5 Ancient Stoic Tactics for Modern Life

Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy with practical teachings on living a happy, fulfilled life. A new study conducted by Stanford and UC Berkeley found that people who practice Stoic principles have lower levels of anxiety, significantly more positive emotions and are better able to cope with difficult times.

The “art of manliness stoicism podcast” is a show that talks about the ancient stoic tactics for modern life. The show features interviews with philosophers and authors who have written on stoicism.

Stoicism arose as a philosophy, a way of life — essentially a religion — in ancient Rome, most notably between 50 and 100 AD (even though it was Greeks who pioneered the thinking).

Two millennia later, the idea is experiencing a renaissance, and it’s easy to see why.

“Its basic, structuring concern is about what one ought to do or be to live well — to prosper,” argues contemporary philosopher Lawrence Becker of ancient Stoicism. And this is undoubtedly humanity’s greatest lasting challenge of how to live, becoming increasingly poignant in eras when a sense of common purpose has waned and each person is left to create meaning on his own. Stoicism’s responses, its basic ideas — what many contemporary authors and philosophers refer to as the “art of living” — consequently seem as pertinent now as they did a few thousand years ago.

While we’ve discussed some of the ideas of Stoicism on the Art of Manliness previously (and provided a brief introduction to it in a podcast interview), we’ve never discussed its more practical applications – the strategies that lead to personal happiness as well as societal improvement. My goal is to give five strategies for you to begin incorporating Stoicism into your life right now, so you may start feeling greater pleasure and contentment.

I’m not simply going to offer you with abstract concepts. They are, instead, founded on personal experience. I’ve been fascinated by Marcus Aurelius’ ideas ever since I first read his Meditations last year. So I’ve done some research, read a few books (both old source material and modern guidebooks), and implemented a few new habits into my daily routines.  

While there are many more practices and principles to be gleaned and applied from Stoicism, my goal with this article is to provide those that have had the greatest impact on my life (with plenty of personal anecdotes to support that claim), and which I believe can have the greatest impact on the lives of other men. These are activities that should be done on a daily and weekly basis (even if some of them are more psychological in nature). While Stoicism provides guidance on how to behave and respond in a variety of circumstances ranging from anger and anxiety to infirmity and death, that is beyond the scope of this essay (though perhaps it will be in another article later on).

Stoicism appeals to many people because it is a “ecumenical philosophy,” as Massimo Pigliucci describes it. Many different ideologies, faiths, and ways of life are complemented by its teachings. You may practice Stoicism while also adhering to Christianity, Judaism, atheism, and a variety of other isms or non-isms. It’s all about achieving happiness, contentment, and peace, as well as making society a better place for everyone. Isn’t that something that we can all support?

 

Without further ado, here are five methods to incorporate Stoicism into your everyday routine:

1. Imagine your life without your favorite things.

“He deprives current illnesses of their potency who has foreseen their arrival.” —Seneca

“The single most important strategy in the Stoics’ psychological toolset,” according to William Irvine, is a method he terms “negative visualization.” Imagine your existence without your blessings, both spiritual and material, to fully appreciate them.

Imagine your home, along with all your belongings, being devastated by a tornado if you live in a tornado-prone area. Obviously, this is a terrible thought experiment, but chances are you’ll learn to love your house and the things in it more if you can really imagine how life would be without it.

This approach may give the impression that Stoics are pessimists for the rest of their lives, yet nothing could be farther from the reality. Stoics, on the other hand, are the ultimate optimists. Consider a 16-ounce drinking glass filled with 8-ounces of water. Isn’t it obvious that it’s either half full or half empty? The Stoic, on the other hand, would be glad simply to have any water at all! And, to top it off, there was a vessel to retain the water. Nothing is taken for granted by the Stoic.

Of course, doing this exercise with your loved ones is more difficult, but it’s definitely worth it. When I pick up my kid from daycare in the afternoon, I momentarily reflect on how each day is really a gift and that anything may happen. He may not be here tomorrow, therefore I had better live, love, and parent to the best of my skills now.

