How to Be a Stoic
How to Be a Stoic

How to Be a Stoic

One of the key tenets of Stoicism is that we ought to recognize, and take seriously, the difference between what we can and cannot master. (Location 81)

which focuses on character development and the pursuit of personal excellence as the pillars providing meaning to our lives, with the latest that the natural and social sciences tell us about human nature and how we work, fail, and learn. (Location 93)

The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality: everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to natural processes. (Location 115)

the simple, indubitable fact that Nature is understandable by reason. (Location 117)

Seneca connected this test to the rest of our existence on earth: “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” (Location 133)

no fantasizing about an immortality of which there is neither evidence nor reason to believe in, but also no secular dismissal—or worse, avoidance—of the issue of death and personal extinction. (Location 136)

The difference is crucial: a therapy is intended to be a short-term approach to helping people overcome specific problems of a psychological nature; it doesn’t necessarily provide a general picture, or philosophy, of life. (Location 161)

Such “externals” do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth, which depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues. (Location 169)

The idea was that in order to decide on the best approach to living we also need to understand the nature of the world (metaphysics), how it works (natural science), and how (imperfectly) we come to understand it (epistemology). (Location 183)

Modern cognitive science has shown over and over again that we are often prey to cognitive biases and delusions. (Location 190)

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering them accordingly. (Location 192)

The Stoic penchant for speaking truth to power, as we would say today, did not go over well with some of the people who held very dearly to that power.) (Location 217)

That framework is the idea that in order to live a good (in the sense of eudaimonic) life, one has to understand two things: the nature of the world (and by extension, one’s place in it) and the nature of human reasoning (including when it fails, as it so often does). (Location 296)

Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. (Location 377)

Since these are ideas that have truly withstood the test of time, we would be wise to draw from them in our own lives. (Location 386)

of Epictetus’s crucial points is that we have a strange tendency to worry about, and concentrate our energies on, precisely those things we cannot control. (Location 421)

One of the first lessons from Stoicism, then, is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe run as it will. This will save us both a lot of energy and a lot of worry. (Location 424)

critical part of growing up and maturing as an adult is asserting more control over one’s life, including choices concerning what to eat and how much, whether to exercise and how diligently, and so forth. (Location 445)

now have internalized the Stoic attitude that I have control over some things (what I eat, whether to exercise), but not others (my genes, my early experiences, and a number of other external (Location 452)

Suppose you are going to find out tomorrow whether you got the promotion or not. (Location 458)

Epictetus tells us that regret is a waste of our emotional energy. (Location 468)

The Stoics we know of were teachers, politicians, generals, and emperors—hardly the sort of people who would have fallen into a fatalistic torpor. (Location 474)

between their internal goals, over which they had control, and the external outcome, which they could influence but not control. (Location 475)

Stoicism originated and thrived in times of political instability; people’s lives could be upturned at a moment’s (Location 512)

So the philosopher clearly had compassion for other people and cared for them, even some not related to him by blood. What (Location 518)

As it turned out, they were following the news that a coup was under way. The reaction at our table was remarkably calm as we (Location 532)

and some smaller cities throughout the country. As a general rule, it is not a good idea to be blocked in traffic in the midst of a frenzied crowd, especially when you don’t speak the language. (Location 547)

a student of Stoicism, the experience was first and foremost a strong reminder of the fundamental principle of this chapter: few things are under our control. (Location 552)

True, we were never in any apparent physical danger, but the situation was uncertain, and especially once we heard explosions and military planes overhead a bit of anxiety would not have been entirely out of place. (Location 555)

That human beings are special in the animal world was perfectly clear to the ancients. (Location 573)

for a rather insular existence, so the Stoics shifted the emphasis very much toward the social, essentially arguing that the point of life for human beings is to use reason to build the best society that it is humanly possible to build. (Location 580)

That said, we do seem to be the only animals who use language featuring complex grammar, have babies who are born with very large brains and continue to grow them long after birth, and have highly asymmetrical brain hemispheres, which are specialized for different functions (including, very importantly, language in the left one). (Location 614)

human beings are sufficiently different from closely related species as to have their own multidimensional set of distinguishing characteristics, (Location 631)

the help of others; the implication is that when we do things for the good of the polity, we are actually (Location 710)

ball is only a means to an end and isn’t the important thing—it is what one does with the ball that defines the game, how well it is played, and who wins or loses. (Location 766)

If you think that eating local and organic is sustainable, you may be in for a surprise when you look at the relevant literature or do a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation. (Location 811)

I think, but rather a balancing of competing demands that stem from different ethical criteria: supporting a type of operation of which I do not approve versus disappointing someone I love. (Remember (Location 852)

