A Practical Guide to Stoic Wisdom
Are you wise, or do you tend to act like a fool?
Chances are, you’re less wise than you think. Your mind continuously tricks itself, and your biases screw you over while you are ignorant of most.
For example, when things go well, you’ll likely attribute it to yourself. When things go wrong, you blame it on the situation. Sounds familiar? I know it does to me.
It took a long time for me to understand I am less wise than I like to believe. The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. The truth of the matter is that most of us are stupid or foolish at best.
For Stoics, you are wise, or you are not. There is no in-between. Luckily, we can strive to become wise. How? Through deliberate practice.
I’m no sage, but I dare to say I am a bit better than I was yesterday. My improvement comes in tiny amounts, and it accumulates. As Zeno said:
“Well-being is realized in small steps, but is truly no small thing.”—Zeno
As discussed in the initial article of this series, the Stoic road to happiness is by obtaining life skills. The four Stoic life skills are wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation (self-control or temperance).
For every Stoic life skill/virtue, you need wisdom. Having Stoic wisdom means knowing what is right and what is wrong. It’s the understanding of how to act and how not to act in every situation you face. Stoic wisdom is therefore fundamentally practical.
To develop practical wisdom, it’s necessary to learn how to think. Specifically, you need to learn clear thinking. That is why wisdom is a virtue in itself that needs cultivation.
Stoicism is a philosophical framework that teaches us to love wisdom (the literal meaning of ‘philosophy’) and provides the tools to nurture it. Stoic tools are mostly psychological exercises that you need to do daily to be effective. When done consistently, Stoic exercises will transform you.
In this article, we’ll have a look at what Stoic wisdom is, why it’s an important virtue to develop, and how you can start cultivating wisdom right now.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
What is Stoic Wisdom?
Our senses receive 11 million bits of information per second, but our brain is only capable of processing 50 bits per second. We better make sure we have all the bandwidth available to process them.
How can we optimize mental processing? By developing clear thinking, which is where Stoicism comes in handy.
Stoic wisdom answers questions like, “What is worth focusing on in life?”, “How should I talk to myself?“, and “How can I best react in this situation?”.
These questions have no easy answers, and they are slightly different for everybody based on their unique circumstances. But there are overreaching ideas that can benefit everyone.
Early Stoics were philosopher-psychologists who understood the human psyche well. They realized that human emotions are caused by beliefs we hold, either consciously or unconsciously.
Early Stoics were also natural scientists. They observed how reality works and searched for ways to thrive. They understood that we humans are a social species and that we need to cooperate with others to succeed.
By investigating the inner (mental) world in combination with the outer (physical) world, Stoics created a framework to achieve wisdom. Using the Stoic framework, we can develop a healthy relationship with ourselves (our thoughts and emotions), and with others (how we perceive and treat them).
Why Develop Stoic Wisdom?
Modern psychological research has proven the ancient Stoics right, and modern psychotherapies still benefit from Stoic insights.
Psychological frameworks like Rational-Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have borrowed a lot from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. For example, many anger management programs still use Seneca’s work on anger as the go-to manual!
What was it the Roman Stoics understood that many moderns do not? The first concept in Stoicism that will help you see things clearly is the knowledge that some things are under your control while other things are not. We can read this idea in the opening words of Epictetus’ Handbook:
“Of all existing things, some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, an, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”—Epictetus
The separation of everything into two groups of power is called the dichotomy of control, a central idea in Stoicism. It may seem ridiculously simple, and it is. But most of us forget to remind ourselves of what we can truly control, so we end up obsessing over things we cannot change. I will return to the dichotomy later in this article.
When you know what you can control, the next step is to only focus on a few things: your thoughts, beliefs, and reactions.
Due to external influences and our internal chatter, we humans tend to label everything that happens as good or bad. This labeling causes mental suffering, as we then try to change things that we have no control over.
When we label something as wrong, but we cannot change it, we have to deal with the resistance that cannot find an outlet.
Judging happens mostly automatically, so it’s necessary to condition ourselves with new thinking patterns. This conditioning takes time and effort, but Stoic mental exercises make the process easier.
Let’s have a look at three straightforward but powerful Stoic thinking tools.
3 Exercises to Develop Stoic Wisdom
Stoicism is a lived philosophy that requires daily attention. Only through constant reminders is it possible to cultivate wisdom.
Below I outline three exercises that I find useful to create mental space, see things more clearly, and remind myself of philosophical lessons when I most need them. Each of the exercises can be practiced throughout the day, and are simple enough to complete in a few seconds.
