Given the fact that the mere mention of philosophy makes most nervous or bored, “Stoic philosophy” on the surface sounds like the last thing anyone would want to learn about, let alone urgently need in the course of daily life. But in reality, in Stoicism we have a tool to help us in our pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry. In it we find some of the greatest wisdom in the history of the world.
Certainly, many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out: George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics.
That usually meant the three principal Stoic leaders. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each day to write himself notes about restraint, compassion and humility. Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery to found his own school where he taught many of Rome’s greatest minds. Seneca, when Nero turned on him and demanded his suicide, could think only of comforting his wife and friends.
Which is why I am excited to bring all-new translations of the greatest passages from them as well as several other lesser-known Stoics with my new book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (and its companion website and a daily stoic email). It offers one meditation for each day of the year to make you happier, more resilient and a wiser, better person.
Here are 7 meditations I selected from the book that will help you get the most out of your life and that I think you’ll love. Enjoy!
1. SPENDTHRIFTS OF TIME
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives — worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
— Seneca, On the Brevity of Life, 3.1–2
Today there will be endless interruptions: phone calls, emails, visitors, unexpected events. Booker T. Washington observed that “the number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.”
A philosopher, on the other hand, knows that their default state should be one of reflection and inner awareness. This is why they so diligently protect their personal space and thoughts from the intrusions of the world. They know that a few minutes of contemplation are worth more than any meeting or report. They also know how little time we’re actually given in life — and how quickly our stores can be depleted.
Seneca reminds us that while we might be good at protecting our physical property, we are far too lax at enforcing our mental boundaries. Property can be regained; there is quite a bit of it out there — some of it still untouched by man. But time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset — we cannot buy more of it. We can only strive to waste as little as possible.
2. DON’T SELL YOURSELF TOO CHEAPLY
“I say, let no one rob me of a single day who isn’t going to make a full return on the loss.”
— Seneca, On Tranquility of Mind, 1.11b
People spend a lot more money when they use credit cards than when they have to pull out actual cash. If you ever wondered why credit card companies and banks push cards so aggressively, this is why. The more credit cards you have, the more you’ll spend.
Do we treat the days of our lives like we treat our money? Because we don’t exactly know how many days we’ll be alive, and because we try our hardest not to think about the fact that someday we’ll die, we’re pretty liberal with how freely we spend our time. We let people and obligations impose on that time, only rarely asking: What am I getting in return here?
Seneca’s maxim is the equivalent of cutting up your credit cards and switching to cash. He says to put real thought into every transaction: Am I getting my money’s worth here? Is this a fair trade?
3. IT’S JUST A NUMBER
“You aren’t bothered, are you, because you weigh a certain amount and not twice as much? So why get worked up that you’ve been given a certain lifespan and not more? Just as you are satisfied with your normal weight, so you should be with the time you’ve been given.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.49
They say age is just a number, but to some people it’s a very important one — otherwise, women wouldn’t lie about being younger, and ambitious young men wouldn’t lie about being older. Rich people and health nuts spend billions of dollars in an effort to move the expiration date from around seventy-eight years to hopefully forever.
The number of years we manage to eke out doesn’t matter, only what those years are composed of. Seneca put it best when he said, “Life is long if you know how to use it.” Sadly, most people don’t — they waste the life they’ve been given. Only when it is too late do they try to compensate for that waste by vainly hoping to put more time on the clock.
Use today. Use every day. Make yourself satisfied with what you have been given.
4. A SIMPLE WAY TO MEASURE OUR DAYS
“This is the mark of perfection of character — to spend each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, laziness, or any pretending.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.69
The Stoics didn’t think that anyone could be perfect. The idea of becoming a sage — the highest aspiration of a philosopher — wasn’t realistic. This was just their Platonic ideal.
Still, they started every day hoping to get a little closer to that mark. There was much to gain in the trying. Can you actually live today like it is your last day? Is it even possible to embody completeness or perfection in our ethos (character), effortlessly doing the right thing for a full twenty-four hours? Is it possible for more than a minute?
Maybe not. But if trying was enough for the Stoics, it should be enough for us too.
5. WHAT ARE YOU SO AFRAID OF LOSING?
“You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 77.18
Seneca tells an amazing story about an obscenely wealthy Roman who was carried around by slaves on a litter. On one occasion, after being lifted out of a bath, the Roman asked, “Am I sitting down yet?”
Seneca’s point was essentially: What kind of sad pathetic life is it if you’re so disconnected from the world that you don’t even know whether you’re on the ground? How did the man know whether he was even alive at all?
Most of us are afraid of dying. But sometimes this fear begs the ques- tion: To protect what exactly? For a lot of people the answer is: hours of television, gossiping, gorging, wasting potential, reporting to a boring job, and on and on and on. Except, in the strictest sense, is this actually a life? Is this worth gripping so tightly and being afraid of losing?
It doesn’t sound like it.
6. STAKE YOUR OWN CLAIM
“For it’s disgraceful for an old person, or one in sight of old age, to have only the knowledge carried in their notebooks. Zeno said this . . . what do you say? Cleanthes said that . . . what do you say? How long will you be compelled by the claims of another? Take charge and stake your own claim — something posterity will carry in its notebook.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 33.7
Musing in his notebook about the topic of immortality, Ralph Waldo Emerson complained how writers dance around a difficult topic by relying on quotes. “I hate quotation,” he wrote. “Tell me what you know.”
Seneca was throwing down the same gauntlet some twenty centuries before. It’s easier to quote, to rely on the wise words of others. Especially when the people you’re deferring to are such towering figures!
It’s harder (and more intimidating) to venture out on your own and express your own thoughts. But how do you think those wise and true quotes from those towering figures were created in the first place?
Your own experiences have value. You have accumulated your own wisdom too. Stake your claim. Put something down for the ages — in words and also in example.
7. LIFE IS LONG — IF YOU KNOW HOW TO USE IT
“It’s not at all that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well. But when it’s poured down the drain of luxury and neglect, when it’s employed to no good end, we’re finally driven to see that it has passed by before we even recognized it passing. And so it is — we don’t receive a short life, we make it so.”
— Seneca, On the Brevity of Life, 1.3–4a
No one knows how long they have to live, but sadly, we can be sure of one thing: we’ll waste far too much of life. Waste it sitting around, waste it chasing the wrong things, waste it by refusing to take the time to ask ourselves what’s actually important to us. Far too often, we’re like the overconfident academics that Petrarch criticized in his classic essay on ignorance — the types who “fritter away their powers incessantly in caring for things outside of them and seek themselves there.” Yet they have no idea this is what they’re doing.
So today, if you find yourself rushed or uttering the words “I just don’t have enough time,” stop and take a second. Is this actually true? Or have you just committed to a lot of unnecessary things? Are you actually being efficient, or have you assumed a great deal of waste into your life? The average American spends something like forty hours a year in traffic. That’s months over the course of a life. And for “traffic,” you can substitute so many activities — from fighting with others to watching television to daydreaming.
Your life is plenty long — just use it properly.