Well-being in Philosophy
Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.Marcus Aurelius
In our modern society, the concept of being “stoic” is very different from the term’s philosophical roots. When we now think of a stoic individual, we will often think the following: quiet, dispassionate, cold, hardened, and all too often it seems, manly. Stoicism has recently been conflated with our rather warped conceptions of masculinity and how men should behave.
Think how often men attempt to live up to the image of the stoic, powerful Spartan.
Stoicism however, was initially something very different. It was a branch of moral philosophy developed by Zeno of Citium in Ancient Athens. The school of Stoic thinking continued to grow with further thinkers adding to its philosophies. Some famous practitioners of Stoicism were Seneca, Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The endpoint of Stoicism was to achieve ataraxia, a state of profound tranquillity. This is a state in which one is free from stress and worry.
“Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself. “Zeno of Citium
With Stoic philosophy basing itself around the pursuit of a healthy, happy life, I thought it would be good to look at the ways in which we can learn from it in our modern lives. Many modern “self-help” gurus borrow from the work of the Stoics whether or not they are overtly aware. With this in mind, I thought it was about time these absolute mad lads got the credit they so rightly deserve.
So, with the scene thoroughly set, here it is…
Ten things we can take away from the Stoics
1 – Provides a system for dealing with worry and stress
Our modern society is extremely stressful. There is no denying it. Our minds are constantly bombarded by external forces that often conflict with our core values and beliefs. These are often set in direct opposition to us living a stress free existence.
Equally, the men and women of ancient Greece and Rome had a pretty hard time of it as well. This was a time where wars were common place and individuals had to live without the majority of our modern luxuries. Life wasn’t easy.
Take the life of the Stoic thinker Seneca for example. He suffered from tuberculosis early in his life. At the time, this would have been a death sentence for most. In fact, even John Keats in the Nineteenth century saw the disease as a death sentence. The fact Seneca somehow survived is nothing short of incredible.
Later, under the rule of Emperor Claudius, Seneca was sentenced to death but got off lightly with exile. This however, never stopped him and his exile was eventually overturned. Despite the multiple hardships he had endured, Seneca never gave up.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”Seneca
This ability to cope would be in no small part due to Stoic approach to life. Stoicism offers a system for dealing with hardships, coping with the stressful situations around us and obtaining peace of mind.
2 – Offers an escape from hedonism
With the advent of consumerism, we are an extremely hedonistic culture. Retail therapy is an extremely common form of distraction from our stresses.
Despite how this act of buying new shit appears to help us in the short term, it never lasts. As soon as the initial euphoria of our new purchase wears off, reality settles back in and our anxieties return. Sometimes, it even makes us feel even worse as we grow to regret purchasing that fancy new Iphone when we realise its no different to the one we already had. The good feeling is often supplanted by ones of guilt.
Stoic thinking allows us to get off the hedonic treadmill of capitalism and obtain a more lasting peace. This is due to its focus on the pursuit of arete (virtue), over the pursuit of fancy new shit.
This Stoic sense of virtue, is far removed from Christian virtue and isn’t a strict moral code of rules and religious tenets. Instead, it based around the fulfilment of one’s individual purpose. The act of living up to one’s full potential.
In pursuing such a goal, one is gifted a prolonged meaning in life, far outlasting the short term fix of buying a new pair of shoes.
” Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”Epictetus
3 – Promotes a purpose in life
Anxieties are so often brought about by the lack of purpose and meaning in life. This meaning we seek, is often external to ourselves.
For example, we may find purpose in religion, or in saving the rain-forest, or in finding that sweet, sweet Szechuan sauce. It is only natural that we search for meaning outside of ourselves. We long for a greater purpose.
“Seek not the good in external things; seek it in yourselves.”Epictetus
The focus on living a virtuous life, gives us an inescapable, internal meaning. The purpose becomes life itself. Living the best life you can. But what does it mean to live the best life you can? This brings me nicely onto my fourth point…
4 – We must live to our own values
Stoicism is not prescriptive. There are no ten commandments, or set goals to living a “good life”. Yes there are the four cardinal virtues. But these are pretty vague and open to interpretation. They are wisdom, justice, courage and self-discipline.
These do not have necessarily prescribed meanings however. They are simply traits we should value. Wisdom is living with perspective. Justice is living with integrity. Courage is living with bravery and honesty. Self-discipline is about putting the cupcake down…
Arete is simply about being the best version of yourself – whatever that may mean to you. It involves having a degree of mindfulness and deep thinking. You must really consider who you wish to be.
For me, this involves self-betterment. Relentless forward progress through my own efforts, rather than at the expense of others. Forwards towards what? A better, more thoughtful me than I was the day prior. Simples.
So this is an important lesson from the Stoics. We must each decide our own values and live accordingly. THEY AIN’T GONNA DO IT FOR YOU!
5 – Teaches us to focus on our intentions, rather than outcomes
Fuck vision boards.
Sorry about that. My reaction may have come across a little extreme, but I am not the greatest fan of vision boards. Whilst they can be great when done in a considered and thoughtful manner, this is often not the case.
You see, they often focus far too greatly on outcomes.
This for me, is an unfortunate byproduct of Rhonda Byrne and her not so well kept secret. That however, is a topic for another blog post.
Stoicism instead focuses are gaze not onto the outcomes we want, but our intentions. We must live with good intentions, the outcomes are irrelevant. This means, we can not punish ourselves for fate getting in our way. Sometimes the world won’t play ball and you simply won’t achieve the outcomes you want.
