A Gentle Introduction to Stoicism
15 min read

A Gentle Introduction to Stoicism

A Gentle Introduction to Stoicism

Stoicism: the most practical and strongest philosophy there is. It is both a mindset and way of living with courage, happiness, resiliance, and wisdom. Through those qualities, we can improve in our careers, relationships, and self-development, and ultimately live more fruitful lives.

Stoicism is a common philosophy for many great leaders, both old an new. Just to name a few: Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, President George Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt, General James Mattis, Businessman John Rockefeller, and NFL Coach Bill Walsh. All of these greats used Stoicism, at least in part, to thrive in their lives.

This article will be your gentle introduction to Stoicism. By the end of your reading, you'll have an excellent idea of what Stoicism really is, what the most important ideas are, how you can apply it to your life, and where to go to learn more.

What is Stoicism?

The primary thesis of Stoicism can be summed up in a single powerful sentence:

The one thing you can control in life, and thus the one thing that practically matters in any situation, is how you respond

That is a simple-sounding definition but it has strong implications.

Life is a wild rollercoaster with many things partially or even entirely out of your control. Think of things like your physical health, your investment portfolio, the actions of others, or any events that happen in your life. You may have some degree of influence over these, but they are never totally within your grasp. You can't force them to go well.

This presents a challenge: how can one live with strength and happiness when such important aspects of life are outside of your control? We would all like to be in control of our lives, to be able to say "I am happy and successful" and have that directive come to life immedietly. But how to do it?

Stoicism offers us the solution, by saying that you always have control over how you respond. With this one solution, you can be happy and successful at any moment in your life.

  • Layoffs at work happen? You can sad and mopey about it – or you can respond with strength. You look for a new job, try a business, dabble in a passion project, or travel. Most importantly, you decide that your happiness is not tied to your job
  • Conflicts in your relationship? Some people choose to fight and argue as a way of letting out their frustration. You can respond in a better way as a patient and strong person, calmly talking things over and taking deliberate action towards a positive solution
  • Life in general causing you sadness, stress, or anxiety? You can respond with a smile and happy feelings, even if things aren't going so well. No matter what challenges pop up, you can respond by looking at the bright side of things and making the most of it

With this knowledge that your response is always within your control, you have the ultimate power. Any challenge in life can be solved. Any negative feelings can be changed to positive ones. You can become whomever, do whatever, and feel whatever you want in life because it is in your power to do so.

That's Stoicism.

“Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

What are the primary beliefs of Stoicism?

We now understand the central thesis of Stoicism. Stemming from that, there are a few more specific ideas that are useful to know.

Act with courage

"The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."
– Marcus Aurelius

The stoics believed that courage was one of the greatest character traits one could have. That belief is based on the fact that courage is the prerequisite to living a great life.

It is courage that's going to:

  • Get you the job you want
  • Push you out of your comfort zone to try new things
  • Lift you through the tough times

Courage effectively opens up all of life's opportunities and gives you the ability to handle all of life's challenges.

The world wants to know where you stand. Are you going to put your brain on autopilot and watch as life passes you by? Are you brave enough to go for what you want, to fight the hard fight that is necessary?

All of the best things in life: love, joy, happiness, mental strength, achievements, experience, and memories all lie on the other side of courage.

Time is the most precious

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
– Seneca

Time is the most valuable thing you have. It is the one thing that once used can never be bought, stolen, or replaced – it's gone forever.

The stoics placed extra emphasis on using your time wisely. This may seem simple, but it is so often overlooked. Think about it – are you or is anyone you know:

  • Stuck with bad habits that are detrimental to mental or physical health?
  • Hanging out with negative friends?
  • Staying in a dead-end job?
  • Dwelling on past mistakes for far too long?
  • Wishing for the future in their imagination?
  • Not putting in effort for personal growth?

These are all wastes of time. They take away the present, robbing you of opportunities to be happy and fully experience life. It's truly a sad and unfortunate waste of life.

Time must be spent wisely on the things that bring you happiness, fulfillement, and personal growth, or that grant those qualities to the people you love. That's the only worthwhile way to spend your life.

Moderation is strength

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
– Epictetus

Moderation is often seen by society as something of a hardship, as if you are depriving yourself. Stoicism on the otherhand sees moderation as a great strength.

If you need a lot of material things to make you happy, like fancy clothes, a car, an or a big house, then your happiness is going to be quite expensive – literally. There is a baseline level of money that you need to be happy. Same goes for needing to travel, going to restaurants with your friends, or other experiences. There is now a dependency on those things for your happiness.

