I wanted to share some information about what I’ve been reading about recently, and see if I can pull out the most important points in a coherent, understandable fashion.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who lived from 121 AD to 180 AD, and is said to be one of the most influential people toward our modern day understanding of Stoicism. I picked up his book, or rather a collection of his writings, called “Mediations” (the Gregory Hays translation) and have been making my way through. It’s essentially an amalgamation of the scrolls on which he wrote his own personal notes, kind of like a diary. The book has no specific order, division of chapters, or anything. Simply small sentences or paragraphs which he wrote at some point to himself, for some reason. It’s inspired me to learn a bit more about the philosophy, and I quite enjoy it.
The greatest thing about Stoicism, in my opinion, is that two of the most influential texts on the subject were written by a slave (Epictetus) and an Emperor (Aurelius)… but the principles still apply. I can’t imagine a better justification for how a philosophy could be applied by all people than the idea that a slave and an emperor can share the same ideas.
So what is it?
Stoicism got its name from the Greek word “Stoa”, meaning porch, because it was taught by Zeno in Athens in a (kinda porchy) place called Stoa Poikile. A philosophy grounded in logic and ethics, Stoicism has many tenets, but the few that sum it up for me are the following:
Don’t try to control what is our of your control.
Frustration comes from trying to control things that you can’t control. Accept that things have happened and that you can’t do anything about them now. It would be illogical to get upset or angry at something that you can’t affect, so live in the present.
Deconstruct things and see them for what they really are.
A great example of this, which I heard on an episode of the Kevin Rose podcast, was a Louis Vuitton bag. If you strip away all the surrounding stuff (name brand, socio-economic status symbol, etc.) you realize that it’s still just a few pieces of leather that holds some stuff in it, sewn together in a sweatshop in China. It doesn’t matter if it’s Louis Vuitton or a no-name brand, be aware of what the object is.
This doesn’t, however, mean that Stoics try to live without any material objects. From what I gather, the idea is that you set your baseline as the bare minimum that you need. If you need a car, any car that gets you from point A to point B will do. Once that baseline is set, if you have the money for it and feel like it, you can buy a Lexus. But, if ever that was taken away, you’re still above your baseline and should still be equally happy.
Make decisions according to the universal logos, follow reason and logic instead of emotions.
The Stoics believe(d) that there is a universal logos, which has been defined many ways, but I believe is properly summed up by this definition in Merriam Webster:
‘Reason, that in ancient Greek philosophy is the
controlling principle in the universe.’
There’s also a strong link between this logos and God, the gods, nature, and other terms. Basically their idea is that there’s a natural flow or order, and that there is universal truth in all things.
Eliminate unnecessary speech and action.
“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.” This quote from Meditations can be a helpful reminder to stay away from useless activity, as it won’t help you and it won’t help the people around you.
“If you seek tranquility, do less. Or rather, do less but do it better.”
Perception is the most powerful and most dangerous tool humans have.
Your reaction to people’s actions is what decides your happiness, things can’t affect you if you don’t let them. There is very little that is “good” or “bad” in the world; most things, actions, circumstances, etc. simply exist, there’s no need to label them. With this kind of objective approach, it’s easier to see things clearly. Humans are very capable of deciding their reaction to situations, feelings, and emotions, but we are also extremely affected when we let our emotions get the better of us.
I think that this book, and this philosophy in general, has a lot to teach. I don’t agree with every single point that I’ve read about Stoicism, but I do believe that everyone could learn something from reading about this philosophy. Especially in times like these, with the world seemingly so divided in thought and unable to have discussions about their differing opinions, we could all use a bit of emotional control in our thoughts and reactions.
Some other suggested books on Stoicism (which I’ll get to) come from Seneca, and Epictetus, and there have been a number of newer authors who write about Stoicism as it applied nowadays, such as Ryan Holiday’s very successful book The Daily Stoic.
See you soon!