A handbook for new Stoics - how to thrive in a world out of your control: 52 week-by-week lessons
How much do I want to read more? 8/10
A nice walkthrough the discipline of stoicism with daily practice and exercice to internalize each concept, from theory to practice.
The Best Bet for Happiness
Getting what we don’t want can be just as painful as not getting what we do want.
staking our happiness and well-being on things outside our control.
What if we were able to train ourselves to desire only things that are firmly within our control? Then, in a very real sense, we’d always get what we want, and never get what we don’t want. Our happiness would never spill, since the cup of our desires is reliable and holds firm.
Betting on Character: Why Stoicism?
People with poor character put external advantages—money, fame, to bad use.
Those with good character will use what they have, no matter how limited, for the benefit of themselves and others.
Here is the great insight of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism: Shaping your character is ultimately the only thing under your control.
Through a combination of rational introspection and repeated practice, you can mold your character over the long term.
Betting on your own improvement is a guaranteed win with the biggest payoff.
Meet the Stoics
Stoicism is a Greco-Roman philosophy that began around 300 bce with Zeno.
Live according to nature
“What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.”
The Stoics thought that the best way to live our life, to make it count and derive meaning from it, is to live according to nature, particularly human nature.
By studying three interrelated topics: “physics,” “logic,” and “ethics.”
- By physics, the Stoics were referring to the study of all the natural sciences, as well as metaphysics—the understanding of how the world hangs together.
- Logic included what it does today, that is, the formal study of reasoning, as well as psychology and even rhetoric more broadly—everything you need to think and communicate well.
- Ethics was not limited to understanding right and wrong, as it largely is today, but was more broadly construed as the study of how to live with meaning.
To decide how best to live (ethics), one has to understand how the world works (physics) and reason appropriately about it (logic). Which brings us to the idea of living according to nature.
The most important aspects of human nature, the Stoics thought, are twofold: that we are social animals (and are then deeply interdependent with other people) and that we are capable of reasoning-based problem solving. So to live according to nature means using reason to improve social living. Or as Seneca put it, “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems.”
helping the practitioner, and the world around them, be better.
The three disciplines
How, then, do we live according to nature?
three disciplines: desire, action, and assent.
- The Discipline of Desire teaches us what is best to want (or to avoid): What should our goals be? Where do we channel our energy, time, and resources?
- The Discipline of Action shows us how to act in the social sphere: How should we behave toward others?
- the Discipline of Assent helps us arrive at correct judgments about obstacles that life throws at us: Should we be angry at this person? Should we indulge in that pleasure?
Stoicism is roughly one part theory and nine parts practice. The Stoics were very clear that understanding the philosophy (not that difficult) without putting it to use is a waste of time and energy. Epictetus said, “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?”
The dichotomy of control
The dichotomy of control is the central concept in Stoicism.
Put simply, it’s the idea that certain things are under your control, while others are not.
we should focus our energy and resources on affecting what we can control, and turn away as much as possible from what we can’t.
There’s a crucial difference between understanding something, which we can do by reading and reflecting on it, and internalizing that same thing, which can only be done with repeated practice.
How to Use This Book
every week for an entire year.
Each week starts with a lesson and continues with a practical exercise related to the lesson.
Part I - The discipline of desire
“There are three things in which a man ought to exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that a man may not fail to get what he desires, and that he may not fall into that which he does not desire.
The second concerns the movements (toward an object) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly.
The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgment, and generally it concerns the assents.
Of these topics the chief and the most urgent is that which relates to the affects [i.e., the Discipline of Desire]; for an affect is produced in no other way than by a failing to obtain that which a man desires or falling into that which a man would wish to avoid. This is that which brings in perturbations, disorders, bad fortune, misfortunes, sorrows, lamentations, and envy; that which makes men envious and jealous; and by these causes we are unable even to listen to the precepts of reason.”
-- Epictetus, Discourses III, 2.1–3
- I really get upset when I don't get what I want or things don't go my way.
- I put a lot of efforts into avoiding things I don't like or that I'm afraid of.
- I spend a lot of time pursuing comfort and pleasure.
WEEK 1 - Discover what’s really in your control, and what’s not
It’s easy to think that we have control over our lives when things are going the way we want. But what happens when we experience uncertainty?
"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, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”
-- Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The basic idea is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent.
it isn’t that we stop caring about them, but rather that we come to a deep understanding that we cannot guarantee that these indifferent things will turn out the way we wish them to.
The way we come to this understanding is through constant practice. This practice is the path toward ataraxia, the Greek word meaning serenity. We become serene by training ourselves to only want what is completely in our control—so in a very real sense, we’ll be serene because we always get what we want! This is the promise of the Discipline of Desire.
In our control:
“Thought” means “judgment” or “opinion”
These can be types of thoughts, and are not necessarily fully conscious ones.
it’s the first step in how we upset ourselves: We judge things to be inherently good or bad.
if you get angry at a person, you are implicitly judging the person’s actions as bad, even if the words “that person is doing a bad thing” never cross your mind.
“impulse” (horme in Greek). This is an impulse to act, but not necessarily in a base or automatic way.
Come from the first step of “thought” or “judgment.”
If you judge something to be good, you’ll want it. If you judge it to be bad, you’ll want to avoid it. Impulses are then urges to act based on value judgments.
From thought (the judgment) and impulse (the desire to act) comes the “will to get and to avoid.” We decide if it is worth spending the energy, time, and money.
For example, if we consider buying a brand new car.
Epictetus claims that all three of these things (thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get) are ultimately under our control.
You work with thoughts in the Discipline of Assent, impulses in the Discipline of Action, and the will to avoid and to get in the Discipline of Desire.
Stoic practice trains you to master all areas of what in theory you can control. That’s Stoic training in a nutshell.
Just because these things are in your control doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes influenced by external factors (such as other people’s opinions) or by internal ones (such as your physical sensations or more automatic urges, like a craving for a snack). But, ultimately, they are under your control because you can make a conscious decision to ignore your cravings or to override the opinions of others when it comes to your own choices.
not under our control:
essentially comprises all things external to our conscious mind.
Our body can get sick despite our best efforts at taking care of it;
we may lose our property because of accident or theft;
our reputation may be ruined due to circumstances we cannot influence;
we may lose our job through no fault of our own.
You may object they are under our partial control. Unlike the weather.
What to do
Exercice of the dichotomy of control.
Note down when you’ll do this exercise.
Sit down at this time Monday through Saturday of this week and choose something that happened that day to write about.
an event that wasn’t too emotionally upsetting, which could make the exercise more difficult.
List what aspects of the event were completely in your control and which weren’t.
- The intent to show up on time to the meeting
- Valuing my boss’s opinion of me and my work
- The wish to meet my quota
- The desire to get actionable tips from my boss (it’d help meet most of my goals above!)
- Conscious nervous thoughts/what I tell myself
- Actually showing up on time (I could have been delayed by that business call that ran over before the meeting!)
- My boss’s actual opinion of me and my work
- Meeting my quota (I can’t force people to buy from me)
- Actually getting useful tips
- Automatic nervous thoughts and the physical feelings of nervousness
Why do it
By doing this exercise daily, looking at specific events in your life, you’ll start to internalize what is really under your complete control and what isn’t.
This exercise will also give you a clearer picture of what exactly you should focus your desires and aversions on to achieve peace of mind.
On the seventh day of the week, write your impressions in your journal.
Was this week’s exercise useful to you? How? Did you discover anything about yourself or your world? Did you find it useless? Is there any way you could tweak your approach to make it easier or more useful in the future?