| April 9, 2018

Last updated: October 23, 2018

A Man's Life

5 Ancient Stoic Tactics for Modern Life

Stoicism emerged as a philosophy, a way of life — similar to a religion, really — most famously in ancient Rome somewhere around 50-100 AD (even though it was Greeks who pioneered the thinking).

Two millennia later, the philosophy is enjoying a revival of sorts, and it’s not hard to understand why.

The primary goal of ancient Stoicism was to figure out the best way to live; as modern philosopher Lawrence Becker writes: “Its central, organizing concern is about what one ought to do or be to live well — to flourish.” And this question of how to live is perhaps humanity’s most enduring — becoming especially acute in ages in which a sense of shared meaning has atrophied and every individual is left to find meaning on his own. Stoicism’s answers, its fundamental tenets — what many modern writers and thinkers have deemed the “art of living” — thus feel just as relevant now as they did a couple thousand years ago.

While we’ve covered some tenets of Stoicism on the Art of Manliness before (and given an introduction to it in a podcast interview), we’ve never laid out its more concrete practices — the tactics that lead both to personal joy and the betterment of society. It’s my aim to present five ways you can start to inject Stoicism into your life today, and begin experiencing more happiness and fulfillment.

These aren’t just abstract ideas that I’ll be presenting to you. Rather, they’re based on firsthand experience. Since I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations last year, I’ve been rather intrigued by the philosophy he espoused. So I’ve studied up, read a handful of books — both ancient source material and contemporary guidebooks — and have incorporated a number of new habits into my own daily routines.  

While there are many more practices and principles that can be gleaned and applied from Stoicism, my goal with this article is to provide those that have most impacted my own life (providing plenty of personal anecdotes to that end), and which I believe can most impact the lives of other men as well. These are things to do on a daily and weekly basis (even if some of them are more psychological in nature). While Stoicism also offers an outline of how to react and respond in a number of different situations — from anger and anxiety, to disability and death — that isn’t in the purview of this piece (though perhaps it will be in another article later on).

What’s especially appealing about Stoicism is that it’s what Massimo Pigliucci calls an “ecumenical philosophy.” Its precepts complement those of many other philosophies, religions, and ways of life. You can practice elements of Stoicism and still pursue Christianity, Judaism, atheism, and a number of other isms or non-isms out there. It’s about finding joy, fulfillment, and tranquility, and making society a better place for everyone in it. Isn’t that something we can all get behind?

Without further ado, I present 5 ways to make Stoicism a daily practice:

1. Visualize Your Life Without the Things You Love

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” —Seneca

William Irvine argues that “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological toolkit” is a tactic he calls “negative visualization.” To fully appreciate your blessings — the immaterial and material alike — imagine your life without them.

For example, if you live in a tornado-prone region, imagine your house being destroyed, along with all your possessions. Obviously sort of a sad thought experiment, but chances are good that you’ll actually come to better appreciate your home, and the stuff in it, if you can really visualize what life might be like without it.

This practice might make it seem like Stoics are lifelong pessimists, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Stoics are in fact the ultimate optimists. Consider the image of a 16oz drinking glass holding 8oz of water. It’s of course either half full or half empty, right? The Stoic, though, would actually just be grateful that there was any water at all! And that there was a vessel to hold that water to boot. The Stoic takes nothing for granted.

This exercise is of course harder to practice with your loved ones, but it’s well worth it. When I drive to daycare in the afternoon to pick up my son, I briefly meditate on the fact that each day really is a gift, and that anything can happen. He might not be around tomorrow, so I better live and love and parent to my fullest, most joyful abilities today.

