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How to Be a Stoic (2016) (newyorker.com)
162 points by andrelaszlo 23 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

I think of this as a variant of Postel's law (for TCP/IP):

    Be conservative in what you do,
    Be liberal in what you accept from others.
Most major belief systems have the same concept of defining "winning at being human" as putting up with more crap and simultaneously taking the effort to overdeliver. As a society, this pulls us upward.

On a continuum, there are 3 states:

- A negative state, where we take/expect more than we deliver. At best, we require others to do us good before we ourselves do good, at worse we are unconcerned about other's good. It's also, at an individual level, the path of least resistance.

- A neutral state, where we attempt to balance what we expect and what we deliver. In that state is the Golden Rule (do to others what you want them to do to you) and eye-for-an-eye (don't return more tort than the tort caused to you). Very loosely, this is where justice lives.

- A positive state, where we attempt to give more than what we expect. This is the domain of mercy, stoicism and "turn the other cheek". It requires a personal cost/sacrifice in order to expect less yet still deliver what is good. This is also the domain of love.

I like that comparison. I stumbled upon another continuum some years ago, and I think it makes a good companion.

In this one, both ends are bad, and the middle is good. It's especially useful for dealing with any type of devotion to cause (or a person):

Optimism ---- Improver ---- Pessimism

Though people tend to go from Optimism -> Pessimism (-> Improver).

The problem with optimists is that they will "defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe; he will say, “My cosmos, right or wrong.” He will be less inclined to the reform of things; more inclined to a sort of front-bench official answer to all attacks, soothing everyone with assurances. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world."

The problem with pessimists is "not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises . . . [In being the so-called ‘candid friend,’ the pessimist is not really candid.] He is keeping something back—in his own gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things. He has a secret desire to hurt, not merely to help. . . . He is using the ugly knowledge which was allowed him [in order] to strengthen the army, to discourage people from joining it."

An example of the "Improver" is (are) women: "Some stupid people started the idea that because women obviously back up their own people through everything, therefore women are blind and do not see anything. They can hardly have known any women. The same women who are ready to defend their men through thick and thin . . . are almost morbidly lucid about the thinness of [their] excuses or the thickness of [their] head[s]. . . . Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind."

[0] Quotes from G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy(Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1959), pp. 69–71.

[1] Arrangement of quotes taken from https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-c-hafen_love-is-not-bli...

I don't think stoicism belongs in what you've described as a positive state. It's about our attitude towards the world and experiences as they unfold. I don't think you can extrapolate giving more to the world from that. In fact expectations are irrelevant in that framework.

Don't conflate "positive" in this domain with any typical connotations of the word. Stoicism is certainly "positive" in the sense of what one gives to the world, in relationship to what one expects to receive, because a Stoic has no expectations to receive anything from the world.

As befits HN, I also want to pitch the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius here. Being written for himself, it has a very different tone (no athletic coach, but rather a somewhat world-weary, if benevolent, uncle). Fundamentally, it treats similar ideas, though.

I also stumbled over a very interesting quote from the article:

> In other words, think of every unreasonable asshole you > have to deal with as part of God’s attempt to “turn you > into Olympic-class material.” This is a very powerful > trick.

The _exact_ same trick is practiced in many (traditional) Christian faiths---but I have the feeling that placing it in that context would alienate many modern readers (and in the worst cases, it comes relatively close to the prosperity gospel stuff).

Let me take this opportunity to plug standardebooks.org (no affiliation) - nicely curated and carefully formatted free ebooks. They have a couple of books related to Stoicism.

Here are the Meditations:


And The Enchiridion (by Epictetus):


And Seneca's Dialogues:


This site is interesting. Thanks for sharing. Curious : whether the proofreading and formatting here are better than Gutenberg public domain ebooks ? And, whether taking the EPUB and converting to AZW3 using calibre gets the same features as taking the AZW3 from this website ?

