Mastering Your Mind: An Exploration of Stoic Philosophy

The wisdom of the ancient Stoics continues to hold relevance in our contemporary society. Prominent authors like William B. Irvine, Donald Robertson, and especially Ryan Holiday are reviving the intellectual and once widely sought-after teachings of Stoic philosophy, which originated two thousand years ago.

STOICISM TODAY

Stereotyped to be emotionless, stone-faced, and a philosophy made by men for men, Stoic philosophy is quite the opposite. Their philosophy was intended to teach us not only how to cope with our emotions but also how to identify what it is that we are ACTUALLY feeling. The TRUE reasons that led us to those emotions. Not the thought distortions we tell ourselves.

WHAT IS STOICISM

It was and still is—a  tool used to aid in the practice of the art of acceptance. A school of thought that teaches philosophy as a way of life.

A pragmatic approach to well-being, mental health, and the execution of resolutions. It is also the inspiration behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a 20th-century invention. This modern-day offspring of Stoic philosophy is a form of therapy that has been demonstrated to be effective for those suffering from a range of psychological problems. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, you name it. It’s basically the mental health equivalent of a Swiss Army knife.

Stoicism today is practiced by presidents, football players, celebrities, people in business, and people like you and me. YAASSSSS girl— those ancient men actually encouraged the education of females in philosophy as well.

PAIN IS INEVITABLE, SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL

Within the course of our lifetime, we will face many challenges. Obstacles in life are not only imminent but also inevitable. From stepping on Legos in the dark to getting stuck in traffic on our way to an important meeting, obstacles are everywhere. As humans, we easily put our mental and physical health at risk by our negative reactions alone. It is one thing to allow yourself to feel. To be disappointed, and to grieve. But it is completely another thing to choose to suffer and in some cases inflict self-harm.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end.

— Seneca

SHIPWRECKED: HOW STOICISM BEGAN

Founded by Zeno of Citium in Ancient Greece during the Hellenistic period 3rd century BC, later to develop in ancient Rome, Stoicism started as a school of philosophy, a life approach for individuals to navigate through murky waters and “live that good life.”

Ironically, that is actually how it all started. 

Zeno, a successful merchant from Cyprus, a country located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, encountered a severe shipwreck caused by a powerful storm. As the tale goes, he lost all his possessions but managed to survive and eventually arrived in Athens, the renowned capital of ancient Greece and a hub of intellectual pursuits.

In this vibrant city, Zeno chanced upon a bookstore where he stumbled upon ‘Memorabilia,’ a collection of Socratic dialogues authored by Xenophon, a student of Socrates.

THE REAL OG 

Let me back it up a little further here. Socrates (469—399 B.C.E.), the Mac Daddy (founder) of Western philosophy, played a significant role in shaping the field of philosophy. Although he did not leave behind any written works himself, his teachings were preserved through the records of his students.

Socrates was an early advocate for moral philosophy, which delved into questions of right and wrong behavior. Basically meaning how to be a decent human being. He emphasized that philosophy in its entirety should be applied to navigate the challenges of everyday life while keeping a good attitude about it instead of being grumpy or “playing victim” all the time.

Intrigued by the book that shared all the viewpoints of Socrates, Zeno went on to find real-life philosophers in Athens and study with them to learn more about how he could apply philosophy to his own life. 

After studying under one of the most renowned Cynic philosophers of his time, this shipwrecked merchant embarked on a journey to explore various other schools of thought. However, it was his desire to expand upon Socrates’ philosophy that ultimately led him to develop Stoicism.

"The School of Athens" painting by Raphael
“The School of Athens” painting by Raphael

While we cannot be entirely certain, it appears that Zeno sought to integrate the most valuable principles from different philosophies into Stoicism. The term “Stoicism” finds its roots in the Greek phrase “Stoa Poikile,” which translates to “painted porch.” This painted porch was a bustling public space in Athens where individuals gathered and exchanged ideas.

When we are no longer able to change a situation—we are challenged to change ourselves.

