“Stoic” is shorthand for emotionless. Add the fact that “the mere mention of philosophy makes most nervous or bored,” writes author Ryan Holiday, and “‘Stoic philosophy’ on the surface sounds like the last thing anyone would want to learn about, let alone urgently need in the course of daily life.”
Holiday is on a mission to change that.
The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living has been sitting on the bed stand most of this year. Each day I read a short reflection by Holiday and co-author Stephen Hanselman that drives home their belief in stoicism as a “tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom.”
The ancients who built the foundations of Stoic philosophy counted Roman emperors, former slaves, playwrights, political advisors, and prosperous merchants among their number. Along the road of history, figures as different as George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Immanuel Kant, William Alexander Percy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics.
To provide readers with a daily meditation, the authors organize the year around the disciplines of perception, action, and will. The months are grouped by themes. A short quote from an ancient philosopher is followed by a few paragraphs with accessible examples. The discipline of perception begins with the theme of clarity and the January 1st topic of control and choice. The quote is from the slave turned philosopher Epictetus.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own …”
Stoicism encourages us to focus on what we can control and how we control ourselves. “Acceptance isn’t passive,” Holiday asserts. “It’s the first step in an active process toward self-improvement.”
Many of us blame outside events for our circumstances. But we truly grow when we move beyond the event and focus on the response. Bad, unexpected, and unwanted things will happen to each of us. In our response we have to act to change. If one carries on as before, “eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.”
Not everything in this book works for me. In my belief system, hope and fear are not the same thing, as suggested by the stoics. Change and progress require that we look, with hope, towards a better future. But hope alone is not a strategy. “Hope demands things that despair does not.” True hope demands a response, an action.
Responsibility simply means we have the ability to respond. We can choose to get angry, unfocused, and negative when something happens — be it a political race that doesn’t go our way, an unexpected illness, the latest U.N. report on the coming climate catastrophe, or the death of a close family member. We can also accept that it has happened and then take the action — setting the standard through our works — that hope demands.
The Stoic virtues articulated by emperor Marcus Aurelius — justice, prudence, self-control, and courage — have been described as the “perennial desires of the wise.” Through the regular practice of reading and reflection, The Daily Stoic prompts us to think more deeply about how we live, how we navigate the challenges of life, and how we change our actions in response to those challenges.
More to come…