Hi there, I'm the lead on this project. Yes, our proofreading and formatting is better than Gutenberg. That's the entire point of the project. No, using Calibre to convert epub to azw3 won't quite produce the same output as our special azw3. We do use Calibre in our build process to do much of the heavy lifting, but there are also other adjustments made that Calibre doesn't do.

Let me quote from the "About" page:


> While there are plenty of places where you can download free and accurately-transcribed public domain ebooks, we feel the quality of those ebooks can often be greatly improved.

> For example, Project Gutenberg, a major producer of public-domain ebooks, hosts epub and Kindle files that sometimes lack basic typographic necessities like curly quotes; some of those ebooks are automatically generated and can’t take full advantage of modern ereader technology like popup footnotes or popup tables of contents; they sometimes lack niceties like cover images and title pages; and the quality of individual ebook productions varies greatly.

Not sure about the Calibre conversion. I normally convert EPUBs to MOBI using Calibre (and switching to left aligned, right ragged), but on StandardEbooks I've been downloading the AZW3.

I read a Buddhist thing, I forget what exactly, saying that when someone really bugs you in your life, think "Thank you, teacher of patience!". The gratefulness really turns things around magically. That was very helpful for me at that time in my life!

What if Marcus Aurelius were a software developer? https://codeandtechno.com/posts/stoicism-for-developers/

>The _exact_ same trick is practiced in many (traditional) Christian faiths

Unfortunately this is true, despite being complete heresy. One of the saddest things for an American Christian is how a huge portion of the church has diluted Christianity to an unbiblical set of self actualization themes.

I agree with your view on American Christianity. But do you consider a milder variant of the statement in the article, namely something along the lines of 'Challenges can help me grow (in faith, in character, etc.)' to be heretical as well?

(just curious; no hidden agenda here)

The phrase "Challenges can help me grow" is specific to the individual; that is, how you choose to accept them. The phrase "God's plan" implies that you are claiming to understand it in terms of not only what has happened to you, but what will happen to you in the future. It is one part prophesy, one part imposing your own desires and will upon God.

I don't know that I would personally consider it "heretical" (especially since I am an agnostic by way of Catholicism) but that would be my stab at understanding the difference between the phrases.

Not at all, because the key distinction is what you are growing in. "Olympic class material" is very different from the spiritual growth in things like faith, love, peace that the Bible prescribes.

I think calling it heresy is a bit of a stretch. It's pretty close to what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:

> but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame ...

I might be reading your comment incorrectly but why is this bad? There are a lot of ideas in the bible that are not relevant or helpful at all, the self actualization themes are at least useful.

Because there aren't any self actualization themes in the Bible. The Bible is about fallen man, reconciliation with God, and what should be done in response. Cherry picking and twisting the parts that sound nice to fit with the cultural values du jour is ignoring the core message.

The core theme of the bible is 'Your life is not (entirely) about you'. There is a danger of focusing too much on self-actualization (although I guess this danger is not restricted to that endeavour) and forgetting that one is also part of a society. Epictetus reminds the reader of this constantly, trying to make one feel at home in groups and alone :)


Christianity isn't a philosophy. It's a religion.

I picked up the Meditations recently, expecting some profound insights, but it’s been a bit of a let down so far. Are there particular parts I should skip to? Has anyone found a translation they really like?

I actually loved the first quarter most. What I liked was the self-motivation exhibited in it. It's not so much insightful as reassuring. I guess if there was any insight, it's from the very first chapter - you can learn something from everyone around you.

I just finished Meditations. I would say he was _very_ world weary, there were many notes to himself about dealing with annoying or frustrating people, and not being surprised at their behaviour. I imagine as an emperor he had to deal with heaps of petitioners spewing absolute garbage and had to try very hard not to lose it.

That quote was my main takeaway from the article. I agree, it's a great mind trick. Good call.

