Teach yourself Stoicism

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

Stoicism and Stoic PhilosophyCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

(This is a draft version so we’ll try to incorporate your comments and suggestions.  See my forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism, or my previous books on Stoic philosophy and CBT, The Philosophy of CBT and Build your Resilience, for more information.  You can also follow @Stoicweek on Twitter or check out our new Facebook discussion group for Stoicism.)

Please post your comments and questions below or reblog this article on WordPress…

This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices.  The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those.  We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature.  However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts.  Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.

Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience (2012)Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims.  However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them.  Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background.  For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:

And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)

The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:

What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)

The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life.  The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism.  The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.

The Basic Philosophical Regime

Stage 1: Morning Preparation

Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control.  Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue.  Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life.   You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.

Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts.  Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires.  When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.”  Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things.  Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows.  Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not.  This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice.  If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.”  Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome.  In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation.  Look for ways to remind yourself of this.  For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.

Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

Stage 3: Night-time Review

Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep.  Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.

  1. What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went well?)
  2. What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went badly?)
  3. What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What was omitted?)

Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one.  What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future?  Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction.  You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control.  However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.

If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.

Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices

There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice.  You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism.  Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy.  Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  3. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.

Follow this link for a much more detailed account of Stoic practices with a wider range of techniques…

Please post your comments and questions below or reblog this article on WordPress…

48 thoughts on “A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

  1. Great stuff. Simple is good. Whenever I catch myself getting angry, irritated, or annoyed at someone or something, I have a simple, three word question for myself: In my power? Inevitably the answer is no. And if it’s not in my power, than I regard it as determined by the whole. (The long form of the question is “In my power, or determined by the whole?”) I have found this mantra very effective in no small part because it is so short, and I’ve practiced it so much, it’s become second nature for me to say it to myself at the first sign of negative judgements or emotions. I just wanted to share that for what it is worth.

  2. I love the idea of simply distilling things down. I’m of the “overanalyzing, optimizing” persuasion, which often leads me to inaction as I spend time looking for the “perfect” solution. Giving some simple exercise to do at specific times is very useful – in fact, this is exactly what I did during Stoic Week, as I knew my tendencies, so I just chose a morning, evening, and during-the-day exercise and ran with it at the expense of trying the others.

  3. Stoicism as a philosophy consisted of 3 parts, where the order of teaching itself depended on the Stoic teacher in question, but nevertheless the Stoic teacher usually had a reason for the particular order. The idea that each part depended on the others is an integral structural component of Stoicism.

    To emphasize Ethics, for instance, and not at all address the Physics or Logic: this conceptually and historically cannot be Stoicism. Call it ‘ascetic maximalism’ or whatever you want, but it is not conceptually or historically Stoicism.

    The OP has only underscored Stoic Ethics, or at least butchered it, and this clearly shows. Logic nor Physics appears in the OP, and the OP assumes or implies that Stoicisms would accept a doctrine of fatalism.

    Stoics were not fatalist, and it is unfortunate that this misinformation continues to color and determine our perception of Stoic history and Stoic thought.

    What you are reading in the OP cannot historically or conceptually be called “Modern Stoicism.” Physics and Logic are important. It is important that all Stoics, for instance, treat certain questions of logic in a certain way. Historically, students would not be accepted into certain schools or by certain teachers if those students did not accept the logical foundations of their teachers.

    Moreover, many teachers order logic first, before Physics and before Ethics. So to leave it (or Physics for that matter) out, supposing one were talking about Stoicism, historically Stoic teachers would simply quizzically glance you over and remind you of the importance of logic, even if what you say happens to align with their philosophical tenets. Getting there by accident is fair, but that’s not Stoicism.

    1. Not all Stoics agreed on the threefold division or taught all aspects. Also, as the article says, this is to be considered an introduction to classical Stoicism, and everything has to start somewhere. It’s modelled directly on the Enchiridion and refers the reader to that and to the wider Stoic literature for more information. How would your interpretation fit, for example, Epictetus, the Stoic teacher about whom we know most? Especially given that the article is based on the introduction to his approach summarised by Arrian in the Handbook, surely it’s not as unorthodox as you’re suggesting.

