Ever been told to “cowboy up”? How about “It’s time to put on your big girl panties?” Ever been accused of having no emotion? Unfortunately, much of the time, we tend to equate these questions as either manipulation or heartlessness. But what if the sentiment behind these statements originates from the ancient Stoic philosophy? What if they contain powerful lessons that may benefit us all? In light of some of the recent events in our world, I decided to explore whether Stoicism and some of its greatest thinkers might offer some ideas we can use to live a good and SMART life.
First, a little history. Stoicism is a philosophy founded in Greece in the 3rd Century by a man named Zeno of Citium. With a strong emphasis on virtue, justice, duty and reason, the Stoics believe that a life of self-control and moderation is a path that leads to a good life. Three of the most famous leaders of the philosophy include Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. In practice and intention, some people equate Stoicism to a more Western approach to Buddhism.
Remember the movie back in the 90s titled, Gladiator? The lead character played by Russell Crow was fictionally referred to as one of the favored generals of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The courage, selflessness, honor and dignity of the character all point to basic stoic convictions—even though his acts of revenge did not. However, what many fail to understand is as author Richard Sorabji puts it, Stoicism “is not about gritting your teeth, but seeing things differently so that you don’t need to.” When it comes down to it, most people are surprised to discover that many admirable qualities they admire have been around for several thousand years—even if the practice of them is rarely apparent.
With that in mind, here are 10 lessons I believe are both highly valuable and SMART. While I thought about adding my interpretation, the quotes by the philosophers are powerful enough.
#1 Our perception is everything.
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” ~Epictetus
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ~Marcus Aurelius
“ It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” ~Epictetus
#2 Choose to live a simple life.
“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” ~Seneca
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” ~Epictetus
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” ~Seneca
#3 Our philosophy must be practical and work in the real world if it has value.
“My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching, and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works. No one to my mind lets humanity down quite so much as those who study philosophy as if it were a sort of commercial skill and then proceed to live in a quite different manner from the way they tell other people to live.” ~Seneca
“It is difficult to bring people to goodness with lessons, but it is easy to do so by example.” ~Seneca
#4 Live in the now.
“Concentrate every minute on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can, if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you. “ ~Marcus Aurelius
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” ~ Seneca
“Objective judgment, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need.” ~Marcus Aurelius
#5 Give up caring what other people think of you
“Do you think that anybody can damage your soul? Then why are you so embarrassed? I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.” ~Epictetus
“The happiness of those who want to be popular depends on others; the happiness of those who seek pleasure fluctuates with moods outside their control; but the happiness of the wise grows out of their own free acts.”? Marcus Aurelius
“If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.” ~Epictetus
#6 What is within us is far more powerful than anything outside of us.
“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” ~Epictetus
“Dig within. Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig.” ~Marcus Aurelius
#7 Strive to the best person we can be
“Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” ~Marcus Aurelius
“We should every night call ourselves to an account; What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.” ~Seneca
“When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.” ~Epictetus
#8 Learn to recognize what is in our power to control, and those things we can’t control, and acting accordingly.
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choice I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” ~Epictetus
“You have the power of your own mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ~Marcus Aurelius
#9 Understand and learn to work with and control your emotions.
“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” ~Marcus Aurelius
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ~Seneca
#10 Your happiness in life is up to you.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. Therefore, guard accordingly and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” ~Marcus Aurelius
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” ~Epictetus
If you are anything like me after reading these quotes, you’re amazed at how familiar they sound. And believe me, there is plenty more in the teaching that focuses on gratitude, recognizing our connection to the world and each other, being personally authentic, overcoming destructive beliefs, seeing obstacles as learning opportunities, setting intentions, practicing gratitude and more. But even though parts of the stoic philosophy exist deeply engrained in our culture, I believe the SMART approach is for more of us—me included—to take the time to study them more fully and work to embody them consistently in our daily lives.