The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday: Overview & Takeaways

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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What do Stoics believe? Perhaps more importantly, how do they live on a day-to-day basis?

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is presented as a daily devotional to share insights from the ancient Stoic philosophers on how to live a good life. They explain that Stoicism isn’t merely a set of beliefs—it’s a way of life.

Read more for our overview of The Daily Stoic, including an exercise designed to help you put Stoic principles into practice today.

Overview of The Daily Stoic

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman was a bestseller in 2016 and was widely featured in media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It’s also been expanded into a podcast and website that serves as a treasure trove of Stoic wisdom for daily living.

What do J.K. Rowling, LL Cool J, and George Washington have in common? Stoic philosophy. For generations, Stoicism has motivated scores of people to live well.

Stoicism was founded in the third century BCE in Greece, but it came to be associated with the Romans. Some of its most noteworthy early practitioners include the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Roman slave Epictetus. In time, the philosophy was practiced by numerous leading historical figures, including George Washington and Immanuel Kant, and it has a long list of modern admirers and practitioners. 

The popularity of Stoic philosophy, according to Holiday and Hanselman, is due to its practicality: From early on it was meant to be a way of life, not just a set of abstract ideas. At the core of Stoicism is the belief that the cardinal virtues—self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom—are the source of internal stability and peace of mind and the measure of a good life

We’ve organized our overview according to the three broad categories of Stoic practices Holiday and Hanselman include in The Daily Stoic, including viewing life with self-control, responding to life with justice and courage, and managing our lives with wisdom. Within each category, we’ll look at some essential principles that support these Stoic practices.

Criticisms of Holiday’s Popular Approach to Stoicism 

Ryan Holiday has done a lot to popularize Stoicism in his books on the subject, but his portrayal of the philosophy—and the surge of attention it’s brought to the subject—has been criticized. Critics of Holiday’s approach to Stoicism have two main concerns: It reduces Stoicism to life hacks and misrepresents it by ignoring the broader Stoic worldview. 

The Daily Stoic isn’t exempt from these criticisms. First, some critics argue that as a self-help book that mines ancient Stoic aphorisms for improving your daily life, it reduces Stoicism to little more than a system of self-interested life hacks. While ancient Stoics viewed their philosophy as a way of life, experts argue that it was never a philosophy of self-interest, as Holiday seems to present it. Instead, the ethical teachings of Stoicism promoted both individual well-being and the well-being of society. It wasn’t just about making your life better. 

Second, some readers criticize Holiday for only exploring Stoic ethics and ignoring Stoic teachings about what’s real (ontology and metaphysics) and what’s true (logic, including epistemology and language theory). Holiday isn’t alone in ignoring these parts of the philosophy—most modern popularizers of Stoicism exclude them because they don’t easily fit with modern science. Defenders of this approach argue that Stoic ethics don’t depend on the broader Stoic worldview so much that they can’t stand on their own merits. There’s so much value in the ethical practices of Stoicism, they contend, that it’s worth simplifying the philosophy to bring them to a modern audience

Stoic Practices

In The Daily Stoic, Holiday reflects on quotes from Stoic thinkers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and suggests ways their insights might be practiced today. However, Holiday warns that no Stoic claimed to perfectly embody every Stoic tenet—instead, they strove for that ideal.

(Shortform note: The authors emphasize practicing the Stoic insights in your daily life but only mention in passing that, in the Stoic view, a perfect life is an aspiration—not necessarily a reality. Considering how significant this is, readers should know at the outset of this section that these Stoic practices are hard. Marcus Aurelius understood that living a good life was an ongoing challenge, and he spent considerable time reflecting on how he might do better each day. Therefore, remember that The Daily Stoic is a collection of Stoic goals, not a scorecard of Stoic achievements.)

We’ll look at some of the practices the Stoics had for living well. First, we’ll consider their way of viewing life, which concerns our ability to make sense of life with reason. Next, we’ll consider Stoic ways of responding to life, which deal with our actions and behavior. Finally, we’ll discuss managing our lives like the Stoics by undertaking wise practices that keep us focused on the job of living virtuously.

