A lot of people, I suspect, are turned off to philosophy because it strikes them as impractical. Indeed, many of the most famous philosophers dealt in abstracts and pondered matters which it can be difficult to conceive of having an immediate, practical impact. Kant, for instance, was so deeply abstract that even other philosophers made fun of him for being too out-of-touch. His famous maxim, that something “is only right insofar as you should desire that it become universal law,” is one of my favorite pieces of philosophy because of its reductionist power to explain morality in the same way that fundamental physics can explain the universe, but it is almost impossible to implement on a practical level.
To all of those people, I hope that you can put aside your general skepticism of philosophy for a moment in order to examine stoicism, because stoicism’s greatest strength as a philosophy might be its personal immediacy and applicability. It does not seek to answer grand, moral questions, or to probe the depths of the human experience, which is probably why it is glossed over in many philosophy classes in favor of more head-spinning teachings. Instead, stoicism is a personal philosophy, meant to guide you towards a satisfactory way of living. Asking whether “conduct is right because the Gods demand it, or do the Gods demand it because it is right” is all well and good, and absolutely fascinating if you’re like me, but for day-to-day purposes it is more useful to ask, “how should I deal with my annoying colleagues?”
Stoicism is perhaps best understood as a contextualization tool. While “stoic” is often used as an adjective to describe someone who is imperturbable and emotionally disciplined (like Star Trek‘s Vulcans), it is in truth a philosophy of powerful emotions. It teaches how to respond to and interact with those emotions so that they do not control you, but unlike the emotionally rigid teachings of Surak, stoicism is not about controlling emotions; rather, it is focused on living with emotions in a dynamic and conscious way that facilitates a more satisfied day-to-day existence.
Key to the experience and practice of stoicism is journaling, which is how we ended up with Meditations – it is Marcus Aurelius’ personal stoicism diary. At the end of each day, practitioners are encouraged to write about those matters which led them negatively away from emotional equilibrium – maybe a pet died, or a promotion fell through, or a project suffered a setback – and work out through the process of writing on the topic why you don’t need to feel that way, and why it would be more useful to channel that energy in a more productive direction (I am not an expert at describing this, but I think you will understand what I mean if you read Meditations). In this way, stoicism has an almost religious quality, although it does not demand belief. Some people even claim that stoic teachings are the origin of the Christian practice of prayer.
If you doubt stoicism’s utility, consider this: it is the foundation of modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the leading non-pharmaceutical treatments for depression and similar conditions. CBT, in fact, is almost exactly stoicism with some psychological window dressings applied. If you ever struggle with your emotions (and who doesn’t?), stoicism can help. It doesn’t have easy answers or quick fixes, and it doesn’t provide a roadmap to a perfect life, but it does teach ways of thinking that can help us to be more satisfied with the present.
I wish that I could claim that everyone would benefit from reading Kant, Locke, Plato, and Aristotle, but that wouldn’t be true. There is immense value to reading “the classics,” and I think that these works should be brought back into curricula (maybe they could replace depressing books like As I Lay Dying and Beloved), but the truth is that even the classics will not directly impact your life until you take time to work with them. Stoicism, though, can have immediate, practical impact on how you live day to day, and on how satisfied and fulfilled you are with your life on a daily basis. If schools taught Meditations for half the time they dwell on, say, Hamlet, perhaps we would not be facing a nation-wide anxiety crisis.
I could say so much more about stoicism, and so much more has already been said. Don’t think of this as an introduction to stoicism. It is a call to stoicism, a prompt to do more research, maybe read Meditations, and learn more about this eminently practical philosophical school. Stoicism is a journey, and no single text can capture what it means or how to practice it. It’s not a checklist or a step-by-step guide. Instead, it is a way of life, and understanding it can benefit you no matter who you are or how you feel today. It might not look like keeping a stoicism journal every day, and it might in fact look completely different from how anyone else practices stoicism, but that’s its power. From you to the Emperor of Rome, stoicism might be just what you need.