During the recent Stoic Summer School I have taught in Rome, one of the exercises for the group was to come up with a list of short phrases summarizing key Stoic teachings, to keep handy for everyday practice. Below is the list (which, I’m sure, could easily be expanded), organized according to Epictetus’ three disciplines of Desire, Action and Assent, with each phrase accompanied by a sourced quotation and a brief explanation. (Here is a downloadable version for ease of use.)
DISCIPLINE OF DESIRE (virtues of courage and temperance)
Some things are up to me, other things are not up to me
Arguably the most fundamental doctrine in practical Stoicism, certainly for Epictetus, is the dichotomy of control: focus on the stuff you can act on, take the rest as the universe will serve it to you (very similar to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer).
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I)
The famous Stoic reserve clause: your plan are always subordinate to the occurrence of things you cannot control.
“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion IV)
There goes my cup
To remind yourself that externals are only preferred indifferents, compared to virtue, and that you should get used to the idea that everything is impermanent. The basic idea is similar to the Buddhists concept of non-attachment.
“This is what you should practice from morning to evening. Begin with the smallest and most fragile things, a pot, or a cup, and then pass on to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a scrap of land; and from there, pass on to yourself, to your body, and the parts of your body, and to your children, your wife, your brothers. Look around you in every direction, and cast these things far away from you. Purify your judgements so that nothing that is not your own may remain attached to you, or become part of yourself, or give you pain when it comes to be torn away from you. And say while you’re training yourself day after day, as you are here, not that you’re acting as a philosopher (for you must concede that it would be pretentious to lay claim to that title), but that you’re a slave on the way to emancipation. For that is true freedom.” (Epictetus, Discourses IV.1.111-113)
Temperance begins at the table
Temperance is one of the four Stoic cardinal virtues (the others being prudence — or practical wisdom, courage, and justice). It is difficult to practice, but everyday life offers endless opportunities.
“Although there are many pleasures which persuade human beings to do wrong and compel them to act against their own interests, the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat.” (Musonius Rufus, From the Lecture About Food B.1)
What do you want, a fig out of season?
Nothing lasts forever, and if you long for anything or anyone “out of season” you are a fool. Conversely, though, appreciating this means that you can be more mindful about enjoying your friends and loved ones while they are actually with you.
“You should remind yourself that what you love is mortal, that what you love is not your own; it has been granted to you just for the present, not irrevocably, and not for ever, but like a fig or bunch of grapes, for a particular season of the year; so that if you long for it in the winter, you’re a fool.” (Epictetus, Discourses III.24.86)
The stars have no veil
Remind yourself at least occasionally of the vast expanse of the cosmos, in both time and space. It will help you put things into perspective.
“The Pythagoreans tell us to look at the stars at daybreak. To remind ourselves how they complete the tasks assigned them — always the same tasks, the same way. And their order, purity, nakedness. Stars wear no concealment.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations XI.27)
DISCIPLINE OF ACTION (virtue of justice)
Live according to nature
To live according to nature is one of the most famous Stoic injunctions, but it is somewhat difficult to interpret (notice that this is the only entry accompanied by three, not just one, quotations). Modern Stoic Lawrence Becker, in his A New Stoicism, re-interprets it simply as “follow the facts” (i.e., do not engage in wishful thinking). A good rendition of the original thought is that human nature is that of a social animal capable of reason, so that’s what we should do: apply reason to social living.
“If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to opinions, you will never be rich.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius XVI.7)
“Man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ — in Stoic phraseology ennoia — and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake.” (Cicero, The Finibus Bonorum et Malorum III.21)
“Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers I.87)
Why won’t you do the job of a human being?
Having trouble getting up in the morning and facing your day? You are in good company: the emperor Marcus Aurelius himself. And yet, as he says below, we were not born just to comfortably huddle below warm blankets…
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.1)
Like Socrates, you are a citizen of the world
The Stoics (and their cousins, the Cynics) considered themselves to be cosmopolitans, which literally means citizens of the world. Not of Athens, Corinth, or Rome. The World.
“Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles … [the] most proximate circle is that which every one describes about his own mind as a centre … the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race. … It is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavor earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.” (Hierocles, Fragment VI)
The obstacle is the way
Running into a brick wall? Charging it may not be the best strategy available to you. Try climbing on it, or going around it.
“Our actions may be impeded by [other people], but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.20)
It seemed so to him
Often people do things that we think are obviously wrong. If an injustice has been done, by all means oppose it. But Stoicism teaches us not to judge others (or ourselves), and this phrase is a reminder that other people also think they are doing the right thing, just like we do.
“A good guide, when he sees someone wandering astray, doesn’t abandon him with a dose of mockery or abuse, but leads him back to the proper path. So you too should show him the truth and you’ll see how he follows. As long as you fail to make it clear to him, though, you shouldn’t make fun of him, but should recognize your own incapacity instead.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.12.3-4)
Everything has two handles
There is always more than one way to look at a situation, especially in terms of our relations to other people. See that you adopt the more positive stance, not the confrontational one.
“Everything has two handles, and it may be carried by one of these handles, but not by the other. If your brother acts wrongly towards you, don’t try to grasp the matter by this handle, that he is wronging you (because that is the handle by which it can’t be carried), but rather by the other, that he is your brother, he was brought up with you, and then you’ll be grasping the matter by the handle by which it can be carried.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion XLIII)
The Olympic games have already started, what are you waiting for?
We always think that we can begin our new life tomorrow. Or next year. Why not now? It’s later than you think…
“Remember that this is the time of the contest, that the Olympic Games have now arrived, and that there is no possibility of further delay, and that it depends on a single day and single action whether progress is to be lost or secured.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion LI.2)
The door is open
Although classically referring to the last option of suicide under very dire circumstances (think Cato, or Zeno), I think this applies to any situation where we have to decide whether we ought to stay and endure or instead cut our losses, regroup, and devote our attention to something else. (For instance, is it really worth your time and emotional energy to keep arguing the same point over and over with a random stranger on the Internet?)
“Has someone made smoke in the house? If there isn’t too much, I’ll stay; if it’s excessive, I’ll leave the house. For one should remember this fact and keep it firmly in mind, that the door stands open.” (Epictetus, Discourses I.25.18)
DISCIPLINE OF ASSENT (virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom)
You’re just an impression
A fundamental Stoic doctrine is the idea that our first reaction, or impression, of something is often wrong, because it has not yet been subjected to the light of reason. Make sure, then, that you put some cognitive distance between your first impression and your actions. Don’t just do it, think about it, and then do it only if it needs to be done.
“Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion V)
Do you have reason? I have. Why don’t you use it, then?
Although — contra popular opinion — the Stoics were not into suppressing emotions, they did prize reason as a guide to the ethical life. It’s all about cultivating your prohairesis, your faculty to arrive at correct judgments.
“You have a mind? — Yes. Well, why not use it? Isn’t that all you want — for it to do its job?” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IV.13)
Why are you running away, little Phoenician?
Shame is not a Stoic value, unless it is in response to something unethical that one has done. Regarding everything else, just do what needs to be done, without concern for other people’s opinions.
“From that day [Zeno] became Crates’s pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, ‘Why run away, my little Phoenician?’ quoth Crates, ‘nothing terrible has befallen you.’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers I.3)
I used the following translations for the above sourced quotations:
Cicero, De Finibus Malorum et Bonorum: H. Harris Rackham, Delphi Classics, 2014.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: R.D. Hicks, Delphi Classics, 2015.
Epictetus, Discourses and Enchiridion: Robin Hard, Oxford World’s Classics, 2014.
Hierocles, Fragments: Thomas Taylor, Enhanced Media, 2015.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: Gregory Hayes, Modern Library, 2012.
Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Sayings: Cynthia King, CreateSpace, 2001.
Seneca, Letters on Ethics: Margaret Graver, University of Chicago Press, 2015.