Through my study of philosophy at UNI, the school of Stoicism has had a particular impact on me and the way I view the study. Founded by the philosopher Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE, this school of thought introduced a popular ethical theory on how people should live their lives. A testament to how versatile and popular this school was is evident by its two most famous philosophers; Epictetus, a Greek slave, and Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest Roman Emperors. Throughout my time in the philosophy department, we have spent countless hours of class discussing one very important theory that originated with the stoics; the idea of free will. This concept of free will has influenced some of the most prolific Christian theologians (Augustine and Aquinas), leading to Stoicism’s prevalence in western thought, religion, and culture. What made the Stoics so popular was their recognition that so much of the world is out of our control. According to the Stoics, once we recognize this fact and instead place our energy on things within our control (like self-improvement), we will live happier lives. Today some 2,000 years later, this philosophical school has seen a resurgence primarily due to author Ryan Holiday’s work. However, it must be noted that the Stoics are more than just some wise men sharing moral advice; these thoughts are based on a profoundly complex and sophisticated metaphysics (the study of abstract concepts like what constitutes being) deeply rooted in reason and logic. That being said, through analyzing their work, we can help to enhance our livelihood. Without further ado, here are six quotes that could change your life forever.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” -Marcus Aurelius
Through our education and upbringing, we have been indoctrinated with ethical beliefs about what constitutes “good” behavior. Universal ethical behavior is a whole philosophical argument in itself called ‘normative ethical theory.’ Still, the bottom line is there is a rough baseline of conduct that is typically universally permissible. Be kind to others, give back to your community, foster meaningful connections with others, respect yourself and those around you, be honest, etc. Though squabbling (and doubting oneself) over which acts are seen as right and wrong, people are wasting valuable time and energy. All of this self-doubt is holding us back from becoming the balanced men in which we strive to become. All men have the tools to become great men; the question is, are you willing to stop dragging your feet and become one?
“First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do” -Epictetus
If one decides to embark on this journey of self-improvement, actionable goals must be set to achieve one’s desired end. In the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, the author states the key to achieving financial success is to visualize the desired end. With a clear picture of one’s goal in mind, ambitions become much easier obtained. Think of it like this: Which goal is more achievable?: becoming rich (whatever ‘rich’ means) or making a six-figure salary by age 25? Think of this in terms of Stoics now; Visualize what your ideal life would be: be in good shape, spend time with family, travel, having a fun job that makes you a comfortable living, etc. With tangible goals like this in mind, rather than just “happiness”, you will find it easy to break down this dream into many actionable goals. If you want to lose weight, start lifting, running, and eating better; if you want better grades, make time to study and meet with professors. Once again, it comes to how much work you are willing to put in to become the best version of yourself.
“Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.” -Marcus Aurelius
Social media tries to keep us from succeeding. Large social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok have intentionally designed their algorithm to draw people in and keep them on the app for as long as they can, selling viewership for millions of dollars. These large corporations are selling valuable, non-refundable minutes of your life for a profit. It is up to you to decide: are you going to waste away your potential while mindlessly scrolling through your phone all day; Or are you going to limit your screen time, read books, work out and pursue your passions to become the man you have always strived to be? This is a difficult thing to do, but if it were easy, everyone would be a great man. Are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone, push your limits to become a balanced man? Or will you be another victim of mediocrity who is comfortable never reaching their full potential?
“Suffering arises from trying to control the uncontrollable” -Epictetus
This last summer I was supposed to study abroad in Scotland. All my life, I have dreamt of traveling overseas and experiencing all of the rich and vibrant cultures this beautiful world has to offer. Instead, something unprecedented happened, the COVID-19 Pandemic. After my study abroad was canceled, I could have very well just cried myself to sleep and sat at home all summer, down trot by the misfortune that had befallen me. Instead, the minute I got the news, I started calling employers inquiring about summer jobs and applied to internships around the country. Just because you have a bad day does not mean you have to have a bad week, and that bad week doesn’t have to turn into a bad year. Many things in life are completely out of your control; instead of trying to fix what cannot be fixed, roll with the punches and play the cards you’re dealt, and you may find life is a lot less tragic than you have previously thought.
“We suffer more from our imagination than from reality” -Seneca
We have all been here before. Your crush doesn’t like you back, your boss seems to hate you for no reason, or your friends needlessly hurt your feelings. What do we usually do in these situations? We ask ourselves what we did wrong when, in reality, it might not have been our fault. Yet, people continually obsess over others’ opinions of themselves to achieve social acceptance. So then what should you do when someone appears to dislike you? MOVE ON. You can never know what is going on in someone else’s mind; they probably weren’t even meaning to harm you. Why take it so personally? In David Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements,” one of the four pillars to a happier life is to take things less personally. He claims people form a fictitious reality (he calls it a dream-like state) for themselves where they are constantly the victim of the world around them. In reality, however, he claims this is merely our imagination. No one is continually judging and criticizing you; everyone is too busy thinking of themselves. In his book “The Consolation of Philosophy,” the philosopher Boethius recounts the story of his fall from prominence and his meditations while on death row. Before his fall from grace, he measured his happiness by his success at work, the acceptance of his peers, and money. However, after being unfairly imprisoned and losing all that had once brought him happiness, it is only through the Stoic teachings that he is able to find peace. One can only control themselves, not material things or the actions (or thoughts) of others. This letting go of our imagined downtrodden life is only achievable through self-respect and intense self-love. It is, without a doubt, the most difficult Stoic lesson to master.
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself” -Seneca
You may be saying to yourself that all this is all impossible and much too difficult, and that is partly true. Stoicism is a very difficult philosophy to uphold, and no one can become the Stoic Sage or the perfect “balanced man”. But does that mean we should not still try to become the best version of ourselves? Think of it like this: do you think one would be happier living up to 75% of their full potential or 10%? By striving to reach your full potential, you endeavor on the noblest pursuit in which a man can take. This is all very reminiscent of President Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Man in The Arena’ speech. Would you rather be the man in the arena, competing for glory, dripping with blood, sweat, and tears, or instead sit in the audience showering this man with praise for his noble pursuit? You can read this and continue to scroll through your phone for hours a night, wondering why you are not happy, or you can go out there, take life by the reins, and make happiness for yourself. The choice is yours, and probably the most significant decision of your life.
Meet the Author
Will Heaton ’22
History Major & Philosophy Minor
VP of the SigEp Learning Community