Three Life-Changing Lessons From Ancient Philosophy
Illustration by Mr Vincent Mahé
Forget everything you knew about stoicism – here’s how the Hellenistic school of thought can make everything a bit better.
“It would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than ‘stoic’,” write Messrs Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman in the introduction to their new book The Daily Stoic. It’s true that today, the idea of “stoicism” is more usually used to invoke grim forbearance, a Job-like ability to suffer without complaint. But that’s not at all what it was originally about when the Hellenistic school of study was founded in 3rd-Century Athens by Zeno of Citium, say Messrs Holiday and Hanselman. In fact, the writings of the early stoics Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca – a Roman school of philosophers whose central proposition is that we can deal with the uncertainties of life by adopting a controlled mental attitude – are not only proactive and positive, but inherently practical, even for the wildly different experience of life we have in 2016.
To prove this, the authors set about collecting 366 snippets of stoic wisdom, one for each day of the year, to compile into The Daily Stoic. Each page of the book features a quotation from a stoic philosopher and a gloss from Messrs Hanselman and Holiday (formerly a marketing man, now a self-help guru, whose previous books include Ego Is the Enemy and The Obstacle Is The Way), that explains the teaching contained therein, with clarifying references to everything from Mr Arthur Schopenhauer to Fight Club. Scroll down for a brief taster of what stoicism can do for you, via three lessons from the book.
BE RUTHLESS TO THE THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER
“How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements – how little of your own was left to you. You will realise you are dying before your time!”
Seneca, On The Brevity Of Life, 3.3b
One of the hardest things to do in life is to say “No”. To invitations, to requests, to obligations, to the stuff that everyone else is doing. Even harder is saying no to certain time-consuming emotions: anger, excitement, distraction, obsession, lust. None of these impulses feel like a big deal by themselves, but run amok, they become a commitment like anything else.
If you’re not careful, these are precisely the impositions that will overwhelm and consume your life. Do you ever wonder how you can get some of your time back, how you can feel less busy? Start by learning the power of “No!” — as in, “No, thank you,” and “No, I’m not going to get caught up in that,” and “No, I just can’t right now.” It may hurt some feelings. It may turn people off. It may take some hard work. But the more you say no to the things that don’t matter, the more you can say yes to the things that do. This will let you live and enjoy your life. The life that _you _want.
THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING WRONG
**“If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it – for I seek the truth, by which no one has ever been harmed. The one who is harmed is the one who abides in deceit and ignorance.”
Mr Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.2**
Someone once attempted to argue with the philosopher Mr Marcus Tullius Cicero by quoting something he had said or written. This person claimed Mr Cicero was saying one thing now but had believed something different in the past. His response: “I live from one day to the next! If something strikes me as probable, I say it; and that is how, unlike everyone else, I remain a free agent.”
No one should be ashamed at changing his mind – that’s what the mind is for. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Mr Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” That’s why we go to such lengths to learn and expose ourselves to wisdom. It would be embarrassing if we didn’t end up finding out if we were wrong in the past.
Remember: you’re a free agent. When someone points out a legitimate flaw in your belief or in your actions, they’re not criticising you. They’re presenting a better alternative. Accept it!
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
“Well-being is realised by small steps, but is truly no small thing.”
Zeno, quoted in Mr Diogenes Laertius, Lives Of The Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.26
The famous biographer Mr Diogenes Laertius attributes this quote to Zeno but admits that it might have also been said by Socrates, meaning that it may be a quote of a quote of a quote. But does it really matter? Truth is truth.
In this case, the truth is one we know well: the little things add up. Someone is a good person not because they say they are, but because they take good actions. One does not magically get one’s act together – it is a matter of many individual choices. It’s a matter of getting up at the right time, making your bed, resisting shortcuts, investing in yourself, doing your work. And make no mistake: while the individual action is small, its cumulative impact is not.
Think about all the small choices that will roll themselves out in front of you today. Do you know which are the right way and which are the easy way? Choose the right way, and watch as all these little things add up towards transformation.