Now, I’m not consumed with anxiety that my kids aren’t long for this earth (Irvine notes the important difference between contemplating and worrying). I know the odds are extremely slim of that reality. It’s more an acknowledgment that you just never know when the things and people you love might not be there anymore. It’s truly made a difference in my mindset, general gratitude, and mostly — as perhaps to be expected in this young kids phase — my patience. Whether my toddler son is taking forever to brush his teeth, or my 1-month-old daughter decides she won’t sleep unless she’s held and rocked, I seem better able to cope when I briefly imagine a life without them. It should also be noted that this exercise hasn’t made me sad or mopey as you might expect; rather, it makes me swell with gratitude for the days we are given, and I can say that I better truly appreciate all the blessings life has to offer, from my wife and kids, to the cheerful song of a bird out my window on a nice spring day.

As Seneca noted at the top of this section, bad things — which inevitably happen to all of us — are robbed of at least some of their power when we’ve anticipated their possibility, and consequently taken full advantage of each day, hour, and moment given us. The grief of loss isn’t quite as acute when we can truthfully state that we squeezed every ounce of joy out of what we own and who we love when they were with us. As the Reverend William Sloane Coffin said in giving a eulogy for his 24-year-old son, Alex:

“there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am!”

2. Memento Mori — Meditate on Death

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. . . . The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” —Seneca

While related to the above point, memento mori is about meditating on your death rather than that of your loved ones. Whereas negative visualization is about imagining life without the things you love, memento mori asks you to meditate and be aware that you will not, in fact, live forever. Death comes for us all, including you, dear reader.

We live in a pretty death-averse culture though. At large, we’re terribly afraid of it. The Stoics would argue, though, that if you’ve lived a life of purpose and meaning, you shouldn’t have any fear of something that has naturally befallen each and every human being (and every other living creature) since time immemorial.

Now, meditating on your own death is not the same as asking something like “If you knew this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?” In that scenario, I’d play hooky, make my friends and family do the same, and do something memorable with them. I’d eat a ton of tasty but bad-for-you food, drink some whiskey, stay up all night, etc. Those aren’t things you can do on a daily basis, though. Rather, the question is more like “If you don’t wake up in the morning, would you be satisfied with how your last day was spent?” Did you engage fully at work? Did you love your family and your friends? Did you add to society’s greater good at all? Did you make virtuous decisions?

When I ask myself this question, as with the previous point, it’s not a depression- or anxiety-inducing meditation. I realize the likelihood of my dying tomorrow is very slim; I am simply countenancing the fact that it is possible. And this possibility isn’t demoralizing, but invigorating. It makes me far less likely to waste time. If I’m gone tomorrow, I’d much rather have spent time baking a loaf of bread than playing games on my phone. I’d much rather have spent time reading stories to my son at bedtime (all the words) rather than speeding through it to watch another episode of Nailed It (which is great, don’t get me wrong). 

As you go through the day, or just at the end of it, reflect on your activities and decisions. Both the good and the bad. If this day was your last, would you be satisfied with its outcome? What would you have done differently? How would you have changed your interactions with others? How can you use this information to make better decisions and engage in more worthwhile activities tomorrow? Make it actionable. As the Stoics themselves would have asked, what good is philosophy if there’s no impact on how we live day to day?

I’ve also found it’s good to occasionally read memoirs about death and dying. One of my all-time favorite books is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. He wrote the book as he was dying of lung cancer in his late 30s, married and with a young child. I’ve read it twice — when both of my children were just days old. He provides an unmatched perspective on what it means to not only die well, but to acknowledge its reality: “The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” Even in his waning months, he maintained an incredible sense of positivity: “Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.” If the words of dying people don’t inspire you to live more fully each day, then nothing will! A few more good books are The Bright Hour, Dying: A Memoir, and The Last Lecture.

3. Set Internal Goals and Detach Yourself From Outcomes

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” —Epictetus

One of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is not letting circumstances outside your control disturb your equilibrium. Such externally-dictated circumstances include things we’re used to thinking of as being out of our hands, like the weather, traffic, and our health (and that of our loved ones). But it also includes things we often erroneously believe we have full personal control over, like the outcomes of contests and the success or failure of business ventures.

