Isn’t philosophy useful for our lives? Stoic philosophers would disagree
I have read that the Spanish Government approved on Tuesday 29 March 2022 the changes to the school curriculum for Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO) and that these changes did NOT include a compulsory subject of Philosophy, as the teachers who teach this subject were demanding, so that students who do not go on to study baccalaureate can at least study philosophy in ESO. I do not agree with this decision; I believe that the study of philosophy is necessary because to philosophize is to live consciously, reflectively, and responsibly. Learning to think reflectively and critically is a great antidote to fanaticism, dogmatism, credulity, superstition, and superficiality. It develops all kinds of mental antibodies: critical capacity, independence, overview, or the courage to solve our problems or those of society as a whole.
I don’t know if this decision is related to the fact that lately, people have been saying that philosophy is not a practical subject for our lives in the way that science subjects can be. I am of the opposite opinion, that the study of philosophy directly applies to our lives, and that is why I advocate the reconsideration of making philosophy a compulsory subject in ESO. This is NOT unconditional support for philosophy teachers, it is support conditioned to the correct teaching of the subject, that is to say, that the objectives of the subject are pursued and achieved, which is to transmit to students the principles for acquiring reflective and critical thinking and the tools necessary to manage the important aspects of life. To demonstrate the practical nature of philosophy I will draw on the Stoic philosophers, which is the most practical branch of philosophy I know. I will start by introducing the principles of Stoic philosophy and then explain how to apply these teachings to the practical management of the following important aspects of our lives:
- How to be Happy
- How to manage negative emotions
- How to face life’s difficulties
- How to define our goals and take the steps to achieve them
- How to act in society and the world
Introduction to Stoic philosophy
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium at the beginning of the 3rd century BC and was later continued by other illustrious philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. His philosophical doctrine was based on maintaining a calm and rational mind, living in the present, without fear of adversity or death. His aim was to attain happiness and wisdom without regard for material goods. Stoicism has influenced numerous later schools of thought over the centuries, from the early Christian Church Fathers to Descartes and Kant. In recent years there has been a resurgence of a modern Stoicism to bring its principles and actions into line with the present world, and psychology has also adopted its principles in Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT) which have proved very useful in the treatment of some forms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, tics, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Some of the most important principles of stoicism are:
The exercise of virtue is the only requirement for a good life
“Don’t you know that a good man does nothing for the sake of appearances, but to do what is right?”. Epictetus.
For the Stoics, success, happiness, and virtue are three names for the same thing. They proclaimed that the good life can be achieved by being indifferent to material comforts and external fortune, and by leading a life guided by the principles of reason and virtue. For them, virtue is the greatest good because it is the only thing that has value in all circumstances and that helps us to make proper use of such things as health, wealth, and education. For them, leading a good life is equivalent to exercising the four cardinal virtues:
- Wisdom: Wisdom is the virtue that, through the acquisition and use of knowledge, enables human beings to make fair and balanced decisions based on discernment between truth and falsehood, and between right and wrong. Wisdom is cultivated by those who have a love of knowledge, face reality with an open mind without prejudice, learn from what happens to them, have creative thinking, question the why of things like to communicate with others, see themselves from a certain distance and have an overall view of the world.
- Temperance: Temperance is the virtue that causes us to restrain and moderate the attraction of worldly pleasures and goods and other kinds of excesses. It ensures the mastery of the will over the instincts and keeps desires within the bounds of honesty. Examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-control.
- Justice: Justice is the virtue born of the need to maintain a healthy and harmonious life among the members of society. The set of guidelines and criteria establishes a proper framework for relationships between people and institutions, authorizing, prohibiting, and permitting specific actions in their interaction. Examples include equanimity, leadership, and community work.
- Courage: This is the virtue that involves the exercise of the will to achieve goals in the face of external and internal opposition. Courageous people are those who do not shrink from threats, challenges, pain, or difficulties to achieve their goals. Courage helps us to face fears such as suffering or change by overcoming the emotional elements of these fears; it is often associated with bravery, perseverance, and integrity.
To go deeper into the exercise of virtues in your daily life you can read the following article I have written: Emotional Intelligence is not enough: develop your Values Intelligence.
We cannot control everything that happens around us, but we can control our response to what happens.
“Some things are under our control and some things are not. The things under our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever our actions are. The things that are not under our control are body, property, reputation, command and, in a word, whatever our actions are not”. Epictetus.
Stoics hold that happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are under our control and some things are not (although we can influence them). They believe that we should devote our efforts to what we can control: our thoughts and actions, and treat everything else with equanimity.