This can be extremely damaging to the self-esteem of individuals that place too much weight on achieving set goals.
Take for example, the goal of losing 10 Lbs by a set date. Perhaps, some external event gets in the way. A tragedy, or a busy schedule throwing a spanner into your well oiled dietary machine. As a result, you fail to meet your outcome.
What happens next? You feel guilty. You may think you don’t deserve the body you want and your motivation disappears. You end up giving up on your desire to live a healthier life.
Now, lets reframe this where you focus on intentions. Rather than thinking I want to lose a set amount of weight, you live with the intention of being healthiest you possible. The same thing happens and tragedy strikes.
Rather than feeling like a failure, you are able to consider your intentions more deeply. Yes it has been hard, a struggle even and I’m not where I’d like to be, but my intentions were there. I can’t be blamed for what happened, but I can take responsibility for my actions going forwards. I will continue to keep trying harder to live as the healthiest me I can.
You can then make small changes, each nudging you towards the lifestyle you want. That’s the things with focusing on intentions over outcomes. It’s about building a healthy, fruitful lifestyle.
6 – Allows us to take responsibility for how we react to the world around us
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them”Epictetus
We have no control over the world around us. Donald Trump, Brexit, the Game of Thrones finale…
We can’t change any of these things. What we can do however, is choose how we respond to them. Stoicism teaches us to take responsibility for how we choose to respond. Often, our responses to negative things can be to play the victim.
This can perceived victimhood can lead to us giving up and being pushed around by the world, or even lashing out angrily. What’s the point!
I am definitely guilty of this at times. When things don’t go my way, I often think, “Fuck it! Why bother?”
Living like this, your happiness is reliant on the world around you going your way. Your mood constantly shifting at the whims of external forces.
By taking responsibility for you responses however, you are able to remain composed, happy and relaxed even when things don’t go your way. Often, you will be able to think clearly and find a solution, or if not, at least put them into context and realise things ain’t all that bad.
7 – Teaches tolerance to others
Basically, Stoic philosophy teaches you not to hold onto the things you can’t control. As well as the external world around us, this includes other individuals.
All people are different. Thus, each individual’s pursuit of virtue will result in a massive diversity of differing approaches to life. As a result, in trying to live a virtuous life, we should all focus on treading our own paths, rather than concerning ourselves with those of others.
In getting caught up in arguing with others, we grow distracted from being our best selves.
This doesn’t mean we can’t argue against things we disagree with. No, in living with good intentions one might wish to fight for their beliefs. What we can’t do however, is get caught up in rash, emotional responses.
Instead, the Stoic approach would help us to remove ourselves from the situation, and allow us to engage in a more rational discourse.
“After all, what is it that frets you? The vices of humanity? Remember that all rational beings are created for one another; that toleration is a part of justice; and that men are not intentional evildoers.”Marcus Aurelius
8 – Promotes a growth mindset
“Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves; what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?”Seneca
The Stoic mindset demands growth. As has been discussed, it is based around the search for a better you. This singular focus asks us to accept the fact that we can always be better. We are never truly a finished product.
In this way, weaknesses are not things to hold us back, but gaps to be filled. They are areas that are open to be improved upon.
This a part of Stoicism that really resonates with myself as an ex-teacher. We must always be open to improvement: to – not to big up my own blog – being better.
Without this drive, it is easy for us to sit and stagnate. If you have no reason to improve, life could become pretty boring. The act of growing gives us purpose and drive. Learning new things is a brilliant way to improve our mental health. Not only is it great for our self-esteem, but in opening ourselves up to intellectual growth, we are less likely to become trapped in persistent, negative thought patterns.
9 – We are our own absolute
It is often a lack of meaning that leads to our anxieties. Without this, life can become purposeless and mundane. As a result, we – as humans – spend much of our time in search of absolutes.
” No one can stop you living according to the laws of your own personal nature, and nothing can happen to you against the laws of the World-Nature.”Marcus Aurelius
It is not the pre-designed tapestry of some great gods by which we live. Yes, nature, or the world around us may play a deciding factor in what happens to us, but we decide the laws by which we live.
In many ways, one of the greatest aspect of Stoicism is that we are able to become our own philosophy. Our own meaning.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”Epictetus
10 – Through Stoic thought, we can bear any burden
Throughout history, Stoic thought has helped incredible people bear even the greatest of burden
” You can bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.”Epictetus
Whatever people do to you, they can’t change the person you are. They can damage your body, but never your virtue. This is a major lesson of Stoic thinking. It is believed a Stoic sage – an imagined figure that lives exactly by their virtues – would be able to bear any pain.
This is due to the fact that, they are able to remove the physical experience from their internal self.
Whilst obviously this can be taken too far – it doesn’t make us invincible – it is useful in tackling otherwise difficult situations. Stoicism has actually helped myself in running huge distances as I am able to better deal with the toll it takes upon my body. It gives me a framework for coping.
So there it is. Ten things we can take away from the stoics. Obviously, this list is far from exhaustive and barely scrapes the surface of this deep philosophy. Hopefully however, it does give you some food for thought. There is a lot to be learnt from these great thinkers.
If any of this interests you, I definitely recommend digging a little deeper. A good place to start for those interested, is the book Happy by Derren Brown. Whilst it is not focused on Stoicism specifically, it is a fantastic introduction and helped to inspire this post.
I hope this has been a useful read, or at the very least given you all some food for thought.
All the best,