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What is stoicism?
Stoicism is a life-affirming philosophy that emerged centuries ago. This philosophy was designed to shape the human spirit so that it becomes resilient, happy, virtuous, and wise, as a consequence of which they evolve into better individuals possessing great strength of mind and soul. This philosophy and its principles equip human beings to wade through the otherwise ugly and mostly challenging river of life with a composed mind and a calm heart. There is no choice but to face the vicissitudes of life just like trees face the vagaries of nature but what is within our control, is to determine in what way and how. Stoicism is like a guiding light that empowers us to interpret the assaults of life positively and not get overwhelmed by any situation, come what may.
Being a ‘Stoic’ doesn’t mean being emotionless
We English speakers often misinterpret the word ‘stoic’. It does not necessarily mean that if a person is stoic, they do not have the power to emote and puts on a deadpan face bereft of any sort of expression, liveliness, and humor. It is an out-and-out misconception. Stoic with a capital S does not mean that.
“Stoics were not emotionless automatons. They just thought the good life was one in which we experienced a lot more joy and tranquility than anger, anxiety and despair.”– Brian Johnson
Thus, to be stoic, in simple language means having greater control over our emotions and not getting easily swayed away by them. Stoics primarily focus on the two main components of the human mind and body- thoughts and actions.
Major exponents of Stoicism
The ancient school of stoic philosophy was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium- a Phonecian merchant sometime around 301 BC. Initially, stoicism was known by the name of Zenonism but because Zeno and his followers met in Stoa Poikile or the painted porch, it later came to be known as stoicism.
People from all social denominations, all ranks and order participated in the discussions held on this porch, in public. Practised by the rich and the poor or the powerful and the sufferer alike, stoicism was one of the most influential and highly revered schools of philosophy in the west.
The major exponents of Stoicism were-
- Marcus Aurelius – The last benevolent emperor of the Roman empire an unthinkably powerful man on earth. Aurelius practiced journaling every day while he sat down to be one with his thoughts every evening. His private diary that has been published as Meditations, is the most remarkable source of theories on Stoic philosophy.
- Epictetus – He was born a slave and later went on to become a legend. He was the teacher of the great Marcus Aurelius and his teachings have been recorded by his student Arrian that have been published as Discourses and Enchiridion
- Seneca – This magnificent tragedian was a tutor and adviser to Nero, the Roman emperor, who later pushed him to commit suicide. A number of Seneca’s personal letters survived which act as a significant source of stoic philosophy.
10 Stoic Principles
Listed below are the 10 key principles of Stoicism which would serve as a comprehensive yet profound introduction to stoic philosophy for you:
1. Living in harmony with nature
‘Living in agreement with nature’ was a central goal of the stoic philosophers and believers.
“For what is Man? A rational animal, subject to death. At once we ask, from what does the rational element distinguish us? From wild beasts. And from what else? From sheep and the like. Look to it then that you do nothing like a wild beast, else you destroy the Man in you and fail to fulfil his promise. See that you do not act like a sheep, or else again the Man in you perishes. You ask how we act like sheep?
When we consult the belly, or our passions, when our actions are random or dirty or inconsiderate, are we not falling away to the state of sheep? What do we destroy? The faculty of reason. When our actions are combative, mischievous, angry, and rude, do we not fall away and become wild beasts?”
What we derive from this is that man is a rational animal and that’s what differentiates us from other animals like sheep or beasts. Our social and mental abilities create this gap between us and all other species. Thus, we cannot afford to behave like other animals because it violates our quality of being ‘human’. ‘Living in agreement with nature’ specifically states that men are to behave rationally where they apply their ability of reasoning to and in everything they do rather than just acting out of uncontrolled passion.
2. Living by virtues
Virtue is considered to be the ‘highest of all goods’. The Stoics also believed in the Aristotelian tradition of the four cardinal virtues necessary to live well or achieve eudaimonia and human flourishing. A good life, according to the Stoics, requires the practice of these four virtues-
- Prudence – This involves the application of a person’s knowledge and their capacity for correct and rational judgement to any given situation.
- Temperance – This virtue helps us to lead a moderate life devoid of addictions and extremities.
- Fortitude – Fortitude is defined as the virtue of forbearance, strength and endurance.
- Justice – Justice occupies a lot of significance as a virtue. Among its many connotations, it stands for fairness, righteousness, and a lack of bias.
Living by these virtues will ensure that we progress towards a good life or eudaimonia. The stoics would consider a person to be virtues only if they practice all of these and never fail to adhere to them. Acting virtuously is enough for the Stoics and it does not really matter what you get out of it because practicing those virtues is rewarding in itself since you move closer to the good life and that, and only that shall be important. So, Stoicism is a lot about doing the right thing which gives you a sense of self-righteousness and frees you from the shackles of any kind of possible guilt.
