The 4 virtues of Stoic philosophy

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The man who has virtue is in need of nothing whatever for the purpose of living well.”- Cicero

Virtue is about goodness or morality. The stoics believed ‘the highest good’ in life is becoming a man/woman of virtue. They said any situation in life- be it a good one or a bad one can be dealt with virtues. So, it is quite important that we prioritize them. According to the stoics, there are 4 virtues that should govern our lives. These are:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Justice
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage

WISDOM:

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” – Epictetus

It is easy to become knowledgeable especially during times like these when information is infinite. At the same time, attaining wisdom and becoming wise is difficult. Yet very important to be one. That is why the stoics kept ‘wisdom’ as one of the four virtues. As Epictetus said people are not disturbed by the ‘things’ that happen to them but by how they perceive those things that have caused them harm. Things are objective in this world. It is our added subjectivity that creates a problem. A wise person knows the difference. Wisdom might not get a lot of attention but the stoic philosophers knew its importance and did everything possible to become wiser every day. It doesn’t matter what we know. What matters is how we are applying into action what we already know. This is wisdom.

JUSTICE:

“Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honoured. Dying…or busy with other assignments.” – Marcus Aurelius

Often times we all feel this world is not just. I used to believe the same and as I am getting older I am realizing this world is totally unjust where unfair things happen all the time. It was very hard to believe it but that’s the way this world works. In times like these it is more important than ever to put ‘justice’ at the top. Marcus Aurelius kept justice above other three virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance). It makes sense because there is no point of being a person who is wise, courageous and moderate in actions if he/she is not just and doesn’t treat people by fair means. We should all understand that we are all in this together and by treating everyone with justice we can keep the unity intact. Life is going to give many opportunities to harm and rebuke others. But we must never forget a beautiful line spoken by Rufus, to honor equality, to want to do good, and for a person, being human, to not want to harm human beings—this is the most honorable lesson and it makes just people out of those who learn it.”

COURAGE:

“Sometimes even to live, is an act of courage.”– Seneca

Life is meaningless if we are not brave and courageous. A courageous person can manage to do things that a talented person cannot who is devoid of bravery. Being scared is common. It is completely natural. Actually a little amount of fear is very helpful and motivates us to be more cognizant. But when it gets out of our control and we start succumbing to it then it becomes a big problem. No wars could have been won without courage. No big decisions can be taken without courage. Even life cannot be lived without courage. There are going to be moments in life when we will have to take a decision- to persist or to run away. The choice we make is going to shape our lives. We must always have courage to live our lives on our own terms. We must always have courage to hold on to our principles and values. We must always have courage to chase our dreams and goals. Courage is a beautiful tool. Its possession makes us life a lot more interesting and lively.

TEMPERANCE:

“As yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?”– Marcus Aurelius

Temperance is about knowing what is essential or in the words of Marcus Aurelius ‘necessary’. The modern times we are living in is run by a principle that “more is good”. So, we are chasing ‘more’ and then some ‘more’ and a bit ‘more’. This leaves us all discontent and dissatisfied. We are not happy and one of the biggest reasons is our relationship with abundant stuff. We have way more than we need to live  a decent life. Seneca said something similar, “You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, what is enough.” Abundance of material things is not the only thing that is adding suffering to our lives. Abundance of anything is not good- abundant emotions, abundant thoughts, abundant goals and ambitions, etc. Life is required to be lived in moderation. That’s the best shot to living a content and happy life.

Meditate on these quotes every day

Picture credits: The Daily Stoic

Stoic philosophy is a very practical philosophy. Many stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus had spoken of some of the ultimate truths of life. They were not gods. They were common people like us with responsibilities at home and workplace. They had families to look after. They had jobs to do to. They had adversities and challenges to face. In the middle of all this they did not stop being philosophers. They did not stop working on themselves. It was only when they were striving for mental clarity, peace and self improvement did they reveal some beautiful words which still survive today- more than 2,000 years later. 

1. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”– Seneca

Stoic philosophers believed events are objective. They are ‘what they are’. If someone has ridiculed us on social media then it is an objective reality: it is what it is. We cannot go back in time and change it. But how we choose to look at those events will eventually decide how we are going to feel about them. In other words, our subjectivity or perception is going to determine how we feel about that particular event. How we are going to react to that ridiculous comment someone has made against us on social media is either going to make our day or break our day. A lot of times things are not that bad. Our judgement make them. Therefore it is of great importance that we work on improving our perspective. A lot is at stake when we do not have a favorable perception.

2. “Why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice?”- Marcus Aurelius

Every time I read this, I feel a little different. We are not always angry at ourselves. Majority of the times we are angry at the world; at people- for not being kind enough, for not being honest enough with their jobs, for not being understanding enough, for not being like us. It is a big mistake to expect the world to work as per our preferences. People are not going to be like us: they do not care much if they are being greedy or not, they do not care if they are efficient at their jobs or not, they do not care about your expectations. They are just carrying on with their lives just the way you are.  Then what is the point in punishing yourself for someone else’s mistakes. Why are you angry? Why you? Do you think they care? Do you think they are noticing your anger? Do you believe they are going to come console you? NO. NO and NO. We can influence people. We can make a difference in this world. But we cannot do it for everyone.

