4 Lessons from Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius, a large historical figure in stoicism. | Source: Wikipedia

Stoicism often gets the reputation of being a practice where you suppress your emotions. And you might be thinking, yeah, thanks but no thanks, I like having emotions.

But it’s not exactly that. And it’s about so much more than just your emotions.

When practicing stoicism, you don’t suppress your emotions. Instead, you evaluate them with reason. Ask, is this a rational and useful emotion? If not, then you don’t want to let it control your decisions. Don’t be a slave to your emotions.

I learned a lot about stoicism last month, and there were four main points that stuck out to me:

  • Live life with virtue
  • You can’t control life, but you can control yourself
  • Amor Fati
  • Memento Mori

Live Life with Virtue

In stoicism, the goal of life is eudaimonia, which is the state of the peak fulfillment humans can reach. You reach this state by living a life of virtue.

There are four main virtues in the practice of stoicism:

  • Wisdom
  • Justice
  • Courage
  • Self-discipline

By practicing these four virtues in our lives, we will be able to reach that state of fulfillment.

There’s more.

In life, we label things as good or bad. For example, getting into college is good, and getting into a car accident is bad.

There are also good and bad things in stoicism- but they’re much more limited. In stoicism, only things that are virtuous are good, and things that are the opposite are bad. The rest is considered indifferent.

That sounds strange. So you’re supposed to be indifferent about getting into college? Not exactly.

There are preferred indifferent things, and not preferred indifferent things. Preferred indifferent things are things like buying a house or getting into college. These are things you want, and that will make your life easier sometimes.

Then there are not preferred indifferent things. These would be things like getting in a car accident or losing a loved one. You don’t want these things, and you try to avoid them.

But here’s the important thing: neither of them affects your ability to attain eudaimonia.

But these indifferent things can be easy to fixate on; achieving the preferred, and avoiding the not preferred. That leads to another important principle in stoicism: that of understanding you only control yourself.

You can’t control life, but you can control yourself

Marcus Aurelius | Source: Wikipedia

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius, a large historical figure in stoicism and a Roman emperor, wrote this in his journal, which would later be published as the book Meditations.

This quote perfectly describes another aspect of stoicism- that of understanding what you can control, and not being affected by that which you can’t.

In life, there are some things you can control, but many more things you can’t control.

What can you control?

  • Your thoughts
  • Your actions

Yeah, it’s a short list. Everything outside of yourself you can’t control; your job, other people, etc.

The lack of control over life can be overwhelming. What you can do to maximize this realization is to focus on what you can control- your thoughts and actions.

So when you’re doing something, don’t focus on the outcome. Many things can interfere with it. Instead, focus on doing your best, and knowing that even if the outcome wasn’t what you wanted, you did all that you could. And also remember that the outcome is probably not bad or good, just preferred or not preferred indifferent.

There’s a phrase that ties into this, but also takes it to another level — amor fati.

Amor fati

Amor fati is a phrase that means to love whatever happens. This doesn’t mean to not change bad things when you can; it’s when you can’t do anything about it.

Love whatever happens… although maybe not exactly like this case. | Source: GIPHY

It’s an important distinction to make; amor fati doesn’t mean you should just take bad circumstances as unchangeable. It’s knowing that there are things you can’t control, so even if you can’t change them to be preferred, still love them.

If you view everything that happens as something to embrace, you can make the best of things and grow from them.

This sounds crazy when you take it in context of things like losing your job, or even losing a loved one. But by loving everything that happens, even if it’s not preferred, you can bear what’s happening better. Because you can’t control it, so why suffer when you can embrace it?

Memento Mori

Another stoic phrase. Memento mori is a reminder that you’re going to die.

Yes, that sounds morbid. But it can be very useful.

There are two things memento mori can help with: remembering to be humble, but also remembering to live life to the fullest and not take it for granted.

Be Humble

Memento mori is a great reminder to be humble. When something great happens to you, or you achieve something you’ve been working towards for a long time, it can feel like you’re invincible.

But you’re not.

You’re going to die one day, regardless of how much you accomplish.

Live life to the fullest

Remembering that you’re going to die can create a sense of urgency in life. Instead of wasting time on things you don’t care about, focus on what you love. And instead of pushing things off, do them now.

All we know is being alive, so it can feel like we have all the time in the world. But our time is actually limited, sometimes more than we think. There’s no guarantee that you’ll wake up tomorrow. Remember this when making decisions in life.

Stoicism isn’t super easy to practice. It’s easy to get swept up in emotions and focusing on what we can’t control.

But I think there’s a lot of value in practicing these principles. By living them, we can reach eudaimonia, and live a fulfilled, virtuous life.

TL;DR

  • By living a virtuous life, we can achieve eudaimonia.
  • Only virtuous things are good, and the opposite of virtuous things are bad; everything else is indifferent and doesn’t affect your ability to live a virtuous life.
  • Focus on what you can control, your thoughts and actions.
  • Amor fati means to love everything that happens.
  • Memento mori is a reminder that you’re going to die one day.

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Teen lover of biotech, reading, and dogs. Innovator at TKS.