Why Stoicism Matters

Most famous philosophers were polymaths. Among the handful geniuses of their respective generations. Their work often dealt with either building on or deconstructing the work of their predecessors. When we iterate this process over thirty generations of polymaths, then what we get is the current state of philosophy. Much of philosophy is, therefore, abstract and complicated. It is so divorced from daily life that only a handful of graduate students care about it anymore. It deals with solving pseudo-intellectual problems, but hey, isn’t that what most of academic life is like these days.

Philosophy wasn’t always this way, it used to be about helping people live their daily lives and find the appropriate path to follow. That is where Stoicism comes in. Stoic Ethics can be thought of as a means of protecting ourselves from any external adversity that can possibly be thrown our way. The most famous philosophers from the school of Stoicism were Marcus Aurelius who was a Roman emperor, Seneca who was the teacher of Nero and Epictetus who was born a slave. I will be discussing ideas from the works of this trio, also known as the “crown jewels” of Stoicism, in this article.

Things that you are going to learn from this article are going to be directly applicable to whatever challenge you are facing right now. Don’t take it from me, take it from these guys. Seneca was a Machiavellian, fifteen hundred years before Machiavelli was born. He amassed wealth and was not without flaws. When he called in one of his loans from the Roman colony in Britain, it collapsed their economy and sparked off a rebellion. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s number two at Berkshire Hathaway, is a Seneca fan and quotes him often. Oil and gas billionaire Thomas Kaplan funds a course on Stoicism at Brown University. The list goes on to include names like Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Gates, JK Rowling and Arnold Schwarzenegger who are all fans of Stoicism.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “Yeah, alright, alright, alright. I see Stoic ethics can be useful, but what are they?” Let's get right down to answering that query. Here is a list of things you can do to add more stoicism to your everyday life:

1. Overcome Emotions

Stoics love to separate all things into two categories, things we do control and things we don’t control. The things we do control are our thoughts and actions. The things we don’t control are…well…everything else. Too often, humans are guilty of letting their emotions decide the course of their thoughts and actions. The idea is that we should not get carried away by “passions” of desire, pain, pleasure, and fear. All of us feel these emotions. But the Stoics try to act out of reason. Therefore they feel the emotions but choose to respond in a way that they think is best

Now, the first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that Stoicism is about suppressing one’s emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. The modern image of a Stoic is that of an unemotional and feeling-repressing person. This is definitely not what it originally meant. It’s not what Stoicism is about.

Some could even say that this clampdown on their emotions is an impediment to their expression of free will. To those, I would argue the exact opposite. When we act in accordance with our emotions, we are doing just that. We do not allow our ability to reason or wisdom to change our course of action. Letting emotion overrule everything. The Stoics are not without emotions. If it were so, then there would be no emotions to overcome. They do have feelings but they are not enslaved by those feelings.

“Right, no one said anything about not feeling it. No one said you can’t ever cry. Forget ‘manliness.’ If you need to take a moment, by all means, go ahead. Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” — Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is The Way

Overcome your emotions, don’t pretend they don’t exist.

2. Get out of your comfort zone

Today, we live amid a ‘swipe-right’ generation. Enabled by technology, we have built systems that allow us to get instant gratification. We have surrounded ourselves with a set-up that is designed to save us from getting out of our comfort zone. Don’t like the food you are eating? Fine, just install an app and order whatever you like. Don’t like the job you are doing? Fine, just install an app and get a new one. Don’t like the person you are dating, home you are staying in or heck, the phone you are using? Fine, just install… you get the idea.

Now don’t get me wrong here, these new-age systems are an absolute joy to use and remarkably convenient too. Mini dopamine bombs delivered right into our comfort zones. But all this has come at a cost. ‘Instant’ is the only kind of gratification that generation Y and Z know. Imagine the satisfaction and happiness one would feel in putting food on the table after a long day of toiling on the field. Now to put food on the table, you can just go to your boring job for eight hours. We feel no gratification in having that food.

In trying to make our lives easy, we have eliminated our struggles. Now we just find it hard to stick with something we are struggling with. This, in simple terms, disables us from getting the satisfaction which we would have gotten as a result of the struggle. Not only that, going out of our comfort zones and getting our hands dirty, also helps us in cultivating mental resilience. This makes for a cool transition to my next point.

La Masia, Barcelona football club’s youth academy has produced hundreds if not thousands of professional footballers who play in top leagues all around the globe. According to them, the best indicator of the success of a teenage player as a professional is neither their skill with the ball or their ability to see passes or their athleticism. Rather, the best indicator of success is mental resilience, and this is true in a number of professions.

To build resilience, the Stoics advocated measures which could be broadly described as ‘voluntary discomfort’. Including steps such as sleeping on the floor and practicing poverty, definitely off-brand in 2018. The idea is that once we overcome the need to feel comfortable at all times, we will find it easier to stick to our plans and find ourselves capable of grappling with obstacles.

3. Love your fate

Stoics were determined champions of acceptance. They often called it “art of acquiescence” — to accept rather than to fight every little thing. Strikingly similar to Nietzsche’s concept of “Amor Fati”, which is Latin for “the love of one’s fate”. Asking us not just to accept our fate but to love it. It is a very powerful idea.

To understand this idea, consider an example of a dog leashed to a cart. The dog represents a person and the cart represents his or her fate. Now the dog can either walk willingly and avoid getting pulled by the leash or the dog can fight and get pulled by the cart unwillingly. Regardless of what the dog decides to do, the cart is going to pull the dog to wherever it goes. The dog tied to the cart is a metaphor for life itself. Where we are the dog and the cart is our fate.

“ My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — but love it.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, section 10

The author talks about Amor Fati like it’s some sort of magic power. Almost as if, it can only be achieved after arduous struggle. Amor Fati is a mindset that we can take on to make the best out of everything. Treating every challenge as something to be embraced. To not just accept fate for what it is, but to love it. Converting challenges and adversity into fuel for our potential.

“Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant” — Seneca