Why Stoics Say to Challenge Your Assumptions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Daily Stoic" by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you realize how often you make assumptions? How often do you question their validity?

The Stoic philosophers were big on reason. They identified assumptions as tools people use to bypass reason. So, they would encourage you to challenge your assumptions if you want to see things as they truly are.

Read more to understand the importance of being aware of—and questioning—your assumptions.

Challenge Your Assumptions

The authors of The Daily Stoic say that an important aspect of viewing your life with self-control (and, ultimately, living virtuously) involves seeing your assumptions. Assumptions are a way your brain bypasses reason, and they aren’t necessarily accurate. As such, the Stoics believe that controlling your view of life with reason means that you must be aware of—and challenge—your assumptions.

(Shortform note: Scientists offer a model way of dealing with assumptions that illustrates how Stoics might approach them. When designing an experiment, researchers make certain assumptions known as a hypothesis (for instance, this disease will be affected by this vaccine). The goal of the experiment is to determine whether this hypothesis is accurate. Researchers will also carefully identify all other implicit or explicit assumptions in the experiment (for example, this syringe won’t degrade the quality of the vaccine). Every assumption must be justified in order to know the experiment’s results are reliable. This is the kind of approach the Stoics advise: See and question your assumptions if you hope to understand things accurately.) 

Some of us, for example, are pessimists. By assuming the worst of every situation, we affect the overall tenor of our thoughts. This negative bent can easily cause us to misinterpret life. For example, we may assume that our boss wants to fire us because she seems angry this week. For the Stoics, this assumption isn’t reasonable—we’d be better off adopting a neutral perspective that allows us to be impartial. More often than not our boss’s bad mood has more to do with circumstances in her own life than with us. 

Similarly, some of us unquestioningly take on the assumptions of those around us, write the authors. We might so strongly identify with a certain group of people—a labor union for instance—that we adopt the group’s assumptions as our own without determining whether they’re true or false. Our views, in this way, become predetermined by the group we identify with. Again, for the Stoics, this isn’t consistent with being the captain of your own ship: You can’t uncritically adopt the assumptions of others and control your own view of life.

(Shortform note: Modern psychologists echo this advice from the Stoics. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy describes the tendency to make assumptions as a kind of cognitive distortion called “fortune-telling.” Clinicians note that this cognitive distortion can lead to depression and a lack of confidence, among other things. To overcome fortune-telling, they suggest you examine the evidence, believe in your ability to think it through, and adopt deliberate strategies to distract yourself from overthinking. These three strategies will help you develop the ability to think your way through situations as the Stoics advise, rather than making assumptions and jumping to conclusions.)

Why Stoics Say to Challenge Your Assumptions

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Daily Stoic summary:

  • Insights from ancient Stoic philosophers on how to live a good life
  • Stoic practices you can follow on a daily basis
  • Why you should think about death more often

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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