Of the three philosophies that I espouse here at The Heroic Stoic, none has rung more true for me than that of the Stoics. It is more rationally-based than Zen, and more present-based than Objectivism. When I speak of Stoicism, I am referring to the philosophy of the late Stoics: Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius…essentially the Romans.
While the history of Stocism is very interesting, the Stoic philosophy of how to live is really what is so very important to happiness. There is so very much to Stoic philosophy, but essentially it breaks down to this (IMHO).
Control – There are things that we can control and there are things that we cannot. Basically, anything external to us is never fully in our control. The weather, disease, how someone feels about us, gravity, the guy behind us in traffic, our spouse’s or child’s love for us are all things that can help or hurt our lives in immense ways…and we cannot control them (at least not fully). What we can control is our preparedness and our attitude about these things. If we accept that things are outside of our control, then we can have great tranquility…and we can concentrate on the things that we can. Mainly, we can control our judgment and emotion about these things, and we can work on ourselves.
Fate – Knowing that there are things out of our control, we can accept that some things just happen. We may wish to be a world class sprinter, but we never planned on that head-on collision that damaged our legs so badly that we never were able to recover our 100 meter time. We may wish to grow old surrounded by our loved ones, but we never know when that drunk driver or falling tree will take our daughter away from us. This is life, it can be unpleasant to face, but when you accept it as truth, then you are ready for what fate has for you.
Impermanence – This one has much in common with Zen. The minute we were born, we signed an immutable contract that we are going to die. This applies to everything around us. Statistically, nothing lasts forever. Not wealth, not health, not your dog, your parents, brothers, eyesight…and definitely not you. In 100 years, give or take, it will be all new people. In a million years, so much more will be gone, including you and me.
To help face these truths, Stoics recommend we meditate (even for a few minutes, rather than the hours proposed by Zen) on these truths and appreciate what we have right now, and know that none of them are permanent. I can picture a life without my spouse, so that I appreciate her now. Not only is this reality possible, but it is at least around a 50/50 chance at some point in my future. It’s either me or her first (with the possible exception that we bite it together). Picturing yourself without a house or air conditioning certainly makes you appreciate it. If you are feeling particularly Stoic, go for one day without air conditioning just to remind yourself what it is like without it (be sure to get permission of everyone else around you). This deprivation will make you realize how bountiful such things are. This is the practice of purposeful deprivation, also recommended by Stoicism.
I owe my introduction to Stoicism to a reading of William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. I highly recommend it.