What is Stoicism? Can anybody cultivate a stoic mindset?
Stoicism is a life philosophy that emphasizes agency, mental toughness, and self-discipline as tools for living a good life. The stoic attitude is being strict with yourself and patient with others so as to keep the mind clear and not let negativity get to you.
In this article, we’ll discuss how you should relate to other people and how you should treat yourself, according to Stoicism.
Living Like a Stoic
The stoic attitude is understanding that what others do is neither your problem nor your responsibility. Each of us is only responsible for our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions. Being strict with yourself and patient with others will keep your mind clear and peaceful and allow you to live a good life.
1) Be Strict With Yourself
There’s a lot of meaningless activity in the world. You can see it in everything from people marching in parades, to the frenzied action when you throw a bit of food into a fish tank. You’re surrounded by this pointless energy, and you must accept it without judgment. At the same time, you must also remember that your own value is determined by what you use your energy for. Thus, you must be strict with yourself and how you behave.
You always have the option to humbly accept what happens, to treat each person as he or she should be treated, and to carefully consider your thoughts. It takes discipline to do these things at all times and in all places, but doing so is crucial to developing your mind and your character.
One way you must be strict with yourself is in your use of Judgment and Adaptability. Judgment and Adaptability are keys to rationality, so use them at all times and in all places. No matter what situation you find yourself in, Judgment can see it for what it is. Once you understand the situation, Adaptability can figure out the best way to make use of it.
Likewise, be disciplined in how you react to problems. When things go wrong, external things and events are never the problem—the problem is how you respond to them. If you can fix things, then you should do so. If they’re beyond your power, then they’re not your problem. Either way, you can walk away satisfied, because you know that you’ve done all you can.
On the topic of satisfaction, you can be satisfied as long as you’re making progress at improving yourself. Though you should always be critical of yourself and strive to improve your mind, don’t waste energy worrying about perfection.
2) Don’t Seek Out Pleasure
Another sense in which you must be strict with yourself is in your approach to pleasure. You have the innate ability to keep your soul free of lust, confusion, and all manner of evil things. For example, you were given self-control to counteract your desire for pleasure. However, you weren’t given any virtue that counteracts your desire for justice—so, logically, nature must mean for you to shun pleasure and seek justice.
Another rational argument against pleasure-seeking: You feel remorse when you miss an opportunity for something that would have been to your benefit. However, for something to be truly beneficial, it must be a good thing—something that a good person would be concerned about. No good person would feel remorse over missing an opportunity for personal pleasure. Therefore, pleasure must not be beneficial or good.
Another type of pleasure that you might seek out is popularity, or approval. This is as useless as any other sort of pleasure. We can be good people without anyone else noticing, or praising us for it.
Ultimately, your life is short, so there’s no time for leisure activities or pleasure-seeking of any kind. However, you always have time to overcome your concerns about pleasure and pain and to let go of ambition.
3) Don’t Submit to Pain
A final way in which you must be strict with yourself is in your approach to pain. Remember that you can endure any long-term pain, whether physical or emotional—unendurable pain, by definition, quickly ends itself.
However, it’s true that imagining living with that pain for your entire life can be overwhelming. Instead, you should focus on whatever situation is at hand—that is, ask yourself why this moment is so unbearable. You’ll often find that you have no good answer.
Also, pain frequently disguises itself as illness or tiredness. When you’re suffering from such things, remind yourself not to give in to that pain, either.
You can sustain your clarity of thought through pain, fatigue, and sickness by remaining centered in rationality. If something damages the body, let the body worry about it. As you are a being of reason and logos, all that can truly damage you is that which damages the mind, or prevents it from working properly.
On that subject, never do anything to harm yourself—that is, to prevent your mind from working normally. After all, you’d never intentionally harm someone else, so why should you treat yourself any differently?
You might be tempted to ask why there’s so much pain in the world; why you have to train your mind so much to move beyond it. However, there’s no sense in demanding to know why unpleasant things exist. If a cucumber is bitter, you throw it away. If there are brambles in the path, you go around them. In short, you deal with the problem and go on about your life, and that’s exactly what you must do with anything that causes you pain.