I think being stoic is becoming increasingly valuable regarding today's politics. Vindictiveness and toxicity is reflected regularly in people that closely follow national politics, usually demonstrated by their desire to relieve their frustrations by venting their negative emotions. Like the author quotes, "it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them." Letting things which are so far removed from your control affect your daily disposition seems exhausting and miserable.

One of then side effects of the rise of identity politics is an explosion in victim complexes. It's just a bit of a race to the bottom effect where one group will argue X thing doesn't mean they're victims because their group are victims in Y way. There are just so many victims these days that victimhood doesn't even serve actual victims. The supply of victims outstrips the demand.

Stoicism is so starkly opposed to victimhood and complaining that it comes as a breath of fresh air.

I think there is a lot of value in stoicism, but it never really worked for me, because accepting things aren’t my thing.

Instead I prefer the Socratic approach to issues, where you actually try and discover solutions together. I know stoics took a lot of lessons from Socrates, and that you can’t be Socratic without a tad of stoicism, but I’ve also found asking questions to be better (for me) than letting things slide.

Like with the cab-driver taking the long route. Sure you can let it slide, but I’ve never had politely asking about it break my tranquility.

I'm hardly an authority but I've been doing daily stoic journaling for about 9 months. Stoicism isn't about passivity, though I can see how people think that, it's about 1. Accepting your circumstances 2. Understanding what you can and can't control 3. not having your happiness be dependent on outcomes but rather your actions. So in your cab example you could say something to the cab driver. You could simply get out of the cab and get another. You could let the cab driver take you the long way and pay more because it isn't worth the hassle. Any would be an appropriate stoic response. The unstoic response would be to sit and seethe or complain about it later. At it's core stoicism seems to be just a system of empowered decision making. Or at least that's how I use it.

Right on.

But the fundamental lesson is that the cab driver's behaviour is not under your control. How you react to it, is. You might then decide to let it slide, or mention it, or even make a fuss about it - but you deploy the anger instrumentally by your volition; you are not consumed and controlled by your anger.

I’ve got a friend who would act something like the parent comment: if a taxi guy diverges from the most efficient route, the friend would ask the driver why did that happen immediately.

The truth is that I know that if I were in a situation like that as a drver, it would not take me much to lie to my friend if I needed to (whether I am taking advantage of him or it just happened this way). There are just too many variables for anyone to be able to call bullshit on all of them at once.

Some people just like feeling in control. They just can’t admit they are not more often than not.

There's also the chance that the longer route taken by the cab driver was for a reason. He knows about construction, or it's busy near there this time of day, or whatever. He might be doing it because it's safer. Of course, yes, he might be doing it because he's trying to bilk you out of a few bucks.

Unless I take a cab all the time or something, I just chalk it up to the "cost of doing business" and go on with my day.

A very similar idea is expressed here [1] . Instead of lamenting loss, frame it as a purchase of tranquility.

[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/Stoicism/comments/9umsg0/starting_w...

I make a distinction between accepting what's out of one's control (in it's immediacy) and dealing with injustice or undesirable situations. Such that, I don't accept bullshit. But shit happens. I've found this is a relatively low-stress approach. My vehicle was hit in a parking lot, with no information left and no camera capture - the appropriate response for me is "whatever". Had I caught the person in action though, I would have pursued it to the extent I could, as a matter of course.

I guess the point is you just can't defeat life. Just like in the Rocky movies, life will hit you eventually. It's easy to forget that while we are young and dreaming of being the next billionaire, but it's better to be prepared. You can be a Stoic and still achieve things, as long as you accept that you are not entitled to any achievements.

>You can be a Stoic and still achieve things

I feel this proves the point: Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome. That's an accomplishment, surely :)

Well he did have the advantage of birth and education.

Wasnt socrates more of about challenging others or proving them wrong rather then cooperative searching for solution? Discovering solutions together would require both parties to take risk, propose ideas and have them challenged. Afaik, there was no such symmetry.

Stoicism isn’t about passive acceptance necessarily. When the barbarian hordes attacked, Marcus didn’t just shrug and stay home. I see it more as an opponent to the prevailing philosophy that anything can be overcome if you just work hard and struggle enough.

