Lately, the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism has become surprisingly popular. In our world of excess, of always wanting more, of social media fame, it offers a different path. Yet Stoicism has been misunderstood and perceived as cold and unemotional. In Professor of Philosophy John Sellars’ new book Lessons in Stoicism, he dispels many of the myths about being Stoic and presents simple lessons in a mere (and very Stoic) 67 pages.
Lesson 1: The only thing in life we can control is our judgements
Sellars tells us the story of Stoicism through its main proponents: Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius. The beginning of this story is the understanding and acceptance that we control very little in life — not over other people, not the events that happen to us, not our bodies, not even our minds. All we have control over is our judgements, which create our lasting emotions (note that this is different to our first basic physiological response, which we do not have control over).
Lesson 2: Events are neither good nor bad
The second thing to understand is that external events are not inherently good or bad. This can be difficult to accept, because we tend view things as good or bad, horrendous or wonderful, and so on. Yet, these are merely labels we attach to things. It is not the things themselves. A thing is merely a thing. Spilling sauce on your best blanket is not bad. It’s just sauce on a blanket.
Lesson 3: Adversity is a training ground for improvement
From this standpoint, we can start to attach different labels. Instead of seeing adversity or difficult circumstances as a bad thing happening to us, we can choose to view them as an opportunity to become better, to develop our virtuous character. We can treat them as a training ground to become better people. In this way, the unfortunate are those who don’t experience such challenges.
Lesson 4: What matters is being a virtuous person
For the Stoics, the ultimate goal — and the only inherently good thing in life — is cultivating a virtuous character. This means becoming wise, just, courageous, and moderate (with sub-virtues of each of these). Stoicism, in its acceptance of events outside our control, is sometimes mistakenly perceived as not engaging with the world, but developing the virtue of courage we must take part.
Lesson 5: Reflect on the things that could happen and inevitably must happen
If we view life’s challenges as a training ground to become virtuous, then our success becomes more likely if we prepare for those challenges. The Stoics argued that to do this, we must reflect on the events that might happen to us in life (ones we would rather avoid, for example), and the ones that certainly will happen (such as dying, getting ill, losing loved ones). If we anticipate these events, potential and inevitable, then we are better able to deal with them if and when they occur.
Lesson 6: Everything happens for a reason, literally
Stoics argue that the earth and everything in it is a single, living system. We are all parts of this system, and therefore everything we do affects other parts of the system. This means that all humans are connected and have a duty of care to their fellow humans, animals, and the planet. It also means that everything literally happens for a reason, because something else caused it to happen. Understanding that there is a reason for everything can help us accept events that occur.
Lesson 7: Time is the most precious thing we have
To live well, we must make good use of our time. The Stoics argued that we should treat every day as if it is our last, not in acting recklessly or being so risk-averse that we fail to live, but in using every second wisely and not wasting our time. Instead of aiming to live longer lives, we should value each second that we do have and use it to the fullest extent.
Lesson 8: Everything is on loan
In light of this acceptance and imagining the potential and inevitable events in life, we may view everything in life as merely on loan. That includes possessions, other people, and indeed, our own lives. One day, we will simply no longer have these things. Instead of viewing this as morbid or miserable, we can take it as an opportunity to be grateful for what we temporarily have and love, for the time and life we temporarily have.
You can buy John Sellars’ wise little book on Stoicism here.