4) Have Compassion for Others
As a human, you have the unique ability to love people even when they make mistakes. You can do this by remembering that others are also human, and that they act out of ignorance. Most importantly, remember that people who make mistakes usually haven’t hurt you: They haven’t damaged your character nor your community.
When someone tries to hurt you, ask yourself why. What good (or harm) did he or she think it would do? If you find that the other person’s sense of morality is close to your own, you must excuse what he or she did. If not, you must conclude that the other person is misguided and deserves compassion rather than anger.
When you deal with people, you should always ask yourself what that person considers to be good and bad. If you understand someone’s morality, then that person’s actions can never surprise you. In fact, each person has no real choice but to take the actions prescribed by his or her morality and nature. Therefore, a person’s actions shouldn’t surprise you any more than a fig tree producing figs.
Furthermore, when discussing people, consider them as if you were looking down from high above the world. Humankind exists as a harmonious collection of opposites: births and deaths, weddings and divorces, celebrations and mourning periods. When you accept the whole of humanity, with all of its diversity and apparent contradictions, you’ll find that you’re also much more tolerant of each individual member of humanity.
Given that humanity is such a collection of opposites, the world needs all different types of people. Therefore, when you run into somebody who’s selfish, cruel, or dishonest, remind yourself that such people must exist.
Remember that, for every defect in humanity, you have a positive quality to counter it. For example, you can meet an unkind person with kindness.
5) Give and Receive Help Willingly
Knowing and acknowledging when you need help is part of being strict with yourself—it means letting go of pride. Similarly, knowing when and how to help others is a key part of compassion.
When faced with a task, you should honestly consider whether you’re up to it. If so, then you should do the task immediately and without complaint. If not, then you should turn it over to someone better suited. However, if you’re not up to the task and there’s no one else who can do it, then you must simply do the best you can.
If you do find yourself stuck with a difficult task, there’s no shame in asking for help with it. Like a wounded soldier who needs help to climb over a wall, there will be times when you find your abilities insufficient.
This guideline applies to intellectual matters, as well. Sometimes you’ll need help understanding something, or you’ll realize that you’ve made a mistake. Remember that you’re always free to change your mind and accept corrections—this is another form of accepting help.
When it comes to helping others, you should remember that everything is connected through logos. Therefore, in helping others you also help yourself. How could you ever object to doing something that helps you?
When helping others, choose your words and tone carefully. You must speak plainly and accurately and not come across as overbearing.
6) Follow Nature and Logos
By definition, obeying the laws of nature and logos will ensure that you live a good life. However, many people don’t do this.
There are several ways that you can go against nature and logos: Fighting against what happens to you naturally, separating yourself from your community, and acting selfishly all take you away from your natural state.
Going against logos and nature is a form of blasphemy. To resist nature is to resist the will of the gods. This type of blasphemy may appear as injustice, selfishness, or lying. Nature doesn’t intend for those things to happen—remember, as a higher being, you exist to serve others.
Pursuing pleasure is another type of blasphemy, because it will lead you to selfish behavior and wrongdoing. Running from pain is similarly blasphemous, because doing so means that you fear nature and hate the perfect creations of logos.
When you’re separated from logos and nature, you become like a severed limb—disconnected from the body, and therefore useless. However, you have one advantage over severed limbs: You can reattach yourself by renewing your devotion to logos.
7) Seek Out Teachers
Learning to read and write requires a teacher. So does learning to live well. Here are several possibilities to consider when choosing who might teach you to live well:
Epicurean writings suggest that you choose someone from the past who lived a good and virtuous life and use him or her as a role model—before you take action in any situation, think about what that person would do.
You could choose the Spartans as your teachers. They set a fine example at festivals by ensuring that their guests’ seats were in the shade, but sitting themselves wherever there was space. In other words, they were generous to others and sparing with their personal comforts.
Pythagoreans suggest that you observe the stars. Stars do the exact same things each night, always in the exact same way. Stars are orderly and pure—they simply are what they are, and they never try to conceal their natures. You can aspire to those same qualities.
Another option is to learn from Socrates, who once said that popular beliefs are like monsters under the bed—only good for scaring small children. You can find that lesson, and many others, in the stories about him.
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- Marcus Aurelius' teachings on Stoicism
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