In my last post, I wrote what stoic philosophers can teach us about living the good life. I’ll admit practicing stoic philosophy is not for everyone, nor does it come easy. But history has shown practicing stoic philosophy has noted benefits for a flourishing and joyful life.
Stoicism is especially an excellent philosophy for those in positions of leadership. It is also an excellent philosophy for those in high-stress or high-chaos careers. The practice of stoic philosophy will benefit physicians, nurses, military service men and women, politicians, lawyers, social workers, and police officers to name a few.
Stoic philosophers had many admirable traits. One remarkable stoic philosopher (and perhaps the prototype for Plato’s philosopher-king) was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. If you watch this lecture by Professor Michael Sugrue, you can’t help but admire such a ruler existed. The Stoics displayed a pursuit of virtue and excellence. They were respected for their courage, justice, prudence, humility, and self-regulation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.” Emerson was clearly influenced by stoic philosophers when he said that. Stoic philosophers continually strived to become better human beings, and improving themselves. They believed above all else, the most essential purpose of man was a life of virtue and moral goodness. They lived life with integrity and transcendence.
Through courage, they did not shrink when faced with difficulty, challenges or threats. They were willing to meet what they feared. In fact, stoics thought the ultimate test for man was when faced with the prospect of your own death, you are able to remain in peace. History books and artists have shown us the courage of the stoic philosopher Seneca when he had to meet his own end when ordered to commit suicide by the Roman emperor Nero. Seneca did so with extraordinary calm and command.
Stoic’s practiced prudence because they believed it protected human beings from the negatives of excess. Through using the abilities of reason and finding their inner harmony, they encouraged their student’s to manage one’s emotions, motivation and behavior. Prudence involved keeping perspective by thinking of the long-term when creating short-term goals. This is often referred to as cautious wisdom or practical wisdom.
They emphasized that self-regulation and self-discipline were necessary to live a good life. A stoic believed that we should live by our nature by serving our fellow man.
There is now assuredly positive benefits from scientific studies for those who display stoic like characteristics. Stoic traits are linked to psychological and physical well-being. People with stoic like qualities have been found to be high achievers and there is evidence that they can live longer.
So what were some of the psychological techniques that Stoic philosophers taught their students on how to become more stoic and live a good life? According to the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, there were five main psychological techniques that they practiced.
We have all heard of positive thinking and all of its benefits, but many of us probably haven’t heard of its opposite sibling: negative visualization. This is what stoic philosophers taught to bring tranquility into one’s life. Sounds paradoxical. But there are some obvious reasons for doing this practice.
For one, when you contemplate the terrible things that can happen, you become aware of the possibilities that can wrong and can do something about it to prevent it from happening.
Another reason to practice negative visualization is to lessen their impact on us despite our best efforts to prevent it from happening. As Seneca said, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived they’re coming beforehand.” Similarly, Epictetus said misfortune is most painful for those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”
A third reason to practice negative visualization is to counter what is called hedonic adaptation. A significant part of human unhappiness is that we have “insatiable” appetites. We desire many objects and create many goals. When we achieve them, rather than being satisfied, we become bored. Therefore we create grander desires. Life inevitably becomes one big “satisfaction treadmill.” The Stoics believed that the way to stop this vicious cycle that robs so many of harmony and happiness was to learn to want the things we already have.
We can do this by negative visualization. Stoics recommended to periodically spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value most. Imagine you have lost your family or your health or your job, or whatever high values you have in life. Deliberately reflect on each value as if it has disappeared. By doing this, you will indeed realize and appreciate what you have in your life. In turn, you will gain a richer appreciation and pleasure from these things.
On the flip side, they also warned not to become too attached to things we value most. Many things we value in life may not be permanent.
“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them- that it would upset you to lose them”- Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Think of your day and think of the things you have complete control of, things you have some control of, and the things you have no control over. You may come to the realization that the only thing you have complete control of is yourself. Stoics taught that the only thing we control entirely is our self, our will, and our intentions. They warned that indeed the things you can’t control, you should not waste much of your time preoccupied with it.
Not that they didn’t care about things they did not control, but why worry about the things you can’t control? You can’t control if the sun will come out tomorrow, so why worry about it?
You can only control yourself and how you behave. Instead of externalizing your goals, internalize them, and work on improving yourself and the things you manage. Instead of saying you will win the tennis match, focus on what you will improve in that game. Stoics were great advocates of man mastering himself and striving to become better. To stoics, a virtuous person is one who performs well the function they were designed to do in accordance with nature. They looked within themselves and within their environment, and behaved in harmony to their condition.
Stoics also taught themselves to let go and not to worry about the past. What’s done is done. They believed one of the great tragedies of human nature was that they dwell on the past, and don’t fully live in the present. They thought that we find joy in living in the present moment and doing our best to prepare for the future, and that is how we should spend our time.
“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” –Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
We should learn peace and inner harmony by periodically causing discomfort. Human growth occurs to those who are able to mentally and physically experience discomfort. They were perhaps the first to preach “No pain, no gain.” Stoics argued that if all we know is comfort, then we would be weak when forced to experience pain or discomfort as surely that day will come. By periodically practicing discomfort, we adapt and become stronger for those situations. Stoics thought that too much pleasure had a dark side. As Seneca warned that the more pleasures man captures “, the more masters will he have to serve.” For Stoics, self-control and self-regulation were essential traits to overcome discomfort and excess pleasures.
Stoics were not masochist or anti-pleasure. They still enjoyed the fruits of life and its pleasures but warned to train oneself not to cling to these things. A stoic is one who appreciates the fruits of life but at the same time is not ruined when it is taken away.
Finally, they lived with great self-awareness by daily reflection or meditation. Self-reflection was an essential behavior to flourish and grow as a human being, and it was vital for man to gain wisdom. Seneca advised that nightly to reflect “What ailments of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”