— Viktor Frankl

THE PLAYERS 

Porch philosophy (ha!), or Stoic philosophy, found great success. It covered all the struggles of ancient daily life. Your woman cheating with the baker, your dog shitting on your favorite lion head rug, or the quickness in the sickness of a plague; it was pivotal that you did not allow emotion to take over, especially during those days.

From ancient Greece to ancient Rome, all the way up to now, those who have been drawn to Stoic philosophy have found that living a philosophical life has allowed them to flourish, and also have an advantage over others.

But not for the purpose of superiority or ill intent; but an advantage that has allowed them to not get caught up by those with bad intentions, to not fall down the rabbit hole of emotions so they can be of use to those in need, and to be an overall positive asset to humanity. Just  as Marcus Aurelius once expressed, “What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.”

To the Stoics, having a strong sense of community was a big part of their thinking. The belief that we were put on this planet to help one another. 

Although there are many ancient Stoics to be mentioned we will explore some of the most famous Stoics in order and their contributions to Stoic philosophy.

CHRYSIPPUS (c. 279-206 BC) GREEK PHILOSOPHER:

Known as one of the most influential Greek philosophers at the time, Chrysippus contributed in the development of the systematic framework of Stoicism: Logic, ethics, and physics. 

Chrysippus, born in Soli , a Turkish territory present day, uprooted himself and moved to Athens after the government took away his property and assets. He went on to be the student of Cleanthes, the successor of Zeno of Citium (334BC – 262BC).

Chrysippus initiated the success of Stoicism and would go on to succeed his mentor, Cleanthes. 

SENECA THE YOUNGER (c. 4 BC – 65 AD) ROMAN PHILOSOPHER: 

A statesman, playwright, and a Roman Philosopher who would go on to advise Emperor Nero –a terrible leader who would be known for his cruelty and his careless impulses (crazy right!?!); Seneca lived an interesting and what others might say controversial life. He has actually been called one of the world’s most “interesting Stoic”.

His writings covered many topics but he was mostly intrigued with ethics and living in accordance with nature. “Letters to Lucilius” is one of his more famous works and they are collections of letters written to his friend providing practical guidance on how to live a virtuous life in the midst of adversity.

Although the way he chose to live his life can be questioned, especially as he gives life advice – he has never proclaimed to be perfect or lived as a sage. Instead, it was the way he lived his life that gave him such profound introspection and exquisite life advice. Through the trials and errors of his ways, he brought a lot to the table applying Stoic philosophy to his life.

While we wait for life, life passes.

— Seneca

EPICTETUS (c. 50-135 AD) GREEK PHILOSOPHER:

One of my personal favorites out of the many Stoics (as you learn more about each you will come to find a Stoic that you feel you resonate with), Epictetus was known for his teachings on ethics and personal development. Born into this world as a slave (slave, housewife, toma-toe, tomato–its all the same really), he later gained his freedom and became a prominent philosopher moving to Rome.

His teachings emphasized living a philosophical life, reaching the end goal of Eudamonia with the importance of distinguishing between what is within our control (our thoughts, and attitudes) and what is not (external events). 

No writings from Epictetus are known, but through his students, his methods and teachings have come through in books. Both the Discourses and the Enchiridion commence by distinguishing between those things in our power and those things which are not. He believed that true happiness comes from aligning our desires with nature and accepting whatever circumstances we encounter. His teachings are beautiful and perhaps he is humbled by the way he came into this world but he is a great contributor to Stoic philosophy.

MARCUS AURELIUS (121-180 AD) ROMAN PHILOSOPHER: 

A Roman emperor and philosopher, often referred to as the “Philosopher King”, he journaled personal writings which later were turned into a book known as “Meditations,”. In it, he offered profound insights into his Stoic beliefs and practices. A book that was never meant for anyone else but himself, he wrote mottos and affirmations reminding him how to be the man he wanted to be –it is a book that still inspires many people today. 

Marcus Aurelius emphasized the importance of maintaining inner tranquility, practicing humility, and embracing the transient nature of life. His legacy remembers him as one of the last 5 good emperors to have ruled Rome. 

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

— Marcus Aurelius

THE GAME 

The ultimate goal behind Stoic philosophy was to reach Eudaimonia, the same main goal and purpose of all the major philosophical schools. 

It is a word that translates to a state of overall well-being and personal fulfillment. This concept of having a “good spirit” is frequently discussed in modern conversations surrounding happiness. Who doesn’t want to be happy right? It’s always been a big topic. Back then and still today.

However, in order to fully understand and achieve this state, it was believed that it is essential for us to recognize the interconnectedness we share with ourselves, others, and the world around us. By improving our character and moral development, we can strive towards reaching this overall state of well-being.

To facilitate this journey, a framework consisting of three components was established: Logic, Physics, and Ethics. It was believed that these components would contribute significantly to our moral growth and overall well-being. 

Logic: Aids an individual in perceiving the truth, thinking logically about real-world matters, maintaining their position amidst chaos, distinguishing between certainties and possibilities, and much more. To learn how to behave in a rational manner.

Ethics: How to deal with others around us having the ability to exercise patience, compassion, and understanding. Living harmoniously with others without being disturbed by their behaviors. Since nature intended us to be social creatures, we have duties to our fellow men. 

Physics: Existence and the roles that the Universe plays in determining the outcome of events as well as gaining insight into the purpose for which we were designed (This was their Science before there was Science).

THE STOICS TOOLBOX

More than just theories of concept, the Stoics built a system around the above framework. By implementing various practices, training, and exercises, individuals can effectively strive towards achieving the ultimate goal of attaining Eudaimonia. These tools play a crucial role in fostering the necessary skills and knowledge needed to reach this state of fulfillment. 

Because studying is not enough. Philosophy is meant to be lived as well.  

You see, long before CBT found exposure to be very effective as a means to challenge one’s beliefs, the Stoics knew all too well that repetition creates habit. Practiced enough, habits stick and then become second nature to your routine and thought process. 

All of the tools in the Stoics toolbox are meant to be used together. Crazy to believe but the Stoics were progressive over 2000 years ago in understanding the art of rewiring the neural pathways of our brains and successfully proved that we can change our response to how we see things.  

Let’s explore how exactly to do just that.

PRACTICING OF STOIC VIRTUES IN STOIC PHILOSOPHY

Stoic virtues, wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, play a significant role in attaining Eudaimonia. According to the Stoics, living a life guided by these virtues is one of the most effective ways to achieve true happiness. These virtues not only enhance our character but also assist us in navigating life’s challenges with greater composure, clarity, fairness, and sound judgment.

WISDOM: The ability to know right from wrong by seeing things from a logical lens over an emotional one. It allows us to make decisions for ourselves and those around us. It helps us to have meaningful connections by being able to communicate from a rational place. In a woman’s professional life or personal, she would apply wisdom to really assess a situation in order to gather information before jumping to a conclusion or falling into the trap of impulsive behavior.

JUSTICETreating others fairly and equitably, upholding moral principles, and contributing positively to society. It’s about recognizing the interconnectedness of humanity. In her personal life, a woman could embody justice by volunteering in her community, and standing up for the rights and causes she believes in.

COURAGE: Facing challenges and difficulties with a steadfast resolve, despite fear. It’s about doing what is right, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. For a woman, practicing courage might involve speaking up against injustice. Or perhaps, facing her fears in order to overcome obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals.

TEMPERANCE: The practice of moderation and self-control. It involves managing desires, emotions, and impulses in a balanced way. A woman might exercise temperance by maintaining a healthy work-life balance, resisting unnecessary indulgences, and avoiding overreactions to stressful situations. It’s not just about saying no to the wine and desserts ladies. There are numerous areas within your life where you can practice moderation.

For Pleasure, Delight, Peace and Felicity, live in method and temperance.

— Margaret Cavendish

TRAINING IN THE DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL

The Dichotomy of Control is one of the most important principles of Stoicism. It’s a concept that teaches us to distinguish between things we have control over and things we do not. Stoics emphasize that we should focus our attention and efforts solely on what lies within our control. And for the things that are not, to accept with equanimity.

Training in the art of control is a powerful tool for cultivating inner peace and resilience. It encourages us to free ourselves from unnecessary worries and anxieties about external events. 

A woman might train in the Dichotomy of Control when she prepares thoroughly for a presentation but understands that the audience’s reaction is beyond her control, allowing her to focus on her effort and remain composed regardless of the response of the people in the room.

It can also be practiced for the times when nothing seems to go her way. For instance, if the school nurse doesn’t seem to stop calling for some little thing every day, and then a hurricane is scheduled to pop up in a few days and school has now been closed – so instead of getting flustered that she cannot seem to get her work done – she controls what she can and everything else she accepts it at its best.

Yeah, that one was totally about me!

EXERCISES

There is a distinct powerful message in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is The Way, that strongly stands out in my mind. He speaks about the tasks of astronauts, and how it is essential that they get extensive training in the art of not panicking:

When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts in one skill more than in any other: the art of not panicking.

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly.

At 150 miles above Earth in a spaceship smaller than a VW, this is death. Panic is suicide.

The Obstacle is The Way , pg 27

Panic IS suicide! Physical and mental go hand in hand. External events or external cues, affect the control center/reasoned decision-maker part of our brains. Stoic exercises incorporated in our training really are what gives us true leverage in controlling that panic, that anxiety, and that disappointment that accompanies expectations.

Stoic exercises don’t have to be time-consuming. They can be incorporated into your daily routine, plus, some only require a few minutes of your time. What matters is that you exercise them often. Creating new habit lanes on the roads of your brain.

There is a wide range of Stoic exercises that can be applied to any and all areas of your life. 

Some original Stoic exercises include: 

  • The practice of misfortune – getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Don’t look at your phone for a day. Go in public without makeup. Let some hair grow out on your ankles and go out in public.
  • Amor Fati – accepting your fate and making the best out of situations. Like with the school nurse scenario and now the child out of school from the hurricane. Feels like he’s been home more than he’s been in school … but it is what it is. There is no sense in me fighting it.
  • Negative visualization – meditating on how things could be worse and having gratitude for what you have now. At this point in my life, I know all too well that I could be without all the things I love in an instant. Yet, when I get into autopilot I still take things for granted. This exercise is good to keep you present.

And those are just three. There are so many more!

And the beauty of Stoicism is you can create exercises and practices that work for you and strengthen your character. The practice of Stoic philosophy advocates for aligning your actions with your values and principles regardless of what exercises you implement. 

This philosophy is not about rigid rules or dogmas. Rather, it has been designed with core concepts that prompt individuals to engage in introspection and critical thinking. As an aid in shaping one’s character to be the best version of themselves. 

Stoicism beckons you to apply Stoic philosophy to your personal experiences and circumstances as you see fit. Because you are unique just like each person’s journey in life. 

Modern exercises you may try:

  • Acts of self-care – utilizing wisdom to make better choices for your well-being. Creating boundaries to make sure you are leaving time for yourself.
  • Fear Date Exercises – using wisdom for introspection and courage for building confidence and emotional resilience. Forcing yourself to learn things and go about doing more things on your own.  
  • Live Simple for a Day – detach yourself from the things you think you need because in truth they may be taken away. Learn to trust that you already have what you need to be okay. Perhaps walk the distance instead of driving that short ride. Take your bicycle to work day….

STOIC YOU

You can take a little or take a lot from their wise ways. As William B. Irvine states in his book, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosophers Guide to Becoming Tougher Calmer and More Resilient, “Stoicism, is not a religion: its primary concern is not with our afterlife but with our time spent on Earth. That said, I should add that Stoicism is compatible with many religions, including Christianity and Islam.”

People from all corners of life and religion can partake in this beautiful philosophy. Because Stoicism is so misunderstood it is easy for people to get lost and blocked by semantics.

If you’re looking for that thing, that helps you make sense, that alleviates some of that mental chatter that stands in your way…I encourage you to take a chance and read a little further about the Stoics. See for yourself the relevance and how their words resonate with you and your life today.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Stoic Quotes: The Best Quotes from the Stoics

Women in Stoicism: Past & Present

What Stoics Can Teach Us About Mental Health

What Really Determines Your Peace of Mind

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *