Stoicism in three simple steps

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, no different in that respect from a religion. True, Epictetus was not a god, and the Enchiridion is not Scripture. But all religions come with the same two fundamental components that characterize any philosophy of life: a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world hangs together; and an ethics, that is, an account of how we should live in the world — given the way it hangs together. The major difference between Stoicism and an actual religion, say Christianity, is that Stoics feel free to keep updating and reinterpreting the ancient texts, and that the respective metaphysical axioms are different: naturalism and universal cause-effect for the Stoics, supernaturalism and a creator God for Christians.

Now, one can study and practice Christianity at different levels. They can be one of the flock, just attending mass, developing an understanding of the basic precepts of the religion, and try to live accordingly. Other people devote their life to it, for instance priests and nuns. Still others pursue a sophisticated understanding of the theory behind the practice, as is the case of theologians. Some teach it, most don’t.

The same goes with Stoicism. One can be a proficiens, as Seneca calls those who make progress, on the basis of a minimalist take on the theory and a focus on the practice. Or one can write books and teach seminars. Or be interested in the details of how to reconcile Stoic physics with modern science, say.

If you are even superficially familiar with this site, or with my books, then you know where I fall in that continuum. But even after years of study and practice, I find it refreshing from time to time to go back to the basics, an exercise that I hope can also be helpful to those of you who are just starting, or who have little interest in the intricacies of Chrysippean logic (see Enchiridion 49).

So here are three easy steps to understand and practice Stoic philosophy:

(i) Always behave with the interest of the human cosmopolis in mind.
(ii) Some things are up to you, many are not up to you. Focus on the former, and accept the latter as they come.
(iii) In everything you do, ask yourself: is this wise? Courageous? Just? Temperate?

That’s it! Follow these three steps and you will become a proficiens, not to mention a better human being.

Now, for those of you who are a bit more inquisitive about where the above comes from, let us break it down further.

(i) Behave as a good member of the human cosmopolis

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 9.1)

The Stoics were cosmopolitan, striving to think of fellow human beings as members of their own family, a practice known as “oikeiosis,” or appropriation of other people’s concerns. In a sense, using reason — which the Stoics thought is the highest of human faculties — in order to improve social living is the whole point of Stoic philosophy. The reason for this is that the Stoics cashed out the famous injunction to “live according to nature” (common to most Hellenistic schools) in terms of their specific conception of human nature. They concluded that the two characteristics that, combined, distinguish human beings from any other living species on earth are that we are eminently social and that we are capable of reason. So to live according to nature for a human being translates into using our reasoning ability to make the cosmopolis a better place for everyone. We do, of course, have other duties, to our family, friends, and local community. These are articulated in Stoicism by way of Epictetus’ role ethics, described in detail by my friend and colleague Brian Johnson. But Epictetus is clear: the role that trumps them all is that of a member of the cosmopolis.

(ii) Some things are up to you, many are not up to you

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1)

This is what is known in modern Stoic circles as the dichotomy of control, though the term unfortunately easily leads to confusion. People tend to object to the notion that we have complete control of our opinions (the first part of Epictetus’ quote), and also that we don’t have control over material things such as our bodies (second part of the quote). But the idea is actually simpler and at the same time more powerful: other people can indeed influence your opinions and judgments, just as you can influence your body, reputation, and so forth. But, ultimately, the buck stops with you when it comes to your own deliberations, while it stops with others when it comes to externals. No matter how much other people influence your opinions, they are nevertheless yours, and you are responsible for them. Conversely, no matter how hard you work to, say, keep your body healthy, it will ultimately succumb to disease or accident. In modern terms, it is most useful, I think, to regard the dichotomy of control as an invitation to shift goals from outcomes to efforts, that is, from external to internal. What is up to you is to make sound decisions and to work at whatever you set as a goal for yourself; what is not (entirely) up to you is to actually achieve that goal. Hence engage in anything you do by accompanying it with a reserve clause: I will do it, if I am not precluded by external factors.

(iii) The four cardinal virtues

“Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.92)

The four primary, or cardinal virtues, can be used as a kind of ethical compass to navigate life. In anything we do, we may profitably ask ourselves if we are acting virtuously, and in particular whether we are being wise, courageous, just, and temperate. Temperance, of course, is the notion that we should be doing things in proper measure, neither too much, nor too little. Justice is the idea that we ought to treat others as fellow members of the cosmopolis, with fairness and respect. Courage is the idea that if we determine that a particular action is just, then we ought to actually implement it, even at a personal cost. Wisdom, or to be precise, practical wisdom (in Greek phronesis, often translated as prudence, from the Latin prudentia), is the tricky one. It is usually cashed out as knowledge of what is truly good and truly bad for us. In the case of the Stoics, this — by way of the dichotomy of control — reduces to the simple to grasp, yet exceedingly difficult to practice, notion that the only good things for us our our good judgments, and the only bad things for us are our bad judgments. Everything else is (morally) “indifferent,” either preferred or dispreferred.

This, in a nutshell, is Stoicism! Of course there is a lot more to be said in terms of theory, and far more to consider when it comes to practice. But if you begin your day by remembering the three steps above, and then try to consistently implement them at every occasion, you will be on your way to become one of Epictetus’ best students.

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