As a help in grasping a truth we inveterate bootstrappers often resist, Irvine gives the example of a tennis match. You might set a goal of winning the match. Seems perfectly reasonable, no? But when you really think about it, you can’t control many of the factors that determine the contest’s outcome: The weather is poor and wind gusts aren’t favoring you; you experience equipment failure (like a broken string) that isn’t disastrous but a distraction nonetheless; your opponent is simply better prepared than you (or perhaps just better, period); you sprain an ankle part way through the match and can’t continue on. If your goal is to win, and any of these things happen, you’ll be rather upset.

Recognizing that much of life is out of your control doesn’t mean giving up your sense of agency; instead, it means focusing it on the only areas where you do have full control: your own actions.

Instead of focusing on results — which are impacted by external circumstances outside your control — set goals strictly related to your own efforts. Instead of setting a goal to win the match, make it a goal to prepare as best you can, practice as hard as you can, and then play to the best of your abilities. If you do those things, and still lose, there’s just nothing more you could have done, so why fret?

Rather than setting a goal of getting the job you’re interviewing for, make it your goal to prepare well, dress right, and answer every question as best you can. If you do all that and don’t get the job, it wasn’t meant to be (or so the Stoics would argue).

Rather than setting a goal of getting a girlfriend, prioritize making yourself a good catch. Eat well, work out, have a stable job, dress nicely, and make it a goal to ask someone out X times a month until you get a yes.

My own hope regarding this article shouldn’t be, and truly isn’t, that it gets shared or retweeted X number of times. I can’t control what goes viral and what doesn’t. The whims of the internet aren’t worth thinking or worrying about. Instead, my true goal was that I would do all the research I could, and write, organize, and edit the article to the best of my abilities so that those who read it have the best possible chance of engaging it meaningfully and putting something into practice.

When you set goals, attach them to what you can control — your own efforts and attitude — and detach them from what you cannot — their ultimate outcome.

4. Welcome Discomfort

“Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.” —Seneca

One practice the Stoics famously abided was welcoming a certain degree of discomfort into their lives. They’d go without, for a time, certain pleasures — food, drink, sex. They’d immerse themselves in poor weather conditions (and with few clothes to boot). They’d eschew riches (and even praise) so as to not learn to cling to those things. They’d even deliberately subject themselves to ridicule. These practices were rather contrary to the Epicurean view of things, which was to ultimately pursue pleasure. The Stoics knew, though, that in welcoming challenge, they were actually far more content and fulfilled than their Epicurean peers.

To be Epicurean — one who basically just seeks the things in life that feel the best — you have to ever be experiencing pleasure. You’re basically living off constant dopamine hits. But, those senses get dulled after a while, and you need ever bigger and more pervasive doses to keep your pleasure sensors activated at the same level. Once you start running on the “hedonic treadmill,” real contentedness becomes frustratingly elusive.

Let’s show this with a quick little thought exercise. It’s simple: you want to stay cool when it’s hot outside. It’s a natural inclination. So you turn on the AC at home to a chilly 65 degrees while it’s a sizzlingly 95 outside. Ahhh, feels nice, doesn’t it? You get used to that sense of comfort, and even pleasure of staying so cool. But now, to feel comfortable, you also need to feel that cool wherever you go. You need to start your car 10 minutes early so that it cools down enough for you to be comfortable, otherwise you’ll just be miserable. You need your workplace, your favorite restaurant, heck, every establishment you enter, to be that chilled. If, God forbid, the AC goes out, you’re royally screwed. A friend invites you to an outdoor ball game? You’ll go, but you won’t enjoy it because it’ll be too stinkin’ hot. It’s all you’ll be able to focus on.

Consider the alternate scenario. Yes, you turn on the AC at home, but in the car, you just roll the windows down and let yourself be a little warm if it’s hot outside. Rather than work out in your refrigerator of a basement, you take a ruck outside in order to break a sweat. In some regards, you embrace being hot every now and then so that you can feel content in any situation. AC goes out? No biggie, you can adjust. Invited to a ball game in a heat wave? Heck yes! You love baseball, and you’re happy to just be at the game, regardless of the weather. You are a tranquil man who isn’t bothered merely by what the mercury reads on the thermometer.