Generally speaking, then, Stoic ethics isn’t just about what we do—our actions—but more broadly about how our character is equipped to navigate real life. (Location 858)

Stoics occupy the logical space in between these two positions: health, wealth, education, and good looks—among other things—are preferred indifferents, while their opposites—and a number of other things—are dispreferred indifferents. (Location 886)

the virtues. Here is how Seneca aptly summarized the idea in the case of a particularly common contrast between preferred and dispreferred experiences: “There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. (Location 891)

but not when doing so imperils your integrity. Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one. (Location 896)

By contrast, everyone can have a good life according to the Cynics, but few of us are inclined to spend it living in a tub and defecating in the streets. (Location 915)

we are justified in inferring the existence of a human maker, but only because we have actually seen, or have otherwise incontrovertible evidence of, people making things. (Location 958)

More importantly, many of the Stoics did not believe in anything like the modern monotheistic conception of God. (Location 982)

It is sometimes referred to as “Einstein’s God,” because a similar sentiment was expressed by the famous physicist. (Location 992)

but rather as attitudes toward others (humanity) and toward the universe at large (transcendence). (Location 1156)

but emotion (vengeance), not reason, drove her to act as she did. (Location 1335)

but a person lacking something important, like a lame person (the same word Epictetus uses to describe his own condition). (Location 1337)

Cognitive dissonance is a very uncomfortable psychological state that occurs when someone becomes aware of the conflict between two judgments that he holds to be equally true. (Location 1350)

As the writer Michael Shermer has observed, the more clever people are, the better they are at rationalizing away the sources of their cognitive dissonance. (Location 1360)

The wrongdoer does not understand that he is doing harm to himself first and foremost, because he suffers from amathia, lack of knowledge of what is truly good for himself. (Location 1375)

As far as the rest of us are concerned, remembering that people do bad things out of lack of wisdom is not only a reminder to be compassionate toward others, it also constantly tells us just how important it is to develop wisdom. (Location 1377)

Stockdale managed to organize his fellow prisoners, creating and enforcing a code of conduct to regulate their behavior. (Location 1398)

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. (Location 1407)

as well as the rational lucidity to see what could and could not be done about it. (Location 1418)

As Epictetus and Arendt would both see, had they been there, he came to understand that the man was not evil, but rather that he was doing his job with what he perceived as integrity. (Location 1440)

That’s because, after going that long without seeing anyone, a person desperately needs friends, quite regardless of who they are, their ideologies, or their politics. (Location 1458)

Role models such as James Stockdale, Paconius Agrippinus, Helvidius Priscus, and Malala Yousafzai highlight the point that Stoicism is a practical philosophy, not abstract theorizing. (Location 1493)

Nigel Warburton asked me during an interview, “What about ordinary life, where people hardly have to face such extreme situations or display such levels of courage and endurance?” (Location 1547)

The idea isn’t the naive one of figuring out what we want to do in life early on and then just implementing the plan, (Location 1632)

what is important to us and on the best way to achieve it, and also to continuously revise our life plan, according to our changing abilities and circumstances. (Location 1633)

We need to harmonize our spiritual and rational experiences, our desires and our needs, our reason with our actions. (Location 1638)

The trick here, according to Larry, is to know when to quit: neither a minute too soon nor a minute too late. (Location 1642)

If there is anything that Stoicism trains people to do it is to monitor their own reactions and reflect critically on how they perceive and interpret the world. (Location 1665)

The Stoics attempted to do so by cultivating positive emotions and monitoring and rejecting negative ones. (We will take a closer look at these techniques in due time.) (Location 1673)

Another aspect of Stoicism that Andrew found particularly helpful was the philosophy’s emphasis on using adversity as a training ground for life. (Location 1687)

Seneca wrote about self-knowledge and suggested that sometimes we are the worst obstacles to our own improvement: we see where we should go, which is where we want to go, and yet somehow we can’t pick ourselves up and begin the journey. (Location 1727)

all the major Stoic authors insist that it is crucial that we reflect on our condition and truly make an effort to see things in a different light, one that is both more rational and more compassionate. (Location 1738)

bent on changing the world for the better to the extent that it was in their power to do so. (Location 1742)

On the contrary, I’ve always been reasonably optimistic about life, enjoying or doing my best with whatever Fortune sends my way (and she has sent a lot, thankfully). (Location 1762)

death itself is not under our control (it will happen one way or another), but how we think about death most definitely is under our control. (Location 1780)

Those around us cannot cure our illness or save us from death, but they can accompany us part of the way, comforting us before we get there. And of course it would be better to end our journey in (Location 1799)

