October 17, 2016

37 Wise & Life-Changing Lessons From The Ancient Stoics

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KevinCarden / Lightstock
KevinCarden / Lightstock

The private diaries of one of Rome’s greatest emperors, the personal letters of one of Rome’s best playwrights and wisest power brokers, the lectures of a former slave and exile, turned influential teacher. Against all odds and the passing of some two millennia, these incredible documents survive.

Could these ancient and obscure pages really contain anything relevant to modern life? The answer, it turns out, is yes. They contain some of the greatest wisdom in the history of the world.

These documents—from the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus—constitute the bedrock of what is known as Stoicism, an ancient philosophy that was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But where should you start? What do they have to teach you? Here are 37 lessons adapted from my new book The Daily Stoic (and our daily stoic email)—bringing all-new translations and a meditation for every day of the year to make you happier, more resilient and a wiser, better person.

1. Change What You Can—Forget the Rest The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. As Epictetus wrote, “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.”

2. Start Living — This is one of Seneca’s most memorable quips: “You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?” Our fear of dying often begs the question: To protect what exactly? For a lot of people the answer is: hours of television, gossiping, gorging, wasting potential, reporting to a boring job, and on and on and on. Today, start living!

3. Know When to Stick (And When to Quit!) — “Think of those who, not by fault of inconsistency but by lack of effort, are too unstable to live as they wish, but only live as they have begun.” Seneca

4. Pause And Be Grateful — Think of all the things you can be grateful for today. That you are alive, that you live in a time primarily of peace, that you have enough health, leisure and access to an internet connection to read this article. As Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, “In all things we should try to make ourselves be as grateful as possible.”

5. Remember That You Can’t Be Broken — Someone can throw you in chains, but they don’t have the power to change who you are. Even under the worst torture and cruelties that humans can inflict on one another, our power over our own mind and our power to make our own decisions can’t be broken. As Epictetus has said, “You can bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”

6. Always Love — Here’s Seneca quoting another Stoic: “Hecato says, ‘I can teach you a love potion made without any drugs, herbs, or special spell—if you would be loved, love.’” The Beatles put it pretty well a few centuries later, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Not just in politics, not just in tolerance, but in our personal lives. There is almost no situation in which hatred helps. Yet almost every situation is made better by love.

7. Don’t Burn The Candle On Both Ends — Seneca wrote in his essay On Tranquility of Mind that “the mind must be given relaxation—it will rise improved and sharper after a good break.” The mind is a muscle, and like the rest, it can be strained, overworked, even injured. Our physical health is also worn down by overcommitment, a lack of rest, and bad habits. Remember: Life is a long haul. Are you going to be able to handle the difficult moments if you’ve burned the candle at both ends?

8. Dig Deep Within Yourself — “Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.” Marcus Aurelius

9. Be Kind — Most rudeness, meanness, and cruelty are a mask for deep-seated weakness. Kindness in these situations is only possible for people of great strength. You have that strength. Use it. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness and, if given the chance, you gently point out where they went wrong—right as they are trying to harm you?”

10. See The Bigger Picture — The Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself to “think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share.” The earth, as far as science tells us, is some 4.5 billion years old and shows no sign of ending soon. Our time on the earth, on the other hand, will be what? Several decades, maybe? Consider this the next time you feel self-important, or like everything rises and falls on what you do next. It doesn’t. You’re just one person among many, doing your best among many.

11. Become Good Now — “Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.” Marcus Aurelius

12. Focus Inward—Don’t Judge Others — “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others,” wrote Seneca. The proper direction of philosophy is focused inward—to make ourselves better and to leave other people to that task for themselves and their own journey. Leave other people to their faults.

13. You Choose The Outcome — Epictetus once told his students: “He was sent to prison. But the observation ‘he has suffered evil,’ is an addition coming from you.” An event itself is objective. How we describe it—that it was unfair, or it’s a great calamity, or that they did it on purpose—is on us.

14. Be A Force For Good — In your life, it’s not enough to just not do evil. You must also be a force for good in the world, as best you can. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.”

15. Love Your Fate — “Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well, ” Epictetus said. Instead of simply accepting what happens, the Stoics urge us to actually enjoy what has happened—whatever it is. Nietzsche, many centuries later, coined the perfect expression to capture this idea: amor fati (a love of fate). It’s not just accepting, it’s loving everything that happens.

16. Watch Your Words — “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” Zeno wrote. You can always get up after you fall, but remember, what has been said can never be unsaid. Especially cruel and hurtful things.

17. Make An Inward Change — Outward transformation—in our clothes, in our cars, in our grooming—might feel important but is superficial compared with the inward change. That’s the real change we need to focus on. Keep Seneca’s advice in mind: “Inwardly, we ought to be different in every respect, but our outward dress should blend in with the crowd.”

