Back to overview

Probably the best introduction on Stoicism that I’ve read. Well structured, objective, and with good background information on the most important characters in Stoic history. Together with the works of Ryan Holiday, this book makes Stoicism accessible to more people.

Notes

The primary reason to study Stoicism is so we can put it into practice. And the primary goal of Stoicism is to maintain tranquility.

The tranquility the Stoic sought is not the kind that might be brought on by ingestion of a tranquilizer, it is not a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions. When practicing Stoicism you have to become a more thoughtful observer of your own life.

There are costs associated with not having a philosophy of life.

The rise of philosophical thinking

Philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century BC. Pythagoras, Thales, Heracleitus, Confucius, and Buddha were all living approximately at the same time.

Socrates was the first concrete example of a man who was able to integrate in his life theoretical and speculative concerns into the context of his daily activities.


A pastor may tell you how to be a good person, what is required to be morally upstanding — do not steal, tell lies, or (in some religions) have an abortion. He will probably also explain what you must to do have a good afterlife — come to service regularly and pray. But he can’t say what you must do to have a good life.

It’s entirely possible these days for someone who has taken philosophy courses in school to lack a philosophy of life.

Stoicism is born

After first having studied among cynics, Zeno started his school of philosophy around 300 BC. Stoicism was born.

One thing that made Stoicism attractive was its abandonment of Cynic asceticism. Even though the Stoics favored a simple lifestyle, it allowed for worldly comforts.

Students under Zeno started with logic, moved on to physics, and ended with ethics.

  • The Stoic’s interest in logic lies in their belief that man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality.
  • Don’t mistake “having a good life” with “making a good living”. It’s entirely possible to have a bad life despite making a good living.
  • A person’s virtue depends on her excellence as a human being — on how well she performs the function for which humans were designed.
  • Stoic philosophy is like a fertile field with “Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil.”
  • We should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.”

Hedonic adaptation

Hedonism — The pursuit of pleasure and sensual self-indulgence. We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable. After getting what we desire, rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored and then go on to form even grander desires.

After fulfilling our desire for something, we adapt to its presence in our life and as a result — stop desiring it. And we end up just as dissatisfied as we were before fulfilling the desire.

We need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have.

The easiest way to happiness is to learn how to want the things you already have. The trick is to put this knowledge into practice in our life.

Negative visualization

While enjoying companionship of loved ones, periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end.

As we go about the day, periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and this day could be our last.

The goal is not to change our activities, but to change our state of mind as we carry out these activities.

Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world.

Negative visualization is a wonderful way to regain our appreciation of life and with it our capacity for joy.

There is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, which is possible to conduct without affecting emotions.

Your primary desire should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.

Internalize your goals

An internal goal is something you have control over while external goals you may not have control over. “Winning a tennis game” is an external goal. “Playing the game according to the best of your abilities” is an internal goal. You lessen the chances of being upset by the outcome of the game.

Be careful in the goals you set for yourself.

The trichotomy of control

Everything that happens to us will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Things over which we have complete control — the goals we set for ourselves, the values we form.
  2. Things over which we have no control at all — whether the sun will rise tomorrow.
  3. Things over which we have some but not complete control — whether we will win while playing tennis.

Practice goal internalization, develop the ability not to look beyond your internalized goals. Learn to welcome whatever falls on your plate.

Fatalism

  • A person fatalistic with respect to the future keeps firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the future.
  • A fatalistic person with respect to the past on the other hand, adopts the same attitude but towards past events. When deciding what to do, she keeps firmly in mind that her actions can have no effect on the past.

Stoic philosophy, while teaching us to be satisfied with whatever we got, also counsels us to strive to become better people — to become virtuous.

Voluntary discomfort

Think of voluntary discomfort as a kind of vaccine. By periodically practicing poverty, hunger, and cold it helps harden yourself against blows that may fall on you in the future.

A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well. So the prospect of experiencing such discomforts will not cause anxiety for him.

Voluntary discomfort will also be beneficial to appreciate what we already have. By going without it for some time, we would value it more when we get it back.

Bedtime meditation

At bedtime ask yourself the following questions: “What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?

The bedtime meditation the Stoics recommends is utterly unlike the meditation of Zen Buddhism. While a Zen Buddhist’s goal is to empty his mind, a Stoics mind will be quite active during bedtime meditation. He will reflect about the events of the day.


A sign of progress in our practice of Stoicism is that our philosophy will consist of actions rather than words.

But the most important sign that we are making progress as Stoics will be that we find ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions. We will also spend less time wishing things were different and more time enjoying things as they are.

The function of man

The Stoics believed that man is a social animal and therefore that we have a duty to form and maintain relationships with other people, despite the trouble they might cause us.

