I’m a student of the Stoic school of philosophy. I’m not a Vulcan (far from it), but I do try to hold back any unnecessary passionate responses. I work in an industry where I’m often confronted by angry, irrational people, who are speaking from a place of pain and suffering. I can either remember that fact, and treat them accordingly, or I can meet fire with fire, causing further upset for expanding circles of people. My job in life is to help people. Stoicism helps me do that, while remaining content myself.

 

Stoicism takes its name from the location where it was created in the third century BCE. The Stoa Poikile, painted porch, is where practitioners of the philosophy got together to work. The founder was Zeno Citium, a Hellenistic thinker from Cyprus. He was a wealthy merchant who actually lived the life of an ascetic. He was curious about the teachings of the Cynics, who reject the normal human desires for money, fame, comfort, and so on. But though he lived a rather plain and austere life, he was not a fan of the concept of being completely shameless. He ended up under the tutelage of Crates, a prominent Cynic.

 

Famously, Crates handed Zeno a pot of lentil-soup to carry, in an apprentice’s role, which embarrassed Zeno. Crates then whacked the the pot with his staff, spilling the soup all over Zeno, who was incredibly embarrassed at this point. Crates remarked, “Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you.”

 

From there, Zeno went on to study other philosophies as well, before ultimately coming to the Stoa to teach. His school of thought originally bore his name (Zenonism) but Stoicism eventually took hold as a label. The Stoic movement evolved through at least three separates stages of development, perhaps in part due to its adoption by the wealthy and the educated. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are two such elite. If you have a chance, I HIGHLY recommend reading through the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to get a good view into the mindset of someone who believed strongly enough in the philosophy that he essentially journaled about it routinely. The philosophy was relatively dormant through modern history, though Admiral James Stockdale famously cites Stoicism as aiding in his survival in a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. He wrote a book called Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (Hoover Essays) that I also recommend.

 

I practice Stoicism because it is a practical philosophy. It’s hands on. While it still ponders the same questions of any other philosophy (What is the good life? Am I a good person?), it provides tools to enable you to live differently from day one. One of the foundational beliefs is that life isn’t about events we can’t control. It’s about how we react to them. It’s important to point out that Stoicism is not showing a complete lack of emotion. Rather, it’s control of one’s passions (embodied in the ancient sense by anguish and suffering).

 

Stoics believe you will lead a good life by working on your own virtues.

The Stoic Virtues:

Wisdom

Courage

Justice

Temperance

 

A key practice of stoicism is to view as “indifferent” some aspects of life. Your money and health are okay to have, but neither one of them makes you a more worthy person. How many politicians and movie stars are swimming in money, as well as in hedonistic behavior? Your money isn’t what makes you good. Your state of health affects how you feel, but it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.

 

The Stoics encourage that you live a life in accordance with nature and reason, and that you don’t fight fate. A good stoic doesn’t need to walk around in soup-stained clothing, but neither should they obsess over the latest in vain clothing fads. Life is about more than that. To appreciate the good, you should remember the bad, though. Some Stoics will walk in the freezing cold without a jacket, for example. Their next exposure to warmth will be all the better for it. Seneca himself wrote that exposing yourself to coarse clothing and conditions for long enough will lead you to wonder: Is this what one used to dread?

 

The opposite can be just as true. The Stoic sees any great and happy moment as bittersweet. Saying hello to a best friend should be a joyful occasion, but the Stoic knows full well that no one lives forever. This person may not be here tomorrow. Or perhaps they will lose interest. Right now, in this moment, there is joy to be savored.

 

What can you do today to put this into practice?

 

Zoom out.

 

Look upward and outward, and realize how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. The cosmos cares not that you’re stuck at a red light, and the sensor is broken, and you should be on your way already, but the light is still red. Still red.

 

Zoom in.

 

Look inward, and ponder your decisions great and small. Stoics are some of the most introspective people you can meet. While your actions on the cosmic scale are infinitesimal, on a micro level they can mean the world to someone. Even little actions can have an ethical interpretation.

 

Zoom back out, just a little.

 

Take a look at your community. Are you helping? Can you do more? A good Stoic recognizes that he or she has the potential to be an integral part of any society, to help make it better. You are ethically obligated to be so.

 

Put these small steps into practice. If you’d like to learn more about Stoicism, I cannot recommend A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy highly enough. The author touches on every facet of what it means to be a Stoic in a concise and practical way.

 

Look inward. And go be awesome.