One book that I had bought a few months back and started reading on Jan 1st is this The Daily Stoic: "366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living" [1]

It contains 366 quotes, one for every day. I usually read it in the morning, then I take a photo on my phone and I re-read it during lunch time. This way I can process it again and make sure I (try to) 'fix' one thing at a time.

I have made this part of my "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast" and "The Miracle Morning" combined-routine.

[1]: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Daily-Stoic-Meditations-Perseveranc...

I also find this book really nicely written. Worth checking out if someone is interested more.

Also Mark Aurelius Meditations are interesting read. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditations

A good book on Stoic is: https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/0195...

Very easy to read this book and growth mind. There are no abstraction here. Very pragmatics. For those who want to know/understand Stoic. I'm highly recommended.

As a newcomer to it, I found this book extremely helpful and instantly impactful to my daily life. That said, I find that you need to keep up the practice continually as its impact has a half life and fades over time.

almost as if the world has a limitless supply of "challenges". As you level-up, so do the challenges which force one to grow. Hopefully.

I disliked this book. Just go to the original classical sources, instead of this watered down derivative.

Reading this one felt to me like having a sequence of funny jokes explained pedantically, without ever getting to hear the original jokes.

I can see why many would dislike this book vs. the sources, but it definitely makes the overall idea more palatable. Reading the Meditations isn't for everyone.

I agree, I got a lot of value from this book.

I have found both Stoicism and secular Buddhism to be right up my alley.

I'm closing in on 60 years of age, and have had both major wins and major losses in my life. Today, I am generally at peace with whatever happens and my different moods; they come and go like the weather. I usually meditate for 15 - 30 minutes a day. The Buddhist concept of "no self" is something I'm reflecting on as well.

The closest thing I found to "no self" is the Radiohead song "how to disappear completely".

For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend Ryan Holiday's book The Obstacle is the Way which gives a great high-level modern take on stoicism. The classics are also obviously great too.

Meditations gave me nothing that I didn't get from reading a few of Aurelius' quotes. One of those books that you expect to be great and it disappoints.

The problem with stoicism is the same problem as the problems with Buddhism's eight-fold path; avoiding suffering is not living to the fullest. If that's your philosophy, what's the point of being alive?

Stoicism/Buddhism works well in situations for which it was designed by Siddhartha - enduring your crappy slave existence. It makes sense to learn not to feel when all you feel is disappointment and lack of control. A bit defeatist, really. Enduring, while valuable, is not being proactive.

It's effective, but it's no way to live long term.

> avoiding suffering is not living to the fullest

Stoicism isn't about the avoidance of suffering. It's about accepting fate, loving others despite their behavior, and not creating anguish for yourself, in your own mind. It doesn't mean, however, that you don't attempt to put things in order and fix your problems.

"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart."

"Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself."

"So you were born to feel 'nice'? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don't you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you're not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren't you running to do what your nature demands?"

> Stoicism isn't about the avoidance of suffering. It's about accepting fate

That's actually a Roman-Christian reinterpretation of the Greek philosophy.

The Greek teaching in a nutshell is that what depends on you depends on you, and what doesn't depend on you (such as others or nature) does not -- and therefor shouldn't be a source of frustration.

(It says nowhere, as you note a few sentences later, that you should accept the would-be source of the frustration; just that you shouldn't be frustrated about it -- while working on improving the situation if you feel strongly about it.)

> avoiding suffering is not living to the fullest.

But that's just it, buddhism does not advocate avoidance of suffering[1] at all.

The buddhist 'path' is about using suffering as a raw material and transforming it.

You can't be a buddhist without experiencing suffering, because you need to work with it.

> Buddhism works well in situations for which it was designed by Siddhartha - enduring your crappy slave existence.

Siddhartha was an indian prince who gave up that life to investigate suffering.

He realized early that he would have suffered whether he stayed in the palace or not.

