Lessons In Stoicism—Quotes & notes
By John Sellars
Summary by Ramses Oudt
Last updated July 26th, 2020
What if someone could show you how to avoid anxiety, frustration, fear, disappointment, anger, or simple discontent? What if that person told you feel like this because of how you think and look at the world, but that it is within your control to change this?
That’s what the ancient Stoics did.
Lessons in Stoicism covers how ancient Stoics were doctors of the mind, what we control and cannot control, how we think of things produce our emotions, and how to see our place in the world (including our relationship with other humans).
We have works from three prominent Stoics, from different walks of life. We can gain a lot of wisdom from each of their unique perspectives.
The three Stoics whose writings survive, are:
- Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-king. His personal diary survives to this day, in which he reminds himself of the central ideas in Stoicism.
- Epictetus, the slave turned teacher. His student Arrian recorded his discourses and produced them in writing along with a handbook.
- Seneca, the playwright and statesman. He left us philosophical essays and letters to his friend Lucilius.
Chapter 1: The Philosopher as Doctor
Epictetus’s role as a philosopher was clear for him: he’s a doctor, and his school is a hospital for souls.
Socrates had said that the task of the philosopher is to take care of one’s soul, just like a physician takes care of one’s body. For Socrates, taking care of the soul is the most important as it determines the quality of our lives.
“In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates had argued that the task of the philosopher is to take care of one’s soul, just as a physician takes care of one’s body. By ‘soul’ we ought not to assume anything immaterial, immortal or supernatural. Instead in this context we should understand it simply as mind, thoughts and beliefs. The task of the philosopher is to analyse and assess the things one thinks, examining their coherence and cogency.”
To Socrates, money was neither good nor bad. It depends on how you use money; you can use it for good and bad ends. The only real good is an excellent character, and the only real evil is a vicious character. All other things are indifferent.
“[Socrates] argued that material wealth is value-neutral, because it can be used for good or bad ends. The money in itself is neither good nor bad. Whether it is used for good or bad ends depends upon the character of the person who has it. A virtuous person can use money to do good things, while a not so virtuous individual might use it to generate great harm.”
To take care of your soul means you live virtuously, living to be wise, just, courageous, and moderate. Being virtuous means being a good (social) human.
“But just what does it mean to take care of one’s soul? What is involved in having an excellent character? To use a very out-of-fashion word, it means to be virtuous. In particular it means to be wise, just, courageous and moderate – the four cardinal virtues according to the Stoics. This is what it means to have a good character and to be a good human being.”
“Someone who does not behave well towards others – who does not have the character traits of justice, courage and moderation – will in a sense fail to be a good human being, and if they fail completely we might even question whether they are really human at all.”
Socrates and the ancient Stoics held that no one chooses to be vicious; everyone thinks what they do is right for them, even if their thinking is twisted.
“[T]he Stoics also followed Socrates in thinking that no one chooses to be vicious and unpleasant. Everyone pursues what they think is good, even if their idea of what’s good or what will benefit them is hopelessly distorted.”
The philosopher challenges our beliefs about what is good and evil, what will benefit us, and what we need to live a happy life.
“The task of the philosopher, conceived as a doctor for the soul, is to get us to examine our existing beliefs about what we think is good and bad, what we think will benefit us, and what we think we need in order to enjoy a good, happy life.”
To live a happy life, it is necessary to live in harmony with our (human) nature and the external world (Nature). We are rational and social animals, but when we lose sight of this, we become unhappy.
“We are by nature reasonable and decent social animals. Of course, many things can interrupt and interfere with that process of development, and when they do we find ourselves living a life out of sync with our deepest natural inclinations. When this happens, we become unhappy.”
Chapter 2: What Do You Control?
What in life do you really control?
Epictetus teaches us that we can only control our judgments and the actions that come out of them. We can’t control sensations, memories, or what emotions arise.
“The Handbook of Epictetus opens with a fairly blunt account of what things he thinks are and are not ‘up to us’. The things that we can control – the things in our power – include our judgements, impulses and desires. Pretty much everything else is, Epictetus suggests, ultimately out of our control, including our own bodies, our material possessions, our reputation and our worldly success.”
Judgments are vital because they determine how we act.