Viewing Life With Self-Control

According to the Stoics, living a virtuous life starts with self-control. The authors explain that Stoics equate self-control with being the captain, not the passenger, of your ship. Stoics argue that, to practice self-control, you must actively make sense of life with reason. Through reason, you can control your view of life: the foundation of your understanding, your intentions, and even your actions.

We’ll consider four central aspects of how you can live virtuously by practicing self-control through reason.

Recognize What You Can and Can’t Control

To the authors, living this way depends first on recognizing a central Stoic principle we’ll call the basic division of control: You can’t control anything except the way you think. This belief lies at the core of Stoicism’s philosophy of viewing life.

You can’t control external circumstances such as the actions of another person, the state of the economy, or whether you get sick or injured, but you can control how you view or understand those things with your mind. In this way, the Stoics argue that reason is your main tool for controlling your view of life.

Notice Yourself

For the Stoics, a second aspect of viewing life with self–control entails noticing yourself. The authors explain that you need to observe your tendencies—your thoughtless habits, faulty senses, and irrational impulses, for instance—and account for the way they affect your view of life. By checking every thought, impression, and action with conscious reasoning, the Stoics believed you’ll be better able to maintain self-control.

Be Mindful of Your Emotions

According to the authors, a third aspect of viewing life with self-control entails being mindful of your emotions: For the Stoics, clear thinking leads to well-regulated emotions and is affected by unregulated emotions. They understood that emotions are an inescapable part of life, but they argued that they can become an obstacle on the path to virtuous living.

The authors describe the two ways this can happen:  First, wrong thinking can lead to emotional suffering. Second, emotions can cloud your thinking.

See Your Assumptions

The authors say that one final aspect of viewing your life with self-control involves seeing your assumptions. Assumptions are a way our brains bypass reason, and they aren’t necessarily accurate. As such, the Stoics believe that controlling our view of life with reason involves being aware of—and questioning—our assumptions.

Some of us, for example, are pessimists. By assuming the worst of every situation, we affect the overall tenor of our thoughts. Similarly, some of us unquestioningly take on the assumptions of those around us.

Responding to Life With Justice and Courage

By controlling her view of life, the Stoic can discern right from wrong and act accordingly. In any situation, she can use her mind to cut through the noise of distracting emotions and impressions that could make her think or act in ways that aren’t virtuous. When someone tries to provoke her anger or fear, for instance, she recognizes the temptation to vice and chooses to think and act virtuously instead—with equanimity. This right action requires a sense of justice to know what’s right and the exercise of courage to follow through on it. In this section, we’ll consider four ways we can put justice and courage into action.

(Shortform note: The authors associate justice and courage with our actions, but they don’t claim the association is exclusive—all the virtues (justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom) can manifest in action. Self-control, for instance, is characterized by good discipline, and wisdom by discretion, both of which manifest in our actions. In fact, the Stoics believed you couldn’t truly possess one of the virtues without the other. In this sense, all four virtues influence every aspect of ourselves: our will, thoughts, and actions.)

Aim to Do Good

The authors write that, to live justly and courageously, you should first aim to do good. To do good, the authors recommend you start by studying Stoic philosophy, and then follow up that study by taking action. The study of Stoic philosophy will enhance your sense of justice. Following through on that sense of justice will require courage.

The authors argue that doing all of this demands effort. It’s easy to avoid this effort through procrastination, cowardice, or laziness, so the Stoics advise us to be on the lookout for these vices and cultivate a strength of character that enables us to overcome them.

Similarly, many of us get sidetracked in our efforts to live virtuously. We want to be entertained, look attractive, or avoid suffering. None of these distractions is inherently bad, as the Stoics saw it, but each can sidetrack us from courageously pursuing justice.

Respond Well When Things Go Wrong

According to the authors, life will test our courage and our commitment to justice—it gives a steady stream of opportunities to respond well when things go wrong. The Stoics argued that, even in the face of disappointment, fear, and other difficulties, we need to steadily pursue virtue.

They encourage us to take our setbacks in stride. Don’t lash out in anger or check out. Instead, consider how you can learn from your situation. With this mindset, the Stoics argue, we can even treat setbacks as an opportunity to grow in virtue.

The authors claim further that the Stoics reinforced their commitment to living virtuously by simply expecting things to go wrong. Knowing that trials will come, they reasoned, prepares you to face them well when they arrive.