Buddhism is not about enduring, it is about transforming.

[1] Suffering as might be translated today as 'stress'.

Nowhere in the fundamental Buddhist tenets did I see anything about "transforming." All I see is "Desire causes suffering, learn not to desire anything to free yourself from suffering." Which, to me, sounds a whole lot like monkhood, which I see as escapism; there is a reason that the most common story you hear in a monastery is "I used to be an alcoholic".

I am genuinely interested in what people see in Buddhism beyond that - this is after literally decades of having the same debate with random strangers and reading provided sources.

Im not a buddhist or a stoic, but from what little I have read I somewhat live that way.

My parents once told me that one of my biggest problems is that I was too happy. I have always had the mantra "the path to true happiness is to want for nothing". This means you can either have the things you wanted or choose not to want the things you dont have. If I want something badly enough I work to get/achieve it. If I'm not willing to work to get it, then I am at peace with my decision because apparently I didn't want it that badly.

I have a lot of material possessions and I enjoy them, yet if I were to lose them all it would be ok. There was a time in my life where I had to dig change out of the couch to buy enough to eat and I reveled in the moment, that I was a person that had to live that way. There was a certain thrill to finding a dollar so I could go to the farmers market to buy a basket of the veggies of the day which could be an entire basket of green peppers (yuck). I enjoyed learning a variety of recipes to make do with green peppers.

Im happy to be able to travel, help others, raise kids, do hobbies etc. I enjoy them, but the loss of all of that, especially as I get older, I think I can accept. Every phase of life brings something new to enjoy, even pain.

I often think about all the things I will lose, especially people, even to the point where it brings me to tears. I work to accept that loss today and to enjoy the having right now. One day I will lose my parents, I might lose my spouse, a child, a friend. When they are gone, I'll have the sadness, but I'll still have the joy of having had them in my life.

Someday I might not be able to walk, see, or get out of bed. But I will appreciate and treasure the time I did have.

As a concrete example I look at people who are so angry at trump, most of them are simply angry. The anger itself is pointless. In my world view you either act to create the change you want or accept that you dont care enough to act. Each person is motivated differently and people aren't bad because they don't care as much as you.

Even if you act, you might fail. If you recognize that failure is possible, even feel anguish over the failure, yet try to see the pleasure in the attempt and the failure, then you can have peace.

This means not being afraid of failure, because there is still joy in failure, the journey as well as the learning.

If you want peace, you can have it. Many people simply dont want peace.

Wow you have shown a lot of resilience. Good for you!

> In my world view you either act to create the change you want or accept that you don't care enough to act.

This aligns nicely with a stoic principle I read somewhere, that said something like: "The proper use of thought is inform action."

> Nowhere in the fundamental Buddhism tenets did I see anything about "transforming."

That's just it though, you might not have seen it in your readings, but it is part of the practise.

Buddhism isn't just a set of beliefs, it's a practise.

It's not about professing a set of beliefs, it's more like a training program to achieve an outcome.

I'm not telling you that you should practise buddhism of course, but if you want to understand it, you can't just read about it.

That would be like reading everything you can find about golf, and then saying you understand golf.

Asking random strangers about their experiences is only marginally better, since everyone will give you a different answer based on their individual experiences.

See: https://www.amazon.com/No-Mud-Lotus-Transforming-Suffering/d...

If you are interested in an a modern analytical view of buddhism, you might enjoy this: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/shape... or any other writing by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. IIRC he is a former engineer, so he explains buddhism in a way that might appeal more to the HN crowd.

I will check out those links after work, thanks.

I don’t see Stoicism as advocating avoidance of suffering or becoming numb to it, but rather being able to wisely take the suffering in context so as to avoid letting it irrationally overwhelm you.

Many would argue we _still_ live a crappy slave existence in the modern world.

I am among that 'many'. But I also disagree with adopting a slave-coping philosophy.

