Lucas Brenner » Articles » The Three Easy Principles of Stoicism



During my diary routine and my annual review, I came across my notes on stoicism. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that is supposed to serve as a guide for a good life. Ancient philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius wrote Stoic texts. Stoicism is more popular today than ever before, partly because of Ryan Holiday's books, and can easily be applied to modern life situations.

Stoic philosophy contains three simple principles that you should integrate into your life in order to become happier, more content and a better human being. Implementing these principles is not a task that can simply be ticked off. Even the famous ancient Stoics were aware that you have to continuously work on yourself in order to lead a good life. The principles should therefore be understood as ideals.

Dichotomy of Control

Probably the most central Stoic principle is: control the things you can influence and don't worry about the things that are beyond your control. Stoics hold the view that all people can ultimately only influence their own judgments about the world.

If you are offended by someone, you are not hurt by their words, but by your own judgment of those words and your view that you must not be offended. If you let go of this judgment and instead remember that all people are offended from time to time and that the other person's words cannot hurt you, you will no longer react negatively to the insult.

Emotional reactions always relate to one's own judgments and interpretations, not to what happened. Emotions and judgments are not separate from each other, but are closely linked. All emotions are based on judgments, so emotions have a cognitive core. You should therefore make sure that your own judgments and interpretations are true, i.e., aligned with reality.

You have to train yourself to recognize your own judgments instead of jumping straight to an emotional reaction in order to live a good life. You should look at things as they really are, not as your judgments make them look in your head. Adding negative judgments to a negative event only multiplies your suffering unnecessarily.

If you would like to learn more about the dichotomy of control, I have written a separate article about it.

Being Virtuous

The highest virtue for Stoics is rationality, i.e., aligning one's own judgments with reality. In Stoic philosophy, having correct interpretations of the world is the only thing you need to lead a good life.

The quality of your life therefore depends on the quality of your thoughts. You should protect your thoughts from negative influences and false judgments by regularly questioning your own interpretations. In any case, you should check your judgments before reacting emotionally. The next time something seemingly negative happens, try to pay attention to why you feel that way. Do you secretly believe that this event will have far-reaching consequences and destroy your life? Is that really true? Probably not, so you should adjust your interpretation of events and you will realize that you have nothing to worry about. This will allow you to react more appropriately to what has happened and do what is necessary instead of worrying.

Living in Harmony with Nature and Others

For Stoics, living in harmony with nature consists of two things: Firstly, one must be virtuous, i.e., ensure that one's judgments are in line with reality, as described in the last section. Secondly, one must be good to one's fellow human beings, as humans are social animals. Stoics consider all humans to be parts of the universe that possess a spark of divinity.

Those who live in harmony with nature and other humans are happier and more content. On the one hand, you interpret events through a realistic, appropriate lens and, on the other hand, you maintain good relationships with your fellow human beings. As a result, you have reasonable expectations and are less easily rattled by negative events.

Criticism of Stoicism

Some people misunderstand Stoicism and think it is about suppressing your emotions. However, the aim of Stoicism is not to be stoic in the sense of being emotionally cold. No one can switch off their emotions and think exclusively rationally. Modern studies even show that no decision-making is possible without emotions. Stoicism holds the view that you can control your emotions if you actively choose your judgments about the environment and correct them if necessary. Therefore, Stoicism is not about becoming a robot that no longer has any feelings, but about bringing your judgments and interpretations into line with reality.

In addition to philosophical debates, there is a central criticism of Stoicism that has less to do with philosophy itself, but more with how Stoicism is communicated. The ancient Stoic authors represent outdated views about women, slaves and role models. For example, in some Stoic works women are described as being naturally responsible for the household and children and some authors justify slavery. Unfortunately, this means that even today Stoic philosophy is still strongly oriented towards men, as they are addressed directly by ancient authors, while women first have to transfer the philosophical content to themselves. As a result, women have a more difficult access to Stoicism and the philosophy is not as applicable for them as for men. In the present day, however, we have the chance to change this through modern books and content. This article will hopefully contribute to this.

Despite these criticisms of Stoicism, this philosophy is still a very useful tool for being happier and living a better life. Integrating the basic principles is difficult, especially in the beginning, but it's worth the effort! Stoicism has really helped me to stress and worry less, whether in my private life, at university or at work.