The aim of all this is to reach a calm and rational state of mind that allows us to make the best decisions and actions at any given moment; the Greek Stoics used the words apatheia and ataraxia to define this state. This state will be achieved by decreasing the intensity of passions and desires that can disturb the mental and bodily balance, and by training our strengths in the face of adversity.
Love humanity and nature
“What is not good for the hive, cannot be good for the bees”. Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics believe that all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and help each other. They also believe that the universe is a harmonious and causally related whole (i.e. everything is related by a series of causes), which is governed by an active principle, the cosmic and universal Logos in which man also participates. According to these ideas, all beings should be twinned; it makes no sense, for example, for some people to go to war with others since they are brothers and sisters. They also believe that we should live in harmony with everything around us and therefore it makes no sense for human beings to act in such a way as to pollute the planet on which we live, thus breaking this harmony. Stoic philosophy encourages following nature and using the cardinal virtues to bring about improvements in the human society of which we are a part, thinking more about collective needs than our individual needs.
Stoic philosophy is based on action
“Don’t spend any more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one”. Marcus Aurelius.
Contrary to popular belief, the Stoics do not have a passive attitude towards the events of life, but the exercise of the virtues necessarily involves acting to improve things. The Stoics said that the most important work of a student of philosophy is the act of turning words into deeds. Turning lessons into action in the real world.
Our life is short, so we must make the most of it.
“All the things to come are buried in uncertainty, start living from this very moment”. Seneca.
The Stoics recommend that we daily remember our mortality (Memento Mori) and that we live each day as if it were the last day of our life so that we prioritize dedicating ourselves to our important projects and not procrastinate.
How to be Happy
The Stoics believed that happiness always comes from within, never from the outside, and that we should not condition it on good or bad things happening to us from the outside. Some actions you can take from the Stoic point of view to have a better life or to be happier could be the following:
“He can be called happy who neither desires nor fears anything, benefiting from the use of reason”. Seneca.
In this society where we are all rushing around, chasing after material things of no real value, acting reactively to events and stress is one of the most common ailments, cultivating serenity will give us the tools to take a position from which to improve our lives. The practice of serenity means to stop pursuing vain things such as wealth or fame and to stop being afraid of other things, such as the fear of failure, which makes it impossible to pursue our goals, or the fear of pain, which can often be worse than the pain itself. We must look at events from the present and use reason, and not react reactively to them, but act reflectively and model our actions after the virtues advocated by the Stoics. I have put this advice in the first place because I believe that when people say that they are working to be happier if they say that they are working to be more serene, they would have already taken a very important step in the search for happiness, since “serenity” is something more stable and deeper than the term “happiness”, which is a term that society tries to sell us in a very superficial way as being associated with wealth or success, that is, with factors external to us that the Stoics would say are incorrect since happiness must always come from within and never from the outside.
Accept the nature of things
“Everything that we necessarily have to suffer because of the natural constitution of the universe has to be accepted with goodwill”. Seneca.
Seneca, by Stoic doctrine, argues in his treatise On Happiness that nature is the reason (in Greek logos) and that a person should use his reasoning faculty to live in harmony with nature and thus attain happiness. Seneca thinks that it is necessary to use nature as a guide: reason will observe it and consult with it, living happily with or by nature is, therefore, the same thing. Accepting the nature of things does not mean adopting a passive attitude towards events, but accepting them as a starting point, whether they are good or bad, and once accepted, deciding which things should be left as they are and which things we should work to change.
One of the things they especially recommend is to accept our mortality, they did not see death as something negative but as it is part of our nature we have to accept it, and they even reminded themselves frequently that they could die (Memento Mori) to use this reminder to achieve positive things such as prioritizing the important things and not postponing them as we can die at any moment, to dedicate time to our loved ones and to reduce our ego. It is said that there was a custom that when a general marched victoriously through the streets of Rome, a servant behind him was charged with reminding him of his mortality, to prevent him from becoming arrogant and pretending, in the manner of an omnipotent god, to use his power ignoring the limitations imposed by law and custom.
Concentrate only on what you can control
“There is only one way to happiness: to stop worrying about things beyond the power of our will”. Epictetus.
The basis of stoicism is the idea that we do not control the world around us, but we do control how we respond to it. Therefore, we should focus on what we can control: our attitudes; our emotions; our desires; our opinions about what has happened to us. The first ingredient for happiness would be the power to always control your response to events, whatever your circumstances.
