10 Themes of Stoicism: This is Good Stuff

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I ended up on Youtube this afternoon looking for a couple specific videos on Stoicism (this and this) to forward to someone I know who is currently facing some very challenging and uncertain circumstances.

In my own life, Stoic teachings have been an extremely transformative force – so much so, that today I describe myself as a practicing Stoic Philosopher, and I am; Stoicism is a part of my daily routine – a part of my psyche. And just to put this into context, I had long loved Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but only started getting deeper into Stoicism over the past year, at which point I quickly discovered something more valuable to me than years of therapy and self-help books. Interestingly enough, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is actually based on Stoic teachings, which the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have freely admitted. Note: I happen to regularly practice self-administered CBT exercises – namely belief / story editing (I have touched on both before, but will write dedicated entries on each soon – so subscribe if you would like to get them), and overall I have a very positive outlook on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. My journey as a Stoic has only emboldened this as the two [CBT and Stoic Philosophy] are extremely complimentary.

So getting back to my youtube search this morning for the links placed in the first paragraph, I noticed a related video titled 10 Themes of Stoicism that I had not previously viewed. Needless to say (given the title of this entry) I was impressed.

I have previously published an entry covering 8 Great Ideas from Stoicism based on the work of Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems.

Just to recap those 8 great ideas, they are as follows.

  1. It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.
  2. Our opinions are often unconscious but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions.
  3. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react.
  4. Choose your perspective wisely.
  5. Habits are powerful.
  6. Fieldwork is vital.
  7. Virtue is sufficient for happiness.
  8. We have ethical obligations to our community.

The full entry breaks each down in further detail.

Now, just as I did in that entry [on the 8 great ideas from Stoicism] – I am going to break down the 10 Themes of Stoicism within this entry – per the source material, which is excellent. Kudos to the creator of this wonderful video. Sidenote: it’s clear the narrator is a professor at a college, but I cannot find his name, nor the name of the college! Kind of a frustrating and amusing mystery.

Note: If you do not wish to watch the videos (I would recommend it for a better learning experience, but that’s just me), you may scroll down for my transcripts and notes.

Part 1

Part 2

Just to recap and preserve the content for posterity’s sake, I’ve broken down verbatim – with my notes in italic – the 10 Themes below.

Note: The above video is much more thorough than the notes that follow, which just cover the themes themselves and do not include the author’s wonderful explanations.

10 Themes From Stoicism

1. Recognize what’s under your control and what’s not on your control. Don’t worry about what’s not in your control.

Under my control:

  • My reactions (how I choose to perceive events / what I decide to believe about them)
  • My Emotions (how I choose to respond to events)
  • Virtue / Doing the Right Thing

Not “really” under my control:

  • External Events
  • Body, property, fame, reputation, history, fate, pleasure / pain

The first and most important theme is to recognize what’s under your control and what’s not under your control – and don’t worry about what’s not under your control. This is the most important Stoic theme; all other themes connect to it in some way.

You cannot control things, but you can control your reaction to them.

To paraphrase the words of Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations:

Nothing is either good or bad, but only our thinking that makes it so. Remember, nothing can touch the mind.

So for the Stoic, it’s permissible to try to manage the uncontrollable, but you shouldn’t attach your identity or happiness to controlling the uncontrollable.

So say to everything that you cannot control:

I can be happy and good with or without you. My happiness and goodness is based on what I can control.


 2. Conform Your Will to The Divine Order of The Universe

  • Be content with what you have instead of constantly striving to get what you desire.
  • Be content no matter what happens
  • Divine order of Universe

The second theme of Stoicism is to conform your will to the Divine Order of The Universe. The Stoics believed that people should conform to this perfect order that permeates the universe.

A deeper reading of Stoicism supports the idea of contentment no matter what happens, not passivity. So, Marcus Aurelius is a good example; he worked to make the world a better place but he did not base his happiness on the results, because the results are outside of his control – his efforts are in his control but not the results.

The important thing to understand here, which the video touches on in this section, is that Stoic metaphysical beliefs support the idea of fate. As the video states: 

Since we can’t change this beautiful divine reality, we should live in harmony with it – that is, we should conform our desires to this reality, rather than making reality conform to our desires. Submitting to this reality will lead to peace of mind, happiness, and virtue for the Stoic.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Stoics were not pessimists, but rather believed in the idea of destiny – and Stoicism is designed to help you live a happy life by not fighting ‘what is’. 


3. Understand Your Emotions. Don’t Repress (or assent to) All Emotions.

  • Modern Cognitive Therapy
  • Belief / Emotion Divide
  • Stop and think about your emotions. Be the master of your own mind.

Interestingly, of this theme – the author says:

This is one of my favorite themes of Stoicism and what got me into Stoicism in the first place.

