Basic Stoicism: a handy vademecum

vademecumI have now studied and practiced Stoicism seriously for more than a year and a half. I still have a long way to go on both theory and praxis, but I have gradually accumulated a number of favorite Stoic reminders, as well as developed my own summaries of Stoic doctrine and list of concepts I find particularly useful. Here they are, presented as a vademecum, a handy reminder that one can bookmark or print out and keep in one’s pocket.

Fundamental principles:

  • Virtue is the highest good, everything else is “indifferent.” The Stoics got the first part from Socrates, who argued that virtue is the chief good because it is the only thing that is good under all circumstances, and indeed helps us make proper use of things like health, wealth, and education. Everything else is “indifferent” in the specifically Stoic sense that it is not to be traded against virtue. The Stoic can pursue the preferred indifferents and try to stay away from the dispreferred ones, so long as this doesn’t interfere with virtue. In economics, this is called a system of lexicographic preferences.

  • Follow nature, that is, apply reason to social life. The Stoics thought that we should get a hint from the cosmos (studying what they called physics) to figure out how to live our lives (ethics). Since human beings are social animals capable of reason (logic), it follows that we should strive to apply the latter to the former.

  • Dichotomy of control: some things are under our control, others are not (though we may be able to influence them). Under our control — if we are mentally healthy — are our decisions and behaviors. Outside of our control is everything else. This means that we should concern ourselves with the first category, and accept everything else with equanimity.

Four virtues to practice:

  1. (Practical) wisdom, the ability to navigate complex situations in the best available fashion.
  2. Courage, not just physical but moral: we try to do the right thing under all circumstances.
  3. Justice, not in the sense of an abstract theory, but in that of treating every human being — regardless of his or her stature in life — with fairness and kindness.
  4. Temperance, attempting to exercise moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.

Key words to remember:

  • Amathia = ignorance in the sense of lack of wisdom, leads to what is commonly conceived as “evil” behavior.
  • Aretê = excellence at one’s function, to be applied both to whatever one happens to be doing in life and, especially, to the practice of virtue.
  • Prokoptôn / (pl.) Prokoptontes = someone who is making progress as a Stoic. Hopefully, we all are.
  • Prosochē = the practice of attention, the Stoic version of mindfulness. We live hic et nunc, in the here and now, so we need to pay attention to it.
  • Proēgmena / Apoproēgmena = the above mentioned preferred and dispreferred indifferents.
  • Pathē / Eupatheiai / Apatheia = unhealthy vs healthy emotions, and the goal of Stoic practice: tranquillity of mind, or equanimity.

Key sayings on important topics:

(these are topics that particularly resonate with me, of course; other prokoptontes may have different preferred sayings; here is a much expanded list to choose from; the list below is in approximate chronological order)

How to practice self-control: “Mastering one’s appetites for food and drink is the beginning of and basis for self-control. … When it comes to food, responsible people favor what is easy to obtain over what is difficult, what involves no trouble over what does, and what is available over what isn’t.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures)

What it means to follow nature: “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems.” (Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi X.4)

Seek truths from whoever has it, included other schools of thought: “That which is true is mine.” (Seneca, Epistle I.12.11)

Keep an open mind, you haven’t figured everything out yet: “Let us be satisfied with what we have discovered, and leave a little truth for our descendants to find out.” (Seneca, Natural Questions VII.16)

So much for Stoics as joyless fellows: “It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of Mind XVII)

When the going gets tough: “Bear and forbear.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.8)

Practice the evening philosophical diary: “Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.” (Epictetus, Discourses III.10)

Be realistic but compassionate toward fellow humans: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)

11 thoughts on “Basic Stoicism: a handy vademecum

  1. suntzuspeaks

    Can’t agree with Seneca’s quote. Here again he shows his lack of control, merely to justify his indulgent behavior. You would not see this type of sentence from Musonius, Epictetus, or even Marcus Aurelius. Alas that is the difference between sounding good and actually trying to apply and succeeding at that application. There is pride and satisfaction from control and moderation that are superior to the comforts of libation and leisure.


  2. Massimo Post author


    well, we know the two of us have different views of Seneca, but I like that quote in particular because it counters the stereotype of the boring, stuffy Stoic. At any rate, Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics take wine, but do not get drunk!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Troy Goodnough

    I have been enjoying your blog for a long time now. There are many connections between Stoicism and the sustainability work that I do, I think. I wanted to let you know you have many followers who are silent members of this How to Be a Stoic community. Thanks for what you are doing to articulate Stoic ideas and for sharing your journey.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. smithchuck

    “When it comes to food, responsible people favor what is easy to obtain over what is difficult, what involves no trouble over what does, and what is available over what isn’t.”

    Clearly, Musonius didn’t live where I do–surrounded by unhealthy fast food which (for me, anyway) is a lot easier to obtain, and less trouble, and more available than what I probably *should* be eating!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wilson May

    The Seneca quote about wine reminds me of the quote: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” It might be useful sometimes to take a day off from Stoic practice and start again fresh.


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