We often judge quickly and unconsciously, so we start to assume things are good. However, the only truly good thing is an excellent character.
“We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s all just matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good.”
If you think you have control over something when in fact, you don’t, this is a source of frustration and suffering.
“If you think you do have control over these things, when the plain fact is that you don’t, then frustration and disappointment are almost guaranteed. … Epictetus proposes thinking of your life as if you were an actor in a play. You haven’t chosen your role, you don’t get to decide what happens, and you have no control over how long it will last. Rather than fight against all these things which are out of your control, your task is to play the role you find yourself in as best as you can.”
Like an archer, we can only strive to do the best we can. We cannot control the outcomes of our actions; once the arrow leaves your bow, it is out of your control. When you tie your happiness to achieving a specific result, you are bound to be disappointed.
“We can strive to act as best as we can, but we can never completely control the outcome. If we tie our happiness to achieving the outcome, we run the risk of being frequently disappointed, but if we make our goal simply doing the best we can, then nothing can get in our way.”
Go with the flow and accept what happens. Work with rather than against whatever happens.
“When it comes to events in the external world, including the outcomes of our own actions, all we can really do is go with the flow. Accept what happens and work with it rather than fight against it.”
Philosophy is a daily practice and a way of life. We must remain focused and be prepared for whatever situation presents itself. To avoid mistaken judgments, we need to reflect daily.
“If we let our attention slip we can quickly lose whatever progress we may have made. So, we need to integrate periods of reflection into our daily lives. … [L]ike the mariner sailing the ship, it is essential that we remain focused every single moment of the day, prepared for whatever might happen next. We must keep our key philosophical principles always ready to hand, so that we don’t fall back into making mistaken judgements. This is philosophy as a daily practice and a way of life.”
Chapter 3: The Problem with Emotions
We cannot control other people’s emotions, because they fall into the category of things not up to us.
“Arrian reports an encounter between Epictetus and a man who was visiting his school in Nicopolis that illustrates further this concern with control. The man asks Epictetus what he can do about his brother, who has become angry with him. What can the man do about his brother’s anger? Epictetus’s typically to-the-point reply is ‘Nothing; you can do nothing about it.’”
Our emotions are the product of the judgments we make, that’s why we’re responsible for our emotions.
“The Stoic account of emotions is on one level very easy to understand, but there are a number of important qualifications we must add in order to grasp it fully. The central claim is simply this: our emotions are the product of judgements we make. Consequently we are in complete control of our emotions and responsible for them. The man is upset about his brother’s anger because of the attitude he takes to it. If he viewed it differently, he would not have got upset.”
Stoics don’t say we should repress our emotions; we should try to avoid having negative emotions in the first place. Stoics do realize this is easier said than done.
“The Stoic claim – and this is an important point – is not that we should deny or repress our emotions; it is rather that we should try to avoid having them in the first place. A second important point is that the Stoics don’t think that someone can just click their fingers and make an emotion go away. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to think about this differently,’ and see one’s anger or grief magically disappear.”
Chrysippus (the third Stoic scholarch) taught that emotions are difficult to stop. You can’t simply stop an emotion once you feel it, so it’s better to avoid triggering emotion.
“Chrysippus likened having an emotion to running too fast. Once you have a certain amount of momentum, you cannot simply stop. Your motion is out of control, and being in the grip of an emotion is very much like this. So, you can’t simply turn off an unwanted emotion at will, but what you can do is try to avoid letting the next one pick up momentum to the point that it becomes out of control.”
According to Seneca, emotions like anger and jealousy are temporary madness. Once anger takes over, it takes over the whole mind. Stoics warn against this.
“In his essay On Anger Seneca describes emotions such as anger and jealousy as a temporary madness. Picking up Chrysippus’s image of running so fast that one cannot stop, Seneca likens being angry to having been thrown off the top of a building and hurtling towards the ground, completely out of control. Once anger takes over, it compromises the whole mind. It’s being in this condition of being completely out of control that the Stoics warn against. Being a bit annoyed from time to time is simply part of life and does little real harm. Being so angry that one can no longer resist the urge to hit someone is quite another matter, and this is what the Stoics want to avoid.”