While I don’t think this theme is of vastly more value than the previous two, it’s relation to modern cognitive therapy makes it of particular interest to me as well. It’s important to remember that Stoicism is a way of life, which is what makes it such a valuable philosophy. 

So the Stoic simply recognizes that emotions are based on beliefs, and many of our disruptive emotions are based on false, unreal beliefs.

This is the basis of CBT, and per the author:

Now this type of cognitive therapy is one that many therapists still use today, and if you study Ellis’ [Albert Ellis, one of the original founders of CBT] Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (a type of CBT), which he created in the twentieth century – if you read his biography, you’ll see that he got many of his ideas from the Stoics. Note: the Stoics lived over 2,000 years ago.

The author then makes an important distinction about this value that clarifies the misconception that Stoics are ’emotionless’:

Now of course, the criticism is that some negative emotions might be caused by a chemical imbalance, so this cognitive, Stoic approach won’t work. But I still think the Stoic, or Cognitive approach works for most people with disruptive emotions, because most disruptive emotions are based on false beliefs or unrealistic expectations.

So, in the end the Stoics show far less emotion because they understand that most emotions are simply errors in judgement, and they have conditioned themselves to think about emotions before giving their assent to them. Their advice is to avoid becoming the emotion – don’t go with the flow – rather, think about the thinking that created the emotion and doing so will give you control over your negative emotions.

Mindfulness is also extremely complimentary to this!


4. Do The Right Thing No Matter The Cost

  • You only control your soul / mind, so take care of it. Live virtuously and with integrity.
  • Do right no matter the cost.
  • Conforming your mind to reality will lead to virtue.

The next theme is to do what’s right no matter the cost; so Stoicism maintains that the only thing you can really control in this life is your soul, your mind, and the way to protect it is to live a life of virtue. So, do the right thing even if it hurts, and don’t complain of the hurt.

Stoicism is very much focused on virtue, integrity, and duty – in a sense, it’s the embodiment of some of the most important qualities of the mature masculine male. 

According to Stoicism your central focus in life should be conforming your mind to reality and this leads to virtue, a recognition of integrity – it leads to doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. Conforming your mind takes time and effort, it’s as if you’re sculpting yourself, you’re creating habits of thought and behavior that are realistic – and therefore virtuous.

So, Stoic virtue is a form of training, just as a soldier or an athlete trains. Now, I think one important thing about Stoicism is how important motive or intention is in Stoic ethics. I cannot control the outcome, but I can control my motive so I should focus on acting from a good motive. They believed you should do the right thing simply because it’s right, not because it brings about happiness – not because it’s in my short term self-interest, not because God says it’s right – you do what’s right because it’s right.

My favorite quote here is Aurelius’:

An emerald shines even if it’s worth is not spoken of – Marcus Aurelius

So, if you are virtuous, maybe nobody recognizes it, nobody praises you, but there’s still value there, just as an emerald shines even if it’s worth is not spoken of.


5. Understand that events are not problematic; rather it’s your thinking that makes them so. 

  • Adjust your beliefs and expectations to fit reality.
  • Youtube Video: Seneca on Anger.

“With any luck, nothing so terrible will happen to us, but bad things can happen, and the best way to soften the blows if they come is to be prepared. Anger and frustration are essentially irrational responses to setbacks, and the only rational strategy is to stay calm about the fact that things do go wrong. That way we’ll be in the truest and best sense of the word philosophical.”

  • Great, great video by the way, you can also read Seneca’s ‘book’ On Anger.
  • Have more realistic (less optimistic) expectations and beliefs. Optimism is often harmful. If you disagree with this notion [that optimism is often harmful], watch the above video. It posits that pessimism is often more aligned with the rational nature of reality, i.e., don’t get angry in traffic because traffic is by nature not pleasurable. Selective pessimism is certainly something you need to be cognizant of in order to carefully apply it where it can benefit you, and not where it is a hindrance to your success, which I feel pessimism usually is. So perhaps we should think of a lack of optimism as realism and not pessimism.
  • Prepare your mind (for loss) so you don’t lose it.
  • Two people experience same event, but react differently.

Again, everything ties back to the first theme or principle of: ‘recognize what’s under your control and what’s not under your control’. How we choose to perceive things is always under our control. 

If you accept such things to happen, then you won’t be as angry and disturbed when they do happen. That is you won’t lose your mind – remember that is they only thing that you can control, if you prepare your mind for reality. For example, consider how two different people may react to the same situation. Let’s say they both stepped on a tack. The first person cries and screams and complains about the tack all day long. But the second person steps on the tack, calmly removes it and then forgets the event ever happened. Notice the difference between these two people lies in their thinking, not in what happened to them.

