Category Archives: Stoicism Characterized

#11: The Stoic 2-Step Program for Better Living

Many blog postings consist of tips on how to improve aspects of your life—how to avoid procrastinating, perhaps, or how to lose ten pounds.  These tips are known as life hacks.

Rather than spending their time thinking about how to improve aspects of their life, the Stoics were interested in figuring out how to improve their life itself.  To this end, they came up with the following two-step program:

      Step #1: Figure out what in life is worth having.

      Step #2: Devise an effective strategy for attaining that thing.

As it turns out, Stoicism isn’t alone in advocating this two-step program; any coherent philosophy for living will.  Where philosophies differ is in the conclusions they reach in Steps #1 and #2.

The Stoics concluded that tranquility (by which they mean the absence of negative emotions; they have nothing against positive emotions such as joy) is the thing in life most worth having.  And Stoicism, it turns out, isn’t the only philosophy that identifies tranquility as the thing in life most worth having; so do such diverse philosophies as Zen Buddhism and Epicureanism.  Where these philosophies differ is in their strategy for attaining this goal.  They differ, in other words, in the conclusions they reach in Step #2.

In my Guide to the Good Life, I describe the Stoic strategy for attaining and then maintaining tranquility. Stoics recommend, for example, that we practice negative visualization: we should allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about how our life could be worse.  A Zen Buddhist, by way of contrast, might recommend that we practice the strategy known as zazen: we should try to empty our minds of all thoughts so we can gain insight into the insidious nature of desire and thereby gain mastery over it.

Not all philosophies for living identify tranquility as the thing in life most worth having.  Consider, for example, “enlightened hedonists.”  They identify pleasure as the thing in life most worth having and go on to devise strategies for maximizing the pleasure they experience in the course of their lifetime.

Although philosophers will disagree about what philosophy of life people should adopt, they will be in general agreement that everyone ought to adopt some philosophy for living—that you are better off with even a flawed philosophy for living than with no philosophy at all.

People who lack a philosophy for living will, after all, make very little progress in life.  One day they will try to achieve one goal, and the next they will abandon it in favor of some other goal.   They will be like a ship captain who randomly changes his course every hour.  He is unlikely ever to reach land. He will instead spend his life literally at sea, which is the metaphorical fate of anyone who tries to go through life without a philosophy for living.

This is why it is important for you, whatever your age and your station in life may be, to spend time and energy choosing a philosophy for living—and to spend that time now, so that you can benefit from your philosophy in the days of life remaining to you.  Wouldn’t it be tragic if, on your deathbed, you finally figured out the point to living?

Many blog readers are in search of life hacks.  The Stoics, however, would recommend that instead of hacking your way through life, you philosophize.  More precisely, you should search for a coherent philosophy for living.  Yes, doing so will cost you time and effort, but not as much as you might think.  And yes, adopting a philosophy for living will require you to make adjustments in the way you spend your days.  But the price will be well worth paying, if what you seek is a happy and meaningful life.

#3: Some Basic Stoic Traits

Marcus Aurelius was arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. He is also the author of one of the primary Stoic texts, the Meditations. As far as scholars can tell, it was intended as a private journal, in which he recorded his observations about the people around him, as well as advice to himself on how to deal with those people. As a result, the Meditations makes for choppy reading. Its entries are short and often repetitive.

For someone curious about what it means to behave in a Stoical manner, though, Book One of the Meditations is essential reading. In just a few pages, Marcus tells us what he has learned from the various mentors he has been blessed with in the course of his life.

One of these mentors was Stoic philosopher Maximus, who had mastered, Marcus says, “the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.” From him, Marcus learned the importance of maintaining “cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.”   So much for the common belief that the Stoics were glum, pessimistic, emotionless individuals! This was a man, says Marcus, about whom “everybody believed that in all that he did he never had any bad intention.”

From Catulus, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus learned not just to love his children but to love them “truly.” He also acquired useful strategies for dealing with other people. He learned, for example, that when a friend unjustly blamed him of something, he should not get angry but should instead try to restore that friend to “his usual disposition.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Rusticus taught him that when someone insulted him or wronged him, he should “be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.” If you can’t tolerate the occasional vexatious behavior of friends, you probably don’t have any!

From Diognetus, the philosopher who introduced him to Stoicism, Marcus learned not to busy himself about “trifling things.”

From an unnamed tutor—he refers to this individual as his “governor”—Marcus learned “endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”

From the philosopher Sextus, he learned “to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” Sextus, he tells us, “never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion.” This makes Sextus sound like a wooden being, but this apparently wasn’t the case, inasmuch as Marcus also describes him as being “most affectionate.”

Although Sextus possessed considerable knowledge, he did not display it in an ostentatious manner, a trait that Marcus thought was admirable. Along similar lines, Marcus appreciated the subtle but effective manner in which the scholar Alexander corrected the speech of those he encountered. If they uttered “a barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression,” Alexander would not mock them; he instead attempted “dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used,” so the person could learn the correct usage without having been chided for misusing language.

Marcus’s mentors also taught him that, besides not flaunting his own knowledge, he should not begrudge others their knowledge. He notes that Antoninus Pius—who was both Marcus’s adoptive father and emperor of Rome just ahead of Marcus—was “most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts.”

From the philosopher Alexander, who was a Platonist rather than a Stoic, Marcus learned not to form the habit of telling people that he had no time for leisure, or of continually excusing neglect of loved ones by claiming that he had important business to attend to.

One last comment is in order: it was the practice of Stoicism that led Marcus to actively seek out mentors. A Stoic takes his life to be a work in progress, so he is grateful for any insights other people can provide him. Most people don’t seek mentors, for the simple reason that they don’t think they have any important lessons left to learn.