Stoics are not rocks. From time to time, we all experience nervousness, shock, excitement, or fear. These initial emotions are called ‘first movements’ in Stoicism, and they are outside our control. What we do with this first reaction determines the emotion we experience.
“Contrary to the popular image, the Stoics do not suggest that people can or should become unfeeling blocks of stone. All humans will experience what Seneca calls ‘first movements’. These are when we are moved by some experience, and we might feel nervous, shocked, excited or scared, or we might even cry. All these are quite natural reactions; they are physiological responses of the body, but not emotions in the Stoic sense of the word. … For these ‘first movements’ to become emotions proper would require the mind judging that something terrible has happened and then acting on it. As Seneca puts it, ‘fear involves flight, anger involves assault.’”
There are three stages of emotions:
- The involuntary first movement;
- A judgment in response to the experience;
- An emotion that, once created, is out of our control.
“There are thus three stages to the process, Seneca suggests: first, an involuntary first movement, which is a natural physiological reaction out of our control; second, a judgement in response to the experience, which is within our control; third, an emotion that, once created, is out of our control. Once the emotion is there, there is nothing we can do but wait for it to subside.”
According to Seneca, we become angry because we think someone harmed us.
“Seneca says that anger is usually the product of a sense of injury. So the thing that must be challenged is the impression that some injury has happened, which already contains within it a judgement. Epictetus puts it like this:
“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed. You must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.””
To remain calm, it is essential to pause and reflect on what has happened before making a judgment. If someone said something critical of you, first see if they are right. If so, you can use their criticism to improve. If they are wrong, they have still not harmed you in any real sense.
Chapter 4: Dealing with Adversity
Philosophy helps us deal with life’s challenges.
“For the Roman Stoics life is full of adversity, and one of the central tasks of philosophy is to help people navigate through the ups and downs of life.”
Nothing is inherently good or bad; we put the labels on things.
“[Seneca] insists that nothing bad ever really happens, given that all external events are neither good nor bad in themselves. Someone who keeps this idea in their mind and doesn’t rush to hasty judgement will simply accept what happens for what it is, without judging that something terrible has occurred.”
Everything is training. Like an athlete, we can only become better if we have a skillful sparring partner. Adversity in life brings out our virtues and trains us to become better.
“Not only does [Seneca] think that we ought not to see apparent misfortunes as genuinely bad; he also thinks that we ought to welcome them as things that can benefit us. The good person, he says, treats all adversity as a training exercise. Seneca draws an analogy with a wrestler who benefits from taking on tough opponents, and who would lose his skill if he only ever faced weaker challengers. The wrestler only gets to prove his skill when facing a real adversary, and a tough match also acts as training so that he can develop his talents. Adversity in life works in a similar way: it lets us display our virtues and it trains them so that we can improve. If we can see this, then we’ll happily welcome adversity when it comes.”
Excessive good fortune is bad for us. How are we tested if we never face challenges? Whatever life throws at us, it’s an opportunity to learn.
“[E]xcessive good fortune is in fact really bad for us. When are we ever tested if we never experience any difficulties? How will we ever develop the virtues of patience, courage or resilience if everything always goes well? There is no worse luck, Seneca says, than unending luxury and wealth, which will serve only to make us lazy, complacent, ungrateful and greedy for more. This is real misfortune! By contrast, whatever adversity life throws at us will always be an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to improve our characters.”
For the Stoics, everything is God—the physical principle that causes all order in the universe. God is fate—the web of cause and effect. The Stoic God has nothing to do with superstition.
“Seneca’s God is the Stoics’ God, which they identified with the animating rational principle in Nature. Their God is not a person but rather a physical principle that accounts for the order and organization of the natural world. When Seneca refers to the ‘will of God’, then, he is referring to this organizing principle, which the Stoics identified with fate and, in the words of Cicero, Stoic fate is the fate of physics, not superstition.”
Think about what potential challenges lie ahead of you. Reflecting on what could happen and on what will happen can help lessen the blow when adversity strikes us.
“[T]he premeditation of future evils. This was something advocated by earlier Stoics, such as Chrysippus. The idea is that one should reflect on potentially bad things that could happen, so that one is better ready to handle them if they ever did happen. Part of Marcia’s problem, Seneca suggests, is that she never adequately reflected on the possibility of her son’s death. Yet we all know that from the moment of birth everyone is destined to die. This isn’t something that merely could happen, it is something that necessarily will happen. Grief hits people hard, Seneca says, because they don’t anticipate it.”
