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Stoicism 101: A quick guide to the philosophy (Win a Free Book!)

11/18/2011

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And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah…or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
-David Foster Wallace

For 28 days in October, I lived in the wilderness of the Utah desert with seven other people, suffering freezing nights and scorching days, all while eating extremely meager rations (including almost a week of no food, whatsoever). Besides a book on outdoor living skills, I was accompanied by just one book: Letters from a Stoic, by Seneca. As the days progressed, I watched several group members drop out due to the difficulty and other reasons. I often questioned why I was doing what appeared to be an insane undertaking.

I’ve always been a fan of Stoicism, and because my only source of reading for a month was Letters from a Stoic, I spent a lot of time thinking about the philosophy within the modern age. The following short article is meant to help you understand the basic tenets of this ancient, but extremely relevant, philosophy. In future articles, I’ll delve deeper into this philosophy and it’s ramifications.

Read on below to learn how you can win a free copy of one of my two favorite books: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca or Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius writing Meditations

History

Stoicisim was founded around 300 B.C. by Zeno, who was born in Cyprus. Zeno lectured from a well known stoa (a porch-like structure) in Athens; hence, the name Stoicism. For centuries, stoicism was one of the most influential philosophies in the Greco-Roman world, and its numerous followers and teachers modified and developed it over hundreds of years. The basic framework, however, always remained the same.

The major goal of Stoicism is to lead man to arrive at happiness by achieving the true good thing in life: arete in Greek or virtus in Latin (definitely more complicated than the English ‘virtue’). This summum bonum (supreme ideal) is a combintion of four qualities.

  1. Wisdom, or moral insight
  2. Courage
  3. Self-control
  4. Justice, in the form of upright dealing with others.

The idea of arete is that, by following the ideal and achieving it, a man becomes truly self-sufficient; that is, immune to suffering and bad fortunee. Arete is a personal characteristic, not one bestowed by class or position: thus, even a slave who has achieved arete is free, because no man, not even a king, can affect him.

While there is no specific God, stoics often refer to a divine will in various terms, but the basic understanding is that all men live in a singular community under the same conditions and restraints. Due to this singular community, man has a duty to live in conformity with the community. This duty is twofold:

  1. We should accept and resign ourselves to whatever fate is bestowed upon us, without complaining. (See this 4 hour workweek article on how to quit complaining)
  2. We should bring out life in accordance with nature’s laws.
Seneca's Writings Seneca’s Writings

Step 1 – Resigning Oneself To Fate

Why should we accept fate completely? Although this seems to mean that we shouldn’t try to improve the future, this isn’t correct: stoics put a high value on public service, for instance, or striving to better oneself. In the case of stoicism, resigning oneself to fate means that we should not set too high a value on cursory, transient thing. By avoiding a fixation on the unimportant, man can find true inner peace and unshakeable contentment that doesn’t rely on possesions or fortune. By accepting that things come and go, this contentment and peace will withstand the obstacles of ambition, luxury, and—most importantly—greed. It should be noted that the idea that all things ‘come and go’ is a central tenet of Zen Buddhism as well.

Step 2 – Life in Accordance With Nature’s Laws

The concept of ‘Nature’s Laws’ is a bit personal, which is why ‘questioning convention’ is one of the fundamentals of stoicism. Some of the most important ideas, however, are clear:

  • Training oneself to live with only the bare necessities. A man should know how to live with just basic food, water, clothing, and shelter. In one of his letters, Seneca writes: “Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, coarse clothing, and you will ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’”(67)It was this ideal (and, specifically, this quote) that originally drove me to spend 28 days in the wilderness with almost no food.
  • We should develop our gift of reason. How so? We must perfect our sense of reason to conquer our devastating inner emotions: grief, pain, fear (of death, especially), and superstition. Reason allows us to escape and discipline our passions, understand that ‘nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so,’ and to generally accept our mind as a greater source of truth than the body or emotions. Stoics are famous for their idea that ‘the shortest route to wealth is the contempt of wealth.’

