Stoicism 101

What is Stoicism? 

Stoicism, a Greco-Roman philosophy founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BCE, is a school of practical philosophy. It is named after the Stoa Poikele — meaning “painted porch” — where Zeno taught in Athens. Stoicism was created as a framework for everyday life. It is a philosophy that we can use to increase our happiness, productivity, patience, and love for humankind.

Stoicism was one of the principal schools of thought in ancient Athens. The school gained great popularity among the Roman elite, and most of the works that survive today are from the Roman intellectual class. 

What does Stoicism mean?

Stoicism teaches that we can train our minds to see beyond these emotions; that through the use of reason, we can enhance our perception of life. So much is outside of our control. But the Stoics taught that we are always in control of our reason and reactions. Understanding and applying this fundamental concept gives us the ability to master our perception. We can recognize emotions like fear, anxiety, hatred, and jealousy and cut them off. By honing our reason, we can master the world of which we perceive. Put simply, our thoughts determine our reality.

Stoicism can be broken into three central parts: 

  • Rationality — Humans are animals. But we are the only animals gifted with a rational mind. We are able to see our emotions and determine how we react to every situation. 
  • Control — We are in control of how we react to every situation. Because we are in control of our reactions we are able to determine our own happiness. If you let go of external things (like fame, fortune, or success) you can focus on yourself. 
  • Nature —Emotional responses are part of our nature… But so is rationality. The Stoics believe we are a small part of a larger universe, and that there is nothing to be gained from fighting your nature. Understand what you can change (and what you cannot) and you will be happier for it. 

How to be a Stoic?

At their core, a Stoic is concerned with how to live their life in the best way possible. They realize that to develop an applicable ethical structure it is crucial to first understand how the world works, and then embrace the power and limits of human reasoning.

Stoics believe that they must live life according to nature. And they believe that it is the nature of humans to be logical. In every situation you should attempt to process it rationally and respond in the best way given your limitations. Knowledge can be gained from any situation by separating the false from the truth. 

Modern culture represent Stoics as emotionless, and that isn’t quite right. A Stoic is able to transform emotions in order to find a calm mind that is able to react rationally. As a human it is impossible to suppress feelings (such as anger, lust, or sadness), but the rational mind can see these emotions for what they are and assess whether or not they should be given attention. 

According to Massimo Pigliucci, a leader in modern stoicism, “...the Stoics distinguished between propathos (instinctive reaction) and eupathos (feelings resulting from correct judgment), and their goal was to achieve apatheia, or peace of mind, resulting from clear judgment and maintenance of equanimity in life.” As a Stoic you don’t have to forgo emotions, but you should favor your rational mind over your emotional one. 

Stoics also focus on determining what is within their control and what is not. Your thoughts, emotions, and reactions are always within your control. Almost everything else is not. Now that doesn’t mean that you are unable to effect change in the world, and to drive results. But when things do not go the way you wish, as they certainly will, do not dwell on your failure. 

To be a Stoic you have to embody the principles of the philosophy. It isn’t something you can achieve in a day, or a month, or a year. Stoicism is a practice that you can always improve upon and work towards bettering yourself. 

There are many ways to practice Stoicism today, but one of the most useful is the evening reflection. At the end of every day turn off your connected devices and turn to a piece of paper and a pen. Ask yourself Epictetus’ three questions:, What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What duty’s left undone? Be honest with yourself and write freely. These reflections are meant for no one other than yourself. You should learn from what happened during the day, realize how you can improve tomorrow, clear your mind, and sleep easily (knowing that you did your best today).

Embrace the ancient art of Stoicism, and try to make the most out of every moment that life has to offer.  

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