The fact that the second person is not disturbed shows that much of our suffering comes from how we think – how we interpret events, not what happens to us externally.


6. Live With Compassion and Respect for Human Rights

  • Every human has a spark of the divine Logos within (rights).
  • Everyone is a brother or sister (compassion).
  • Everyone is a piece of the vast puzzle. Most Stoics don’t believe in afterlife (humility).

The sixth theme is to live with compassion and respect for human rights. So, I mentioned earlier that the Stoics believed in a universal, divine, pantheistic and fiery Logos, and that every human has a spark of this within them. So you can infer that we are all one blood, we are all one body. Every person we meet is intrinsically valuable – they are like a brother or sister to us. So, as in Christianity, the Stoic makes it possible to see everyone’s humanity. Everyone is valuable, intrinsically valuable.

So the proper response to this worldview is compassion to all humans. It also creates humility since it maintains that everyone is part of the fire that makes the whole, everyone is a part of God. So each of us is a piece of the puzzle and this creates humility and appreciation for others as well. Each of us is intrinsically valuable, divine, and beautiful.

So – far from repressing emotion, the Stoic mind supports a strong sense of compassion, and a ground belief in human rights, and a strong sense of humility.

And as a side note it’s interesting to compare Stoicism to Christianity, you know both emphasize recognizing what’s not in your control, and not worrying about it – and both ask you to submit to something higher. And if you look at the Serenity Prayer, you can see some of the similarities between Christianity as exemplified by the Serenity Prayer and Stoicism. (I personally can not find any other obvious parallels between Stoicism and Christianity beyond the virtue of compassion, and the Serenity Prayer.)

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
Amen.


7. Cultivate Right Thinking Through Daily Activities like Meditation, Contemplation, Reflecting, and Journaling

This is another area that really separates Stoicism from other Philosophies as not just a way of thinking, but as a way of living. 

  • Meditation on death and all that could go wrong.
  • Immunize yourself.

The Stoics engaged in all these activities, so for example as you read the Stoics, you find that many of them as you to meditate on your death – especially the decomposition of your physical body. And among the benefits of dwelling on your death are a greater appreciation for the present and a larger and more accurate perspective on life. So such a perspective will help me and you prioritize your desires, immunize yourself from stressing about trivial things.

Also, thinking about the death of others can help you prioritize. So, for example, remembering that my parents may die tomorrow makes me want to call them to enjoy the time we have together.

So what the Stoics are saying here is not to dwell on death all day, but rather to take 5 to 10 minutes to remember the big picture, to remember that you are mortal and you are finite and so are you loved ones. And it will remind you to stop and smell the roses if you do this each day.

The Stoics also ask you to dwell on your worst case scenarios each day. So imagine that you will get sick, that your spouse will leave you, and so on. Don’t dwell on them, just remember that it’s possible – for 5 or 10 minutes each day.

The purpose of these meditations isn’t to depress you, but it’s to help you be happier by adjusting your expectations and helping you be prepared. To give you an example, I won’t lose my mind in anger if I prepare myself for long lines at the grocery store. So, if I expect a line to be 20 minutes at the grocery store, and it’s only 10 minutes, I probably won’t lose my mind in frustration or anger, but if I go in being overly optimistic – if I expect the lines to be two minutes long then I will probably get frustrated, get angry, and lose my mind.

So in short, too much optimism, expecting the lines to be short at the store is a vice; too much pessimism can be a vice too, so you want to adjust your expectations to reality. If I deeply understand that I’ll be fine no matter what happens to me in an external sense, I’ll live more happily and more peacefully – again, I won’t lose my mine (aka, you won’t ‘lose your cool’).

These activities that cultivate right thinking, – they’re really not difficult, you can do many of them pretty much anywhere in a matter of seconds. And this is really a strength of Stoicism, since many religions, and other philosophies seem to require a great deal of time to master.


8. Understand The External World is Determined, but you have Internal Freedom to Choose Your Attitude Towards these Determined Events

  • Clarifies first theme (control / can’t control).
  • More forgiving of others since they are controlled by forces beyond their understanding.

So, the Stoic believes in external Determinism but internal freewill. And this theme clarifies the first theme, what we can and can’t control. So again, the Stoics are determinists,  but they believe in an internal freewill. They say we can’t really change externals, but we can change our reactions and attitudes towards those externals. So we can control our attitudes and choose to do the right thing no matter the cost.

The Stoics also think that understanding the deterministic nature of the universe will make you more forgiving of others since people are controlled by forces beyond their control.

The Stoics were not pure hard determinists in the modern sense, but they believed in an internal ability to alter the way we see the world.

My own spiritual views are highly complimentary to Stoic philosophy and pantheistic ideology, but I believe our internal freewill largely influences the external world. 