Now I’m not worried that my children won’t live long on this planet (Irvine notes the important difference between contemplating and worrying). I’m well aware that the chances of it happening are incredibly remote. It’s more of an admission that you never know when the things and people you care about may go. It’s made a significant impact in my attitude, overall thankfulness, and, most importantly — as one would assume in this stage of life with small children — my patience. Whether my toddler son takes an eternity to clean his teeth or my 1-month-old daughter insists on being carried and rocked to sleep, I seem to be able to deal better when I envisage a life without them. This exercise hasn’t made me sad or mopey, as you might expect; rather, it has made me swell with gratitude for the days we are given, and I can say that I am better able to appreciate all of life’s blessings, from my wife and kids to the cheerful song of a bird out my window on a beautiful spring day.

Bad things — which unavoidably come to all of us — are deprived of at least part of their power when we’ve foreseen their potential and so taken full use of each day, hour, and instant provided to us, as Seneca indicated at the start of this section. When we can honestly declare that we squeezed every ounce of delight out of what we own and who we love while they were with us, the pain of loss isn’t nearly as sharp. In presenting a eulogy for his 24-year-old son, Alex, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin said:

 

“There is a great deal of solace.” Because there are no lingering unsolved questions and because Alex and I simply liked one other, the wound is deep but not dirty for me. I realize how fortunate I am!”

2. Memento Mori — Death Reflection

“Let us prepare our brains as if we were approaching the end of our lives. Let us not put anything off. Let us try to balance the accounts of life every day… “Whoever spends each day putting the final touches on their life never runs out of time.” —Seneca

While it is connected to the preceding point, memento mori refers to contemplating your own mortality rather than that of your loved ones. Negative visualization is picturing life without the things you like, while memento mori requires you to contemplate and accept the truth that you will not live forever. Everyone, including you, my reader, is subject to death.

However, we live in a society that is death-averse. We’re terrified of it in general. The Stoics, on the other hand, say that if you’ve lived a life of purpose and meaning, you shouldn’t be afraid of something that has happened to every human being (and every other living creature) from the beginning of time.

Now, meditating on your own death is not the same as asking yourself, “What would you do if you knew this was your final day on Earth?” In such case, I’d take the day off, get my friends and family to do the same, and do something special with them. I’d eat a lot of delicious but unhealthy cuisine, drink a lot of whiskey, stay up all night, and so on. However, they aren’t activities you can do every day. Rather, the question is, “Would you be content with how you spent your final day if you didn’t get up in the morning?” Did you give your all at work? Did you have a strong bond with your family and friends? Did you contribute in any way to the greater benefit of society? Have you made moral decisions?

It’s not a sadness or anxiety-inducing meditation when I ask myself this question, as it was with the prior point. I recognize that the chances of my dying tomorrow are very remote; I am only acknowledging the possibility. And this prospect is energizing, not disheartening. I’m far less prone to squander time as a result of it. I’d rather have spent my time making a loaf of bread than playing games on my phone if I’m gone tomorrow. I’d much rather have spent time reading bedtime tales to my kid (all the words) than rushing through it to catch up on another episode of Nailed It (which is fantastic, by the way). 

Reflect on your actions and choices throughout the day, or only at the conclusion. Both the good and the evil are present. Would you be pleased with the result if this was your last day? What would you have done differently if you could go back in time? What would you have done differently in your dealings with people if you could? How can you put this knowledge to use tomorrow to make better judgments and participate in more useful activities? Make it a reality. What value is philosophy if it has no influence on how we live day to day, as the Stoics would have asked?

 

I’ve also discovered that reading memoirs about death and dying is beneficial. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is one of my all-time favorite books. He wrote the book when in his late 30s, married, and with a small kid, dying of lung cancer. I read it to both of my children when they were only days old. He offers a unique viewpoint on what it means to not just die well, but to accept the truth of death: “The reality of death is uncomfortable.” There is, however, no other way to live.” Even in his latter months, he retained a remarkable sense of optimism: “Even though I’m dying, I’m still living till I die.” Nothing will motivate you to live more completely each day if the words of dying people don’t! The Bright Hour, Dying: A Memoir, and The Last Lecture are three more excellent works.

3. Detach yourself from outcomes by setting internal goals.

“We have control over certain things, but not over others. Opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a nutshell, everything we do ourselves are within our control; our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a nutshell, everything we don’t do ourselves are not.” —Epictetus

Not allowing things outside your control to upset your balance is one of the cornerstones of Stoic philosophy. Things we’re accustomed to believing are beyond of our control, including the weather, traffic, and our health, are examples of externally-dictated events (and that of our loved ones). But it also includes things over which we often mistakenly assume we have complete control, such as the results of competitions and the success or failure of economic operations.