18. Take a Walk — Throughout the ages, philosophers, writers, poets, and thinkers have found that walking offers an additional benefit—time and space for better work. As Nietzsche would later say: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” Or here is Seneca: “We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”

19. Don’t Be Ashamed To Ask For Help — “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill 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

20. Do Your Job — In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius asks himself: “What is your vocation?” He then answers: “To be a good person.” The Stoics believed, above all else, that our job on this earth is to be a good human being. It is a basic duty, yet we are experts at coming up with excuses for avoiding it. As coach Bill Belichick put it: “Do your job.”

21. Look At The Night Sky — Marcus Aurelius wrote to “Watch the stars in their courses and imagine yourself running alongside them.” Looking at the beautiful expanse of the sky is an antidote to the nagging pettiness of earthly concerns. And it is good and sobering to lose yourself in that as often as you can.

22. Seize The 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

23. Trust Yourself — In Seneca’s essay on tranquility, he uses the Greek word euthymia, which he defines as “believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path, and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wandering in every direction.” Know where you are going. Trust yourself and don’t be distracted by others.

24. Remember You Are Going to Die — “Let each thing you would do, say or intend be like that of a dying person,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. Don’t let another day tick away in ignorance of the reality that you’re a dying person. We all are. Can today be the day we stop pretending otherwise?

25. Review Your Day — In a letter to his older brother Novatus, Seneca describes a beneficial exercise he borrowed from another prominent philosopher. At the end of each day he would ask himself variations of the following questions: What bad habit did I curb today? How am I better? Were my actions just? How can I improve? Take the time today and review your day.

26. Watch the Wise — Seneca wrote that, “Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make crooked straight.” That is the role of wise people in our lives—to serve as model and inspiration. To bounce our ideas off and test our presumptions. Who that person will be for you is up to you. But pick someone, watch what they do (and what they don’t do), and do your best to do the same.

27. Perfect Your Character — “This is the mark of perfection of character—to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.” Marcus Aurelius

28. You Can’t Have It All—Learn to Prioritize — “Don’t set your heart on so many things,” says Epictetus. Prioritize. Train your mind to ask: Do I need this thing? What will happen if I do not get it? The answers to these questions will help you relax, help you cut out all the needless things that make you busy—too busy to be balanced or happy.

29. Be Prepared For Sudden Attacks — ““The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.” Marcus Aurelius

30. Kill Your Ego & Self-Delusion — Self-deception, delusions of grandeur—these aren’t just annoying personality traits. Ego is more than just off-putting and obnoxious. Instead, it’s the sworn enemy of our ability to learn and grow. As Epictetus put it, “It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

31. Receive Honors & Slights The Same Way — Do not take the slights of the day personally—or the exciting rewards and recognitions either. Trivial details like the rise and fall of your position say nothing about you as a person. Treat both success and failure with indifference—focus on doing and being your best. The effort has to be enough. Become immune to the seduction of external events. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.”

32. You Always Have a Move to Make — In tight situations you need energy, creativity and above all faith in yourself. Defeatism won’t get you anywhere (except defeat). Focusing your entire effort on the little bit of room, the tiny scrap of an opportunity, is your best shot. As Seneca put it, “Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties—hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.”

33. Persist & Resist — Aulus Gellius relates that Epictetus once said, “If anyone would take two words to heart and take pains to govern and watch over themselves by them, they will live an impeccable and immensely tranquil life. The two words are: persist and resist.” Persist in your efforts—despite any obstacles you might face—and resist naysayers, discouragement and distractions.

34. Don’t Sell Yourself Too Cheaply — “I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss,” Seneca wrote in one of his essays. Because we don’t exactly know how many days we’ll be alive, and because we try our hardest not to think about the fact that someday we’ll die, we’re pretty liberal with how freely we spend our time. We let people and obligations impose on that time, only rarely asking: What am I getting in return here?

35. Remember We Are All Mortal — “Both Alexander the Great and his mule-keeper were both brought to the same place by death,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. We all face the same end. Whether you conquer the known world or shine the shoes of the people who do, at the end death will be a radical equalizer—a lesson in abject humility. In death, no one is better, no one is worse.

36. Accept The Haters As They Are — The Stoic does two things when encountering hatred or ill opinion in others. They ask: Is this opinion inside my control? If there is a chance for influence or change, they take it. But if there isn’t, they accept this person as they are. Our job is tough enough already. We don’t have time to think about what other people are thinking, even if it’s about us.

37. Cultivate Empathy & Selflessness — As Seneca observed, it’s possible to learn to “rejoice in all their successes and be moved by their every failure.” This is what a virtuous person does. They teach themselves to actively cheer for other people—even in cases where that might come at their own expense—and to put aside jealousy and possessiveness. You can do that too. TC mark

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