The Pillars of Stoicism - Virtues and Principles
Intro to Stoicism
In Stoicism, as in many other philosophies, there are some basic rules on which the philosophy tries to deconstruct or model the world, to find the best way to live.
Foundational blocks, so to speak.
The issue is, life is so complex, it's really difficult to find a set of guiding principles that really encompass it in its entirety, and always give you a set of options to choose from that are aligned with the values you are trying to embody.
Many philosophies are a bit vague and often speak in metaphors which can be hard to interpret. Check out the Bible, it consists mostly of those 🤷 In my opinion, you need some serious life experience to get most of it, to have accumulated enough perspective over the years to understand what possibly could be meant by some obscure old-timey phrase or story, and to grasp the true essence of it. That always deterred me from getting into philosophy or religion until I came across something so clear, concise, and true that I could not look away.
Of course, I am beating the Stoic drum here, but only out of conviction.
I have yet to find a way of living that is as beautifully practical and suited for everyday life.
From the ancient Romans and Greeks, until modern times now, Stoicism has remained the same in practicality, even if it might have evolved into the refined state it is in now.
But even back in the day, when Zeno (founder of Stoicism) suffered through his journey that finally lead to the incumbrance of what is now Stoicism, the given advice was so close to real life that some lessons that are preserved seem to be very recent, even by todays standards.
Stoicism is a makers philosophy. It gives you actionable steps to take for whatever reason you may need. But most importantly, it makes you focus on yourself to find the underlying issues and levers that you can actually do something about to solve a particular situation.
But let's stop the flattery and talk substance, shall we?
4 Cardinal Virtues
Stoics believe that each decision, and each situation, can be deconstructed into the following four principles or virtues, as they are called.
Each Stoic tries to represent all of these as well as possible in any given circumstance.
Let's check out what these mysterious virtues are and what they represent.
Courage inspires action. It is your daily driver that gets you out of bed and to seize the day. Face yourself in a pursuit to become a better version of you.
It's when you think you could not possibly text that other person first, but you know waiting is not going to solve anything, so you stop the games, and tell them what's up. In other words, you may be afraid of the possibility of rejection, but you accept that your fragile ego might need to take a hit, to gain some clarity about the relationship you are trying to engage in. Instead of "keeping it interesting”, you make a decision to move forward.
Courage is the application of the right thing, at the right time, in the right amount.
Temperance is not a word that is often used anymore. What it means is moderation. To take less than you want, to find balance.
It's when you commit to do a tough workout but then also commit in the same way to take the time and recover & eat properly, so you may grow from your efforts and do it again. Or more precisely: To know to better be healthy, then decide it will take exercise, rest, and nutrition to stay healthy, so you commit to a workout schedule, 8h of sleep, and clean food to get there. You balance all three. You do not release the mayhem during training, just to follow it up with McDonalds, and stepping on some dance floors for a total of 4h of sleep.
Temperance inspires you to apply a sense of force when you are doing the right thing.
Justice is not only when a judge slams her hammer. Justice is also when you bring down the full force of your superior decision making, by thinking, and aligning yourself before you decide.
I.e. to decide to which breakfast spot you should go to, or even if you should have breakfast at all. Deep down we mostly already know what the right thing is. We just need to go and look, ask ourselves what reason there truly is to what is bothering us, or what the best way is to get somewhere. If we feel like we should not eat breakfast so often, but are not sure why, the right thing would probably be to gain more insight by asking someone for help, or investing into doing research.
Justice is about knowing what the right thing is.
Wise people know their limits, but also when to push them. They consider possibilities and then decide which one will serve them best in the long run.
Wise people will decide to have the scheduled 7 shots of tequila from the expensive brand because the hangover will be slightly less horrific. Or just decide that drinking for the 3rd night in a row might be fun to counter the hangover from last night, but will likely not be conducive to any legitimate goal you set for yourself.
Wisdom is about knowing when to do the right thing.
I hope this light-hearted take gave you a sense in what situations you can apply all the virtues & also reflect that you do not have to be a hermit to use Stoicism to your advantage.
Take what is useful to you, and what seems to be good and true. Experiment with it and adapt it to fit your personal way of life.
As you might have noticed each of the virtues can bleed quite quickly into any of the other ones, so each decision will likely have more than one element to them. No one virtue will hold up without the other ones, but there might be situations or moment when one virtue dominates and is the focus.
Knowing what is right (Justice), will not do anything for you if you never decide on when (Wisdom) to act on it (Courage), and how much (Temperance).