Think less of yourself
“You were born to cultivate thoughts and actions that result in the common good”. Marcus Aurelius
If you want to be happy, think less about yourself. Think of others. Think of the good you can do. Think about your connection with others. Invest in relationships. Encourage other people and you will feel better.
Convince yourself that you have everything you need
“What does he who has gathered all his goods within himself need from the outside”. Marcus Aurelius.
We think we need a lot to be happy. We need lots of money. We need power. We need fame. All this is not true, Marcus Aurelius said that you need very little to have a happy life. You must convince yourself that you already have everything you need to be happy. You are already rich. You already have an incredible power: the power to determine your own needs and desires, the ability to say you don’t need anymore. Seneca says that happy is he who has the right judgment, who is content with what he has whatever he has, and who prefers his things to those that may come from outside.
How to manage negative emotions
Emotions are physical states that we feel in reaction to a thought or a situation. Stoicism is concerned with the domestication of emotions, not their elimination, which is something we should not try to do. Emotions are part of our being and are part of our biological evolution, therefore we must accept them and feel them as they are, not try to hide or ignore them. It is worth making an effort to manage our emotions properly as our actions should be generated from the use of virtues and not from our raw, unmanaged emotions. Stoicism divides the emotions of human beings, which the Stoics called passions, into three categories: good, indifferent, and bad. It proposes that we focus on the latter, the bad ones, by learning to manage them because they are the ones that harm us. Negative emotions such as anger or envy occur automatically in us without us often being aware of them and can contaminate our behavior and do us great harm, both to ourselves and others.
A major part of the struggle to live a good life, as taught by the Stoics, is to be fully aware of our actions and our perceptions, rather than living second by second on autopilot. The word the Stoics used for this state of mind was apatheia; it is the state in which you are in control and not your emotions. Achieving this state of mind can be trained every day because every day presents many opportunities to let our emotions run wild and cause impulsive and irrational behavior. If we can stand firm, if we can corral and control our emotions, no matter what happens or external events fluctuate, no obstacle can undo us, no triumph that can overwhelm us. In this section, we will indicate how to manage some of these negative emotions from a stoic point of view.
For anger management: delay your response
“The consequences of anger are often more damaging than the circumstances that aroused the anger”. Marcus Aurelius.
Anger is one of the negative emotions that the Stoics were most concerned with managing because of the terrible consequences it can generate. If, for example, you are driving along the motorway and someone overtakes you on the right at full speed, it is normal to feel an acute sensation, first of surprise and then of anger. Or when someone insults and belittles us, we feel the same feeling of anger. Or when an employee has not done a job according to our instructions, we feel the same feeling of anger. A characteristic of negative emotions is that they drive you to action, or rather, to reaction, to do something in response. In the three examples above, you may feel the almost automatic impulse to drive faster by chasing that driver, to return the insult, or to show your anger to the employee; resulting in an accident, the loss of a relationship, or the worsening of the atmosphere in our work team. After seeing the negative consequences of the reactions we had under the dominance of anger we would surely regret our actions and wish we could go back in time to make amends for them.
In the case of anger, as with most negative emotions, what the Stoics advise us to manage anger is that before responding to the action that caused us to become angry, we take a breath and delay our response. Seneca said that “delay is the greatest remedy for anger”, which is the truth. The next time you are angry manage that emotion through the virtue of Temperance, before you react take five deep breaths and see if you can reach the same level of anger you started with. It is almost certain that you will not because delay is also the best way to let your mind clear. Stand in the middle between your anger and doing something you regret, until the anger begins to subside. Anger is an exaggeration, it sees the worst in a situation and can make it worse with its overreaction, delay will help you make sure that doesn’t happen. So find a way to get away from your anger, and make it a habit. Take five deep breaths. Count to ten. Or, as a tutor once advised the Roman Emperor Augustus, recite the alphabet to yourself. Whatever it takes. Once you have learned to master your anger, you will know when it is important to respond to provocation and when you can let it go. Again, no one is saying that you can never respond. People who have hurt you probably need to be dealt with, even if that just means letting them know that you are cutting them out of your life. But you don’t need to do that right now. Wait for a moment. Let cooler heads prevail.
For fear management: differentiate between physical fears and psychological or social fears, the latter struggle to overcome.
“If you are distressed by something external, the distress is not due to the thing itself, but to your evaluation of it, and that is something you can change at any time”. Marcus Aurelius.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions our minds can create and can hinder our ability to think and act. At the most, basic level fear is good because your body alerts you when you are in danger. Sometimes unfortunately our minds confuse physical danger (such as being chased by a lion) with social dangers (such as giving a speech in public). A stoic philosopher would tell you to analyze the type of danger that causes your fear:
If it is physical danger, this fear is good and should be heeded. If you are being chased by a lion, run away where it can’t catch you.