  4. It would be nice to prioritize core practices separately from those practices that are more “optional”

    A typical novice might juggle 3-4 things, maybe up to 7.

    1. Thanks but isn’t that what the article does? The core practices are in the main body and then there’s a list of additional practices at the end just for reference. It’s meant to be concise so you can look into them in more detail in the texts mentioned, etc. Some are more central than others but there’s a bit of ambiguity in the ancient literature. See The Philosophy of CBT and Build your Resilience for a more detailed account or the Stoic Regime from Stoic Week, which is available from the menu above.

  5. What is the difference with Theravada Buddhism? Most of the practices here seem to be what is advocated there too. It’s great! No problem! I’m just struck by the similarities. It makes me hope that maybe there is a common, universal way of wisdom.

    1. I actually studied Buddhism at university but even so, I think that’s a bit of a tricky question to answer. There’s a vague possibility these two traditions could have influenced each other. People tend to say there’s more explicit emphasis on ethics and philosophical reasoning in Stoicism than in Buddhist, but that’s always going to be debatable as there are so many different perspectives on both traditions. Mindfulness in Stoicism isn’t rehearsed during seated meditation and it’s more specifically directed to the faculty of judgement. There’s no theory of reincarnation in Stoicism, they believe instead in the doctrine of eternal recurrence. There’s more emphasis on virtue in Stoicism whereas Buddhists tend to place more emphasis on renouncing all attachment, including to Nirvana itself. The goal of life is defined more “negatively” by most Buddhists, as the cessation of suffering and attachment (that’s what the word Nirvana means), whereas Stoics also place importance on “apatheia” (overcoming disturbing desires and emotions) but this is secondary to the positive definition of the goal of life as eudaimonia or wellbeing/fulfilment, through living a good life, in harmony with the nature of the universe. Whereas Buddhists believe that Buddha was a perfect historical figure, the Stoics avoid idealisation of historical figures by defining the perfect Sage as a hypothetical ideal. Whereas the Theravadan ideal is the arhat, who is detached from life, the Stoic ideal of the Sage is perfectly just and benevolent, and so more like the Mahayana ideal of the Boddhisattva.

      1. Oh, I never thought there was any influence between the two. That’s best left to historians I guess, so I am incompetent there, but I didn’t think about that. I was just thinking that there are so many similarities, it feels like – most probably independently – both traditions are converging on a set of practices for the serene life. Buddhism also has things to say about ethics. But we have to be careful because there are many, many variants of Buddhism – some have gods, some don’t care so much about gods, for example. Mindfulness in Buddhism is rehearsed, yes, but the teachers usually urge you to continue being mindful through the days also. Reincarnation applies only in some traditions. It’s probably there since the original suttas, but in Theravada, or at least its “westernized” version, we never talk about reincarnation. Some branches of Buddhism advocate the doctrine of the Boddhisatva, where you postpone your own enlightenment to help others. I would say that most Buddhists would view the cessation of suffering through a renouncement to attachments as a “positive” liberation – my teacher always says that having given up on noxious attachments, you are free to act in a compassionate, just, productive way in the world. In Theravada, and certainly for my teacher, there is little idealization of Buddha. Many people think Buddha was a “god”, but that is true only in some traditions. In Theravada, there is a lot of emphasis on outright skepticism, and we would say that idealizing anybody is again a false attachment. But I think I’m reacting from a perspective that has been somewhat “westernized” of the Theravada. You are right, there are many differences. But the similarities are fascinating to me :-)

        1. Many people, including myself and apparently William Irvine the author of A Guide to the Good Life, the most popular introductory book on modern Stoicism, start off being interested in Buddhism and are then drawn to Stoicism as something that’s more familiar in a sense, a kind of Western alternative to Buddhism. It would be a bit crude to say “Stoicism is the Western Buddhism” but there’s certainly some element of truth in that perspective, in the eyes of many people who are drawn to the subject.