Follow Through

A third way we can respond to life with courage and justice is by following through on our commitment to living virtuously. As the Stoics saw it, the job of living a virtuous life is long-term, so we need to figure out how we can stick to it.

The authors offer an insight from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius into dealing with flagging motivation: Remind yourself that others depend on you to do what’s right. If we don’t do our part—whether big or small—others suffer in a world a little more deprived of virtue.

Another way the authors recommend you increase your follow-through is to be patient and take it slow. Keep a slow and steady pace that you can maintain.

Be Realistic

A final way to respond to life with justice and courage is to be realistic. The authors argue that Stoic philosophy is practical at its core—it’s meant to be lived in the real world rather than just discussed in the abstract. Therefore, the Stoics believed that living virtuously was possible in the face of all the imperfections of real life.

For instance, the Stoics recognized that, no matter how hard you work at building your character, you’ll still have weaknesses. They believed you can turn these weaknesses into strengths. This kind of thinking works with your weakness and maximizes its potential, allowing you to find strength by realistically appraising your characteristics.

Similarly, the Stoics knew that our time is limited. Accordingly, they believed you shouldn’t spend more time on any task than it deserves. It’s more important to spend time with your family, for example, than it is to obsess over which garbage bags to buy. Save your time and energy for the things that matter.

Managing Our Lives With Wisdom

To view life with self-control and respond to life with justice and courage, the Stoics 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. In this final section, we’ll consider four points of advice the Stoics offer for living wisely.

Be Humble and Kind

According to the authors, the first piece of Stoic advice is to be humble and kind. By practicing humility and kindness, the Stoics believed you could spare yourself—and those around you—a lot of needless suffering and distraction.

Practice Virtue Now

The Stoics offered another insight for living wisely: Practice living virtuously now, in each present moment. They believed that a whole life is merely the sum of its parts and argued that a virtuous life is lived in the day-to-day interactions and opportunities we each face.

Toward that end, they taught that you should put your future legacy out of your mind—don’t concern yourself with how (or if) you’ll be remembered. Instead, the authors say, simply focus on the task in front of you, whatever it is: Do it to the best of your ability.

Similarly, choose to practice virtue in your daily interactions. Be a good listener, encourage others, never seek revenge, and always tell the truth. The authors say these daily interpersonal practices build virtuous character and comprise the bulk of your life.

Receive Life as It Is

A third principle for living wisely, according to the Stoics, is learning to receive life as it is. 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.

To the Stoics, receiving life as it is 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. Our house can burn down. Virtue, on the other hand, endures.

Think About Death

Finally, Stoic thinkers argued that it’s wise to think about death. For them, keeping death in mind was a way to focus on living better: Life is finite, so we’d better use it well.

They reasoned that time is one of our most valuable possessions. We should treat time with the value it deserves—don’t give it away without getting something of value in return. The authors suggest, for example, that you say no to most requests on your time.

To the Stoics, your time should be used to build your character and live virtuously in the world. The authors thus advise that you focus on cultivating those attributes now so that you’re ready when death comes.

Death, according to the Stoics, levels the playing field. The wealthy and the poor, the high-status and the low-status, the strong and the weak—we all share the same fate, explain the authors. Keeping this in mind, the Stoics believed, would help you overlook superficial differences between people and recognize that life gives us all one shared opportunity: to live virtuously.

Exercise: Put the Principles Into Practice

The Daily Stoic is meant to motivate you to action, so consider how you can do just that.

  • The Stoics believed in regulating their emotions. Take a moment to identify what you’re feeling right now, then try being mindful of what your emotions reveal about your thoughts. (For example, if you’re feeling anxious, what’s the source of that anxiety? Identify it. Then, consider whether your anxiety will do anything to improve the situation.)
  • The Stoics also believed in living virtuously. Consider how you might motivate yourself to live in a way that’s consistent with your deeply held beliefs, like Marcus Aurelius. He reminded himself that other people depended on him to do what was right even if he didn’t feel like it. In the space below, express one of your most deeply held beliefs in a concise statement. (For example: “All living things have value.”) Expressing your belief in writing can draw your attention to it and renew your motivation.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday: Overview & Takeaways

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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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