The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the playwright and political advisor Seneca, and the slave turned prominent teacher Epictetus-these are the three Stoics you need to get to know first.
Who Is Marcus Aurelius?
- The last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ and the author of “The Meditations: The Private Thoughts of the Most Powerful Man in the World”
- Born April 26, 121, nobody would have predicted that Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus would one day be Emperor of the Roman Empire.
- Hadrian, the emperor had an eye on Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, sensing his potential, and adopted him as his heir in 138
- Antoninus Pius became Emperor of Rome, and Marcus became regent for twenty-three years
- In 161, as Antoninus died, Marcus finally became emperor and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180
Who Is Seneca?
- Seneca the Younger was destined for great things, but his health nearly cut him short.
- While his commitment to self-improvement was beloved by his teachers, they also knew that his father was paying them to train him for an active and ambitious political career
- In Rome, a promising young lawyer could appear in court as early as age 17, and there is little doubt that Seneca was one
- He returned to Rome at 35 in 31 AD-a time of paranoia and violence and corruption and political turmoil-and although he started productively, the many writing consolations soon needed some consoling-so began his practice of letter writing
Who Is Epictetus?
- While Seneca would speak, with surprising relatability, about slave owners who became owned by the responsibility and management of their slaves or other Stoics would congratulate themselves for their humane treatment of their human chattel, Epictetus actually was one.
- Epictētos is Greek meaning “acquired.”
- He was born into slavery, and his master, Epaphroditus, was known as a cruel and depraved man, even by Roman standards.
- He chose to dedicate himself fully to philosophy and taught in Rome for nearly 25 years until the emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers from Rome.
Virtues of Stoicism
- Being brave
- Moderation and sobriety
- Doing what’s right
- Truth and understanding
- Everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four traits
- The world wants to know if you have courage – do you have cojones?
- If you are brave, will you face this problem or run away from it? Will I stand up or be rolled over? Let your actions etch a response into the record and let them remind you of why courage is the most important thing
- Temperance or moderation is about doing nothing in excess, doing the right thing in the right amount, and doing it the right way.
- Virtue and excellence are a way of living and a habit. It’s foundational. If we want to be happy, to be successful, and to be great, we have to develop the capability and the day-to-day habits that allow this to happen, without magic formulas.
- Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.”
- Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.
- Being brave and finding the right balance are core Stoic virtues, but in their seriousness, they pale in comparison to doing the right thing.
- Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen more than we talk
- It is key today, as it was in the ancient world, to be able to distinguish between the vast aggregations of information that lay out there at your disposal and the actual wisdom that you need to live a good life
- You cannot learn that which you think you already know, Epictetus said
- This is why we need to not only be humble students but also seek out great teachers
- Thousands of years of blazing insight are available to the world
- So today, honour the Stoic virtue of wisdom by slowing down, being deliberate, and finding the wisdom you need
Some Books On Stoicism
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- The private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions
- While Marcus wrote mainly for himself, Seneca had no trouble advising and aiding others
- Epictetus’ teachings survive to us thanks to a student named Arrian, who’s credited with transcribing the lessons he learned in his teacher’s classroom
Dichotomy Of Control
- The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we cannot
- Return to this question daily-in each and every trying situation
- If you can focus on making clear what parts of your day are within your control and what parts are not, you will be happier
- Stoicism is designed to be a practice and a routine. It’s not a philosophy you read once and magically understand at the soul-level
- It’s a lifelong pursuit that requires diligence and repetition and concentration
- Keep a daily journal.
- Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty.
- Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, and get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”
- The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down
- They meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy
- If you properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good
- Everything is an opportunity if you tie your first response to dispassion, you’ll find that everything is simply an opportunity
Remember It’s All Ephemeral
- Remember how small you are.
- Achievements can be ephemeral, and your possession of them is for just an instant. Right now, being a good person and doing the right thing right now is what matters
- Be humble and honest and aware
Take The View From Above
- Envisioning all the millions and millions of people, all the “armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths”-prompts us to take perspective and remind us how small we are.
- This reorients us, and changes our value judgments on things: luxury, power, war…and the worries of everyday life become ridiculous.”
Memento Mori: Meditate On Your Mortality
- “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life… Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.” Seneca
- Meditating on your mortality is only depressing if you miss the point
- Use these reminders and meditate on them daily-let them be the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second
- This is a Stoic exercise of imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away from us
- It helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks
- We don’t always get what is rightfully ours, even if we’ve earned it. Psychologically, we must prepare ourselves for this to happen
- “To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.”
- Marcus Aurelius
- Treating each and every moment-no matter how challenging-as something to be embraced, not avoided.
- To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it.
Some Stoic Quotes
- “We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”
- “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
- Marcus Aurelius “You become what you give your attention to…If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.”
- Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Embody it.
- You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. Leave them alone.
Physical Stoic Reminders
- The memento mori medallion features an interpretation of the three essentials of existence – the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time).
- Amor Fati Medallion: A mindset that you take on for making the best out of anything that happens.
- Use your journal to write a stoic quote and meditate on it for a few minutes.