The function of man, according to the Stoics, is to be rational.


Avoid people “who is always upset and bemoans everything.” These individuals are what Samuel Johnson calls seeksorrowers “one who contrived to give himself vexation.”

Be selective in the social duties you have to perform.

Social fatalism: In our dealings with others, we should operate on the assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way. Therefore, it’s pointless to wish they could be less annoying.

In a good marriage, two people will try to outdo each other in the care they show for each other.

Dealing with insults

A strategy for removing the sting of an insult is to pause, and consider whether what the insulted said is true. And if it is true, there is little reason to be upset. Why is it an insult to be told what is self-evident?

Also consider the source of who is insulting you? If it’s someone you respect, and value his opinions, he could give you great insight in what you’re doing. And if it’s someone contemptible with low values, you should feel relieved that he’s disapproving of what you’re doing. Then you are doubtlessly doing something right.

Considering the sources of insults and you will find that those who insults can best be described as overgrown children.

  • Another person cannot do you harm unless you wish it. You will only be harmed at that time which you take yourself to be harmed.
  • Use humor to deflect insults.
  • Does things that happen to me help or harm me?” It all depends on your values. And your values are things which you have complete control over.
  • Refusing to respond to insults is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible.

Retrospective negative visualization

In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we love and currently possess. In retrospective negative visualization we imagine never having had something that we have lost.

Minimize anger

Minimize the amount of anger you experience. Anger is a form of “brief insanity” and the damage done from it is enormous. Being angry is a waste of precious time.

By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into a tranquility-shattering state of agitation.

Laughter is always the right response to things which drives it to tears! That way we can always think of bad events happening as funny rather than outrageous.

By admitting our mistake, we lessen the chance that we will make them again in the future.

A constantly angry person will be a torment to the people around her. Why not instead make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live, and missed when you’re gone?

Anger is anti-joy and can ruin your life if you let it.


Be consistent in your indifference to social status. Be dismissive of both approval and disapproval of other people. Being indifferent to other people’s opinions of you will improve the quality of your life.

Different types of desires

There is a danger that if we are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we will lose our ability to enjoy the simple things.

Desire for luxuries is not a natural desire. Natural desires, such as desire for water when we are thirsty can be satisfied — unnatural desires cannot.

If you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward. In the absence of a philosophy of life, even simple choices can degenerate into meaning-of-life crises. It is hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.


Stoics will do their best to enjoy things that can’t be taken from them, most notably their character.

Never be a victim

The Stoics don’t think it’s helpful for people to consider themselves victims of society. If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life.

It is only when we assume responsibility for our happiness that we will have a reasonable chance of gaining it.


A philosophy of life has two components: They tell us what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things worth having.

Joy is probably the most valuable of the positive emotions.

There are two principal sources of human unhappiness—our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control.

Our evolutionary ancestors benefited from wanting more of everything, which is why we today have this tendency. But if we do not take steps to bridle it, it will disrupt our tranquility. Use your intellect to overcome your tendency toward insatiability.

One consequence of the practice of Stoicism is that one seeks opportunities to put Stoic techniques to work.

By answering an insult with self-deprecating humor you’re making it clear to the insulter that you have enough confidence in who you are to be impervious to his insults.

  • Embrace psychological discomfort. That’s where growth lies. Do things that scare you.
  • See yourself as an opponent in a kind of game. Your “other self” is on evolutionary autopilot. Your job is to change this default.
  • It’s a delight in simply being able to participate in life itself.

Highlights

There are no longer schools of philosophy, and this is a shame.

Location 294

Whatever philosophy of life a person ends up adopting, she will probably have a better life than if she tried to live—as many people do—without a coherent philosophy of life.

Location 379

We experience hunger; this is nature’s way of getting us to nourish ourselves. We also experience lust; this is nature’s way of getting us to reproduce. But we differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. From this we can conclude, Zeno would assert, that we were designed to be reasonable.

Location 476

“Water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread,” Seneca tells us, “are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food.”

Location 1434

We might also discover, perhaps to our amazement, that our practice of Stoicism has made us susceptible to little outbursts of joy: We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.

Location 1496

Even when other people don’t do anything to us, they can disrupt our tranquility. We typically want others—friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and even complete strangers—to think well of us.

Location 1528

This is the downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.

Location 2291

Even though I have adopted Stoicism as my philosophy of life, I do not claim that it is the only philosophy that “works” or even that, for every person, in all circumstances, it works better than alternative philosophies of life. All I am claiming is that for some people in some circumstances—I seem to be one of those people—Stoicism is a wonderfully effective way to gain tranquility.

Location 2914

Books I’ve read.

Johannes Holmberg

Tiny summaries on books I’ve read. Sorted by latest read. But you can also sort on top recommendations. Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.