Take Life as It Comes: Wisdom From the Stoics

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 wish things were different? Do you hang on tightly to possessions that could be gone tomorrow?

The Stoic philosophers tried to manage their lives wisely. Wisdom entails applying good judgment to the way you live life so that you can stay focused on living virtuously (the ultimate goal). An attitude of taking life as it comes is part and parcel of living wisely.

Read on to learn how to take life as it comes, the Stoic way.

Take Life as It Comes

One principle for living wisely, according to the Stoics, is learning to take life as it comes. As they saw it, circumstances are neutral—neither good nor bad. By contrast, actions can be good or bad. Knowing this, our life circumstances are little more than a canvas on which we paint our virtuous actions.  

(Shortform note: While circumstances had no moral value to the Stoics—they described them as indifferent—they maintained that circumstances aren’t equally neutral. For instance, they considered wealth a preferred indifferent, poverty a dispreferred indifferent, and the shape of your ear an absolute indifferent. Generally, a person is better off wealthy and healthy than poor and sick, though, occasionally, the Stoics believed that enduring such suffering was helpful for cultivating virtuous character.) 

Keeping this in mind, you shouldn’t wish for circumstances to be anything other than what they actually are, write the authors. Don’t hope for a better future or pine for a remembered past—live virtuously in the present moment exactly as it is. 

(Shortform note: People often recommend living in the moment if you want to feel happy, but that’s not the goal the Stoics had in mind. For them, living in the moment was reasonable—there’s no use in concerning yourself with the past because you can’t affect it at all. Similarly, you can only affect the future by what you do in the present. Therefore, you should focus on doing good in the present. You might feel happier as a result, but that’s just a byproduct of living rationally, according to the Stoics.)    

Moreover, to the Stoics, taking life as it comes entails detachment from experiences and possessions. They argue that our experiences in life and the things we accumulate can become traps that co-opt our focus and desires, write the authors. Maybe we own a nice house or we’re skilled at a sport—those things aren’t within our control. It’s not reasonable to hold onto them tightly because they’re not guaranteed to last: The house could burn down in a fire, or the skill could dwindle with age or injury. Virtue, on the other hand, endures.  

(Shortform note: This insight is not unique to the Stoics. Outside of Stoicism, detachment (also called non-attachment) is an important concept in numerous religious traditions. In Buddhism, for instance, non-attachment is the means to achieve enlightenment. Jainism holds a similar view, asserting that possessions are an impediment to achieving liberation. Similarly, to keep their focus on Christ, Christians are discouraged from becoming attached to things of the world.)  

Take Life as It Comes: Wisdom From the Stoics

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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, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books 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 creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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