This has been a very basic summary to Stoicism, and I hope you can see why it is a lasting and powerful philosophy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic! Leave a comment below, and one lucky commenter will get a free copy of Meditations or Letters from a Stoic. All you have to do is Tweet this link, Like this page, and comment below. I’d love to hear what sort of articles you want to read from this blog, and what I can help you achieve.

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{ 17 comments… }

chai August 8, 2013 at 4:40 am

Wow, fantastic!
Two months ago, I met this wise, elder man. He taught me the way to happiness and although he said he didn’t believe in any god or belief, his thoughts sounds very familiar to stoicism. Wonderful!

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DaveK August 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

I have as much as possible tried to live by similar creeds of Thoreau – simplify, simplify & all things in moderation. Live as simply as possible & work to achieve a balance amongst the elements of your life – as much as possible.

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Joe Ramos August 1, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Hi Maneesh,
So, I’ve been reading the work of Napoleon Hill lately, and I’m curious to see how stoicism and N.H’s “persistance of positive thought” ideas overlap or contradict. One seems to say “what will be, will be” while the other says “life and success are what you make of them”.
I wonder if these are just different ways of saying the same thing? Thoughts?

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garry August 1, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I can relate fully to this article on stoicism,having lost my property development business in 2009 which included parting ways with my ex and children(not by choice)i have faced the fears that haunted me all my life,no money/status in society etc and to be honest,i am personally alot happier living around my own personal inner universe than been led by the tides of media and society,the reality is that you actually dont need much material things to be really happy,whats makes me happy is not my possessions but how i view the world now and find ways to get pleasure from the world that cost very little,we can become hostages to the herd mentality in this life but ignore our own basics instincts for happiness!!!Breaking free from the shackles of conformity is not such a revolution as you might think and it also reinforces what you truly believe is your true character,how many people lead hum drum lifes that lead to mediocity and disallusionment!

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Antonio August 1, 2013 at 11:10 am

There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.
Bruce Lee

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Mari April 13, 2013 at 7:04 am

How do you deal with tenants that are living above you and causing loud noises inthe early morning hours and late at night and lying to their landlord when he request that they be courteous to the neighbors. I own my unit, these are renters and are not adhering to their landlords contract. It has me very upset and am trying to ignore their behaviour for my own health but it has used up all my energy trying to be a good neighbor to them. Any helpful ideas on getting thru this miserable time? Thanks for all your lessons.

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jan January 27, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Mari, from stoicism,firstly, the world is full of jerks and you meet them everyday. It is their nature, they know no better. Secondly are they within your influence? If so, do something eg police, legal. If not, calm down and accept that its only temporary. They’ll tire,leave or eventually die! Keep yourself well and you’ll outlive them!

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marie March 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Maneesh, I have so much to learn but I am on a path that I feel very comfortable in treading…I have started to simplify a few things in my life, and to just find the four qualities in all I do or try to do:
Wisdom, or moral insight
Courage
Self-control
Justice, in the form of upright dealing with others.
So many things can come from this!
Looking forward with so much enthusiasm!

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maneesh March 28, 2013 at 7:57 am

awesome

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Tom November 22, 2011 at 2:15 am

Awesome! Thanks Maneesh! Some great resources here. Can’t wait to read the post you’ve got lined up.

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Tom November 19, 2011 at 5:22 am

‘Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so’ that may be the biggest take away from this article. If you could discipline your mind to let those thing that usually depress you or get you down to wash over you like they don’t matter it would be incredibly liberating, considering the things we put off out of fear. I’m not talking about the mourning of a loved one, but perhaps not letting getting yelled at by ur boss ruin your weekend or make you dread going to work. That would be an incredibly valuable skill and a very worthwhile pursuit.

On another matter…Maneesh I keep reading bout your time in the desert with barely any food and you mentioned how much weight ppl tend to lose doing it. I’d love to see some before and after pics of your own weight loss on the course. Only if you actually did lose weight of course, otherwise that would be a bit pointless lol.

