If you’re reading this, maybe you’ve been looking for the perfect mindset-altering lifestyle, jumping from article to article, self-help video to philosophy lecture, constantly seeking a way of life that gives you a sense of peace. But some of the advice can be vague, nebulous, or can feel like it doesn’t perfectly align with your personal values.
Here, you’ll find something that gets to the core of the problem: the Greek tradition of Stoicism, which dictates that one must pride virtue as the universal common good that. The four virtues of Stoicism, wisdom, justice, courage and moderation, can help shift your mindset, and ultimately, better your life.
The word stoic, in the modern parlance of our times, “refers to someone who is unemotional or indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and has little in common with its philosophical roots.” But this is not the definition of Stoic philosophy, and in reality, Stoicism realizes that “everyone wants to get stronger … be more resilient”.
In a highly emotional and superficial society, people are looking for ways to find meaning and inner peace; Stoics offer not just philosophy, but lifestyle changes for “more self-awareness … more control of their lives.”
For most Greek philosophers, the path to the greatest amount of happiness should be one’s ultimate life goal; in Stoicism, this is also the case. In the Stoic way, the greatest amount of happiness is achieved by “virtue”, as opposed to wealth or belongings. Virtue is defined as one single common good that all should strive for; this includes both a universal common good and an internal common good, determined by one’s inner moral compass.
In the philosophy of Stoicism, “pathos”, in Greek known as a “bad feeling”, is caused by one’s internal moral compass being off-kilter. In modern psychology, this might be defined as cognitive dissonance; behaving in one way, but believing the opposite on a deeper, more intimate psychic level. There are four Stoic passions that are considered to be a cause of pathos.
The four Stoic passions are distress, fear, lust, and pleasure-seeking – not just enjoying oneself, but a desire for gratification that forgoes logic or reason. Pleasure and distress are categorized as being experienced in the present, whereas lust and fear are based on potential future occurrences. Buddhists may be reminded of the four noble truths here, as these four Stoic passions seem reminiscent of the existential suffering that all humans wish to overcome.
Marcus Aurelius, who also lived through a pandemic in his time, wrote a book called Meditations that assisted in helping readers through the tumult of hard times. In Meditations, he more thoroughly elaborated on the four tenets of Stoicism: wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation.
Just as these four principles helped ancient Romans through the smallpox plague that ravaged their society, they can also aid one through the struggles and tribulations of one’s everyday life.
The first foundational portion of the Stoic virtues is wisdom. It’s rumored that Zeno of Citium the founder of Stoicism, came up with the old adage that we were given two ears, two eyes, and one mouth for one reason – to listen and observe more than we speak. Especially in the days of the internet, we have opportunities to learn like never before, even if our willpower to do so is weakened by the stresses of everyday life.
Wisdom is not just the willingness to learn, but the eagerness to remain open in the face of all potential information. Aurelius teaches that one must always learn from their mistakes, and though humans are inherently selfish and operate on their inner drives, we have the ability to overcome those urges by remaining tolerant.
One can often get caught up in the mindset that their knowledge is more precious than that of others. This is especially the case if they’re well-educated, well-read or well-off; how could I have gotten this far in life – much further than others – if I wasn’t smart? A Stoic would argue that this hubris prevents you from learning even more, and, yes, excelling even further than you thought possible.
Aurelius did not just define courage as bravery but necessitated that courage requires that one has to overcome adversity. Stoic philosopher Seneca states that “inevitably you will stumble … you will fall, you will grow weary”, it’s simply a matter of how you handle those obstacles. With a courageous mindset, one that sees hardship not as insurmountable but as an exciting challenge, one can overcome even the greatest of stressors.
Aurelius claims that “if you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it”. Consequently, Aurelius says, you have the fortitude to disavow the pain at any time. And while we may not live in a world of daily Gladiator-like battles, things that cause us emotional pain every day can often be re-framed, analyzed, and considered in a more relativist mindset.
Marcus Aurelius defined justice as “the source of all the other virtues”, meaning that it is the core concept from which all other virtues center around. Justice is supposedly the core of all human purpose, as Cicero says that humans were “brought into being… so that they might do good to one another”, support each other, and contribute to what is known as the common good.
On a personal level, in order to change one’s mindset, one must have a constant unconscious passion for justice – not in sense of social justice, or economic justice, but in the sense of the continuing presence of mind to act in a way that distinguishes right from wrong. While the antisocial mentality may seem glamorous for those looking to swindle others with the hope of getting ahead, Aurelius would argue that you’re fooling yourself into believing the physical things you achieve through your immoral conniving will grant you happiness.
Often morals can be a grey area for many, especially in the world of business, or politics; this can make maintaining a sense of internal justice difficult for some. But as long as one remains a student of Stoicism, and continues to study, listen, and keep an open mind, one will absorb a lifestyle of righteousness, even if it isn’t learned overnight.