How to become a better Stoic (hint: same as becoming a better Christian)

Ever since I adopted Stoicism as a personal philosophy of life I have been, well, “preaching” about it. Stoicism, of course, is not a religion, Epictetus was not Jesus, and the Enchiridion is not a Gospel. Nevertheless, the similarities are obvious, not just because Stoicism has markedly influenced Christianity, but because every religion is also a philosophy of life.

I say this because religions have two of the key components that have marked philosophies of life in both the Western (e.g., Stoicism, Epicureanism) and Eastern (Buddhism, Confucianism) traditions: (i) a metaphysics, i.e., a descriptive account of how the world hangs together, so to speak; and (ii) an ethics, i.e., a prescriptive account - connected to the metaphysics - of how to behave in the world. For instance:

So, while Stoicism is not a religion, Christianity is a philosophy of life. The same goes for Judaism, Islam, Daoism, and so on. Two corollaries should therefore come as no surprise: (a) it is just as hard to practice Stoicism as to practice Christianity; and (b) you become a better Stoic in a way very similar fashion to how you would become a better Christian.

In terms of difficulty, I am often surprised that two common objections to Stoicism are that it is hard and that it is for the elite, since regular people just don’t have the time. I grew up Catholic, and being a good Catholic is just as hard, indeed I would argue even harder in certain respects, than being a good Stoic. Not only you have to follow the religion’s ethical precepts and to study the sacred texts, you also have to participate in a good number of social rituals. In Stoicism there are no social rituals (as Zeno famously put it in his Republic, there will be no temples in the ideal Stoic city), but there are ethical precepts to follow and texts to study. 

Just like Christianity can be practiced by anyone, so can Stoicism, and for the same reasons. While a few Christians and Stoics (such as yours truly) can afford to devote much time to reading, writing and, in a sense, “witnessing” to others, most Christians and Stoics don’t. And it doesn’t take an inordinate amount of time to strive to be more ethical, or to read regularly from the Gospel of John or from Marcus’ Meditations (indeed, many surviving Stoic texts are, I would argue, more immediately approachable than Christian ones).

Regarding the second point, how to become a better Stoic, the parallels with Christianity should be obvious. Let’s consider some of them:

1. Mindfulness. Becoming a better Christian/Stoic requires paying attention to what we are doing here and now, striving to act as ethically as possible in any given circumstance.

As it is, you say, ‘I will fix my attention to-morrow’: which means, let me tell you, ‘To-day I will be shameless, inopportune, abject: others shall have power to vex me: to-day I will harbour anger and envy.’ Look what evils you allow yourself. Nay, if it is well to fix my attention to-morrow, how much better to do so to-day! If it is profitable to-morrow, much more so is it to-day: that you may be able to do the same to-morrow, and not put off again to the day after. (Epictetus, Discourses IV, 12)

2. Study. But how do we know what general guidelines to follow? We read and re-read the Old Testament and the Gospels, or the Letters to Lucilius, the Meditations, and the Enchiridion, until they sink in, or in order to remind ourselves of how we have decided to live our life.

I spend my time in the company of all the best; no matter in what lands they may have lived, or in what age, I let my thoughts fly to them. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXII.2)

3. Role models. Both in Stoicism and in Christianity we are inspired by role models. Jesus, Mary, and the Saints do it for Christians; ancient Stoics went for Socrates, Cato the Younger, Epictetus himself. Modern Stoics have a variety of options, including but not limited to the classical ones.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XI.10)

4. Social guidance. Christians go to church to confess their sins and get guidance from a priest or a minister, and they interact with each other in order to reinforce their understanding and application of their religious principles. Likewise, Stoics put a lot of emphasis on picking “friends of virtue,” and on learning from people who are more advanced than us. The whole set of Letters to Lucilius can be read (and indeed, is explicitly portrayed by Seneca) as a dialogue between two friends, one of whom happens to be a bit ahead of the other, and can therefore offer guidance.

Virtue advises us to arrange the present well, to take thought regarding the future, to deliberate and apply our minds; and one who takes a friend into council with him, can more easily apply his mind and think out his problem. (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, CIX.15)

5. Prayer/meditation. While prayer is often thought of as intercessory, where the individual asks the deity for help, it can and should be especially an occasion to reflect on what one is doing and why. The famous Serenity Prayer, for instance (which is essentially the modern Christian version of the dichotomy of control, famously introduced by Epictetus in the opening paragraph of the Enchiridion), isn’t really intercessory, but rather a reminder to oneself that we should have the wisdom to tell the difference between what we can and cannot do, and the courage to do what we can. The Stoic practice of writing a personal philosophical diary - as discussed by Pierre Hadot and most famously instantiated by the Meditations - takes on just about the same function.

You must have these principles at hand both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III.24.103)

There are, of course, a number of other ways to practice Christianity, and my friend Greg Lopez and I have just finished putting together a new book detailing a whopping 52 Stoic exercises (out in May). But the above should be enough to establish these conclusions: (I) Practicing Stoicism is no more challenging than practicing Christianity (or any other religion); (II) Stoicism is accessible to everyone, analogously to most religions; (III) one becomes a better Stoic in a manner analogous to how others become better Christians, i.e., by exercising mindfulness, studying pertinent texts, imitating suitable role models, fraternizing with fellow practitioners, and engaging in purposeful meditation. Just remember: very few people are sages, just like very few are saints. Making progress is all that matters.

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