On the contrary, a number of techno-optimists think that death is a disease that should be cured, and they are investing good money in the effort. (Location 1813)

Just as, for the Stoics, death itself is what gives urgent meaning to life, the possibility of leaving life voluntarily gives us the courage to do what is right under otherwise unbearable circumstances. (Location 1866)

A Stoic rationale should never be deployed, for instance, in the case of people who are mentally ill and require aid in recovering, not in ending, their life. (Location 1904)

Little is more pragmatic than learning to manage anger, anxiety, and loneliness, three major plagues of modern life. (Location 1929)

he gained an iron lamp, but in the transaction he lost something much more precious—his integrity. I had an (Location 1943)

But the thief had lost his integrity in the bargain. (Location 1953)

always keeping in mind the dichotomy of control between what is and is not in our power. (Location 1958)

know that it is more helpful to think of people who do bad things as mistaken and therefore to be pitied and helped if possible, not condemned as evil. (Location 1969)

Although the Stoics didn’t deploy the concept of mantra, they constantly advised practitioners to keep simple, pithy phrases at hand and to reach for them as soon as they saw trouble. (Location 1977)

This advice, a sort of physiological and mental first-aid kit, is useful for immediate crises, but a number of longer-term strategies must also be deployed if anger (Location 1985)

I desire (not want or need) a promotion, so I’m going to do my best to deserve it. Whether I actually get it or not is not under my control, because it depends on a number of factors external to my will. (Location 1990)

we should try to describe the situation making us angry as dispassionately and accurately as possible, what Epictetus called giving assent to (or withdrawing assent from) our impressions, as I did when my wallet was stolen. (Location 1999)

But the only way to avoid such failures is to do what I have already done: prepare myself to the best of my abilities. Nothing else can be done, so there is no cause for (additional) concern, much less for anxiety over the outcome. (Location 2033)

Here is the author’s surprisingly sober yet refreshingly honest commentary: “[Loneliness] is such an innate part of the human psyche, that it cannot be solved like a puzzle; it can only be alleviated and made less painful. (Location 2072)

the latter is a factual description, while the former is a judgment we superimpose on that description, and it is that judgment, not the naked fact, that makes us feel rejected and powerless. (Location 2083)

We may have little or no control over the external circumstances that force us into being alone at some times in our lives. (Location 2086)

they did not mean just doing whatever comes “naturally”—like leaving your own child in the care of others because you are experiencing too much pain. (Location 2100)

Was it right that as a consequence the child should be thus left desolate and helpless because of the great affection of you its parents and of those about it, or should die in the hands of those who had no love or care for it?” (Location 2107)

“Would you pray to be so loved by your own people, as to be always left alone by them when you were ill, because of their exceeding affection, or would you, if it were a question of being left alone, rather pray, supposing that were possible, to have the affection of your enemies?” (Location 2110)

The point, rather, is that human affection needs to be guided—trained even—by a sound assessment of whatever situation triggers our feelings. (Location 2116)

there is a difference between what is natural and what is right, and we ought to arrive at correct judgments that will sometimes make us override what is natural in favor of what is right. (Location 2120)

Initially, it’s all about paying conscious attention to what you’re doing, and asking why, and as a result you are pretty bad at (Location 2132)

Despite Epictetus’s (right) emphasis on practice, the ancient Greeks actually developed a sophisticated theoretical understanding of love, espousing a number of different conceptions of (Location 2140)

I may feel like my country is a crucial part of my identity, which therefore justifies my having special regard for it, but if it is about to engage in actions that are deleterious to itself or to others, then I have a duty to speak out. (Location 2167)

From a Stoic perspective, friendship, like everything else except our own moral character, is a preferred indifferent. (Location 2183)

A friendship of utility is what we nowadays would call an acquaintance based on reciprocal advantage—say, for instance, your relationship with your favorite hairdresser. My (Location 2212)

desire, action, and assent—and their relationship with the three areas of study—physics, ethics, and logic—as (Location 2280)

Since human beings are naturally social animals capable of reason, it follows that we should strive to apply reason to achieve a better society. (Location 2291)

‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” (Location 2303)

The biochemistry of my body and of potentially pathogenic agents, however, is most definitely not under my control (though deciding to eat fish at that particular restaurant certainly was). (Location 2311)

And though it is certainly human to seek sympathy, even that response—from a Stoic perspective—is an imposition on others in order to feel better ourselves, in a situation in which, moreover, others cannot do much more than pity us. (Location 2313)

something that is to be sought unless it compromises our integrity and virtue. (Location 2321)

