Stoicism : 10 tools of ancient philosophy that improved my life

It was fortuitous that I started getting interested in Stoicism around 2018 – because by the time the pandemic came around, I really needed it.

“Cometh the hour, cometh the woman!” I said, Epietcus’s Enchiridion in hand, as the borders shut in March 2020 and friends started to hit me up for Stoic advice. “Inject that Stoicism into my veins!” they would text.

Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.”

It’s true. When life started changing rapidly – and fear was in the air – the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy proved to be a remarkably useful tool. Even if there had been no pandemic, Stoicism was saving my arse every day: from dealing with FOMO to the cost-of-living crisis; from missing out on a job, to the climate crisis, to heartbreak and loss. Everything had a template from the Stoics – or had at least been deeply considered by them. And much of their advice is as fresh today as it was in ancient times.

But where do you begin? And how can you apply it to your own day-to-day life?

1. Work out what’s in your control

A cornerstone of Stoicism is the “control test”, as found in the Enchiridion – and during the first waves of the pandemic the control test was invaluable for me. I still use it every day to make an assessment on what I should and shouldn’t worry about, and to see where I can take action and best direct my energy.

Epictetus – who’s handbook was published in c.125 CE – wrote: “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.”

Essentially, our field of control consists of our own actions and reactions, our desires, our character and how we treat others. The rest – including our bodies, the actions of others, our reputation and our fortunes (personal and financial) – are out of our control.

Snap lockdown means you can’t go to work? Out of your control, but you can work on how you deal with it. Virus circulating in the community when there’s no vaccine? Out of your control, but your actions can help protect yourself and others. Stressed-out friend gets too drunk and takes her loneliness out on you? What she does is out of your control, but your reaction isn’t.

For every problem, there is a Stoic solution – and the control test is often the most elegant and simple way of finding our way to it.

2. You don’t need to judge everything

We make judgements quickly, often without adequate information – and sometimes when no judgement is needed at all. So much of what we label “good” or “bad” is actually neutral, but our judgements are powerful and dictate to a large extent how we respond.

I may apply for a rental that I really want, and miss out – so I apply the judgement of “bad” to this. But is it still bad if, the following week, a better or cheaper place comes on the market?

If we treat most events in a neutral way, we are less likely to get upset by things that happen.

3. Money, health and reputation are out of your control

As per the control test, money, health and reputation are all essentially outside our control. If we can cultivate indifference to them we are less likely to become upset, and waste energy trying to control them.

Without any fault or action of your own, you could lose your reputation, then your job, then your money – then your house, and maybe your marriage. You’ll almost certainly lose your looks as you age. If you live long enough, you might lose mobility, cognitive ability and other aspects of your health.

Accidents and illnesses happen all the time, too – also out of your control. You can be as careful as you like, but it’s not completely up to you. You could get hit by a bus!

Stoics warned against suffering twice: that is, suffering from an illness or injury, and a second suffering which is the anger or anxiety that surrounds becoming sick or injured. It can happen to anyone, so there’s no reason why it should not happen to you – and anyway, death eventually comes for us all.

In order to avoid being too pained by these accruing losses, it’s better to practise indifference to what you have in the first place.

4. Practise the conditions that you fear

In order to become habituated to the suffering that awaits us all, the Stoics practised voluntary hardship.

Seneca advised his friend Lucilius to fast in case one day he was unable to access food: “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Often it’s not as bad as we fear – and we are stronger than we think.

5. Practice imagining death

The Stoics believed that you should grieve your loved ones while they are still living. In fact, they advised you to think of their death frequently while they are still alive, in order to prepare.

You are less inclined to hold on to grudges if you imagine that your friend may suddenly die – and you will be more inclined to make the most of the time you have. “Let us greedily enjoy our friends,” said Seneca, as we should also enjoy our children, “because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours”.

The same goes for our own death; you can’t control it, but you can control how you think of it. Stoics seek to demystify it by reminding themselves frequently that they will die, which helps bring into focus the only thing that matters: the present moment.

As Epictetus said, “I cannot escape death – but at least I can escape the fear of it.”

6. Don’t worry about others’ reactions

Worrying about upsetting others is generally seen as a positive trait, but it can also lead to people-pleasing, or excessively fretting. One of the most important things for a Stoic is recognising that your character is one of the only things you can control. The four Stoic virtues are wisdom, justice, courage and moderation; if you are acting with them, then you are exercising a core component of life that is within your control.

But how others react is outside your control. You can try to persuade or influence them, but ultimately their actions and reactions are up to them.

Worrying about what other people think, or how they react, is a waste of time. Just worry about how you’ve behaved, and your own character.

7. Moderation is a virtue

Like us, the Roman Stoics lived in a world awash with excess and booze. They advised moderation when it came to wine – but not to make a big deal about it.

From Epictetus: “When a man drinks water, or does anything for the sake of practice (discipline), whenever there is an opportunity he tells it to all: ‘I drink water.’ Is it for this that you drink water, for the purpose of drinking water? Man, if it is good for you to drink, drink; but if not, you are acting ridiculously.”

A Stoic would treat alcohol, particularly expensive wine, with indifference. She would be aware that addiction is dangerous because it impairs reason. She would also be aware that banging on about abstaining is boring.

8. Give without expecting a return

So much of giving in our society is unconsciously transactional. Say I have you over for a nice dinner; in some corner of my mind, I might expect you to return the favour. But if I apply the control test, I’ll remember I have no power over whether someone acts how I want them to act. It’s better to give freely, without conditions or caveats, and without expecting anything in return. That way I won’t be disappointed if a favour is never repaid.

“We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly, and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers,” wrote Seneca.

9. Say no to FOMO

The more Stoicism I read, the more I realised that the fear of missing out has always been around, and that the Stoics – of course! – had ways to deal with it.

If you weren’t invited to something, they saw it as a test of character to not be bitter or unhappy. Epictetus advised, “If these things are good, you ought to be glad he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not got them.”

Then they pointed out the trade-off. Say you didn’t get tickets to a sold-out festival; think about what you have gained instead. Perhaps you will have another experience that weekend – certainly you’ll have an extra $200 to play with.

10. Try to relax

Contrary to the modern usage of the word “stoic”, the original Stoics did not have a stiff upper lip – nor were they repressed. Instead, they sought to maximise joy and minimise suffering – and they strived to be as relaxed as possible. In this tranquil state, it was harder to ignite anger, get upset or be anxious about things they couldn’t control.

“Never let the future disturb you,” wrote Aurelius. “You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”