Moderation makes you stronger. If your are able to be happy with the clothes, car, and house that you have now, then you are not dependent on anything to make you happy. That's great for you because it means you can be happy at any time in your life regardless of how much money you have. Same goes for the experiences – if you're perfectly happy walking in the park and cracking jokes with your friends then it's easy to be happy.

That doesn't mean it's bad to want those things, on the contrary Stoicism encourages us to take advantage of such pleasures if we want. The real point is that we should not become reliant on those things. Moderation trains you to be self-reliant.

It's all in the mind

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Your mind is the central source of your power and ability to thrive in life. If you have a good mind, then everything else becomes easy.

Think of the following points:

  • Stress and anxiety are not physical, they are mental. If you can learn to control them, to respond in a positive way when you feel those feelings, then you can live much more happily and productively
  • A challenge is only a challenge because your mind has decided that it is. The best athletes in the world know that the competition is good, but they also have full confidence that they're better. That mindset is what takes them to a higher level

Thus, your mind is your source. It controls all of your responses whether they be thoughts, feelings, or actions.  

That's why it's important to train your mind to grow and become stronger – it's your foundation. You'll learn how to do that in the next section.

What are the best Stoic practices?

Stoicism is a practical philosophy made for the real world. We don't want to just read and think about what we should be doing – we want to practice actually doing it.

The Stoics had a number of ways to apply their philosophy which we refer to here as practices. Here are the 5 best, most effective practices of Stoicism.

Zoom out

You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution”
— Marcus Aurelius

The zoom out practice invites you to step back and take a far out view of life. The idea is to think of yourself at different scales, moving further and further out at each step. For example, think of yourself as:

  1. A member of your immediate family
  2. A part of the group of all the people you know
  3. A resident of your country
  4. A person on the planet earth

This exercise is a prompt to remind us how small we really are. You and I are one of billions of humans on this earth, not to mention the animals, plants, and other living things.

There is solace in this: your problems are a lot smaller than they seem. There are plenty of other challenges in the world that will make your problems look a lot simpler and easier to handle. This should give you confidence, knowing that your problems can be handled and that the small things aren't worth worrying about.

Negative Visualisation

“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation, nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned — and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
— Seneca

We are often quick to imagine our dreams if everything goes perfectly according to plan... but how often do things go so perfectly? It's disappointing when we imagine a dream for so long and it doesn't come to fruition.

The stoics advocated for a different approach, by imagining what could go wrong. For example, some things you might imagine that could go wrong:

  • Losing your job
  • Your business deal not working out
  • Losing money in the stock market
  • A member of your family dies

When you look at all the things that could go wrong, you become more grateful for what you have now. You mentally accept that such things can happen and gain a better appreciation for the good times. You live life more fully knowing that every moment is one to cherish and enjoy.

On the flip side, you also prepare for those challenges. In reality, you could lose your job tomorrow, or lose money, or experience many other horrible things. But with the practice of negative visualisation, you’re already mentally prepared for them. You’re saying to yourself “anything can happen, but I’m going to be OK and move forward no matter what.”

Voluntary Discomfort

“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once; he must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself, and not propel himself rashly into what is not appropriate to him”
— Epictetus

With voluntary discomfort, the idea is to deliberately put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The purpose is to train your mind and body to become stronger such that when you face a real challenge, you've already felt it and are trained to handle it with poise.

A few discomforts to practice:

  • Taking cold showers
  • Doing 6 AM runs
  • Fasting for 16 hours
  • Sleeping on the floor

Notice how all of these discomforts are not that horrible. They won't make you sick or set you back. They’re just meant to train you, both physically and mentally.

These exercises will make you comfortable with discomfort: pushing through challenges, doing hard things, being strong. Thus, you gain experience in exercising grit, which will help you later in facing challenges in the real world.

Train Your Perceptions

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Many things in life are matter of perspective. Having the right perspective can transform a challenging situation into a positive opportunity for success.

  • A tough project at work can be seen as unlucky – or you can view it as an opportunity to prove your worth for promotion
  • An intense workout and diet can be seen as a deprival from TV and tasty sweets – or you can view it as the opportunity to build a strong, healthy, and sexy body
  • A bad breakup can be seen as a betrayal of love – or you can view it as an opportunity to spend more time with family and friends, or even to find new love

Do you see? We've taken each of those things that people normally see as negative and turned them into positive opportunities.

You can do this with anything in life. Whenever you experience something that seems hard or bad, ask yourself: "how can I turn this into a positive?" Having that mindset will make your whole life better as you see positivity at all times.

Meditate on Memento Mori

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Memento Mori is a Latin saying that means: "remember you must die." It is a reminder that your time is finite and that you should treat it as such. You must live in a way that is fulfilling and makes you happy – everything else is a waste.

To make this into a practice, establish a habit where you meditate on this idea of Memento Mori. Spend 15 minutes each week thinking or journalling about if you're currently living your best life. If you feel that you aren't living your best life, think about how you can improve.

Ask yourself such questions as:

  • Is my current job / hobbies / situation / life what I want it to be? If so, how can I maintain this? If not, how can I improve it?
  • Did I say things this week that I'm proud of? Or do I need to think more about how I communicate with people?
  • Am I putting in my best effort right now? How can I do better?

Make it your life's mission to spend your time on the things that are worth it. Meditating on Memento Mori will help you stay on the right track, to spend your time wisely and live your best life.

What are the best Stoicism books?

There are many books written about Stoicism. Some are from the "big 3" stoics: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, which I would recommend as a start. Others are more modern and offer a fresh take on Stoicism from a 21st century perspective.

Here is a list of books about Stoicism, in order of which ones I recommend to read first:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius The personal journal of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire. It contains his private thoughts and reflections about philosophy and life. It's a very relatable and practical read since Marcus originally wrote the notes for his own personal growth. It's the top book for getting started with Stoicism
  • On the Shortness of Life by Seneca – A letter from Seneca giving advice about how to cherish your time and live life to the fullest. Here you will find many eye-opening lines about how much time we waste, how to put it to better use, and how to live a great life
  • Letters from a Stoic by Seneca – A collection of 124 letters Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, advising him on how to become a better Stoic. Reading this book is pleasant because it's like getting advice from a wise friend. The words are light, informal, and very easy to understand. Topics covered are mainly the stoic virtues and how to live by them: courage, wisdom, resilience, compassion, patience, justice, and more
  • Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus – A collection of notes that a student took from Epictetus's lectures. Epictetus was a teacher in Athens and as such his lessons are very structured and comprehensive. This book will teach you each and every concept of Stoicism with details, examples, and explanations about how to apply it all
  • The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday – A collection of 366 Stoicism quotes – one for each day of the year – with modern interpretations of what the mean. It's a light read to go through one quote each day and keep on track with learning Stoicism throughout the year
  • A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine – A modern guide to applying Stoicism in life. Irvine shows how we can take the insights and advice of the ancient philosophy and apply them to our own lives in the modern day. Very much a 21st practical guide to Stoicism
  • How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci – This book is about the application of stoic philosophy in daily life. It tackles questions such as: how should we treat others? How should we react to certain situations? What is right to want or not want? How should we prepare for death? Collectively, you will learn about how to live the full life of a Stoic
  • Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday – A collection of mini-biographies of stoics throughout history. It's a chance to see Stoicism in action by reading how these people lived and learned through the philosophy

What are the best Stoicism quotes?

Quotes feel like magic. One simple line, or just a few, have the power to inspire us to reach higher, to try more, and to change our life for the better.

Stoicism quotes are especially good at that as they are so deep and profound. Indeed, they will change your mindset.

Here are the best Stoicism quotes to inspire you and learn from.

Marcus Aurelius

  • “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
  • “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
  • “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
  • “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
  • “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
  • “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
  • “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”
  • “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
  • “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
  • “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. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”
  • “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions not outside.”
  • “To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”

Seneca

  • “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
  • “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
  • “They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”
  • “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
  • “Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.”
  • “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
  • “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
  • "Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future."
  • "You are living as if destined to live forever; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last."
  • "To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden."
  • "Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body."
  • "If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable."
  • "Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We've been using them not because we needed them but because we had them."

Epictetus

  • “If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
  • “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
  • “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
  • “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. ”
  • “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems”
  • “Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
  • “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
  • “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
  • “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
  • “It isn’t events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgements about them.”
  • “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.”

Conclusion

Stoicism is an amazing philosophy. Many people, myself included, find that all of the stress, anxiety, and even sadness that was being felt before becomes so much easier to handle with Stoicism. Even beyond that, it helps one establish the right mindset for leading a happy, fulfilling, and successful life.

I hope that this article serves you as an introduction and inspiration to Stoicism.