths and lifts us eye to eye with the rich and powerful.” Epictetus, Discourses
“Hecato says, ‘cease to hope and you will cease to fear.’ ... The primary cause of both these ills is that instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances we send out thoughts too far ahead.” Seneca, Moral letters
“Our rational nature moves freely forward in its impressions when it: 1) accepts nothing false or uncertain; 2) directs its impulses only to acts for the common good; 3) limits its desires and aversions only to what’s in its own power; 4) embraces everything nature assigns it.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“We are like many pellets of incense falling on the same altar. Some collapse sooner, others later, but it makes no difference.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“How satisfying it is to dismiss and block out any upsetting or foreign impression, and immediately to have peace in all things.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“You know what wine and liqueur tastes like. It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand bottles pass through your bladder — you are nothing more than a filter.” Seneca, Moral letters
“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“The mind must be given relaxation — it will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced — for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break — so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind. But it regains its powers if it is set free and relaxed for a while. Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness in the rational soul.” Seneca, On tranquility of mind
“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated — tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom who say that only the educated are free.” Epictetus, Discourses
“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” Seneca, Moral letters
“If someone asks you how to write your name, would you bark out each letter? And if they get angry, would you then return the anger? Wouldn’t you rather gently spell out each letter for them? So then, remember in life that your duties are the sum of individual acts. Pay attention to each of these as you do your duty… just methodically complete your task.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is — we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.” Seneca, On the brevity of life
“Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
On getting busy with your life's purpose
“Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue — if you care for yourself at all — and do it while you can.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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