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Tom November 19, 2011 at 5:27 am

Oh by the way, keep up the good work! Loving your stuff! I’d love to hear in detail what you think sets you and your super successful students apart from those who’s businesses never really took off. You must have students who did badly just as sure as you have students who did well. What was the difference? More money to invest? A unique approach? I’d love to hear it. There’s such a high failure rate for ppl trying to set up internet marketing businesses to a level where they can live completely of passive income, even with the right materials at hand.
Regards Tom

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maneesh November 19, 2011 at 9:59 am

Hey Tom!

Thanks for the awesome comment. It’s true—thinking makes it so. After 4 years of travel, I’ve realized how important and true this is. No matter how far you run, you can never run away from yourself—so you might as well like yourself. This is best done by changing your habits. Do the no complaint challenge, you have to realize HOW AWESOME life is, and how many opportunities there are. http://maneeshsethi.tumblr.com/post/195675479 — if you don’t like something, change it.

As for losing weight, I lost 25 pounds in 28 days! Here is a photo: https://img.skitch.com/20111119-r4bi68jxrq29ifdcwwfw7611cb.jpg

And here are the best photos from my trip: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/153216/boss%20course/photos.html

As for students following my strategies, honestly—it comes down to motivation. No one gets rich by being lazy. You have to love what you’re doing and keep pushing. Many of my students have given up, but many have created a great biz. And lots have taken the strategies offline and now are building businesses, marketing them locally, with my strategies.

Great!

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Tom November 21, 2011 at 2:47 am

Thanks Maneesh those are some awesome pics. I actually have a great question which could undoubtedly be turned into a blog post in itself. I know you first started out as a digital nomad doing freelance programming. My question is, how did you find your customers? I know for many people this could be an easy way to start earning money whilst traveling, rather than spending time creating an ebook no one wants.
It’d be great to find out how you did it. Especially in regards to email pitching customers or whether you just worked for a small set of large companies stabilizing your income a lot more.
Tom

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maneesh November 21, 2011 at 8:45 am

I have a huge blog post written up coming in the next few weeks about exactly this topic. It’s already written, but I’m not sure what day it will be posted.

Here is some info I have in that post:
===================
There are several methods to finding a freelance job. The first step is to network with the contacts you already have.
If you have a job, will your company pay you to telecommute? Do you have any friends or old clients that might want your services, and will hire you to work for them? If you already have personal connections, this is the best way to find opportunities.

If you don’t have any excellent connections, then you should check out job boards. I found my biggest client through a freelance job board at http://jobs.freelanceswitch.com.

Also look at this list of job sites:

http://freelanceswitch.com/finding/the-monster-list-of-freelancing-job-sites/

You can also search craigslist and monster.com for telecommutng jobs. And don’t forget edufire.com, which I mentioned earlier.

I’ll ell you the truth—freelancing changed my life. It allowed me to escape the U.S., travel abroad, and pursue my dreams. I used the time and money I gained from freelancing to fund my first passive income business, which has made me even more free.

nicolas November 18, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I read about stoicism in Tim Ferriss’s blog. then I buy a book of Seneca in Spanish (my native language) “letters to Lucilius” is the title that corresponds to form lettres stoic.
knowledge that we fear and understand that we are dying every second so we have to enjoy life.
Knowing that we need not fear death is comforting.
forgiveness translated this with google translate

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Dilanka Wettewa November 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Hey Maneesh:

I have not read about Stoicism in depth (other than what Ryan Holiday/Tim Ferriss/You have shared thus far) – but one of the ideas in stoicism that I feel uncomfortable is that the notion of how “..all passions can be bad..” — and finally while stoicism is absolutely fantastic in its practicality, it can seem a bit lonely and isolated in-terms of having a communion/large following populace. (As opposed to Christianity/Buddhism/Islam etc.) – not to get religious, but large group(s) tend to survive and I am worried that Stoicism can eventually die.
Some fantastic ideas within the philosophy though.
Thanks for reminding me! :)

Dilanka

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