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Stoicism: Practical Philosophy For The Unhappy

What is Stoicism?

A practical philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens around 300 B.C. He taught at the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), which is origin of the name Stoicism.

What is the goal of Stoicism?

To achieve happiness by avoiding the causes of unhappiness.

What are the causes of unhappiness?

We are ultimately to blame for our own unhappiness, by allowing ourselves to be upset by the following:

  • Wanting something we don't have

  • Having something we don't want (e.g. illness)

  • The behavior of other people

How do we stop allowing these things to disturb us?

By understanding and clearly separating the things we can control and the things we cannot. Described by Epictetus, one of the most revered Stoic philosophers, they are:

  • Within our control: our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general

  • Outside our control: the body, material possessions, our reputation, status

We can't ensure (influence, yes; guarantee, no) that we won't get sick, that we will obtain or keep (from loss, damage, theft) any particular possession, that anyone will like us, or that we will obtain a certain career/political/social position.

We can ensure (with practice) that we don't make false or premature judgements, that we don't react without thinking, and that we don't desire what can't be guaranteed or is impossible to achieve.

Desire & Aversion

When we hope for or against a particular outcome, we set ourselves up to be unprepared (practically and emotionally) when things don't go our way. We should instead be ready to accept any result, and we can prepare ourselves by envisioning it ahead of time and thinking about our ability to cope with it.

Coping With Struggle

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperor's of Rome and another of the most famous Stoics, advises the following when you're feeling discouraged:

Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can't I endure it?” You'll be embarrassed to answer.

Epictetus suggests using detachment:

When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, "Oh, bad luck." It's only reasonable that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit.

Dealing With Others

Marcus Aurelius advises himself to prepare for his social interactions each day as follows:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: 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.

Epictetus offers similar advice:

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse - people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes.

Anticipate that others will behave poorly, and prepare yourself to remain calm despite their behavior. Refrain from assuming the motives for their actions. Don't stoop to their level. Do what is right publicly, even when it draws ridicule. We can only be insulted when we allow ourselves to be. Hesitate before reacting to provocation.

Reading Material

A good introduction to Stoicism:

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life - Massimo Pigliucci

Tough love teachings:

Discourses and Selected Writings - Epictetus

The private thoughts of a Roman Emperor:

Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

Thoughts on anger from a Roman statesman:

How To Keep Your Cool - Seneca / James Romm

Biography of one of the most respected ancient Stoics:

Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar - Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni

A teacher's struggle to keep a young, unhinged emperor in check:

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court Of Nero - James Romm

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