practice stoicism

Benefits of six stoicism exercises


This is a fascinating one, as we are reminded of just how differently we regard the same event if it concerns us or other people. Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity (which, again, is not to be confused with emotional impassivity!) when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others than to ourselves. But why, really?

We can familiarize ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences. When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit. Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others. (Enchiridion XXVI)

Speak little and well.

I must admit that this is a hard one for me to practice, probably due to my ego and the professional habits of a teacher who is far too often in professorial mode. Still, I’ve tried to remember this counsel and take it to heart, and it is serving me increasingly well.

Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.2)

Choose your company well.

I laugh every time I read this. To modern ears it sounds insufferably elitist, but it really isn’t (remember, it comes from an ex-slave who was making a living teaching in the open air). Also, keep in mind that “philosophers” here doesn’t mean professionals, but rather people who are interested in following virtue. More generally, this is simply the sound advice that our life is short, and temptation and waste are always lurking, so we need to pay attention to whom we spend our time with and doing what.

Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out. (Enchiridion XXXIII.6)

Respond to insults with humor.

This is a lovely example of profound wisdom accompanied by Epictetus’ distinctive brand of humor: instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, they are not “up to you”) respond with self deprecation. You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed.

If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’ (Enchiridion XXXIII.9)

Don’t speak too much about yourself.

I must admit to failing at this often enough (see “ego” and “professorial mode” above), but I’m trying. And boy, does that make for a much better social experience!

In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.14)

Speak without judging.

Still working on this one too, but, again, this is so true, and so typically Stoic. The idea is to distinguish between matters of fact — to which we can assent, if we find them justified by observation — and judgments — from which we generally speaking ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information. Just imagine how much better the world would be if we all refrained from hasty judgments and looked at human affairs more matter of factly.

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different. (Enchiridion XLV)