3. “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” – Marcus Aurelius

We all dread mornings because we have to go to work, we have to do household chores; we have to think of innumerable tasks on to-do list. In the middle of all the responsibilities we forget what a privilege it is to be able to breathe; to be alive. We forget it is a new day to correct our past mistakes. We forget it is a new day to make our plans again. We forget we have another day to care deeply about the people we love. This is what Marcus Aurelius said. He wanted us to make time for gratitude. If we are focused too much upon what we don’t have, we will never be able to enjoy what we already have. This is what gratitude teaches us. Strive for better but also enjoy what’s already there.

4. “You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action.”- Marcus Aurelius

Life is never build instantly. There is no magic formula to build our lives quickly. Everything is done brick by brick. In other words, one step at a time. Human beings are very impatient. We expect instant results with little time and hard work. We do our work on a daily basis and feel like we are not getting anywhere, like we are stuck. I am most certain it happens with everybody.  Every day progress doesn’t seem to matter a lot because we don’t get to see any changes. But in reality, we get better. We make progress. Like Marcus Aurelius said we have to assemble our lives action by action. Act once. Then act again. Act once more. Keep doing your work. You will definitely get there.

Mental health goes back to over 2,000 years ago

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Philosophy is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t mean to be rude but that’s true. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of one’s life. At least, it should be. There is an old story Thales of Miletus who was a Greek philosopher. His friends used to make jokes saying, Those who can, do, others philosophize.” To someone like me who keeps philosophy at the top (other than science and writing) it seems quite offensive. Surprisingly, as the story goes Thales took the words of his friend seriously and made huge amounts of money. Looks like, philosophy does pay off.

Seneca, a stoic from Spain was born over 2,000 years ago. He was a terrific philosopher who made huge contributions to the stoic philosophy. He was the son of Seneca, the Elder. Seneca got his education from Rome and in spite of belonging to a wealthy family he left no stone unturned in imparting his wisdom. He had written a letter in his famous book “Letters from a stoic” where he talked about the importance of mental health. I was a bit surprised when I read that letter because it was hard for me to believe how possibly someone could be talking about such a delicate yet crucial subject such a long time ago. Yet he did. It’s all out there.

There are some key lines in that particular letter Seneca wrote. The excerpts are a clear indication to his efforts of prioritizing mental health. In other words, an attempt to maintain equality between physical and mental health.

  1. “The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.”

I am a skeptic when it comes to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. I believe what I haven’t explored and what I don’t understand yet should not be talked about. So, for my peace of mind and to avoid any sort of confusion for the readers I am going to attribute ‘spirit’ as human mind or simply human brain. Seneca has wisely separated the human body and human mind thereby separating two types of health: physical health and mental health. Seneca is not wrong in stating the importance of making some time for our mental recoveries. We are exerting ourselves physically ignoring the mental variable from the equation. Believing hand fracture is a problem while depressed mood for more than 3 weeks just a phase of life is nothing but an invitation to crushing our mental health by all means. If we are merely focused on recovering physically and not mentally or emotionally then everything is going to take a toll on us. That is why we must be careful enough about prioritizing not just our physical bodies but mental bodies too.

2. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging heights about and jumping. Pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon. Exercise it day and night.”

Being physically healthy is the need of an hour because we are living in societies plagued with health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc. Even Seneca around 2,000 years ago talked about moving our physical bodies to remain active and healthy. He suggested running, jumping, swinging heights out of many other exercises. But he was also very particular about practicing mental exercises. He said ‘return from body to mind very soon’. We may think mental clarity can be compromised with. I think it is the biggest mistakes of one’s life. We cannot move far if our minds are over flowing with baggage. So, in a way I believe if we are physically exerting ourselves once in a day to grow our muscles stronger, we should also exert ourselves mentally to grow our mental muscles.

3. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Occasional breaks from our busy schedules are very important. After all, there is a limit to everything. Seneca argues in his letter that we must always make time to refresh mentally because we can’t function to the best of our abilities if our emotional reserves are constantly depleting. At the same time, he is very careful about not letting that leisure time increase too much that we become lazy and sloppy. Relaxation is crucial and it is highly needed but too much relaxation is not good. Too much relaxation torn us apart into pieces and then more efforts are required to put those pieces back together.

4. “The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.”

I am an ardent believer of practicing gratitude regularly. Even Seneca agrees. He says that life is no good if it has no place for gratitude. People who aren’t grateful for big and small things in life can never manage to stay content. Such people are always focused on building their future. They think future is the answer to everything. They are wrong. Present moments matter more. If we are present in the moment it does not mean that we become completely ignorant towards our future goals and make no plans. It means taking things one step at a time. Be active for your future. But don’t ruminate on it. It is not unhealthy.

History and philosophy have a lot to teach us. We just need to open our minds to let wisdom enter.