If it is a psychological or social danger you should use the virtue of courage to try to overcome it. Some examples of fears you should try to overcome are:
- Fear of what people will say if it prevents you from doing something. You know that the Stoics would tell you that what others think of you is not so important but what is important is how you manage those perceptions within yourself, concentrate on what you can control such as your thoughts and actions.
- Fear of failure if it prevents you from undertaking a project that is important to you. I find it surprising how many people do not start a project, or give up at some point along the way because they are afraid that others will think they have failed or because they think they are not good enough to undertake the project. If you have this fear, fight to overcome it, and dare to carry out that project that is important to you. Thomas Edison famously said when he was asked why he had failed to build a light bulb that worked after multiple attempts, he replied: “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work”, in the end, he ended up building a light bulb that worked thanks to his perseverance.
- The fear of pain if it prevents you from enjoying life. I include this fear in this list of fears to overcome because although there is usually a physical cause behind this fear, such as an illness or the loss of a loved one, I have observed that on many occasions the psychological fear of pain can cause people worse discomfort than the physical pain itself. A stoic would tell you to accept the pain and the limitations it causes you as something that belongs to your life and try to manage it in the best possible way through the virtues, for example, to continue enjoying the things that life offers you and to continue carrying out projects that are important to you within the limitations that you have. Buddha said, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Excessive suffering would be to the Stoic philosopher’s mismanagement in our minds of that pain.
To fight psychological or social fears you can take the following steps:
- Select the fear you want to overcome and make the decision to overcome it (I am going to overcome my fear of public speaking, I know I can do it because it is inside my head and therefore within my control).
- Observe your fear and recognize the emotions it triggers (When I do a public presentation my legs shake, I sweat, I feel like I’m going to be laughed at, I feel like I’m going to do badly, I feel like I’m not good enough).
- Reflect on the emotions that trigger this fear and redirect them towards your good (I think my beliefs are wrong: that no one will laugh at me, that my presentation will look good if I spend enough time preparing it).
- Train to overcome this fear (I will do this presentation for myself several times, then I will do the presentation for someone close to me, in the whole process I will observe how my fear of public speaking manifests itself and I will control it a little by little and I will also improve the presentation).
- Have you already trained enough? Then face your fear (I am going to present this important project in my company tomorrow).
Fear will always be there to tell you what you can’t do, it is up to you to face your fears and tell yourself that you can.
For stress and anxiety management: Live in the present
“What I advise is not to be unhappy before the crisis; for it may be that the dangers before which you pale will never overtake you; they have certainly not yet arrived”. Seneca.
You get stressed. You want to get there early. You want everything to go well. You don’t want anything bad to happen: to your loved ones, to you, to anyone. Seneca puts forward what some currents of psychology later certified: anxiety is that feeling of expecting the worst, without it having happened. In other words, it is a subjective perception that leads us to expect evil. To live in anticipation of something bad, which has not yet happened. Seneca proposes that we should simply live instead of being all the time preparing to live. Let things be. Let events flow. Be in the present and not live according to what happens next. In this way, if we focus our attention on the present, we will stop anticipating a future that has not yet arrived. A future that we paint so black that on so many occasions it has paralyzed us.
How to cope with life’s difficulties
The founder of Stoicism Zeno lost everything in a shipwreck. Seneca had health problems, was exiled, and had to work for years at the court of Nero, an unstable man with a taste for blood. Epictetus survived thirty years of slavery. If there was one defining attribute of the Stoics and their mentality, it was resilience. Obstacles, difficulties, uncertainty, pain, and failure, are inevitable parts of life, according to the Stoics. But suffering is not inevitable, you can remain calm and defiant in the face of whatever fate throws at you, good or bad. Here are some Stoic strategies for strengthening resilience.
Turn obstacles upside down
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius, who was the most powerful man in the world in his time, encountered difficulties in his life like anyone else, he had plagues and wars in his empire, floods, bankruptcies, and family problems. The Stoics propose a change of perspective in the face of these problems, it is about using our mind to transcend adversity, or rather, to turn it upside down, to take advantage of these problems as opportunities to grow through the exercise of virtues. Towards the end of his reign, Marcus Aurelius received the news that his most trusted general, Cassius Avidius, had rebelled and declared himself emperor. Instead of being angered by the betrayal, Marcus announced to his troops that he would march to put down the rebellion, and then, once the threat was disarmed, he pardoned Cassius. As he told his men, they would “settle this matter well and show all mankind that there is a right way to deal even with civil wars”. For Marcus, a great betrayal became an opportunity to grow in virtue and show the world an example of forgiveness.