Exercise: Is this under my control?
The dichotomy of control is a useful mental model. When you categorize situations into things you can and cannot control, you free up mental space to focus only on what you can influence.
Once you become familiar with the dichotomy of control, you can do the exercise in your head. But to help your thinking in the beginning, I recommend you use a pen and paper.
In their excellent book A Handbook for New Stoics, Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez start with the dichotomy of control. When faced with a situation that triggers an emotional reaction, they recommend you take a moment to analyze the situation. Think about what aspects you can control and what is outside your control. Then, focus only on what you can influence if you want to change things.
This exercise is simple to do. Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns: “Complete control” and “Incomplete control.” Now, think of what aspect of the situation is entirely under your control and put it in the “complete control” column. Do the same thing in the “incomplete control” column.
In Massimo and Greg’s book, they give the following example:
Do this for a week and see how it affects you. Are you more likely to only focus on what you can control? Do you feel calmer? Share your experience in the comments!
Exercise: Stripping things bare
To be able to remain calm regardless of what happens, it is necessary to look at the world objectively and not get attached to it. What helps is to describe things that affect us emotionally in material terms, stripping away all labels we might add mentally.
The ‘stripping method’ is an exercise where you describe an object or situation only in observable terms. Some call it ‘physical definition’, as you are only allowed to explain things physically. Why? Because mental labels are not physical, so you cannot use them!
We can find this exercise in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (3:11):
“To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
What is it—this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—tranquillity, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence, or what?”—Marcus Aurelius
By describing objects and events only in visible terms, you give your labeling voice no chance to interfere.
Why is this ‘stripping’ exercise important? Epictetus tells us in his Handbook (3):
“In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are.
Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted.
When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so troubled if they are taken from you.”—Epictetus
When you never stop to think that you can lose what you have now, you will be caught off-guard when unfortunate things happen. However, when you remind yourself that everything is temporary and you can lose it, you will be prepared.
The wise person does not close her eyes to reality. Being prepared is the mark of the sage.
Physical definition boils down to this: When you notice you are affected by an object or situation, take a moment to think and ask yourself: “Am I adding something mentally?” Then, describe it only in observable terms.
Defining things objectively, you’ll start to notice the things that you have to leave out. What you leave out is what you usually add as a value label. Without this value judgment, the unhelpful emotion will lessen or even disappear.
Exercise: Awareness and Stoic meditation
The previous two exercises will help to cultivate some awareness, but we all have a constant stream of internal chatter that mostly goes unnoticed.
To become aware of your automatic thoughts, you need to create the space to observe them. You can do this in a variety of ways, but I’ll limit myself to just two (if you want to read more about mindfulness and Stoic meditation, I suggest you read my article about focusing on the present moment).
Evening reflection (Stoic journaling)
Do you ever have trouble sleeping? Are thoughts racing through your head when you are in bed? Then you haven’t given the day enough closure.
Ask yourself four simple questions before going to bed and write the answers in your journal.
- What went well today?
- What didn’t go well today?
- What unhelpful habit/thought pattern have I checked today?
- What opportunity have I missed today?
Writing forces you to think more deeply, and putting it to paper allows your mind to release it. Journal every day, and you’ll notice you go to bed more chill than ever before.
Observation of thoughts and feelings (mindfulness meditation)
Take one look at the logo of Practical Stoicism, and you can probably guess I like to practice sitting meditation. Every morning, I take 20 minutes to sit in silence and count my breaths.
Without exception, I’ll lose count at some point because thought has taken over my attention. This distraction can be a few seconds, but also a few minutes. One way or the other, at some point, I will notice I’m no longer counting. I then simply acknowledge I was distracted and will return my attention to my breath.
What sitting meditation does is giving me the chance to notice when I’m distracted by feelings or thoughts. With practice, I have been able to observe the thoughts that precede feelings.
The beauty of sitting meditation is that everybody can do it everywhere. It translates well to life outside the practice. If you meditate regularly, you’ll start to notice when you are distracted in daily life.
Through meditation, your awareness will increase over time. You’ll be better able to direct attention and put full focus on whatever you choose.
Become Wiser Right Now
To become better than you were yesterday, you need to practice today. Stoic philosophy is not a patch that you apply when hurt mentally. Continuous practice will result in small but progressive improvements.
This article is part of a series that will become a free course ebook for subscribers only. The ebook will contain clear explanations of key Stoic concepts and a weekly program of Stoic exercises to kickstart your philosophical practice.
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