Have you ever wanted a rule book on how best to live your life, how to make decisions, how to worry less, and how to deal with the obstacles that can come up on a daily basis? Over the last year, I’ve read many books on this highly practical philosophy that can change your life.
Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing – it is something that should be used to solve problems. Stoicism was founded in Athens some time in the 3rd century BC, but was then practiced for the next thousand of years by some of the most famous leaders in the world. It was created and practiced by pragmatic individuals from all levels of society – some were slaves, some ran empires. Theodore Roosevelt was known to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations during his travels in the Amazon. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca by his side when he passed away.
I’ll break this down to a couple of my favorite Stoic philosophers:
Seneca lived in a turbulent time in Roman history and had a turbulent life. He was incredibly wealthy, had a career in politics, tutored the most important leader in the world, and became a famous writer of tragedies. He was also exiled to Corsica, but was eventually ordered to commit suicide by the Emperor Nero.
Most of his writings on stoicism are actually letters to friends and family, often giving advice. One of his most important works is “On the Shortness of Life” is an essay on one of Seneca’s most favorite topics – the use of one’s time. Life is actually pretty long, as long as you know how to use it. Seneca abhors people who spend their lives in useless or redundant activities.
Here’s a few of my favorites:
“People are delighted to accept pensions and gratuities, for which they hire out their labour or their support of their services. But nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing. But if death threatens these same people, you will see them praying to their doctors; if they are in fear of capital punishment, you will see them prepared to spend all to stay alive. So inconsistent are they in their feelings. But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully would they use them!”
This is a bold statement. People don’t consider how they use their time and they waste this most precious resource (unless they are sick or have death knocking on their door). Can you imagine if you knew how many days or years you have ahead of you and tallied it up. These same people would use those days and years wisely. This is actually a common exercise for stoics. Meditate on death. Think about how many days or years you have ahead of you. REALLY INTERNALIZE THIS. Life is short, don’t waste it. Don’t waste it on people that take your time. Don’t waste it on useless activities.
“Life is divided into three periods, past present and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain. For this last is the one over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be brought back to anyone’s control. But this is what preoccupied people lose: for they have no time to look back at their past, and even if they did, it is not pleasant to recall activities they are ashamed of.”
Another direct statement by Seneca that criticizes those preoccupied people. Why spend your time focusing on the past? You can’t control the past and stoics believe in making sure you spend your efforts on things you can control. Being obssessed with what happened in the past is the one of the most egregious uses of our precious time. Again life is short, don’t waste it on regrets about what happened before.
“But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing. And the fact that they sometimes invoke death is no proof that their lives seem long. Their own follly afflicts them with restless emotions which hurl themselves upon the very things they fear: they often long for death because they fear it. Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the day often seems long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome.”
Whoa, there’s a lot wrapped up in this one. The fear of the future, the fear of death causes pain and worry for so many people. Again, these people are preoccupied with it and eventually waste their time being preoccupied with it. Don’t waste time worrying about death. Don’t waste time distracting your worrying by useless activities.
Marcus Aurelius also lived a couple thousand years ago and ruled the Roman Empire for nearly two decades. He was considered the last of the Five Good Emperors and had complete and total power of this massive empire. There wasn’t a more powerful man in the world at the time that he lived.
Can you imagine having that much power? It would corrupt most people, and certainly did for many emperors and rulers throughout history. How did Marcus Aurelius stay grounded? He constantly studied and journaled about Stoicism to remind himself about how to live. His book “Meditations” is actually a collection of his journals, and served as a reminder to himself on how to conduct his life.
Stoicism, for Marcus, provided a way to deal with the stresses of life that an emperor (that happened to run the most powerful army in the world) had to face. He wrote Mediations while he was on campaign against foreign invaders.
“The highest good was the virtuous life. Virtue alone is happiness, and vice is unhappiness.”
This is a common theme for stoics – BE GOOD. Do the right thing. It was important for Marcus as the leader of the Roman Empire to remind himself that he needed to always do the right thing. Good for stoics comes down to four things: wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage. Some people add being humble to this list. When I journal, I occasionally remind myself of these four or five components. It’s the essence of stoicism.
“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.”
Again, Marcus is reminding himself of habits. 1) accept only what’s true, 2) conduct actions for the common good, 3) limit your wants and needs for what you can control and 4) embrace what nature has for you.
“Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.”
Like Seneca, Marcus couldn’t stand wasting time on distractions. Learn something and don’t “wander to and fro.” Don’t be idle. Don’t act without purpose.
“When you first wake up in the morning, tell yourslef: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”
This is one of the most common quoted quotes from Marcus. There will be difficult people that you’ll need to deal with, but they haven’t seen the light – the simplicity and truth of Stoicism. Treat these “meddlers” as an obstacle that can benefit yourself. You can always learn to improve how you deal and negotiate with difficult people, and if you come up to someone like this, use it as practice on improving your own skills. That way they don’t hurt you, they actually benefit you. These people are meddling and difficult, because they are just human, and have the same faults as everyone else.
Stoicism is a pragmatic framework for living your life. You can use the wisdom found in these pages to help you deal with tough decisions and people, as well as preparing yourself for what may come up in the future.
Here’s a list of a few recommendations for books related to Stoicism to get you started:
- The Daily Stoic – a good primer on Stoicism with great quotes and reflections.
- Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations
- Seneca’s Dialogues and Letters (includes On the Shortness of Life)
- The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday – this is one of the books that got me started on the journey to learn more about stoicism, specifically focusing on using difficulties (or obstacles) in life as a way to learn, improve, and grow.
I hope you got a lot out of this. Please a comment or tweet if you have any questions or want further information.