          If you do want to look into the history of the interactions between East and West, you might find this book interesting:

        2. Looking at an element of this – imagine you are one with the universe – this, I think, is something that’s much more likely to occur as a lived experience with a buddhist type of meditative practice. Any evidence that stoics experienced this directly, a la mystical experience, rather than as a theory or visualisation ?

  6. Really liked this post and it covers some key parts of Stoicism and modern day applications, a good starting point for people interested in applying stoic principles to every day life.

    One small bit of feedback might be to break down the additional practises in the appendix, when I first read the article I was on a mobile and it seemed a bit long and tricky to read, but other than that I really enjoyed reading it.

    Liked it so much I reblogged it at http://rhys.wf Looking forward to reading more posts like this :-)

  7. Very good to read this and thanks so much for your efforts. This is very useful to point other therapists towards and for discussion. Once I can sit down and review further I will take another look. Many thanks

  8. Greetings from Brazil,

    I apologize in advance for my English.

    A little more than a year I’ve been trying to put in practice stoicism into my life, but only about six months, I have tried to follow a more systematic insert. I don’t know if what I do can be precisely considered as a stoic exercise. What I do is to separate excerpts from stoic writings which somehow touch me (basically Seneca and Marcus Aurelius – and Epicurus, too ;p-, since the others stoics authors are very hard to find any edition here in Brazil), then I organize all by theme in a personal file. I tend to reread such passages with some frequency, usually at night, when I reflect on what happened throughout the day, and in the morning when I get ready for any challenge that I hope to find at work, for instance. Several of those excerpts, I’ve reread so many times that I already know from memory and I bring them to mind whenever I come across any disturbance throughout the day. This has helped me a lot.

    1. I think your English is okay. What you say sounds good. It sounds a bit like what Marcus Aurelius was doing. Maybe you can find an edition of Cicero as well. He’s not a Stoic but his writings contain many good Stoic ideas. Good luck!

  9. Reblogged this on Alyson Dunlop and commented:
    Excellent article on the modern approach to Stoicism by Donald Robertson, the author of “The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy” and “The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy”.

  10. Pingback: STOIC Platform
  11. Well… what about something like… my friend was raped by a repeat offender and I’m angry about that. How does stoicism handle that?

    1. Well, for the ancient Stoics, it doesn’t really matter what the nature of the offence is. The most important question is whether the event is under your control or not. If not then the desire to change things is futile, by definition, and they see that as the basis of most emotional distress. A Stoic might try to comfort a friend in a similar situation or to somehow prevent similar things happening in the future. But they’d say there’s no point ruminating angrily about events once they’ve happened and can’t be undone and that this might actually get in the way of doing something constructive about the future. It’s obviously difficult for a complete stranger to comment on such a personal issue, though. So I hope you don’t mind me being so brief but that, in a nutshell, would be the ancient Stoic perspective.

      1. Thanks for writing. It wasn’t a personal example but rather representative. While Stoicim has some interesting individual benefits its weakness seems to be in the realm of righting social wrongs. There’s a saying that goes something like “women didn’t get anything changed by acting like ladies.” Anger, resentment, indignation et ali are powerful motivations particularly to redress wrongs or bring about social change. Would the world be a different place if Czarist’s agents hadn’t murdered Lenin’s older brother? Would we still have segregation if Blacks did not get angry about their discrimination? If Nelson Mandela was a stoic South Africa might still have apartheid. An individual — usually an angry one — can make a difference. I can see individual benefits to Stoicism but the motivation to help humanity is rather sotto voce.