You can rotate this around as much as you want. In the short term one virtue might be more prevalent, but overall, they all feed into each other.
Stoic Decision Making
If you want to think through a problem ask yourself:
- What is the right thing to do? (And also: Why are you doing something? aka. the right thing not only generally, for others, but for you personally.)
- When should I do it? (Set a dedicated time and try to stick to it as well as possible)
- How much should I do it? (To balance it our with everything else in your life)
This covers three virtues, to strategize about your path forward.
Afterwards, you will apply Courage to execute on your strategy and apply some tactics to keep you motivated and disciplined, even when the going gets tough, progress is slow, and shit sucks.
Thinking of situations in these terms and try to break down complex decision making with this system. You will find that at the core there are few things that actually matter (kind of an Essentialist POV here), which makes it significantly more easy for you to arrive at a conclusion and action plan that will drive you into the direction you want to go in.
These are apart from the cardinal virtues there are principles or mantras Stoics use in their daily lives to guide them.
Me personally, I like to reflect on the virtues and these principles at least once a day. I'll give you an example on what that could look like at the end of this article.
⛵ Amor Fati
Amor Fati is the love of fate.
It embodies the idea that you can only control so much in your life. Some things are just outside of your circle of influence. If that is the case, do not spend a second worrying, complaining, or whatever-ing about it. Accept it, move on, deal with it. Plain and simple. Some are rolling their eyes at this absolutism now - but notice I said simple not easy 😗
Jocko Willink, ret. Navy Seal and author of Extreme Ownership, tells a story about how he would face such adversity with just saying "Good!”, and then proceeding to choose the positive side, to whatever has transpired. I always found that to be helpful for myself.
Once you embrace focusing on the things that you indeed can control - this frame of mind is immeasurably powerful. It will give you a whole different level of energy. Just imagine that for a second - immediately discarding anything from your mind that you cannot do anything about.
How much peace would that give you?
☠️ Memento Mori
Memento Mori is the remembrance of death.
It’s a visualization technique Stoics use to center their lives. Ask yourself:
- How have you been living your life?
- Are you satisfied? Why / Why not?
- What do you want to have done when you die?
- Which regrets you do you not want to have when you pass away?
Define who you want to be and make decision to live up to your own expectations. Do this regularly and find new meaning in your life by reminding yourself to make every minute count. Yes, this is super cliché, of course, but actually embrace it for a moment. Isn't it very true?
It's not about stressing out about doing more, hustling, or whatever. It's about making yourself appreciate the time you have and spending it wisely, especially because building something you will be proud of takes time. And in the end, won't you be happiest while building towards something that has meaning for you personally?
👪 Summum Bonum
Summum Bonum means "for the benefit of all”.
Stoics believe in doing things that are generally beneficial instead of purely self-serving. Doing the right thing, in line with the virtue of Justice, will require us to take a hit for the greater good sometimes. It is quite simple, actually, since you already intrinsically know what's right once you understood the situation. The question remains, are you willing to push your ego aside to execute on it and stand by your principles?
Whenever you make a broader decision ask yourself:
- Which consequences will this decision likely have?
- Are there long-term implications?
- Will it only benefit me?
- Who is going to pay for the results?
- Am I trading personal gain for the peace of someone else?
Do what you believe is right, not what is apparently best for you personally in the moment. Don't be a leaf in the wind, at the mercy of chance to react to changes at a whim. Your values should pre-determine which course of action you will take. Be a person of honor and be consistent.
🧨 Premeditatio Malorum
Premediation Malorum is the act of visualizing negative outcomes and how you would want to react to them.
Like Memento Mori, this is another visualization technique, in which we imagine a bad situation, and then go through the process in our heads to determine how we would want to react in that particular situation. Imagine your parents died in a horrific accident, what would you do? Who do you want to be in that situation? What are the steps you want to take? Close your eyes, visualize it - vividly. How would you feel? What will you do? Act it out in your head. The same is true for any other tough spot you could find yourself in. Be it a hard deadline, or a rough breakup.
For this particular exercise we can remember the words of the holocaust and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl: "The last of the human freedoms is to chose your attitude in any given circumstance” If he could find serenity in brutal German winters, fixing railroads on broken feet, while being famished - we can too, when the barista fucks up our order of lavender macchiato.
🏰 The Inner Citadel
The Inner Citadel is a mental fortress.
There is a place where you are safe from any external influences, where you can just sit in peace, and treat yourself to the detachment and silence you sometimes so desperately need, in moments of turmoil and pure chaos. This place is you. Nobody can access you in the way you can. If I may reference Frankl one more time, even though he followed Judaism rather than Stoicism, this is the place inside you that only you can get to. That's where he used to retreat to, when life threatened to overwhelm him.
You can cultivate this by recognizing when you start to feel the external pressures to get too much, then just step away for a few minutes, sit by yourself, breath. Every time a stressful thought comes up, let it slide by and just listen to your breathing, let it calm down. After a few short minutes, of not reacting to your environment, when you regulated yourself, come back and reengage into what you were doing with a calmer mind, and pulse.
These are the most important stoic principles. Cultivate your awareness and mindfulness, so you can catch yourself during situation where these would be relevant, and then apply them as best as you can. It will take some time to get there, but anyone can do it that invests in themselves this way.
A Stoic Routine
As I promised here is how I normally go about trying to follow Stoicism, along with some other things I picked up along the way.
🧘♀️ Awareness & Mindfulness
After getting fitness out of the way, I will take time in the morning to meditate.
I usually do a breathing mediation, body scan, followed by a transcendence meditation in which I focus on each sense for a few moments and in the end I focus on all senses at once.
Some days I might also just do cyclical hyperventilation (aka. Wim Hof breathing).
When I am done, though, I will go through the cardinal virtues and the principles discussed above, and think about where I could apply those today. Maybe I have something to do at work that will require especially courage out of the virtues, so I will meditate on that.
The same applies for example to Premediation Malorum. Maybe I know I will have an uncomfortable talk later, so I try to imagine the worst possible outcomes, and how I would want to act during those.
This practice will increase my awareness of the Stoic fundamentals throughout a day and in the evening I will look back on my day and reflect on the following questions in my journal 👇
🪞 Daily Reflection
How do I feel?
What's on my mind?
Did I live up to my own expectations today?
Where did I fail?
Where did I succeed?
How can I improve?
What have I learned?
What am I most grateful for?
🏃 Being Healthy & Fit
When you start your day, after sleeping for 8h, it's pretty good for you to get outside and moving right away. Walking, running, or cycling will activate something called optical and auditory flow which has something to do with you moving through the environment, hearing your surroundings noises, that triggers your brain naturally to go into a state of alertness. Also, you will get natural sunlight in your eyes (don't wear sun glasses) which also wakes you up.
There are a few of such ways to optimize your brain chemistry & mental performance. If you are interested in more details, Andrew Huberman is a great (and scientific) resource for this stuff.
So, I try to get in a morning run right after getting up, during which I will try to absorb as much sun as possible. Otherwise, I walk to my gym and go train before I start work.
After the workouts, I take a cold shower to boost my immune system.
My breakfast either consists of waiting for noon, as I try to do at least a 12h fast. Sometimes the day does not allow that, so I'll have porridge, with blueberries, nuts, half an apple, honey, turmeric and cinnamon.
Lunch will usually be a protein shake that looks like this:
- 100 g oats
- 50 g protein powder
- 250 g frozen berries
- 100 g spinach
- 50 g nut butter
- 1 tbs. linseeds
- 1 tbs. psyllium husks
- dash of cinnamon and turmeric
- 250 ml juice
- 250 ml coconut milk
- 250 ml water
Dinner will normally be a home cooked meal, often with plant based protein, veggies, and slow-digesting carbs.
🔗 Where is the Stoic link here?
I want to be as fit as possible with as little effort as possible. I enjoy training, but I want to be able to maintain my routine no matter what, so making it very efficient, will maximize what I can get out of it during a day, month, year, my life. I will be a more energetic person, that can help others out better, that is more balance, and in a better mood.
If I work out, that benefits everybody - Summum Bonum.
At the same time I mitigate possible illness - Premeditation Malorum.
While also maximizing the impact I can have - Memento Mori.
Up next …
Getting into Stoicism hopefully just got much more easy and also interesting to you.
Overall, by applying Stoicism, you will learn to be less reactive to your surroundings, and act more in accordance with who you really want to be. It is not about repressing emotions that might be welling up inside you (some people might perceive it as repressing themselves), but to decide if that is really how you want to react to a situation. It gives you a way out of the endless race to chase after the next feeling, but to observe your feelings and filter out what's just sparking up as a situational thing, and what is actually a recurring pattern you want to pay attention to.
With this overview you will certainly be able to start practicing being more stoic, but if you would like input on a particular issue you are facing or seek general advice, you can contact me via the form on this page or Twitter @f_schlz.
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