9. Calmness, Humility, Discipline, and Indifference to Pleasure and Pain

Because of their worldview and training, the Stoics are calm in the face of adversity.

  • Calmness: prepared for all scenarios
  • Indifferent to own suffering: they understand pleasure and pain to be externals, beyond control.
  • Disciplined because mind guides, not pleasure or pain. They were not hedonists. (Temperance rather than YOLO)

It’s really important to understand that the Stoics give us a worldview and a philosophy of emotion, and various techniques like premeditation that help us achieve these virtues of calmness, humility, discipline, indifference to pleasure and pain. In other words, these virtues don’t just arise in a vacuum, they arise in the fertile soil that is the Stoic worldview.


10. Stop Whining; Turn Adversity into Advantage

  • Builds on other themes.
  • Think of the many ways you can turn failure into something good.

Make the best out of any difficult situation you are in. So the Stoic worldview equips people to get the most of of life. Understanding emotions they won’t pity themselves. Understanding natures order, Stoics will be more forgiving of what others do. Understanding the divine spark in each of us, the Stoics won’t hate someone who creates adversity. Thereby the Stoic will face adversity and calmly turn it into an advantage.

Note: A book that recently came out, which I just read on this theme is The Obstacle is The Way. It’s based on the Marcus Aurelius quote: 

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way

Personally, I found the book perhaps a bit verbose and drawn out but that’s probably because as a Stoic I felt it was too limited a peek at Stoicism, but I loved the idea. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “What could be more suited for me than that which is fated for me”.  As I have always found, adversity has it’s plans for you. Trust them, but fight like hell. 


###

I’m really excited I came across these videos. I unfortunately have a packed day and do not have the time to write more, but I just wanted to finish by comparing the 8 Great Ideas from Stoicism with the 10 Themes of Stoicism we have covered here.

8 Great Ideas from Stoicism:

  1. It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.
  2. Our opinions are often unconscious but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions.
  3. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react.
  4. Choose your perspective wisely.
  5. Habits are powerful.
  6. Fieldwork is vital.
  7. Virtue is sufficient for happiness.
  8. We have ethical obligations to our community.

10 Themes from Stoicism 

  1. Recognize what’s under your control and what’s not on your control. Don’t worry about what’s not in your control.
  2. Conform Your Will to The Divine Order of The Universe
  3. Understand Your Emotions. Don’t Repress (or assent to) All Emotions.
  4. Do The Right Thing No Matter The Cost
  5. Understand that events are not problematic; rather it’s your thinking that makes them so.
  6. Live With Compassion and Respect for Human Rights
  7. Cultivate Right Thinking Through Daily Activities like Meditation, Contemplation, Reflecting, and Journaling
  8. Understand The External World is Determined, but you have Internal Freedom to Choose Your Attitude Towards these Determined Events
  9. Calmness, Humility, Discipline, and Indifference to Pleasure and Pain
  10. Stop Whining; Turn Adversity into Advantage

Mind you, I’m sure neither of these authors meant for these lists to be exhaustive, but I think between this entry, and the 8 Great Ideas entry, you can really get a sense of what the Stoic way of living is. Mostly, I just wanted to line them up a bit so that I can access the information as a reference for my future writings.

If you enjoyed this, also check out Example Stoic Philosophy Regime.

P.S. I’ve very much still been and still am in knowledge attainment mode when it comes to Stoicism, but I am very much on this journey for life, and it’s a deep part of who I am, and a consistent part of my daily life. I look forward to writing much more on the topic of Stoicism in the coming months, and adding my own voice to the discussion in a more impactful manner.

I have many exciting things I look forward to sharing with you my dear reader.

Edit: just as an immediate reflection after publishing this, it’s amazing to read this and see just how much the Stoic worldview and Stoic mindset has changed my life in a relatively short period of time. There’s a reason I’m deeply passionate about Stoicism.

– Lawrence

Update 11/3/2014: Learn more about Stoic Philosophy from this excellent video series.

Stoic Philosophy by Phillip Hansten

I just watched the following video series, from Dr. Phillip Hansten, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington. Well executed and worth revisiting. (Even to listen to while you work).



 

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9 thoughts on “10 Themes of Stoicism: This is Good Stuff

  1. Pingback: Jules Evans: 8 Great Ideas from Stoicism | 7saturdays

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  4. Pingback: The Heroes Journey: Having a Sense of Your Own Destiny | 7 Saturdays

  5. Pingback: At Thirty: How I’ve Shaped my Disposition | 7Saturdays

  6. Just thought I’d let you know (I realize it is a couple years late) that the professor is Paul Sterns of Blinn Community College in Bryan, Texas. He makes a ton of those videos in addition to his lucidphilosophy.com website.

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