It's not about avoiding suffering, but rather analyzing the situation to determine what is and is not in your control within your own free will. One thing about suffering is that it is relative, it's possible to compare but never possible to truly understand, we after all only can feel our own emotions. Finding meaning in that suffering is also the means to continue, it is in itself an achievement that no other human can compare, because it is your own.

This is not at all "how to be a stoic". This is "what it is to be a stoic".

It's nice to say you have to avoid reacting to things outside of your control. But how does one do that ?

Stoicism fails at explaining any practical way of embrassing the teaching. It's strange since they were quite practical people, but you see that a often in philosophy: lots of theory, very few advices for practice.

At least the buddhists suggest meditation as a tool to learn to act instead of reacting, and see things more objectively.

> It's nice to say you have to avoid reacting to things outside of your control. But how does one do that ?

The first step is to learn to distinguish between the things that are in your control and those that outside of your control. The second step is to consciously remind yourself that things outside your control are by their nature indifferent - neither good nor bad - and to act accordingly.

Both of these things require constant practice to develop skill. One specific exercise that can help is the "Premeditatio Malorum". Another is to keep a journal of one's successes and failures and to review it daily.

There are other useful resources online with practical advice. One good example is Donald Robertson's Stoic Therapy Toolkit: https://learn.donaldrobertson.name/p/stoic-therapy-toolkit

Yes and they are ancient with few practicioners of what it preaches. One example would be Taleb but I couldn't think of a stoic group of people that truly live like that.

If you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend William Irvine's "A guide to the good life: the ancient art of stoic joy"


Its treatment of modern stoicism is uplifting, and I found that the overall philosophy (and even just the practice of having a set of values and philosophy) matched my personal beliefs well and gave me new tools to use.

Overall - Stoicism as it was taught by Epictetus is more about freeing yourself from desire for things and the fear of losing them, and not about giving up all worldly things (that's Asceticism)

I appreciate that the Stoic teachings allow for enjoyment of life and its fruits when that enjoyment is bounded by the good of "community feeling" or love for your common man. If the 80's "greed is good" movement had had a "but try to lift up others and don't be a dick", it may have been a more sustainable culture, and I hope that those of us disrupting things and building new systems figure out how to create societal benefits as well as wealth.

CliffsNotes: "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."

I think with stoicism you have to be careful to actually be stoic and not just pretend to yourself to be stoic. There are quite a few stories of meditation practitioners and teachers who broke down after years of looking peaceful and serene to the outside but they were just pretending to others and also to themselves.

I havent read much about stoicism. But if I had to guess, being serene all the time is not being stoic. You should experience all the emotions, yet simultaneously realize you can be angry and still have peace. Because you can accept the feelings as natural. The question then becomes will you act on the anger or not act. Either way you then have peace with your decision.

Do you remember / have any references to these people? I am very interested in criticisms of stoicism.

From what I gather buddhism and stoicism share a lot of ways how to deal with external input and managing your mental state. I know more about buddhism and there have been quite a few articles about teachers who fell apart even after decades of practice because they hadn't really internalized them and were trying to "fake it till you make it".

Somehow Aurelius never took with me as a longer man, but Stockdale's accounts of the impact of stoicism on his life are pretty good.




Is there a more energetic way of looking at life than stoicism? Stoicism seemed life-denying whenever I seemed to get knto it.

I want to say that after reading Montaigne, I get the impression that he did not consider stoicism a reasonable way of life, especially with respect to the writings of Seneca. He saw the dangers when virtues are taken to extremes. He(Montaigne) was more impressed by the ideas of temperance and moderation as espoused by Plutarch.

So Epictetus was a theist?

Edit: what stops me from being a christian because both believed in god

None of these philosophies can be applied when the stakes get really high and personal.

That separates the real philosophers from the wannabes. The real philosophers can take it.

Like when Sokrates and Seneca had to end their lives. They didn't lament the unjust verdicts but embraced it.

Don't get angry with slaves could take on new relevance with an emerging underclass. I think we can all learn something from this.

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