Stoicism Part I


In the days of Ancient Greece, philosophy and science were intertwined. Philosophers were scientists. Science is the attempt to uncover immutable laws about the physical world. In turn, Philosophy is the attempt the uncover immutable laws about life.

The philosophy of life I subscribe to is Stoicism. The word stoic connotes an emotionless lump who goes through life not reacting to events. But the opposite is true, the Stoic approaches life with vigor.

This post will cover the main tenets of Stoicism, and the following post will cover techniques for actualizing Stoic tenets into your life.

The philosophy of the Jedi is very similar to stoicism. So, Jedi cat. /stoicism-part-i/jedi.gif


  • Happiness
  • Impermanence
  • Social Duty
  • Consumption
  • Discipline
  • Attitude

####Happiness The state of happiness comes from within. Only you can make yourself happy. Other people and material objects cannot make you happy. You can build a relationship with someone and derive happiness from this, but this is not deriving happiness from someone else. You can also obtain a new object which increases your productivity or efficiency in some way and be satisfied with the purchase, but once again this is different from deriving your happiness from an object. The best definition of happiness I have seen is “an internal state which occurs when your ambitions do not exceed your means.”

Most people use the word happiness interchangeably with pleasure, for instance someone might say “shopping makes me happy” or “cupcakes make me happy.” This is not so. These things are pleasurable, but they are not the source of happiness. They offer temporary and fleeting sensual gratification, not the kind internal calmness that comes when one is happy.

Unhappiness is usually ascribed to externalities - your boss was mean to you, your car broke down, your significant other didn’t take out that trash, a Starbucks cup doesn’t say “Merry Christmas.” Unhappiness in this regard exists because you are assigning value to the happenstance of external sources and events. Understand that when you allow externalities to dictate your state of being you cede control of your own happiness and emotions.

“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

“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

###Impermanence Everything is temporary. Your possessions, relationships, life, the earth, the sun - everything has an expiration date. Everything you love, will ever love, and have ever loved is dead or will die. However, this is not a terrible thing. Armed with this knowledge I am resigned to treat every moment as special, and something not to be taken for granted.

####Social Duty The Stoics believed we have a social duty. Humans have a responsibility to perform for the benefit of others and a by-product of that is that you benefit.

I regularly volunteer at an organization called Givecamp - we donate software development time to charities. I do not do this because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I do this because I feel I have a duty to do so. There are problems in this world, but as a capable individual I have the power to do at least some good. I usually do not look forward to this event, it is work. Afterwards I generally feel as if I’ve done some good, and if I’ve created a new connection for my professional network or learned something new I have also benefited.

As it is the duty of the universe to maintain the round of the seasons, as it is the duty of the sun to vary the points of his rising and setting, and to do all these things by which we profit, without any reward, so is it the duty of man, amongst other things, to bestow benefits. Wherefore then does he give? He gives for fear that he should not give, lest he might lose an opportunity of doing a good action. - Seneca

####Consumption To live we must consume. We must eat, have shelter, transportation, and clothe ourselves. Even though we must eat, we don’t need to eat at a fancy restaurant, or live in a luxury condo, or drive a BMW. Sure, you can and should experience some luxury in life, but know that it will not make you happy.

Hedonic adaptation is a known psychological phenomenon. Once humans acquire a material possession, they find themselves wanting an even more extravagant item. Remember wanting your first car, and how that beat up 15 year old vehicle made you scream with delight? Would that same car bestow the same excitement on you now? Once we acquire something we take its existence for granted.

Know that everything you consume: television, internet articles, and tasty cakes cannot make you happy. That consumption often only makes us want to consume more.

“The more pleasures a man captures, the more masters he will have to serve” - Seneca

####Discipline Willpower is a limited resource. If you’re trying to lose weight the first day you go to the gym is much easier then a month later. This occurs because willpower is exhaustible. The most efficient way to reach your long term goals is to use discipline - repeatable habits which you can build on. You can build yourself the way you build a wall - brick by brick, habit by habit.

####Attitude A negative attitude often masks the positivity around us. If you log into Facebook on any given day you may feel as if the world is going to hell. In fact, we live in the most peaceful time in human history. A negative attitude poisons our ability to make and achieve goals. A positive attitude on the other hand can often spread to others.

#####Sources: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy Meditations - Marcus Aurelius Letters From A Stoic - Seneca The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch