Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that explores the study of how to live a good and fulfilling life. From cultivating a positive mindset to building emotional strength and self control when times get tough, the Stoics’ wisdom is still remarkably relevant today.
The leading Stoic philosophers were Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of the Roman Empire; Seneca, a statesman and leading intellectual figure; and Epictetus, a Turkish slave whose master allowed him to study. Upon his release, Epictetus fled to Rome, where he began teaching philosophy and spreading Stoic wisdom.
Over the course of their lives, the Stoics produced numerous reflections that we can still learn from. Here are some of our favorite pieces of advice from the ancients.
1. Adopt the Right Perspective
A key teaching of Stoicism is to be willing to adjust your perspective. Life is full of ups and downs — that's the inevitable way of it. As Epictetus said in The Enchiridion, "We should always be asking ourselves: Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?"
When you are not in control, it’s wise to remind yourself that you can still control how you think about a situation. Seneca echoed this sentiment when he wrote in his thirteenth letter On Groundless Fears, "We suffer more in imagination than in reality" — words that remind us that people often create their own unnecessary suffering.
Marcus Aurelius clearly felt the same, writing in Meditations: "Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking." If you can adjust your perspective, you can choose to embrace the positive in life, no matter what it throws at you.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius (reign 161–180 CE)
2. Enjoy the Present Moment
Even in ancient Greece, with no distractions from the internet and smartphones, people still struggled to calm busy minds that raced with fears of the future and ruminations on the past. Seneca´s remedy for this in his Epistle was to "Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life. "
We particularly love this saying here at StoryTerrace as it resonates with our mission to celebrate each amazing, separate life by telling people’s unique life stories.
Seneca also reminds us of this mindful approach to life in On The Shortness of Life, writing that: "The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately." You can never know what the future may bring; you can only focus on what is in front of you, right here and right now.
Modern statue of Seneca in Córdoba, Spain
3. Count Your Blessings
If it was good enough for a Roman emperor, it's good enough for us! In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advised, "Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
This means adopting a positive attitude of appreciation of the simplest pleasures, such as reading a great book, enjoying your daily coffee or talking with friends. It means bringing the mind back to focusing on the good, again and again. Epictetus shared this view of celebrating what you do have instead of making yourself miserable over what you don't: "He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."
4. Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
The Stoics reminded their students that much of what people concern themselves with is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. By putting your life into a larger context, you can help to ease anxiety and stress. Seneca told his audiences that "A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials."
Challenge is an inevitable part of life, yet when put it into perspective, those challenges help you to grow as a person. And another beautiful benefit of going through hard times is that you can pass all those inevitable lessons on to others!
5. Keep an Open Mind
As Epictetus said in his Discourses, "It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows." This means keeping an open mind and heart, knowing that there is always more to discover.
He further advised that there are always different approaches to learning: "Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind."
We think it's wonderful that such ancient wisdom can still be applied to modern life. It's rather comforting to be reminded that some things never change. By applying these simple concepts, it’s possible to soothe an anxious mind, to focus on what truly matters, and to live a full and enjoyable life along the way.
Illustration of Epictetus in Edward Ivie’s 1715 Latin translation of the book Enchiridion.
If you’ve been inspired by the Stoics to share your own life lessons, StoryTerrace is here to help.
Main blog image courtesy of: Stoic Insights