Stoicism as a Philosophy of Life

A primer on Stoicism, and examples of how I've used this practical philosophy in my own life.

Diner Ismail

5 minute read

Over the years I’ve been reading a lot of different types of books, either self-help, philosophy or psychology, all in the search for ideas on how to live better.

Something that attracted my curiosity a lot was Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD. I’ve found it to be an immensely practical and simple set of rules. As Ryan Holiday puts it, “It doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. […] it’s built for action, not endless debate.”

Stoicism also trains people to monitor their own reactions and reflect critically on how they perceive and interpret the world.

Fear and Anxiety

Stoicism has an emphasis on using adversity as a training ground for life, and it teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. I used to be crippled by fear and anxiety in most situations I found myself in until my early 20s. Later on, grounded in Stoicism, I willfully exposed myself to many voluntary discomforts and even saw them as welcome challenges and opportunities to grow. That helped me overcome many of those fears and I’m in a much better place now.

I really like the next few passages from the book Nerve, by Taylor Clark which are relevant to the topic:

When people live full lives and openly accept their thoughts and feelings, they combine the neurological power of the fear extinction process with the equanimity of mindfulness. If you feel afraid, that’s great: you’re exposing yourself to the emotion, and the more you let it play out, the more you allow your brain to process it. If your mind shoots out anxious worries, that’s fine, too: it gives you a chance to practice being mindful of the monkey mind’s harmless chattering, without getting bound up in never-ending internal debates.

Even if we don’t come prepackaged with expert decision-making knowledge in stressful situations, we can train diligently, as Ericsson and Klein suggest, until we better hone our instincts. We can learn to reframe a stressful situation as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. We can stay engaged instead of giving up. We can take small, concrete steps toward our goals, to show ourselves that we are authors of our own fate—not helpless in the face of adversity.

Self-control and fortitude

As mentioned in the previous section, Stoicism puts a lot of emphasis on developing self-control and fortitude by actively confronting adversity.

In an ultimate act of voluntary discomfort, I have signed up for a White Collar Boxing challenge, where I am going through 16 weeks of training which will culminate with a boxing match with about 400 attendees. I have never pushed the limits of my body as much as I have in the last few weeks since I started the training. At the same time, this will also be a test of how I will handle my anxiety of confronting my opponent in front of hundreds of people, some of whom will be my friends. As Taylor Clark says in his book Nerve, “sometimes it’s in the extremes that we see the truth most clearly: developing solid cognition under fire isn’t about thinking fearlessly but about thinking alongside fear”.

I strongly believe this challenge will help me develop skills that will extend in other areas of life. I will have a better ability to make decisions under pressure, increased confidence, assertiveness, and discipline to do things even when my motivation is low. Not mentioning the fact that I’ll be better at defending myself and those around me.

In addition to that, when faced with a new challenge I’ll have a great bit of reasoning I can use: “Compared to that boxing match, this will be easy. I survived that, so surely I will survive this challenge.” In other words, by fighting in the boxing match I will immunize myself against a lot of future anxiety.

A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him. ‘By experiencing minor discomforts, he is’, says Musonius, ‘training himself to be courageous’. The person who, in contrast, is a stranger to discomfort, who has never been cold or hungry, might dread the possibility of someday being cold and hungry. Even though he is now physically comfortable, he will likely experience mental discomfort—namely, anxiety with respect to what the future holds in store for him. - William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life - The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy)

In a sort of life judo, the Stoic faces up to adversity by treating life itself as a wrestler in the training ring, as an opponent who is not (necessarily) out to beat us, but whose purpose is to keep us on our toes; the Stoic becomes eager to face his opponent because that’s the way toward self-improvement. - Massimo Pigliucci (How to Be a Stoic)

Of course, as always, take everything with a grain of salt. I don’t completely agree with all the ideas found within Stoicism. For example, I think the philosophy tends to be too self-centred, and it lacks advice on connecting better to others. It’s sort of there, but it’s not really their strong point. They also recommend non-attachment to things and people, and although I see some benefits in doing that, it’s not how I want to live. I think if we combine the strength and seriousness of Stoicism with an attitude of openness and connection towards the world, then we’re in a great place.

This is just a glimpse into the wonderfully practical philosophy of Stoicism. If you’re curious to learn more about it, I highly recommend reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It’s short, easy to read and full of historical anecdotes.

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