Irvine uses the example of a tennis match to help us understand a fact that we ardent bootstrappers frequently reject. You might set a goal to win the game. Isn’t that entirely reasonable? But, when you think about it, many of the circumstances that affect the contest’s conclusion are outside your control: Your opponent is simply better prepared than you (or perhaps just better, period); you sprain an ankle halfway through the match and are unable to continue; the weather is bad and wind gusts aren’t in your favor; you have equipment failure (like a broken string) that isn’t disastrous but is still a distraction; your opponent is simply better prepared than you (or perhaps just better, period); you sprain an ankle halfway through the match and are unable to continue. If you want to win, and any of these things happen to you, you’ll be disappointed.

Recognizing that most of life is beyond your control does not imply relinquishing your feeling of agency; rather, it means concentrating it on the few areas over which you have complete authority: your own actions.

Set objectives that are solely tied to your own efforts, rather than focused on outcomes, which are influenced by external factors outside your control. Instead of having a goal to win the game, make it a goal to prepare as much as possible, practice as much as possible, and then perform to your full potential. If you accomplish those things and still lose, there’s nothing you could have done differently, so why worry?

 

Make it your objective to prepare properly, dress appropriately, and answer every question as best you can, rather of focusing on obtaining the job you’re interviewing for. It wasn’t meant to be if you did all of that and still didn’t get the job (or so the Stoics would argue).

Rather of focusing on acquiring a partner, concentrate on being a good catch. Make it a goal to ask someone out X times a month until you get a yes by eating properly, working out, having a solid job, dressing good, and making it a goal to ask someone out X times a month until you get a yes.

My personal desire for this essay isn’t, and never has been, for it to be shared or retweeted a certain amount of times. I have no control over which posts become viral and which do not. The internet’s whims aren’t worth thinking about or worrying about. Instead, my genuine purpose was to do as much research as possible and write, arrange, and edit the post to the best of my ability so that individuals who read it would have the greatest opportunity of connecting with it and putting anything into practice.

When you make objectives, focus on what you can control, such as your own efforts and attitude, and dissociate them from what you can’t, such as the final result.

4. Accept Discomfort with Open Arms

“Nature has mixed pleasure with necessities – not so that humans would seek pleasure, but so that the addition of pleasure would make the required means of survival appealing to our eyes.” It is luxury if it asserts its own rights. Let us then fight these flaws when they seek admission, since, as I already said, it is simpler to refuse them admission than to force them to leave.” —Seneca

The Stoics were well-known for allowing a certain amount of suffering into their life. They’d forego certain pleasures – food, drink, and sex — for a period of time. They’d immerse themselves in inclement weather (and with few clothes to boot). They’d avoid wealth (and even accolades) in order to avoid learning to attach to them. They’d even put themselves out there to be mocked. These behaviors were counter to the Epicurean philosophy, which was based on the pursuit of pleasure in the end. The Stoics, on the other hand, realized that by accepting challenge, they were considerably more pleased and fulfilled than their Epicurean counterparts.

To be Epicurean – someone who seeks out the things in life that make them feel the best — you must be constantly experiencing pleasure. You’re practically on a dopamine high all of the time. However, after a time, those sensations fade, and you require ever larger and more ubiquitous dosages to maintain your pleasure sensors active at the same level. Real contentment becomes painfully unattainable once you start jogging on the “hedonic treadmill.”

Let’s demonstrate this with a simple mental experiment. It’s simple: when it’s hot outdoors, you want to keep cool. It’s a natural tendency. So, despite the fact that it’s a scorching 95 degrees outside, you turn on the air conditioner at home to a cool 65 degrees. It feels good, doesn’t it? You become acclimated to the feeling of ease and even pleasure that comes with remaining cool. But today, in order to be at ease, you must also be stylish everywhere you go. You should start your automobile 10 minutes early to allow it to cool down enough for you to be comfortable; else, you will be uncomfortable. You need that coolness at your office, favorite restaurant, heck, in every institution you visit. If, God forbid, the air conditioning fails, you’re in big trouble. You’ve been invited to an outdoor baseball game by a friend? You’ll go, but you won’t have a good time since it’ll be too hot. It’ll be all you can think about.