What stoicism proposes is that you accept the problems that arise in your life, analyze them without passion, and use the exercise of virtues to generate opportunities for improvement and growth from those obstacles. No problem that arises can prevent you from acting with wisdom, justice, temperance, or courage. Most of the bad things that happen to us, such as getting fired, running out of money, being rejected, or having an illness, can be an opportunity to show those virtues. You can use being fired to look for a better job that suits your interests, lack of money to eliminate non-essential things from your life, rejection to realize that you were with a person who wasn’t right for you, or illness to enjoy more of what you can continue to do. Nothing in stoicism demands that you endure the abuses of life like some kind of beaten animal. No one is asking you to just put up with what life throws at you, to feel nothing. On the contrary, it expects you to do something much bigger and better than that. Stoicism asks you to see beyond this initial impression or this small moment. To transform it. To find the good, the usefulness, in every situation. To lean on it. To turn the obstacle around.
Change the narrative of your story
“Sickness is an impediment to the body but not to the will unless the will wants to be impeded. Lameness impedes the leg, but not to will. If you tell yourself this every time, you will find the impediment is to something else but not to yourself”. Epictetus.
This phrase from Epictetus refers to the fact that it is not things that bother us, but what we think of them that does us all the harm, that our perception of what is an obstacle or a handicap or a trial is more powerful than objective reality. A man enslaved Epictetus early in his life and left him permanently crippled, but this did not affect Epictetus because he refused to see that physical handicap as something that conditioned who he was as a person. He refused to tell himself that he was somehow broken or conditioned as a result of this injury. Instead, you can see in his teachings that, time and again, he chose to tell himself a bigger and better story: that he had learned how powerful he was, that no person could stop him or harm him, even if they tried. You too can choose the story you want to tell about yourself. Yes, you have problems, but you are not the problem. You are flawed, but you are not flawed. You can do something stupid, but that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. You decide what things mean to you. You decide what is an obstacle and what is not.
Love your fate
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens the way it happens: then you will be happy”. Epictetus.
The Stoics coined the expression Amor fati or “love of one’s fate” to describe an attitude in which one accepts everything that happens in life, including suffering and loss, as good or at least necessary. The Stoics built much of their philosophy on this attitude of temperately accepting the things that happen without becoming bitter about them and using the virtues to make the best of them rather than wasting time wishing they had been otherwise. You can be the entrepreneur who turns a problem into a money maker. You can be the person who takes your own experiences and turns them into wisdom that you can learn from and pass on to others. You can be the artist who turns pain, frustration, humiliation, and even destruction into beauty. You can embrace what happens, even if it is the exact opposite of what you set out to do. Because what happens continues to present opportunities for your character and your power to respond. Love what happens and use it to improve, to seek opportunities.
Persist and resist
“Our actions may be impeded…But there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting”. Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics tell us that persisting in the exercise of the virtues and resisting all that turns us away from the virtues will help us to live a life of peace and goodness. We persist in our efforts, we persist in trying to be a good example to others, we persist in our training, and we persist despite the obstacles that come our way. We persist in resisting temptation, despair, corruption, or degradation. We resist yielding, we resist temptation, we resist despair and we resist degradation. The Stoics recommended that we train this spirit of resistance, for example by fleeing from comforts. I usually take hot and cold contrast showers because I have read that it is good for improving blood circulation, improving the immune system, and reducing stress, but I was surprised when I read Ryan Holiday say that he did it too, but not primarily for health reasons but to force the body to endure the discomfort of cold water, a stoic training to improve our resilience.
Think that the worst can happen and be prepared for it
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes”. Seneca.
We are used to using positive visualization techniques to internalize that we can achieve a goal, for example, athletes imagine that they are going to come first in a race during their training and this gives them confidence that they can achieve it. Stoics recommend that we also use negative visualization techniques, i.e. that we imagine things that could go wrong or be taken away from us and prepare for them. Negative visualization is an incredibly useful technique for anticipating future problems that may occur so that you are not caught by surprise in the future. Moreover, by visualizing the obstacles that may come your way, you will reduce your anxiety about the future significantly. I link you to a Ted Talk by Tim Ferris in which he explains the concept. The Stoic does not see this act of negative visualization as pessimistic, but simply as a feature of his self-confident optimism: I am prepared to face whatever happens and I am also prepared to do the necessary work to respond to eventualities that try to ruin my goals. One possible way to apply this technique would be:
- Develop a list of all the issues in the future that you fear will go wrong. (e.g. dismissal at work, death, illness, your partner leaving you, …). For example, this activity can go wrong and is critical for my project.