3. Focus on your locus of control
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”– Epictetus
This approach falls under the ‘Stoic Dichotomy of Control’ and is one of the most important characteristic features of Stoicism. We have to carefully understand and distinguish between what lies within the locus of our control and what doesn’t. What we can really control if we want, are our thoughts, judgements or actions but we can’t possibly exercise control over other people’s comments, their actions or judgements, the weather, deaths, wealth, political affairs and the like. Now, if we analyze, we will observe that all that really matters in life are areas within our control. It is our thoughts, actions and judgements, undoubtedly, that leads us to pursue a certain path in life. The other things that are not within our control do not impact our life considerably and thus, we should try and control that which lies within the boundaries of our jurisdiction and strive as much as possible to accept and take it as it comes- that which we have no control over.
4. Differentiate between good, bad and indifferent things
The stoics believed in distinguishing between ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘indifferent’ things.
The good things include the cardinal virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. The bad things include the four vices- folly, injustice, cowardice, and indulgence which are absolutely opposed to the cardinal virtues. Indifferent things mainly involve life and death, fame and infamy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, and health and sickness. To sum it all, indifferent things are health, wealth, and reputation. The stoics advocate that we should be satisfied with whatever nature brings forth and learn to be indifferent towards ‘indifferent things’.
5. Take action
A true Stoic is a warrior of the mind who puts ideas into practice as opposed to a librarian of the mind who stores ideas in the shelf. Not caring and not doing anything and being too indifferent just because you feel everything lies out of your control is called the ‘Lazy Argument’ and is not supported by the Stoics. Stoic philosophers believed in doing and though they advised indifference towards external things, they were not at all indifferent towards their actions. Back in the days, they used to believe that sitting back and doing nothing would not fetch anything near to good life or Eudaimonia; doing the right thing and applying the Stoic principles to your life instead actually would. They believed in practicing the stoic philosophy more than theorizing.
6. Practice Misfortune
The Stoics prepared themselves for future misfortunes and miseries. They prepared their mental landscape in a way that would help them float easily through any kind of adversity that would ever knock at their doors. Later, William Irvine, the author of A Guide to the Good Life termed this as ‘negative visualization’. Imagining these dangers was known as Stoic premeditation and the end goal of this visualization was to prepare yourself and especially your mind, in a manner that would not let you get baffled and flabbergasted when adversities would actually arrive.
7. Loving everything that happens or Amor Fati
“Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.”– Epictetus
Even you would agree to it that this is the ultimate secret to a happy and joyful life, equally relevant in the modern times. Not all things that happen are things that we wish for but once it has happened, there is more peace in acceptance rather than complaining ceaselessly about it. According to stoic terminologies, this is called the “art of acquiescence”- to accept rather than fight every little thing. This restores harmony in the mind and soul.
8. Add a Reserve Clause to Your Planned Actions
The idea of virtue being the highest good lays the premise for the ‘reserve clause’. This stoic principle states that we, as Stoic students must strive to do the right thing and try our level best to reach there but we should always have the heart to accept the finality of it, the outcome it with an equally big heart and serene acceptance. You should always undertake actions with a reserve clause such as ‘god willing’ or ‘fate permitting’ and this helps you to accept whatever may happen.
9. Turn obstacles into opportunities
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”– Marcus Aurelius
Our perceptions about everything that happens to or around us is the final determinant of what those occurrences would mean to us in future. They can either hold us back like fetters holding back a prisoner or let us fly. The choice is entirely ours!
When certain obstacles come our way, we should slow down and reflect on it rather than just crying about it. A single external event can be viewed in thousand different ways if we choose to do so. The Stoics believed that we can condition our mind to make it capable of turning any misfortune into a good fortune just by altering the perspective. It’s a magical principle indeed.
10. Be Mindful! Stoic Mindfulness is very important
Mindfulness is a prerequisite to practicing any good habit and stoic virtues naturally, tops the list. Donald Robertson says- “Stoics should continually be mindful of their volition. Their voluntary thoughts and actions are, by definition, the only things completely under their control.” The stoics integrated daily practices of contemplation so that we are aware of our thoughts and the virtues we have undertaken for practicing.
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Damayanti Dubey is a final year English major at Loreto College, Kolkata. She is a writer by passion and loves to indulge in languages, especially English, Bengali, and Urdu. She aims at exploring all of their intricacies and nuances. Damayanti is a disciple of Padma Bhushan Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty and is a national scholar of Indian classical music. She has always believed that a sound mind, free from the clutches of regressive and negative thoughts is the key to living a healthy life and makes efforts to promote mental wellness through the power of her words.
Damayanti believes in thinking beyond boundaries.