Stoicism is not a religion. In religion the sacred texts lay out the ideal way of life and guide us to try our best to live a sinless (perfect) life. Stoicism sees the world completely the opposite, it acknowledges the harsh realities of life, the chaotic mess of the world that is filled with imperfections. And instead of demanding us to live up to a certain perfect standard, it gives us the tools to handle the real broken situations on the ground.
Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in 3rd century BC, this branch of Greek philosophy got big in the Roman Empire, with its principle philosophers of Epictetus, Seneca, and ultimately Marcus Aurelius with his most-quoted memoir “Meditations.” The author of this book, Ryan Holiday, reads and re-reads Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for 100+ times, which was the main reason why I choose this book as the 1st book I read on Stoicism.
At its core Stoicism gives us clarity on what we can and can’t control. It teaches us that although we can’t control what happen to us, we can control our perceptions about it. It teaches us that even though we can’t control how we feel, we can control how we react to it. It teaches us that all emotions are generated from within ourselves, and what comes out from us can be controlled by us.
As Ryan Holiday sums it up “[t]he three most essential parts of Stoic philosophy worth carrying with you every day, into every decision: Control your perceptions. Direct your actions properly. Willingly accept what’s outside your control.” Indeed, focus on the things that we can control, as Holiday elaborate “[i]f we can focus on making clear what parts of our day are within our control and what parts are not, we will not only be happier, we will have a distinct advantage over other people who fail to realize they are fighting an unwinnable battle.”
And suddenly the things that matter and the things that are insignificant become abundantly obvious. If we spend less/no time on the things that don’t matter and won’t make any difference, we will have more time for the things that we do have an influence over. Getting emotional over an injustice, for example, is being human. But unless we direct our grievances to something that fix or expose the injustice, getting overly emotional about it with no action won’t do any good. Another example is when we get ill. Don’t moan about the illness, but focus on how to cure it: figure out what the illness is, what’s the cure, and focus on the curing process. Dwelling on how ill you are won’t accomplish anything.
This simple but powerful philosophy is what kept Nelson Mandela sane during his 27 years in prison, as he reads and re-reads Marcus Aurelius’ book “Meditations” in Robben Island. Bill Clinton also read “Meditations” once a year, while Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Epictetus’ book “Discourses” on his bedside. Furthermore, Stoicism is also highly popular among Silicon Valley people and dilligently used to set the mental state of numerous pro athletes. And reading Seneca’s “Letters From a Stoic” was what prevented Tim Ferriss from killing himself during his darkest period of time, and turned his life around into becoming a successful author and investor, among others.
Indeed, Stoicism is not a religion, but if it were its 3 main gospels are Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditation”, Epictetus’ “Discourses” and Seneca’s “Letters from a Stoic.”
And being the ultimate compilation of Stoic wisdom, if Stoicism is a religion this book would be its book of hadiths, the book that compile the sayings of the prophet(s). It spreads over 366 mini chapters that comprise a year, which makes it easy to digest and can be learned one day at a time. In fact, this is the first time that I re-read a book straight after I finish reading it cover-to-cover, which I digest the 2nd cycle of reading according to the date of the year, one chapter each morning as a part of a new daily routine.
I could not recommend Stoicism enough, and this book is a perfect introduction to it.