Chapter 5: Our Place in Nature
The Stoic God is Nature. It’s the rational principle in the universe that’s responsible for life and order. The Stoic God is not a person; it’s everything.
“The official Stoic view is that there is a rational principle within Nature, responsible for its order and animation. They call this ‘God’ (Zeus), but it is not a person, and nothing supernatural – it simply is Nature. Nature isn’t blind and chaotic; it is ordered and beautiful, with its own rhythms and patterns. It is not composed of dead matter; it is a single living organism, of which we are all parts.”
The idea of the Stoic God has many parallels to the Gaia hypothesis by James Lovelock; the idea we should see earth’s life as one living system. Everything is part of Gaia; organic matter, inorganic matter and the atmosphere. We cannot see plants and animals in isolation, as it’s one unified biosphere. This biosphere regulates itself for its own benefit.
“[W]e might try to draw a parallel with what is known as the Gaia hypothesis, developed by James Lovelock. The idea is that life on earth is best understood as a single living system, including not just obviously organic matter but also inorganic things like rocks and the atmosphere. It’s a mistake to try to understand organisms like plants and animals in isolation. This single, unified biosphere regulates itself, acting, so to speak, for its own benefit. Lovelock defines it as:
“a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.””
The world is ruled by cause and effect, ‘fate’ in Stoic terms. Fate works through us humans, and we are contributors to it and to the bigger system of which we are part.
“Stoic Nature, conceived as an intelligent organism, is governed according to fate. By ‘fate’ the Stoics simply mean a chain of causes. The natural world is governed by cause and effect, and that is what physics tries to describe and understand. For Stoics such as Marcus [Aurelius], accepting the reality of fate – of causal determinism – is essential. It’s not just that some things are out of our control; it’s that they couldn’t be any other way.”
“As one ancient source put it, fate works through us. We are ourselves contributors to fate and parts of the larger natural world governed by it.”
Understanding fate will make it easier to accept unpleasant events; they had to happen that way.
“For the Stoics, thinking about fate is a central element in the remedy for adversity, because part of coming to terms with unpleasant events is accepting that they had to happen. Once we grasp that something was inevitable, we shall see that bemoaning it is pointless, will only generate further distress and simply displays a failure to grasp the way the world works.”
Regardless if we believe in fate or not, to live a happy life, we need to accept what happens and work with it the best we can.
“Whether Nature is ruled by a providential deity, a cybernetic feedback system or blind fate, or is simply the chance product of atomic interactions, the response from us should always be the same: accept what happens and act in response as best we can.”
Chapter 6: Life and Death
According to Seneca (On the Shortness of Life), we have enough time in life, but we waste most of it. Wasting time makes us fail to live.
“In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca says that, for many of us, by the time we are really ready to start living, our lives are almost over. It’s not that our lives are too short; the problem is that we waste so much time. We procrastinate, pursue things of little or no value, or wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus. Some people strive to achieve success so that they can be wealthy enough to buy luxury goods that will end up discarded in a rubbish bin long before their lives are done. In so doing they waste the greater part of their lives. Others strive for nothing, just going through the motions of daily routines without any sense that the most valuable commodity they have – time – is slipping away. Some people have a clear idea of what they want to do but, paralysed by fear of failure, put off and delay things and conjure up excuses for why now is not the time to act. All these different types, Seneca says, fail to live.”
One way we waste time is by worrying about what others think. At the same time, we do not pay enough attention to our own thoughts.
“First of all we should stop worrying about what others think. Don’t try to impress others; don’t pursue their favour in order to secure some advantage. Too many people care about what others think of them, but pay little attention to their own thoughts. They sacrifice their time to others but rarely set aside time for themselves. Yet it’s absurd, Seneca suggests, that someone might be so protective of their money and possessions and yet so freely give away their far more valuable time.”
Keep in mind that one day you will die. Our time is limited. Most of your life has likely already passed. Use your time wisely.