 

Consider a different situation. Yes, you switch on the air conditioning at home, but in the automobile, you just pull down the windows and get a bit toasty if it’s hot outdoors. Rather of working out in your basement refrigerator, you take a ruck outdoors to work up a sweat. In certain ways, you like being heated from time to time so that you may be happy in any scenario. When does the air conditioning go out? It’s not a huge deal; you can adapt. You’ve been invited to a baseball game during a heat wave? Yes, absolutely! You like baseball and are content to just be there at the game, regardless of the weather. You are a calm guy who is unconcerned by the temperature reading on the thermometer.

Isn’t that a more pleasant way of life?

It’s a foolish and superficial example, but the idea applies to almost every pleasure in life. If you rely too much on it for fun and comfort, you’ll become a brittle, whiny grump when you don’t have it.  

Irvine points forth three specific advantages of consciously sacrificing pleasures and sometimes inviting suffering (with an illustration of how a specific practice — refraining from alcohol — may play out):

  1. It makes us more resistant to whatever calamities may befall us in the future. (If your health deteriorates and your doctor prevents you from drinking, having practiced regular periods of abstinence will make it easier for you to get through this phase.)
  2. We won’t be concerned about such catastrophes since we know we’ll be able to cope and even thrive in almost any situation. (You may look forward to a birthday celebration with friends where you know the drink will be flowing; you won’t be disappointed that you won’t be able to have any fun since you know you’ll be OK without it.)
  3. It allows us to appreciate the joys we do have when we do. (If you get a clear bill of health, you’ll appreciate the dram of whiskey you may share with pals even more.)

This is one of the most well-known Stoic practices, and there are a few particular things you can do to welcome suffering into your life and strengthen your overall resolve:

  • Enroll in The Strenuous Life (and live up to the slogan “Do Hard Things”).
  • Shower with chilly water.
  • While being entirely cool, hold/try to quiet a wailing infant.
  • Even if the weather is bad, you can exercise outdoors (perhaps without shirt, shoes, etc.)
  • Maintain a hotter temperature in the summer and a lower temperature in the winter (but don’t freeze out your family; be sensible!)
  • For a week, eat nothing but rice and beans (or a month)
  • Once a month, abstain from eating for 24 hours.
  • Accept uncomfortable circumstances (travel/vacation with your children, attend an event you don’t want to attend, make small chat with strangers, volunteer at a soup kitchen).
  • Rather of hiring it out, do physical tasks around the home.

There are a plethora of methods to accept some form of pain in your life, and each person’s approach will be unique. Find yours and take on the challenge. “The act of foregoing pleasure may itself be enjoyable,” Irvine wisely notes. Accept the grind!

 

5. Pursue Character and Virtue fiercely

“I’m reducing the amount of vices I have every day.” —Seneca

The Stoics believed that pursuing virtue was the best way to have a happy life. “What, therefore, must a person do to live what the Stoics would term a decent life?” says William Irvine. “Be virtuous!” says the narrator. We will naturally find joy in becoming a better person — a man of high character — while also making greater contributions to society as a whole. You may wonder how it might happen. Will you not volunteer more if you are devoted to virtue? Will you be more inclined to assist a stranger in distress? Why don’t you volunteer to be a Neighborhood Watch captain or a Little League coach? Will you be more inclined to reply “Yes!” if you’re asked for a favor? All of these activities benefit our communities and are natural outcomes of developing greater personal virtue and character.

However, how can one grow more virtuous? How can you grow your character and put it to use in your everyday life? Fortunately, there are many viable solutions (several of which we’ve already discussed in depth):

Ask yourself, “What would my ideal self do in this situation?” on a regular basis. In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and in an interview with Brett on our podcast, Father James Martin mentioned this topic. In our heads, we all have an ideal version of ourselves. That version eats better, exercises more, is more tolerant with his wife and children, doesn’t waste time at work, and so on. Simply question what your best self would do, or how that best self would decide, in each given situation to behave more consistently in ways that line with this ideal:

Would my best self floss in the morning for two minutes?

Would I rather have a hard-boiled egg or a Girl Scout cookie as a snack?

Would my better self make more phone calls to his parents and grandparents?

Is it possible that my best self would watch porn?

Would my better self send more letters to former pals to keep in contact with them?

Would my ideal self be more patient with his children’s lengthy nighttime routines? 