        1. I probably see it quite differently. I think historically, the record shows that Stoics were sometimes very actively involved in “righting social wrongs”, unlike other philosophical schools such as Skeptics or Epicureans, who took more of a back seat in society. I don’t think you need to be motivated primarily by anger in order to change things in the world. The Stoics would simply say that it’s better to be motivated primarily by your rational sense of justice rather than your feelings of anger, as these often mislead us and cause other problems such as over-reacting or ill-considered actions. Nelson Mandela is actually often held up as an example of the sort of person Stoics might admire in the modern world, to some extent. He doesn’t seem to express violent anger but, as I understand it, said that liberation comes, in part, from understanding the oppressors and taking a nonviolent stand against them. Perhaps he’s written somewhere of being motivated primarily by anger, though, so I’d need to read his biography in more detail to comment properly. In the ancient world, the opposite of your criticism was levelled at the Stoics: that they were *too* engaged with the world and social justice, compared to other philosophers. So I think, on the face of it, there’s plenty of room for debate about your interpretation and I can imagine modern readers being divided about whether Stoicism leads to what you describe or not. Look at the life of Cato of Utica, for example, or the account of Seneca’s death and his defiance of Nero, etc.

        2. Therein lies the rub: A basic tenet of Stoicism is predestination. Everything is set. We are but automatons in some cosmic play. If the Stoics worked for social justice then they were not committed to predestination. Whereupon they could have said “well… wanting social justice is predestined, too” but at that point Stoicism would have become silly. Indifference might be a personal boon but a social liability.

  12. Okay, that’s moving on to a bit of a different issue now… I can only give a very cursory answer here as the philosophy of freewill and determinism is obviously a very complex topic. The Stoics were compatibilists who argued that freedom and determinism are not mutually exclusive concepts. Many modern philosophers would agree (as would I). Chrysippus explicitly responded to this sort of criticism – that belief in determinism commits us to become passive in terms of our behaviour – by arguing that it involved an alleged fallacy called the “Lazy Argument”. There’s some more discussion of it in this article below:

    http://philosophy-of-cbt.com/2013/03/09/stoic-fatalism-determinism-and-acceptance/

    1. Off topic? Moving on? Hardly. It’s a fundamental fatal flaw of stoicism as presented. It’s basic. Not off target at all. I don’t think compatibilism works at all. It’s just a mealy-mouth way to get around an issue forged in ignorant times… like the Bible trying to explain how a bat is a fowl. I think it is more workable to say some things certainly fit the definition of predetermed (whether they are or not) and some things do not fit the definition of predetermined. And just as the Stoic wants to know what he has control over and what he does not I think the Stoic has to decided what can be predeterminate and what might not be (and avoid being ivory tower silly in the process.) For example. I am alive. I will die. I can reasonably argue that my death is certain (some folks could easily arugue it is predetermined.) I cannot not die so that’s strongly set. If that is predetermined then it is so perhaps in the gross sense. How I die might be my choice. And if I have choice then I can effect change. I think by removing “predetermination” as an absolute monolith in toto one can create wiggle room for things one cannot avoid –death– but finds reason to have and make choices. It might be in macroscopic terms that I am predestined to be in this universe and to someday die what I do here seems reasonably my choice in a microscopic way. Temper Stoicism with that and a fatal flaw is eased.

  13. Well, I think it’s fair to say that it’s not self-evident that belief in determinism is directly relevant to the initial point you raised. You’d need to fill in the gaps, in other words, as other people might not see them as necessarily connected points. I appreciate those are your views but you don’t really explain your reasoning so it’s hard to comment much except perhaps to mention that most people tend to put things the opposite way round. It’s the concept of metaphysical freewill, rather than that of determinism, that tends to be criticised by philosophers for being incoherent and rooted in outdated theological notions, etc. The Stoics clearly do believe that how I die is my choice but also that my choices are determined by antecedent physical causes, which I think is pretty close to the position of most modern psychologists and something many people see as part of the scientific worldview.

  14. Thanks. Good concise introduction to the subject.
    Only one comment: I feel uncomfortable with a “prayer” (to Whom? etc). I would prefer to cover the same issues as personal COMMITMENTS as in:

    ” I will do my best to remain serene and accept the things I cannot change,

    I will work hard to change the things I can,

    And I will strive to know the difference.”

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