- Then ask yourself: What is the worst thing that could happen if…? And then place your fear. For example, if this activity fails, the project will be delayed by 6 months.
- Once you know what the worst thing that could happen to you is, two effects are achieved. First, most of the time anxiety is reduced because rationally seen, nothing is too serious. Secondly, your brain starts to think of possible solutions. For example, I’m going to think of a Plan B in case this activity fails.
- Proactively think of solutions to the problems — write them down on paper! For mild fears or problems, a possible solution will suffice. However, if the problem is more serious, you may need to come up with a plan to overcome the problem. For example, I have already designed a Plan B that will reduce the delay to only 1 month, I leave it ready to execute if this project activity goes wrong.
How to define your goals and take the steps to achieve them
In the context of the Universe, the fact that life has come into being is a miracle. Within the miracle of life, the fact of your existence is a small miracle. You are someone different from others, an individual being with your dreams and feelings, a valuable person in your own right. It would be a pity if you were to waste the gift of life that has been given to you by simply letting yourself be carried along by it without any purpose. The best way to take advantage of this gift is to define the goals that give meaning to your existence and to take the necessary steps to achieve them. If you want to direct your life towards achieving your dreams, you have to take action. Let’s see how the Stoics can help you define your goals and take the necessary steps to achieve them.
Define your own goals in life
“There is no fair wind for him who does not know where he is going”. Seneca.
Stoic philosophers recognize that we generally live not according to reason but by imitation of what others do. They encourage us to define our aims and goals, for without goals you will not realize your full potential, fully enjoy life, or achieve anything important. Marcus Aurelius points out that even the smallest actions should tend to a proposed end that should be aligned with reason, public utility, and with the laws of nature. It also indicates that your aims should not be guided by ambition or by what is pleasing. It is up to you to define your goals, it could be to study, participate in some collective work, improve certain aspects of your work, etc. Some time ago I worked towards the objectives of improving my health and practicing a healthy sport such as Nordic walking, which I’m sure the Stoic philosophers would like to practice, as apart from improving your physical health, it can help you to improve your mental processes. Now I have set myself the goal of writing a fiction book in the fantasy genre I am working on. Are you afraid that your goals are too important or too difficult? Don’t be afraid, just dedicate yourself to achieving them. Seneca said that “We dare not do many things because they are difficult, but they are really difficult because we dare not do them”.
Identify your important activities and do them, identify your unimportant activities and stop doing them.
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed”. Marcus Aurelius.
Have you already defined your goals? Now prioritize your time to achieve them and save time by stopping doing unimportant activities. Life is too short to waste time doing things of little value, the first commandment to be productive would be to dedicate our time to the things we consider important and stop doing other things of no value. Identify what activities are important to you and do them. For example, it is now important to me to write a fiction book so I have set aside several hours a week to do this. Identify your unimportant activities and stop doing them or reduce them. For example, I have reduced the time I spend watching TV or surfing social media or the internet to read unimportant information, and the time I have saved is spent on more important activities such as writing a book. It is incredible how much time we waste every day that could be spent on important things, and you don’t realize it until you identify those unimportant activities and stop doing them. Seneca said that it is not that we have little time, but that we waste too much. Marcus Aurelius said that most of what we do and say is not essential. Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary? When you don’t do an important thing because you tell yourself the excuse that “I don’t have time” reflect on whether this is true, or you could save time from unimportant things and dedicate at least some time every day, even if it is not much, to important things, in most cases, you will see that your excuse is not valid.
Create habits that help you achieve your goals and habits that help you stop doing unimportant things
“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it”. Epictetus.
The Stoics were great advocates of habits and routines. In a world where so much is out of our control, committing to a routine that we do control is a way of establishing and remembering our power. Without a disciplined schedule, procrastination inevitably sets in. What should I do first? What should I do next? Should I rush to tackle this problem or rush to put out this fire?. Once you have identified the important activities you want to do, create a habit to make it easier to do them. To establish the habit you will need to schedule space, time, and facilitators for it. For example, I will dedicate an hour and a half every day to writing my book at 21:30, in this room and at this table that I will have arranged to start working. For example, to improve my health I have adopted the habit of only buying healthy food at the supermarket and the habit of regularly practicing a healthy sport such as Nordic walking. Once you have identified the unimportant activities that you want to eliminate, create a habit to make it more difficult to do them. For example, I will take the batteries out of the TV remote control and put them in a drawer so I won’t be tempted to turn it on, or I will leave my mobile phone in another room so I can do my important activity without interruptions.
