Stoicism is a philosophy of life aimed — like all Hellenistic philosophies, but also Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and a number of others — at providing both a general framework and specific guidance on how to live. During the past two and a half years I’ve taken it pretty seriously, both in terms of studying ancient and modern authors, and especially in terms of practice. After all, as Epictetus puts it: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)
Accordingly, it’s a good idea, from time to time, to review exactly what one is committing to when practicing as a Stoic (or an Epicurean, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian…). The following is my own pledge for how to live like a Stoic while keep improving as a student of the philosophy. The items constituting the “pledge” (to myself) below should not be construed as the only, or even a main, way of doing things from a Stoic perspective. The Stoics disagreed on a lot of specifics, and of course Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion, so there are no sacred texts, commandments, and the like to rigidly structure our life. But if readers are interested in taking Stoicism seriously as a transformative philosophy of life, then below is a decent template to keep in mind, which may be adapted to individual needs and views. Each entry in the pledge is supported by an appropriate quote from the ancient Stoics, the original source of wisdom for our brother/sisterhood.
[For future reference and ease of use, this pledge may be downloaded as a standalone pdf.]
As a prokopton I pledge to follow these precepts and rules of conduct:
I. The most important thing in my life is the practice of virtue, in order to live in accordance to nature.
“Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, IX)
II. I will not be discouraged by setbacks in my practice. I will get up in the morning and try again.
“When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 51.2)
III. I will do my best to behave ethically, regardless of the popularity of my opinions and actions.
“I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)
IV. I will be concerned for the welfare of all humanity, regardless of people’s gender, ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion.
“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)
V. I will reject nationalism and any other kind of parochial view of humanity. My creed is that of cosmopolitanism.
“I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)
VI. I will refrain to the best of my abilities from judging people’s actions, especially without forming a good opinion as to their motivations.
“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 45)
VII. I will cultivate true friendships because they are important for a eudaimonic life.
“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, III.2)
VIII. I will treat everyone kindly and with respect.
“I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honorable men half way.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)
IX. I will do my best to contribute to discourse about important matters, while at the same time avoiding to lecture people or become overbearing.
“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things — of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks — these are topics that arise everywhere — but above all do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison. If you can, turn the conversation of your company by your talk to some fitting subject; but if you should chance to be isolated among strangers, be silent.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 33)
X. I will follow a simple, largely vegetarian diet, because it is healthy (and thus helps the practice of virtue), it has a lower impact on the environment, and it reduces needless pain and suffering in the world.
“Just as one should choose inexpensive food over expensive food, and food that is easy to obtain over food that is hard to obtain, one should choose food suitable for a human being over food that isn’t. And what is suitable for us is food from things which the earth produces: the various grains and other plants can nourish a human being quite well. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals which we don’t slaughter.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 18a)
XI. I will cultivate an attitude of indifference toward material possessions.
“Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)
XII. I will adopt a reasonably minimalist life style.
“On the whole, we can judge whether various household furnishings are good or bad by determining what it takes to acquire them, use them, and keep them safe. Things that are difficult to acquire, hard to use, or difficult to guard are inferior; things that are easy to acquire, are a pleasure to use, and are easily guarded are superior.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, XX.3)
XIII. I will remind myself that just as we ought to endure the blows that Fortuna delivers, so we ought to enjoy the gifts she bestows.
“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)