What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 3 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started

Here is the big question:

“What exactly is Stoicism?”

Let’s dive into this question in more detail (without a long history lesson).

I’ll also give you three practical exercises so that you can live Stoicism instead of doing armchair philosophy.

Stoicism is a life guide which asserts that four main virtues (courage, justice, self-control, wisdom) creates true happiness and judgment should be based on behavior, rather than words.

Instead of doing armchair philosophy, you should be an example to other people through your concrete actions.

The other essential concept of Stoicism is that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. You are not a victim of your surroundings.

No one or no circumstance can implicate you in ugliness. You always have the option to do the right thing (even though the consequences might be costly).

External gains, hedonism (living for pleasure), materialism, relationships are only pursued as long as they don’t conflict with your practices of virtue.

Being financially independent is a preferred indifferent because it improves your ability to practice virtue and help other people. Same applies to relationships and health.

Stoics argued that everything external has an expiration date. Because of hedonic adaptation, materialism can’t make us happy. Only our thoughts can. No person can make us happy. Only our thoughts can.

It is crucial that you understand the validity of finding peace and happiness in your internal landscape, not external.

Stoicism has just a few central teachings.

First of all, it sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. It is not the act itself that you should focus on, but your reaction to that act.

The second one is, how brief our moment of life is. As Seneca says, the reason why life feels short to us is because we waste too much of it. Stoicism teaches us how to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself.

And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

Humans are naturally emotional creatures. When push comes to shove, we need to learn how to rationally decide and act based on reason.

Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate and armchair philosophy.

It had three principal leaders. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each day to write himself notes about restraint, compassion and humility.

Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery to found his own school where he taught many of Rome’s greatest minds.

Seneca, when Nero turned on him and demanded his suicide, could think only of comforting his wife and friends.

But it is not only those three—Stoicism has been practiced by kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.

Prussian King, Frederick the Great, was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could, in his words, “sustain you in misfortune”.

Meanwhile, Montaigne, the politician and essayist, had a line from Epictetus carved into the beam above the study in which he spent most of his time.

The founding fathers were also inspired by the philosophy. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterwards, put on a play about Cato to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Whereas Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand when he died.

The economist Adam Smith’s theories on the interconnectedness of the world—capitalism—were significantly influenced by the Stoicism that he studied as a schoolboy, under a teacher who had translated Marcus Aurelius’ works.

The political thinker, John Stuart Mill, wrote of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in his famous treatise On Liberty, calling it “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”

Stoicism differs from most existing schools in one important sense: its purpose is practical application. It is not a purely intellectual enterprise.

It’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, better friends and better people.

It’s easy to gloss over the fact that Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor without truly absorbing the gravity of that position.

At the time, Emperors were Deities, ordinary men with direct access to unlimited wealth and adulation. Before you jump to the conclusion that the Stoics were dour and sad men, ask yourself, if you were a dictator, what would your diary look like?

Stoics practiced certain exercises and drew upon them for strength.

Let’s look at three of the most important such exercises.



“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” -Seneca

Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, suggested that we should to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

People are programmed to pursue two state of minds: comfort and security.

Look at your day-to-day actions, how many of them are done in an attempt to create comfort or security?

I bet almost every single one of them.

Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. Security makes us gullible and soft. It is better to put ourselves in less than ideal situations as a way to toughen ourselves.

If you were born to a poor family, great! You can teach yourself self-reliance and the importance of hard work early on in life.

If your job makes you want to kill yourself, great! Now you can sit down, contemplate and find your life’s purpose.

If your girlfriend/boyfriend drives you crazy, great! Maybe it is time to think about your relationship seriously. Will you communicate and solve your problems or find a more suitable partner?

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience.

As Seneca says, “We suffer more in our imagination than reality.”

Anyone who has made a big bet on themselves knows how much energy anxiety and fear can consume.

The solution is to do something about that ignorance. Make yourself familiar with the things, the worst-case scenarios, that you’re afraid of.

Practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real life.

Remember: the downside is almost always reversible or short lasting.




“Good and bad doesn’t exist – only thinking makes it so”- Shakespeare

The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down. If you haven’t read it already, read Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle Is The Way” which is in my Essential Stoic Reading List.

Here is the magic: If you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.

Started a business and it failed?

Well, you’ve met with such mentors and learned so many skills along the way that there is nothing which holds you back from trying again and do it better this time.

Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Maybe you are trying to create a relationship with a mentor or business partner.

Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing yourself towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding.

The death of someone close to you is a chance to show fortitude.

Great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius described it like this:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

The common refrain about entrepreneurs is that they take advantage of, even create, opportunities. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity.

A frustrating talk with your clients where your help goes unappreciated, the death of a loved one, none of those are “opportunities” in the normal sense of the word. In fact, they are the opposite. They are obstacles.

What a Stoic does is turn every obstacle into an opportunity.

There is no good or bad to the practicing Stoic. There is only perception.

You control perceptions, not actual events. Your interpretation of events are fully in your control.

Why not choose the one that helps you?



“ It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” -Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself a simple and effective reminder to help him regain perspective and stay balanced:

“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”

The Stoics discuss eradicating ‘passions’, which they called apatheia; they refer to the irrational, unhealthy and excessive desires and emotions.

Remember the time you wanted something obsessively? (ex. more money, better relationships, perfect body)

How important those desires would look if you were to die tomorrow?

Now you might say:

“But Arda, I can’t live my life as if I’ll die tomorrow! If I were to do that, I’d say fuck you to everything and just play video games all day.”

Here is the thing.

Contemplating our death helps us to bring clarity to what is important. If you feel you’d just drop everything and play video games, maybe you still haven’t found your life’s purpose.

Here is what doing what you love feels like:

“Even if I were to die tomorrow, I’d still do that activity, create that video, write that book, paint that moment, play that piano piece. Pursuing my life’s purpose and creative contribution is that enjoyable for me.”

To excessive emotions, anger would be a good example.

You might think that it is natural to feel anger. It is in our human nature, right?

Yes and no. Just because anger is a natural human emotion, doesn’t mean that you should indulge in it.

What good does it come by getting angry?

It is not like the feeling of confusion when you might find some sort of alternative solution nor is it like appreciation where you pat yourself on the back and remind yourself how lucky you are.

Anger not only makes us emotionally unhappy but also hurts the people around us.

How many times have you wished you didn’t say that word? You could’ve phrased it much better. But while angry, you can’t think straight and regret your actions afterwards.

The consequences of anger are so severe that it is not worth the satisfaction you might get by letting yourself get angry.

Take the high road instead. Learn to calm yourself. Keep an even kneel. Be level-headed.

Returning to the point of the exercise, it’s simple: remember how small you are.

Why get angry or depressed when the universe doesn’t care at all? 

You and your problems are just small little dust particles in the universe, soon be destroyed by death.

Now you might ask: If everything is ephemeral, what does matter?

Right now matters. Being a good person and doing the right thing right now, that’s what matters and that’s what was important to the Stoics.

Take Alexander the Great who conquered the known world and had cities named in his honor. This is common knowledge. But here is something you might not have heard.

Once while drunk, Alexander got into a fight with his dearest friend, Cleitus, and accidentally killed him.

Afterward, he was so despondent that he couldn’t eat or drink for three days. Sophists were called from all over Greece to see what they could do about his grief, to no avail.

Is this the mark of a successful life? Is this really what you want?

It matters little when you get all the money and possessions in the world if you lose perspective and hurt those around you.

Learn from Alexander’s mistake. Be humble and honest and aware. That is something you can have every single day of your life. You’ll never have to fear someone taking it from you or, worse still, it taking over you.

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