Make a step a day, the sum of your daily steps will help you achieve your goals
“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing”. Zeno.
The Greek Stoic Antipater compared the pursuit of virtue to archery training. Every day you practice, strengthen your arm, and train your eye to focus on the target. Then you shoot your shot. On a good day, you hit the target. On a bad day, a gust of wind can blow the arrow off target. But you train again the next day, and the next, and although there will always be gusts of wind and other factors beyond your control, day by day your chances of hitting the target increase. One step per day. That’s it. This is the key to productivity: remembering that incremental, steady, humble, persistent work is the path to improvement. Your business, your book, your career, your body, you build them with little things, day by day. For example, in writing my book I have set a minimum goal of writing two pages a day so that in 100 days I will have 200 pages of the book written. In today’s (western) society, no one has any patience. We all want instant gratification and instant success. Long hard work is not desirable and not many people want to do it, but remember: Greatness is achieved through a series of small steps.
Focus on your actions, not the outcome of your actions
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”. Epictetus.
The Stoics talk about concentrating on our thoughts and actions and detaching ourselves from the results and consequences of them. “Do not let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole”. Chrysippus of Solos, known as “the second founder of Stoicism”, trained as a long-distance runner before turning to philosophy, and one of his metaphors for the pursuit of success was drawn from that experience: “He who runs a race must strive and struggle to the utmost to come out the victor, but it is entirely wrong for him to trip up his competitor, or to push him aside”. In a race, as in life, it is entirely right to strive to win with all your might, but ultimately you are competing against yourself, not against your competitors. Losing a race you have run to the best of your ability is a much more genuine victory than winning a race by tripping up your opponent. The less attached we are to results, the better. When meeting our standards — when we do the right thing — is what fills us with pride and self-esteem, when the effort is enough, we are liberated. Let that be your mindset. Focus only on what is in front of you. No tensions, no struggles, no worries. Just one simple movement after another with only one goal: your best effort.
Meditate on your mortality, it will help you to achieve your goals
“Do everything as if it were the last thing you ever do in your life”. Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics told us to remember that we are mortal and that we can leave life at any time to prioritize the important things and to do them now because if we postpone them to a time in the future, that time may no longer exist and we will have stopped doing important things. Every day I hear people say that an activity that is important to them will be done at the weekend, or on holiday, or when they retire; they are postponing something important that they would be better off doing right now, even if it means taking a little time each day. Being aware of our mortality (Memento Mori) will help us not to procrastinate in achieving our goals. “You could leave life right now”, remember, “let that determine what you do, say, and think”. Marcus Aurelius’ words were not meant to create panic, but the priority, humility, urgency in realizing our goals. While it would be wonderful if death did not exist, we can use it as a tool. We can use it as a stimulus to move forward. We can use it to help us prioritize what is truly important. We can use it to make the most of today.
How to act in society and the world
“The wise man will take part in politics unless prevented by some special circumstance”. Zeno.
The Stoics differed from other philosophical schools of antiquity in that they favored acting in society and in the world to improve things by employing the four cardinal virtues. The Stoics saw their responsibility in terms of ever-increasing concentric circles: from the preservation of the self to the care of the family, the extended family, fellow citizens, fellow countrymen, and finally the entire human race. The Stoics said that the most important work of a student of philosophy is the act of turning words into deeds. To turn lessons into actions in the real world. In this section, we will look at some Stoic advice on how to act in today’s society.
Do good things for the people around you, for society, and the world at large
“The good of a wise person is altruism. That’s what we were born to do. That’s nothing new, remember”. Marcus Aurelius.
Again and again, the Stoics speak of community, association, fellowship, neighborliness, and our relationship to a greater whole. They even had a word for this: sympatheia (“connection with the cosmos”). So your job today, and ideally every day is to go out into your community and do something good.
It can be something small or big. It can be expensive or cheap, it can be your time or your work or anything else of value… to other people. Offer to do some shopping for your elderly neighbor. Help a charitable cause such as food banks for people in need. Take action to help the environment, for example, avoid driving your car. Go and see someone who may be lonely. Offer to help a colleague in their work. It could be doing a little here, a little there. Think about how you can improve other people’s day and the world at large. It is your job to think about this. It is your job to try to lighten the load on others, to be helpful, and to be a positive force in the world.