Would my best self scream at the person who cut him off on the motorway and flip him off?

Would my ideal self use work time to play fantasy football with his team?

Would my greatest self read a book on the Kindle app or complete another Candy Crush level?

Would my ideal self try romancing his wife or spend another night on the sofa watching TV with no conversation?

Would I take another drink if I were my best self?

Would my ideal self go a long distance to attend the funeral of a great friend’s parent?

Would my greatest self sleep in on a weekend morning or volunteer to clean up a park?

It’s a simple question, yet it’s quite powerful. These aren’t simply hypothetical scenarios. Since reading Fr. Martin’s book late last year, I’ve been asking myself some of these questions. While I don’t always do what I know my best self would do (especially when it comes to Girl Scout cookies), I’ve made huge improvements in my ability to make more virtuous choices on a continuous basis, and I’m steadily approaching that ideal.

 

Use Benjamin Franklin’s virtue plan as a guide. Franklin established a tall aim for himself as a 20-year-old: to achieve moral perfection. He devised a 13-week strategy to better himself in 13 areas or qualities to do this. Each week, he’d concentrate on one in particular, while still keeping note of his progress on the others. We’ve written in-depth about the program here, and we’ve also produced a one-of-a-kind diary based on the 13-week schedule that serves as a virtue tracker. While Franklin never achieved perfection, he did see a reduction in his errors over time, and later in his life, he had this to say about his program:

“Though I never achieved the perfection I had aspired to, but fell well short of it, I was a better and happier man as a result of the endeavor than I would have been if I had not tried it.”

“What good should I do this day?” you may wonder. Another of Franklin’s thoughts about his quest to become more moral. He’d ask himself this question every morning, and every evening, he’d ponder, “What good have I done today?” This question will make you concentrate on practicing everyday kindnesses to and for your fellow people rather than on your lofty “I want to change the world” thoughts. Whether it’s sending a letter home, assisting an old lady with her groceries, or just complimenting someone (your wife, a stranger, anybody!) going small to improve the world may achieve a lot more. More information on this concept may be found here.

Create a set of principles. If you don’t know what your life’s guiding principles are, how can you seek virtue? “The topic of how to live is important,” argues Massimo Pigliucci in How to Be a Stoic. How should we deal with life’s trials and tribulations? “How should we behave ourselves and treat others in the world?” To effectively answer such questions, you’ll need some form of guidance; the answers aren’t going to appear out of nowhere.

The Stoics believed that there was a single universal Truth that could be found by examining natural principles. You have the option of taking a different course of study. It should be your goal to acquire a clear set of principles and values that you will adhere to in your everyday life, whether derived from religious texts, philosophical concepts, or a mix thereof derived via your own diligent reading and thinking (à la Winston Churchill). If you’re stuck for ideas, start with traditional religious writings. After that, look at other philosophical schools. What connects with you on a deep level? What activities and/or spiritual disciplines would your ideal self engage in? …and while we’re on the subject of disciplines…

Spiritual disciplines should be practiced on a regular basis. While these disciplines are referred to be “spiritual” since their initial goal was to bring the practitioner closer to God, they may be utilized by anybody to improve character and “train the soul.” There are a variety of disciplines that have directed and developed higher-purpose-minded individuals for thousands of years, ranging from fasting to desiring solitude to providing service and practicing appreciation. Read through our series on the subject to see which you’d want to do on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. You’ll undoubtedly emerge from the experience more focused, virtuous, and satisfied.

 

Choose one of these suggestions and watch what happens. You are the only thing preventing you from achieving higher character and morality. You’ll make strides if you sincerely and fully pursue the work — making it a goal to become veritably intoxicated on virtue — and, as previously said, you’ll enhance your community at the same time.  

Stoicism is a vast philosophical tradition, yet it isn’t simply for contemplation. It’s full with old truths and has a plethora of current uses. Put it into action and put the art of life into practice.

Stoicism is a vast philosophical tradition, yet it isn’t simply for contemplation. It’s full with old truths and has a plethora of current uses. Put it into action and put the art of life into practice.

Sources

William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life (the best modern guidebook, in my opinion)

Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic

Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Epictetus’ Discourses

 

 

The “art of manliness patience” is a 5 ancient Stoic tactics for modern life. The five tactics are: acceptance, detachment, tranquility, mindfulness and self-control.

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