Who were the Stoics?
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens around 300 BC. It was the dominant philosophy in the Roman and Greek worlds until the Christian religion took over about 500 years later.
The founder of Stoicism was a man named Zeno of Citium (Citium being what is now known as Cyprus).
Why is Stoicism still relevant?
Unlike many other philosophies which are more theoretical, Stoicism is a very practical philosophy that is easily applied to our modern lives.
Stoicism is a tool that can help us better deal with life’s inevitable ups and downs so that we can live a happier and more peaceful life.
But most importantly, Stoicism has some valuable lessons that we can apply to become better men, better partners and better parents.
Here are eight of the most important life lessons from the Stoics.
1. Focus on what you can change and don’t worry about the things you can’t.
This is the most important and most practical of the Stoic practices.
You can think of this as the ‘circle of influence’ concept. It’s the ability to differentiate between the things that are under your control and those that are not.
“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.”Epictetus
As parents, I think this philosophy is particularly useful. There are so many things we can worry ourselves sick about, which if you actually examine them, are probably out of our control.
By focusing our energy only on those things we can influence and not worrying about those which we can’t, we can be more productive and less stressed.
2. Treat every problem as an opportunity.
The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the concept of amor fati (a love of fate). The idea here is that you not only accept what happens in life (especially the bad stuff) but you actually embrace it and be grateful that it happened. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The Stoics had a similar attitude.
This can be a hard one to practice, especially during difficult situations, but that’s when it is most important.
This second lesson from the Stoics relates to the first one (above). Because while you can’t control everything that happens to you, the one thing you always have control over is how you respond to a situation or a problem.
By adopting this attitude, we can turn life’s obstacles into opportunities. And we can embrace life’s challenges as a way to advance and improve.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”Marcus Aurelius
3. Appreciate what you have.
This is a simple lesson, but one that’s very important to remind ourselves of. It’s even more relevant in today’s society which has become very materialistic.
Practising gratitude (every day) has been shown to increase happiness. And it makes sense because it forces you to focus on the things you have, instead of focusing on the things you don’t have.
Obviously, this is also a great attitude to try and ingrain in our children.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”Epictetus
4. Bad things happen – don’t be surprised, be prepared.
The Stoics practised an exercise they called Premeditatio Malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”). The way this one works is that you start each day by imagining all the things that could possibly go wrong throughout the day.
Whilst this sounds like a very depressing way to live your life, the principle behind it is a good one. It means that when we do encounter some of lives inevitable setbacks, we are less likely to collapse into a quivering mess. Instead, we are prepared and ready to respond in the most positive way possible.
Some companies have started adopting this practice in the workplace by performing what’s known as a ‘premortem’. At the start of a new project, the project manager will get the team to brainstorm all the things that could go wrong or get in the way of success. By planning for these events in advance they are better equipped to manage the obstacles when they do occur.
In our personal lives, I think a very practical application of this principle is with regards to your marriage or your relationship. It’s easy to be romantic and think yours will be different – and hopefully, it might. But the reality is that about half of marriages end in divorce and almost all of them encounter problems at some point, particularly after kids arrive.
By being aware that this is likely to happen, you can take pre-emptive steps to help reduce the risk (e.g. not taking your relationship for granted). You can also be better prepared to work through the inevitable problems when they do arrive.
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”Seneca
5. Don’t fear death – use it to give your life value.
When the Stoics weren’t meditating about everything that could go wrong in their lives, they also spent a lot of time reminding themselves that they were going to die!
This practice was known as memento mori – meditating on your mortality.
You may be thinking what a morbid and miserable bunch of people the Stoics must have been, but apparently, that was not the case.
Much like the previous example, the principle behind this practice is a positive one which is designed to increase happiness.
Being aware that we are going to die and that it could happen at any time is intended to deliver two important benefits.
Firstly, we should not fear death – because we all die eventually and it’s going to happen regardless (see lesson one – don’t worry about things you can’t change).
But secondly, and more importantly, it gives our lives a sense of purpose and urgency by reminding us not to waste the precious time that we do have available.
In short – make the most of every day.
“As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession. We must seize what flees.”Seneca
6. Maintain perspective and see the bigger picture.
Marcus Aurelius wrote about a practice that is referred to as “taking the view from above” or “Plato’s view.”
This is a very useful technique to remember when you are getting stressed about something in your life.
The idea is to remind yourself that at the end of the day we are all very insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Therefore, most of our problems are also insignificant when you put them in context of the bigger picture.
So take a step back and realise that nothing is ever as important as it seems in the moment.
“Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share.”Marcus Aurelius
7. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.
This is an important lesson for us men to remember.
Whilst resilience is important and a bit of male pride can be a good thing, we should never be too proud or too macho to ask for help.
Marcus Aurelius was one of the most powerful Roman Emperors to ever live. Yet even he recognised the importance of showing vulnerability and accepting other people’s help.
“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfil just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”Marcus Aurelius
8. You never stop learning.
Many years before the Stoics, it was Plato who famously said: “The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing.”
And the Stoics also adopted this philosophy in their teachings.
It’s an important lesson to remember, particularly if you find yourself getting a bit arrogant or righteous at times.
There is no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect partner, we are continually evolving and learning lessons as we go.
So it’s important to keep an open mind and allow ourselves the freedom to learn and improve.
It’s also important to approach life with curiosity and assume that everyone you meet may know something you don’t.
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”Epictetus
More information on Stoicism
If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, here’s a list of some useful resources I would recommend.
- The Obstacle is the way, by Ryan Holiday
- Letters from a Stoic – by Seneca
- Meditations – by Marcus Aurelius
- Philosophize This! is a fantastic podcast by Steven West. The two episodes that discuss Stoicism are these ones: