Stoicism has found its way into our consciousness over recent years. Some might write it off as just another hipster trend along with big beards and serving food in old boots. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this resurgence of interest coincides with an ever growing sense of uncertainty about the world around us.
Humans are an opinionated species. We are ideologically militant and often uncompromising in our desire to be right. But we are waking up to the truth that something is very wrong. And something is broken in how we conduct ourselves.
People have gravitated towards the wisdom of great thinkers (and doers) like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius for a reason. They want practical pathways rather than abstract ideological mind mazes.
When it comes to practical philosophy there are fewer more edible and digestible than Stoicism. What’s more, it sits at the core of what it means to be a Gentle Rebel. Due to its ability to stand counter to many aspects of the status quo and normalised ways of operating in the modern world.
What is Stoicism?
A Philosophy Founded and Taught By Zeno of Citium in the Fourth Century BC
Zeno taught his ideas at Stoa Poikile (the place where Stoicism found its name). He is not often referred to directly because none of his writings survived. We only know about him because of the biographer, Diogenes Laërtius. Have you heard it said, “we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say”? Well, it’s because of Laërtius that we know Zeno said that.
The Power of Stoicism is in its Simplicity
It is a philosophy with a small number of central principles. These are mostly centred around our responses to, and thoughts about, events and experiences.
As a school of thought it is not concerned with sounding pompous and logic chopping. It is not concerned with winning endless debates. Instead its value lies in the way it is applied to life (“Deeds Not Words”).
This is why it is a philosophy practiced by millions of people through history. Despite there being only a handful of figures we might refer to as ‘The Stoics’. There are people in every field imaginable, implementing the principles of stoicism in all sorts of ways. It is not defined by one demographic and because of its uncomplicated underpinnings can be applied by anyone in any given situation.
Crossovers With Modern Thought
It was learning about Viktor Frankl’s school of Logotherapy in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that I first came into contact with Stoic teachings. Frankl developed his own work partly during his time imprisoned in concentration camps during the Second World War. Under the ultimate pressure, and putting the validity of these concepts to the ultimate test. His ideas bear striking similarities to Stoicism.
The fact that I only later found a label to attach to the practices only strengthened my desire to explore it. A philosophy defined by action, not words.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms. To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” – Viktor Frankl
This resonates with a core Stoic principle espoused by Epictetus. “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”
No purpose is served when you worry about things you have no control over. However, you do have the ability to choose how to respond and think about the things that happen to you.
Virtue is its own reward. You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not for some other motivating factor. Virtue in this sense is about becoming who you are and growing in character by aligning your values with your actions.
By choosing our thoughts, judgements, and actions (and realising that we have no direct control over anything else), we say ‘yes’ to virtue.
The Four Core Virtues of Stoicism
Solid judgement, perspective, and reason.
Fairness, service, good-hearted.
To keep doing the right thing no matter what.
Self-control, humility, and inner growth.
Stoicism is like a pep talk before a big event, game, or performance. The practical nature of it means that it is something in which to immerse yourself. To allow the words to get beneath your skin and into your everyday thoughts. This is in contrast to other schools of philosophy which love their complex language and concepts, and leave you tired and confused after studying them.
How to Be a Stoic
The only way to begin exploring Stoic philosophy is to start applying it. By far and away the greatest resource that will help you do that (that I’ve come across) is Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman’s book, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living
Between July 2017 and July 2018 I started every morning with one of these meditations. There is a simple rhythm to each page, with a short quote based on the month’s theme and some context from Holiday and Hanselman, which brings out its everyday application. It’s an ideal entry point to Stoic thought, providing a wonderful foundation for further reading, exploration, and practice.
Enjoy discovering and experimenting with working out how to apply Stoicism to your life. But don’t fall into the rabbit hole of thoughts and words. What I mean by that is, don’t get caught up in too many conversations ABOUT Stoicism and how to be a good Stoic. That runs the risk of judgemental overthinking.
Just play the ball as it lies in front of you. Allow the wisdom of others to guide you, and give yourself permission to learn and grow.