What do you think about when you hear the word ‘philosophy’?
Is it an old white guy plastered to an old weathered armchair, scratching his long beard and smoking a pipe, contemplating the nature of reality? Or perhaps the Yogi master, chanting an ancient mantra on an old carpet and smiling at (seemingly) nothing?
I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought about it either. As a teenager, I’d picked up a few books that lay on my bookshelf untouched, making me appear far more clever than I actually was.
(In hindsight, I wish someone told me that girls don’t think you’re cool because you have a Plato book on your bedside table).
Yet somehow, I ended up studying philosophy at university. The reality was that I didn’t make the cut for the course I actually wanted - and there I was, reading Descartes, John Locke, and all the lads while pretending to question my existence.
I wasn't exactly enthralled with my studies or my place in the course.
Have you ever reached a place in your life where the theory of what you’re doing sounds much better than the reality?
Yep - that's how I felt about studying philosophy, and my life in general. The surface-level concept was interesting...but I hated actually doing it. Asking yourself ‘What actually is knowledge? grows old rather quickly.
And to be honest, it felt like the last question on my mind.
I was 20 years old, drinking far too much, and in a mental pit of despair - I needed guidance on how to live a good life and sort myself out. I couldn’t give a fuck about the meaning of knowledge.
Finding a practical philosophy
Funnily enough, though, it’s philosophy that got me through some of the toughest times in my life. And ironically, none of these lessons came from formal education (thanks Student Loan Company - you funded many, many beers and Urban Outfitters jackets I definitely could not afford).
Philosophy, by definition, is the study of general and fundamental problems - concerning existence, knowledge, values, reason, and more.
However, I needed the alternative definition - that philosophy is an attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.
That’s not to trash-talk traditional philosophy. It just wasn’t useful to me when I was in the trenches.
What was useful to me was stoicism.
You’ve probably heard someone being referred to as a stoic. This person is usually stone-faced and offers no hint of emotion.
This is what I thought it was all about too, and didn’t think too much about it, until I came across this quote:
'Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.'
- Marcus Aurelius
I was surprised by how much I resonated with this. I saw the waves as my anxiety and all the problems of my life. Instead of a solid cliff, I felt like I was a cheap polystyrene coffee cup, being bullied by the waves. I was hardly ‘taming the fury of the water’.
Control what you can control
I felt like I needed to be in control, but I realised that this was impossible.
A cliff can’t control whether the waves hit against it or not. I can’t control all of the problems and issues that I face in my life.
And that was the attraction of this philosophy - I didn’t need to control things anymore. I just had to keep standing, and smiling. Unavoidable problems were going to come. Conflicts that I had no control over were going to arise. But I would continue to stand and smile. That's all I had to do - easy!
This simple lesson was my gateway to stoicism. Lessons like this are what I still turn to when I’m struggling. I’d be an idiot if I tried to control the direction of the waves, so why would I try and control problems and anxieties that I really have no control over!
Today, this quote continues to have a huge impact on me. I use it to remember that I can’t control everything around me, and I don’t have to. I just have to remain.
So what actually is stoicism?
This simple little lesson led me down a rabbit hole, and I soon became a big fan of the stoics. I first wanted to learn about who these guys were (and why I should listen to them).
I was immediately struck by how long this philosophy has endured. It originated in Athens, around 300 BC. Over 2000 years ago.
Some of the most famous stoics were actually Romans! In fact, Marcus Aurelius (the guy I quoted earlier) was the emperor of Rome. That little excerpt is taken from his journal, the Meditations, which wasn't even intended to see the light of day.
This excited me - how often can we get inside the mind of someone who was literally the most powerful person on the planet?
The two other most famous stoics were Seneca and Epictetus. The former of which became an influential member of Roman society, while Epictetus was actually born a slave. Each of these 3 men led very different lives, yet all used similar tools to find success and to lead a virtuous life.
Stoicism teaches us to use self-control to tackle unhelpful emotions and thoughts. The common misconception here is that stoicism says you should strive to be emotionless. This is wrong - it teaches us to be objective, and use our emotions in a way that is helpful for us.
It teaches us that we should strive to lead a virtuous existence. One way of doing so is to practice the following four virtues. To put them extremely simply, they are:
Courage: Having the guts to face a problem, instead of hiding from it.
Wisdom: As Epictetus said, 'you cannot learn that which you think you already know.' To live a virtuous life, the stoics think you have to constantly be aware that you are still a student of life - embrace the pursuit of wisdom, and stay humble.
Justice: Doing the right thing. Fighting and working for ideals that you know are the moral thing to do. Putting a greater good above yourself.
Temperance: Everything in moderation. Find the 'Golden Mean'. For example, look at money - don't spend excessively, but don't be so unwilling to spend money that you live in discomfort.
(It's interesting to note that these principles have a striking similarity to Buddhism, and the 'four noble truths'! But this is a topic for another article).
While this is clearly a dumbed-down explanation of a 2000-year-old philosophy, it will hopefully give you the idea of what stoicism actually is. And on that note, we might as well talk about...
What Stoicism isn’t:
There's a lot of misunderstanding and bad press about stoicism. It’s absolutely not about hiding your emotions. You can stand strong and still know when to reach out for help. Never neglect the importance of talking about your problems - whether that’s with a counsellor, therapist, or just a good friend.
It takes a lot of strength to ask for help - you don’t need to deal with everything on your own.
Stoicism is about accepting situations that you can’t control and getting on with it anyway. It’s not about ignoring things that you can control. If your problems can be solved by positive action, then take it.
Where can I learn more?
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to tell you some of my favourite stoic lessons that have really helped me get through tough times. I know you'll find them valuable, too.
In the meantime, the best place to learn about stoicism is straight from the horse’s mouth! I would recommend that you start with Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ (purely because it's my favourite).
You can actually read this online for free (and legally, I might add)! Old Marcus died a couple of thousand years ago, so he won’t be making a profit off any purchases anyway.
Until next time - keep smiling!