Don’t judge other people
“Be tolerant of others and strict with yourself”. Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism is not a social philosophy that you are supposed to project into the world and apply to others. It is a personal philosophy that is designed to direct your behavior. A Stoic is open to the idea that sometimes people are going to behave idiotically or unreliably or… whatever. On the one hand, Stoics think that we let other people be the way they are even if they behave unwisely, it’s something that is not in our control. But on the other hand, Stoics believe that you should take action to improve society, so I think it is your responsibility to see if you can help that person to improve their behavior without being intrusive or forcing them to do so, for example, if they behave badly, respond with good behavior so that they reflect on their actions based on your example. Stoics believe that just as you should be charitable to others, you should be disciplined with yourself and your reactions. If someone makes a fool of himself, let him be, or help him to improve if possible. If you act ridiculously, spot the problem, stop it, and work to prevent it from happening in the future. What you do is in your control. It is your business. Be strict about it. I believe that judging a person can break down the barriers of communication between you and them, and therefore make it more difficult to solve the problem between you and them. Mother Teresa of Calcutta also said: If you judge people, you will not have time to love them.
To relate to other people choose the beneficial handle
“Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried?”. Epictetus.
Epictetus said that you have two ways of dealing with any situation: a positive one, and a negative one. The imagery here would be of a pot with two handles that have been sitting over a fire. One of the handles has been sitting over the fire while the food was cooking, and is going to be too hot to touch. The other handle is sticking off of the flames and is cool to touch. While you can be stubborn and try to pick the pot up by the wrong handle, you will just end up hurting yourself, and you will not end up with what you want. So in the example, Epictetus gives, we have “a brother has acted unjustly toward you”. We can focus our emotional response on the injustice (picking up the hot handle that will only hurt us), but doing so will not get us what we want. The other option is focusing on the fact that you are dealing with your brother, a family member. By holding on to that aspect of the situation, you can more easily come up with a way of handling things that address the injustice, but do not burn yourself. When you approach the problem with the “brother” point of view, you are more likely to cut some slack, interpret actions more charitably, and not read more into it than belongs there. You do not have to like what he did or make excuses for him, but by focusing on the brother part, you give yourself a safe place to begin.
It is up to us to try to see the best in people rather than the worst. It is up to us to seek understanding instead of anger. A man in a big truck cuts you off in traffic — what are you going to think? That he’s a jerk to be hooted and hollered at? Or that he’s probably an honorable person who hasn’t seen you? A woman crosses in front of you in the supermarket — is she a threat to society who breaks the rules? Or is she a good person who hasn’t seen you and is in a hurry to pick up her daughter from school? Your father hasn’t called you in a while — is it because he doesn’t love you, or is he just respecting your space, thinking you’d rather he didn’t call you? Every day is full of these situations. It presents us with two options, two handles. It is up to us to decide which one we will use. We can go around thinking that everyone is a monster and out to get us. Or we can try to think of the less obvious, but much more likely scenario: that they are going through their problems just like us. That they make mistakes, just like us. And that we would all get along better (and be less upset) if we chose the charitable stance — the forgiving stance — as much as possible.
In this article, I have proposed to reconsider the compulsory inclusion of philosophy as a compulsory subject in ESO in the Spanish education system for its great benefits in developing our reflective and critical thinking and for its practical applications in the management of our daily lives. I have also explained how to apply the teachings of the Stoic philosophers to the management of the following important aspects of our lives:
- How to be Happy
- How to manage negative emotions
- How to face life’s difficulties
- How to define our goals and take the steps to achieve them
- How to act in society and the world
Philosophy can also be introduced to children at an early age, as advocated by the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement. Related to a children’s book I wrote (Nico the little detective) I have created a series of discussion topics for children in case you want to use them as an educational resource with them.
Too much philosophy, right? Fancy watching a bit of football to relax? Courtesy of Monty Python I leave you a football match between philosophers, I will always support the Greek philosophers’ team.
Please find attached the link to read the Spanish version of this article.
Reading you can do
This article is just an introduction to the principles of Stoic philosophy and its application in everyday life. If you want to go deeper into Stoic philosophy you can read the following books:
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It is my favorite non-fiction book, if you haven’t read it I envy you because you will have the chance to discover it.
- Letters to Lucilius by Seneca.
- The Enchiridion by Epictetus.
Many of the ideas in this article are taken from the course Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life! by Ryan Holiday.