“We also need to hold in our minds the brute fact that we shall die. Our time is not unlimited. A good part of whatever time we shall have is gone already. Not only that, we have no idea how much is left to come. … Seneca mocks the person who postpones all their plans and dreams until retirement. Do you really know you’ll make it to then? If you do, are you sure you’ll be in good enough health to do whatever it is that you’ve been postponing for so long? But even if all goes well, why postpone life until the bulk of it is already over?”
Instead of wasting time, we would do better to enjoy life and making the most of each day as it comes. At the same time, we should keep in mind that today could be our last day.
“Even if we lived for a thousand years, we’d fritter most of the time away. The task, then, is not to strive to make our lives last as long as possible; instead, we ought simply to make sure that we enjoy and make full use of each day as it comes, not forgetting that it could perhaps be our last.”
According to Seneca, instead of seeking relaxation, we should spend our time on philosophy. Philosophical practice includes thinking, learning, reading history and literature, and reflecting on the past and present.
“[Seneca] recommends philosophy as the finest and most worthy activity, by which he means thinking, learning, reading history and literature, reflecting on the past and the present. This is the opposite of rushing around in the pursuit of worldly success, which, he says, is ‘won at the cost of life’.”
We cannot keep anything forever because we will not be around forever. Thinking that death is something terrible is nothing more than a judgment.
Life is like a party; it must come to an end at some point. Say thank you for the gift of life, and be prepared to give it back.
“Life is an event, like a fair or a party, and like all such events it must come to an end. It is up to us whether we thank the host for a good time or bemoan the fact that it cannot go on for longer.
Your own life, then, is a gift, and one day you will have to give it back. The same goes for the lives of your loved ones:
“Under no circumstances ever say ‘I have lost something’, only ‘I returned it’. Did a child of yours die? No, it was returned. Your wife died? No, she was returned.”
Everything that we have and that we love is merely on loan. Nothing can be kept for ever, not least because we will not be here for ever.”
Chapter 7: How We Live Together
As Stoics, we need to turn inward to work on our character. But we are also social animals, so the point is to return to society to be the best members of the Whole we can be.
“[T]he Stoic turn inwards, as we have already seen, is primarily focused on cultivating good, virtuous character traits and avoiding harmful, antisocial emotions, such as anger. The whole point of it is that afterwards we turn back outwards to play our parts as more effective members of the various communities of which we are necessarily a part.”
To live a good life, we need to play our roles to the best of our ability. Everyone plays different roles in life. We can be a son, daughter, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, etc.
“[I]f we want to live a good life, we need to be good human beings. That means embracing our nature as rational and social beings. But it also means living up to the various roles that we find ourselves in and accepting the responsibilities that come with them.”
We must take care of others, as we are part of the human family.
“We have a duty of care to all other human beings, and [Stoics] suggest that as we develop our rationality we shall come to see ourselves as members of a single, global community of all humankind.”
The idea of cosmopolitanism originated with the Stoics.
Hierocles taught us the circles of concern. We’re in the middle, and there is a series of expanding circles around us; our immediate family, then our local community, then humankind as a whole:
“A slightly less well-known Stoic of the imperial period called Hierocles (about whose life we know almost nothing) outlined in his treatise on Stoic ethics the idea that we are each at the centre of a series of expanding circles of concern, starting with ourselves, then containing our immediate family, then our local community and eventually ending with the largest circle that embraces all humankind. The modern idea of cosmopolitanism, then, has its origins with the Stoics.”
We need each other.
“We are all parts of a single community, parts of a single organism, like branches of a tree, [Marcus Aurelius] suggested. In order to remain parts of that wider community we must remain on good terms with all the other members.”
“No one can be happy when isolated and cut off from other people; it is simply against our nature as social animals.”
For Stoics, all people are equal. We all share rationality and instinct for excellence.
“For the Stoics, then, people are people, all equal in their shared rationality and instinct for virtue.”
Even though we are social animals, we need to be concerned about with whom we spend time. It is difficult to break free from bad habits if those around us still live that way. Instead, it is better to spend time with those whose values we share and admire.
“Epictetus warned against the company of other people, especially if someone is trying to make a change in their life. It’s very difficult to try to break free from old habits or destructive patterns of behaviour if we are surrounded by other people still living that way. As Epictetus put it, if you brush up against someone covered in soot, you’re going to get covered in soot yourself.”