Isn’t that a better way to live?

It’s sort of a silly and shallow example, but the principle holds for just about any pleasure in life. If your enjoyment and comfort relies too much on it, you’ll turn into a fragile, petulant curmudgeon when you don’t have it.  

Irvine lays out three specific benefits of sometimes welcoming discomfort and intentionally foregoing pleasures (with an example of how a particular practice — periodically abstaining from alcohol — could play out):

  1. It hardens us to whatever misfortunes may come in the future. (If your health turns, and the doctor forbids you imbibing alcohol, having practiced regular periods of sobriety will help you to easily get through that period.)
  2. The idea of those misfortunes won’t cause us anxiety, because we know we can withstand and even be content in just about any scenario. (You can look forward to a birthday party with friends where you know the booze will be flowing; you won’t be downtrodden about not being able to have any fun, because you know you can enjoy things just fine without alcohol.)
  3. It helps us appreciate the pleasures we do have, when we have them. (If you then receive a clean bill of health, you’ll be far more appreciative of the dram of whiskey you can enjoy with friends.)

This is one of the practices most associated with Stoicism, and there are a number of specific things you can do to welcome discomfort into your life and harden your general resolve:

  • Enroll in The Strenuous Life (embrace the motto of “Do Hard Things”)
  • Take cold showers
  • Hold/try to calm a crying baby while staying completely cool
  • Exercise outside in inclement weather (perhaps without shirt, shoes, etc.)
  • Keep your house at a higher temp in the summer, and a lower temp in the winter (don’t freeze out your family though; be reasonable!)
  • Eat nothing but rice/beans for a week (or a month)
  • Fast from food completely for 24 hours once a month
  • Embrace challenging situations in which you aren’t comfortable (travel/vacation with your kids, go to an event you don’t want to attend, make small talk with strangers, volunteer at a soup kitchen)
  • Do manual labor around your house instead of hiring it out

There are innumerable ways to embrace some semblance of discomfort in your life, and it can and will be different for each person. Find yours, and tackle it head on. As Irvine astutely observes, “The act of forgoing pleasure can itself be pleasant.” Embrace the grind!

5. Vigorously Pursue Character and Virtue

“Every day I reduce the number of my vices.” —Seneca

To the Stoics, the best way to live well was to pursue virtue. William Irvine even writes: “What, then, must a person do to have what the Stoics would call a good life? Be virtuous!” In becoming a better person — a man of great character — we’ll naturally find fulfillment, but also make greater contributions to society as a whole in the process. How might that happen, you ask? If you’re committed to virtue, won’t you volunteer more? Be more likely to help a stranger in need? Won’t you take on the role of Neighborhood Watch leader or Little League coach? Will you be more likely to say “Yes!” when a favor is asked? These are all things that improve our communities, and are natural byproducts of attaining greater personal virtue and character.

How does one become more virtuous though? How do you develop your character and exercise it in daily life? Luckily, there are a number of good options (many of which we’ve previously covered in-depth):

Regularly ask yourself: “What would my best self do in this situation?” Father James Martin brought up this idea in his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and in his interview with Brett on our podcast. All of us have an ideal version of ourselves in our head. That version eats better, exercises more, is a little more patient with his wife and kids, doesn’t waste time at work, etc. To more consistently act in ways that align with this ideal, simply ask what your best self would do, or how that best self would decide, in any given scenario:

Would my best self take two minutes to floss in the morning?

Would my best self choose a hard-boiled egg to snack on, or a Girl Scout cookie?

Would my best self call his parents and grandparents just a little more often?

Would my best self watch porn?

Would my best self write more letters to old friends as a way to stay in touch?

