It’s not easy to find a book that explains Stoicism as a whole. You get pieces of the teachings of Stoicism here and there but not the complete picture. The Little Book of Stoicism is the book that solves this problem, at least for me.
Stoicism teaches us to live by virtue and a set of values that contribute to emotional resilience, calm confidence, and a clear direction in life.
Encountering Stoicism in one way or another is the easy part. Understanding and explaining exactly what it is, though, is the tricky part. Recognizing and seeing exactly how it’s relevant today and how it can help you, is the challenging part. Fully grasping it and putting it into practice, is the ambitious part—that’s where the gold is hidden.
In Stoicism, what you do with the given circumstances matters much more. Stoics recognized that the good life depends on the cultivation of one’s character, on one’s choices and actions rather than on what happens in the uncontrollable world around us.
Stoicism teaches us to live by a set of values that contribute to emotional resilience, calm confidence, and a clear direction in life.
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. —Epictetus
For the Stoics and all other schools of ancient philosophy, the ultimate goal of life was eudaimonia, to become good (eu) with your inner daimon (inner spirit/divine spark).
Areté directly translates as “virtue” or “excellence,” but it has a more profound meaning—something like “expressing the highest version of yourself in every moment.”
The four Roman Stoics whose writings and teachings survived for nearly two millennia and now build the foundation of Stoicism: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics believed that nature wants us to thrive in life. This is why the inner daimon, our highest self, had been planted within all of us like a divine seed so that we have it in our natural potential to become that highest version of ourselves.
Epictetus explained that what separates us from wild beasts and sheep is our rational element and not the naked skin, weaker bones, or missing tails. We negate our very humanity and fall to the state of a sheep when we let our actions become impulsive and inconsiderate.
Four broad character traits the Stoics adopted from the Socratic philosophy. They divided virtue into the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline. Living by these qualities makes a strong character and lets you take generally honorable and praiseworthy actions.
Nobody will ever be perfect in all their actions and, as long as we’re trying our best, this doesn’t matter. The world isn’t black and white, we can’t always tell what the right thing to do is, but we can always try to act with our best intention.
The easiest way to understand living with areté—at all times, try to be the best you can be, try to choose the appropriate action/response, and simply try to be a good person with the concern for others and nature as a whole.
If we want to be the best we can be in every situation, if we want to live with areté, then we need to be aware of every step. Today, we call this “Mindfulness,” the Stoics used the term “attention” (prosochê).
You should act virtuously because it’s the right thing to do and not because it will benefit you in some way or another.
We’re social creatures with a natural affection toward other people. The goal is to be useful, to help others, and to take care of ourselves and everybody else.
The Stoics natured this idea that we should be concerned with other people, wish them to flourish, and develop a sense of kinship with the rest of mankind: Treat even strangers and those who oppose us as relatives—brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. We’re all citizens of the same world. This shared affinity forms the basis for mutual love and friendship.
The central teaching of Epictetus was that there are things which are up to us and things which aren’t; we should always “make the best use of what is in our power, and take the rest as it happens.”
What is it then that we have control over? Only a few things—our voluntary judgments and actions. We can decide what events mean to us and how we want to react to them. And our actions, we can choose to align them with virtue. All else is not under our control.
We should focus on the process; the process is fully under our control. And if we define success as giving our best in the process, then we cannot fail, feel calmly confident, and can accept any outcome with equanimity.
Events can give us physical pain, but suffering and inner disturbance only come from resisting what is, from fighting with reality.
Things are as they are because that’s how it’s meant to be. Our emotional pain emanates from confusing the things which are up to us and those that aren’t.
The indifferent things often get summarized as health, wealth, and reputation; but basically, everything external, everything that is not up to use, get classified as indifferent. By indifferent, the Stoics mean that these events are neutral and can neither help nor harm our flourishing as human beings, they’re unimportant for the happy and smoothly flowing life.
We’re the only ones stopping us from cultivating virtuous behavior, we’re the only ones stopping us from living the good life.
If you want anything good, get it from yourself. We must seek happiness within ourselves, not in external things; they’re not within our power, they’re neither good nor bad but indifferent.
We must keep in mind that happiness depends more on what we make of what happens rather than what happens in the first place. No matter what happens to you, your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune by responding with virtue.
No matter where you are, and no matter what challenge you’re facing, your freedom of choice will always be available to you; you just need to spot your first impression, avoid shitting a brick, take a step back instead, evaluate the situation, and choose your wisest response. External events are not what matters, but what you choose to do with them.
Once our mind has been captured by negative emotions, or passions as the Stoics call them, such as irrational fear, grief, anger, or greed, these passions take over, and we react impulsively without being able to think about it.
The majority of ordinary people lack fulfillment and peace of mind because their values are confused and internally conflicted. We wasted our lives chasing after an illusion of Happiness, based on a mixture of hedonism, materialism, and egotism—crazy, self-defeating values absorbed from the foolish world around us. —Donald Robertson
A lack of awareness is one of the reasons for negative emotions to arise and take us over. While being unaware, we can’t observe and recognize our first impressions and would mindlessly follow along.
Philosophy is all about applying its principles to the real world. Remember, we want to be warrior-philosophers and put into practice what we learn.
All the adversities you’re facing in your life, these are tests. It’s mere training. Life isn’t supposed to be easy, life is supposed to be challenging to make sure you actually grow.
Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it will get. So each time you decide to overcome the initial hurdle and do practice, you train yourself in self-discipline and willpower.
Nature is immensely complex and it’s impossible to tell whether anything that happens is good or bad. Because you never know what will be the consequences of misfortunes. And you never know what will be the consequences of good fortunes. Therefore, try to accept everything as if you had chosen it. This way, you move from a whiney victim to a responsible creator.
Know that sometimes things will not go your way even if you do your best, and regardless of whether you deserved it or not. Don’t confuse your aspiration with how the universe should turn out.
Keep in mind that you’re lucky to be able to enjoy the things you have, and that your enjoyment might end abruptly, and that you might never be able to enjoy those things again. Learn to enjoy stuff and people without feeling entitled to them, without clinging.
Thinking of your own death helps you stop making random choices and wasting time on trifles. You’re more aware of what you want to spend your time with. If focuses your mind on the truly important—on who you want to be in this world.
Negative visualization is an imagination exercise in which you foresee bad stuff. It prepares you to stay calm and deal effectively with whatever life will throw at you.
Occasionally practice getting uncomfortable in order to be better off in the future. Let’s look at three forms of voluntary discomfort:
Rehearse your day in the morning, review your progress in the evening.
Always keep a role model in mind. Imagine this person to constantly be watching you and your actions. This will bring more awareness into your daily life and enable you to choose your actions more deliberately.
Like an actress in a play, you must play your given role well, even if you don’t like it. Act in a way that is consistent with your role. You’re given the ability to use reason, and you’re free to choose your actions, so you’re able to play your rolewell.
Even the smallest thing should be done with reference to an end. —Marcus Aurelius
If you seek tranquility, do less… do what’s essential to do less, better.
Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it. 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.
Living by values such as mutual respect, trustworthiness, and self-control are more valuable than wealth or external success. We should never compromise our character to become wealthy.
Wealth often comes as a bonus if we act well and express our highest self. And if we do get it, then we should accept it without pride but also without clinging to it. It’s good to have it and you enjoy it, but you must be prepared to let it go.
Let’s not spend our time on things that don’t matter. Because the more time we spend on something, the more importance we give it. At the same time, what truly matters—family, friends, commitments, expressing the highest self—becomes less important because we spend less time on them.
You are living as if destined to live forever, your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
We’re not born for pleasure. Just look at the plants, birds, ants, spiders, and bees—they go about their individual tasks. Do you hear them moan and complain? Nope, they do what they do, as best as they can. Day in, day out. But we human beings are not willing to do our jobs? We feel lazy. Unmotivated. Sluggish. There is certainly time to sleep and rest, but there’s a limit to that.
Keep that in mind: Nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind.
No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place.
Getting angry at a situation doesn’t have an impact on the situation. It doesn’t change it, it doesn’t improve it. Often times, what angers us doesn’t really harm us, and our anger will outlast the damage done to us.
We fear because we want what’s outside our power, or we’re too attached to something that’s not in our power to keep. We’re attached to people we love and fear losing them. We’re attached to the security of a regular salary. And we desire what’s not in our power to receive.
Anticipating calamities is not about ruining the present moment, but optimizing it. We’ll be less afraid of things which might never happen. The Stoics think the best path to freedom is by imagining what we fear as it’s going to happen and examining it in our mind—until we can view it with detachment.
When you find yourself frustrated, don’t blame other people or outside events, but yourself and your unrealistic expectations. Turn your focus inward, remember, we must take responsibility.
We must remember that pain can be an opportunity to test and improve our virtue. We can practice patience and endurance—two noble strengths.
Don’t wish for life to be hard, but neither wish for it to be easier when it gets tough. Rather wish for the strength to deal with it. It’s an opportunity for growth.
If you’re able to avoid rashness in your actions and have the necessary self-discipline, then you become the person who’s able to say no to the things others can’t resist, and able to do the things other dread doing.
Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. —Seneca
People do what seems right to them. If they do wrong, it’s because that’s what seems true to them. Therefore, we should not blame people, even if they treat us rudely and unfairly. They don’t do those things on purpose.
Let’s not forget that we’re privileged. Not everybody had the same upbringing as we had. Not all have the same genes, education, and early exposure. These things highly influence a person, and it’s not something we can control. It makes no sense to be angry with these people. It’s not their fault. A much better way to deal with them is to lead by example. Instead of reacting angrily, react in a kind and understanding way. Instead of judging them, try to help and support them.
Be prepared for sudden slaps. All these hits and blows life throws at us are opportunities for practice. Each slap contains the chance to stay calm and strengthen who you want to be, but also the risk to go ballistic and become more of who you don’t want to be. It’s just training. Smile and move on.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. That’s why we should choose our friends carefully. They have the power to pull you either down or up to their level. You either get better, thanks to the people you spend time with, or you get worse because of them.
We must not forget why we engage in philosophy in the first place: to improve ourselves. It’s not a tool to correct others. This will only cause pain and suffering. Leave other people to their faults. Nothing in Stoicism empowers us to judge them—only to accept and love them as they are. Let’s focus inward. There’s enough to correct in ourselves.
Go into a conversation with the intention to listen for the most part. Observe what they talk about. Observe within yourself the urge to say something (probably it’ll be self-related), and then only say it when it’s not better left unsaid.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. —Marcus Aurelius