When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.” (Location 2328)

we should constantly remind ourselves of just how precious our loved ones are precisely because they may soon be gone. (Location 2342)

with somebody constantly whispering in our ear, “Memento homo” (Remember, you are only a man). (Location 2344)

but because they marked the passing of the very two individuals who brought me into this world. Losing one’s parents is a rite of passage for most of us (unless we happen to die before them), and anyone who has gone through the experience will testify to how hard it is, regardless of the specific circumstances. (Location 2348)

what was happening was probably going to kill my father in a short time. (Location 2355)

until Stoicism taught me that regret is about things we can no longer change and the right attitude is to learn from our experiences, not dwell on decisions that we are not in a position to alter. Which brings me to my mother. (Location 2357)

‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature—which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’” (Location 2370)

They always assume that of course things will go well, since bad things only happen to other people (possibly because they somehow deserve them). (Location 2373)

Fate permitting. (Location 2374)

to the movies is under my control (I could, after all, watch another film at home or do something else entirely), and so is my reaction to other people’s behaviors. (Location 2379)

either he can gingerly follow the general direction of the cart, over which he has no control, and thereby enjoy the ride and even have time to explore his surroundings and attend to some of his own business, or he can stubbornly resist the cart with all his might and end up being dragged, kicking and screaming, for the rest of the trip, accumulating much pain and frustration and wasting his time in a futile and decidedly unpleasant effort. (Location 2390)

permitting. This is what it means to do whatever you do while “keeping in line with nature.” (Location 2396)

While we naturally think that our goal is to win the match, or get the promotion, those outcomes of course are not in our control—they can only be influenced by us. (Location 2400)

to play the best match we can, regardless of outcome, or to put together the best promotion file we can before the decision is made. (Location 2402)

Rather, it is to deploy the wisdom that sometimes things will not go our way even if we do our best, and regardless of whether we deserved to win the match or get the promotion. (Location 2405)

Notice how he counters each temptation or difficulty with a virtue that can be practiced, deploying the Stoic concept that every challenge in life is a perfectly good chance to work on self-improvement. (Location 2413)

Rather, you will summon your self-control and focus on how you can alter your own mentality so that eventually you will simply not feel the temptation at all. (Location 2416)

No wonder Epictetus is often associated with the phrase “bear and forbear,” or “endure and renounce.” But remember that the goal isn’t to live an unhappy and grim life. (Location 2420)

of holding the partly severed digit with my other hand, and then quickly decided that it wasn’t going to be a good idea to wipe the blood off and that I should simply get out and walk to the nearby medical emergency facility to have them take care of my finger as best they could. (Location 2427)

you must believe that you are being harmed. (Location 2436)

‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.” (Location 2456)

The Stoic has two responses to this argument—one based on empirical evidence, and the other from philosophical principles. The empirical fact is that human beings are simply incapable, physiologically, of that much empathy. (Location 2463)

Speak little and well. “Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. (Location 2477)

Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Location 2479)

Very few people wish to be lectured over dinner or on a social occasion. (Location 2482)

thought that a good dinner party hinged on involved discussions of philosophy, politics, and other “serious” matters. (Location 2491)

I laugh every time I read this, since it is yet another example of Stoic, shall we say, bluntness; it is bound to shock modern sensibilities, and yet, the more I reflect on it, the more I become convinced that modern sensibilities could benefit from the occasional shock. (Location 2509)

but rather people who are interested in following virtue and cultivating their character. From the ancient perspective, which we would do well to make our own, everyone ought to strive to be a philosopher in this sense of the term—that is, to apply reason to improve his own and his community’s life and well-being. (Location 2514)

what we are doing and who our companions are. Again, I have tried to slowly implement this strategy in my own social interactions—it goes very well with the previous exercise of engaging in less and more meaningful conversation. (Location 2518)

but that I truly pay attention to whom I spend my time with and why. (Location 2520)

You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed, or at the least disarmed. (Location 2527)

Rather than defend himself from the charge and launch into a detailed, and probably useless, explanation of why his paper was neither evil nor misguided, Bill did the Stoic thing: he took a breath, smiled, and replied: “Well, good thing you haven’t read my other works, or you’d see just how evil and misguided I really am.” (Location 2533)

First and foremost, this shouldn’t be taken as a backhanded way to ignore the serious problem of bullying, of both the cyber and in-person varieties. (Location 2548)

But this is true in general of a lot of what the Stoics advise: the two approaches—working on eliminating or curtailing a problem while at the same time developing one’s own endurance—are simply not mutually exclusive. (Location 2550)

It is pretty safe to say that we are not as interesting as we think we are. (Location 2578)

How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.” (Location 2596)