Would my best self have a little more patience with his kids’ drawn-out bedtime routines? 

Would my best self yell and flip the bird to the guy who cut him off on the freeway?

Would my best self take work time to dink around with his fantasy football team?

Would my best self read a book on the Kindle app, or play another level of Candy Crush?

Would my best self pursue romancing his wife, or spend another conversation-less night watching TV on the couch?

Would my best self have yet another drink?

Would my best self attend the far-away funeral of a dear friend’s parent?

Would my best self volunteer to clean up a park on a weekend morning, or would he sleep in?

It’s such a simple question to ask, but remarkably powerful. And these aren’t just theoretical examples. Some of these are the very questions I’ve been asking myself since I read Fr. Martin’s book late last year. And while I don’t always follow-through on what I know my best self would do (particularly when it comes to Girl Scout cookies), I’ve seen enormous strides in my being able to make more virtuous decisions on a consistent basis and am slowly getting closer to that ideal.

Follow Benjamin Franklin’s virtue plan. As a 20-year-old, Franklin set a lofty goal for himself: attain moral perfection. To do so, he developed a 13-week plan to improve himself in 13 areas or virtues. He’d particularly focus on one each week, while also keeping track of his progress with the others as well. We’ve written about the program in-depth here, and we have also created a unique journal that acts as a virtue tracker based on this 13-week plan. While Franklin never did attain perfection, over time he saw his mis-steps decrease, and had this to say about his program later in his life:

“Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

Ask “What good shall I do this day?” Another of Franklin’s ideas on his own pursuit toward being more virtuous. Every morning he’d ask himself this question, and every evening he’d reflect with “What good have I done today?” This question will have you focus less on your pie-in-the-sky “I want to change the world” ideas, and more on doing daily kindnesses to and for your fellow humans. Whether it’s writing a letter home, helping an elderly woman with her groceries, or maybe even just giving someone (your wife, a stranger, anyone!) a compliment, sometimes going smaller to change the world accomplishes much more. Read more about this idea here.

Develop a code of principles. How can you pursue virtue if you aren’t sure of your life’s guiding principles? Massimo Pigliucci writes in How to Be a Stoic: “the question of how to live is central. How should we handle life’s challenges and vicissitudes? How should we conduct ourselves in the world and treat others?” You need some sort of guide in order to best answer those questions; the answers aren’t going to come out of thin air.

The Stoics thought there was one universal Truth which could be discovered by contemplating the laws of Nature. You may choose a different course of study. Whether from religious texts, philosophical ideas, or some combination thereof arrived at through your own rigorous reading and reflection (à la Winston Churchill), it should be your aim to acquire a defined set of principles and values you’ll adhere to in your daily life. If you aren’t sure where to start, dig into classic religious texts. From there dive into various schools of philosophy. What resonates in your soul? What are some practices and/or spiritual disciplines your ideal self would commit to? Speaking of disciplines . . .

Regularly practice the spiritual disciplines. While called “spiritual” because their original purpose was to bring the practitioner closer to God, these disciplines can be used by anyone in order to develop character and “train the soul.” From fasting, to pursuing solitude, to doing service and practicing gratitude, there are a number of disciplines that have guided and strengthened higher-purpose-minded people for thousands of years. Read our series on the topic, and decide which you’d like to take up in daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cycles. You’re guaranteed to come out on the other side more centered, virtuous, and fulfilled.

Pick one of these ideas, stick with it, and see what happens. The only thing holding you back from attaining greater character and virtue is yourself. If you truly and wholeheartedly pursue the task — making it a goal to in fact get veritably drunk on virtue — you’re bound to make strides, and as noted above, you’ll improve your community at the same time.  

Stoicism is a rich philosophy, but it’s not just for contemplation. Full of ancient truths, it’s got myriad modern applications. Put it into action, and practice the art of living.

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Sources

A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine (the best modern guidebook, in my opinion)

How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

Discourses by Epictetus