Now, before you go and run into the forest naked to hug trees — that’s not what it is about. The Stoics thought that we should take seriously human nature.
And human nature fundamentally consists of two things, two aspects. One, we’re highly social animals. We can survive on our own if we have to, but we only thrive in groups of people, we only thrive when we have healthy social networks.
And two, we’re capable of reason. As you know, that doesn’t mean we’re reasonable all the time. In fact, on the contrary — we struggle for that. But we are capable of reason.
For the Stoics, it followed that the best kind of human life you can actually have is one in which you apply your reason, your intelligence, to improve social living, to improve everybody else’s life.
There are two fundamental pillars of Stoic philosophy, which we will see, in a minute, applied very practically to our life. One is the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.
Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is good for you and what is not good for you. Courage is not just physical but especially moral: the courage to stand up and do the right thing.
Justice is what tells you what the right thing is, how to interact with other people, how to treat other people. And temperance is the idea that you should always do things in right measure — not overdo them nor underdo them.
The second pillar is called “dichotomy of control.” This is the very basic idea that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us.
Now, you can divide everything you do into these two categories and only worry about the first one and not the second one. For instance, I came here thinking that I could control the slides.
As you’ve seen, that’s outside of my control. Do I worry about it? No.
Let me introduce you to Epictetus. He was one of the most important Stoic philosophers of antiquity. He was a slave. He was born in Hierapolis, in modern-day Pamukkale, in Turkey. He was acquired — in fact, his name means “acquired.” We don’t know his real name; Epictetus just means acquired.
And he was brought to Rome to the court of the Emperor Nero, where he did pretty well. Eventually, he was freed. He was, you know, a bright guy, so he started going through the streets of Rome preaching Stoicism.
And for his troubles, he got punched on the nose. So he figured that wasn’t a good approach. It was in his power to change the approach, so he started over, and he established his own school, which was very successful until the Emperor Domitian kicked out all the Stoics out of Rome because he did not appreciate their “speaking truth to power,” as we would say today.
So Epictetus moved and went to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece, reestablished his school and became one of the most famous teachers of antiquity.
The reason I like Epictetus is because he’s blunt and he has a sarcastic sense of humor. And I’ll give you a taste of this in a second.
Here’s what he says in “The Discourses”:
“I’ll have to die. If it is now, well, then I die now. If later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived, and dying, I will tend to later.”
Don’t worry about death; worry about lunch. You know you’re going to die; that isn’t under your control. Lunch, on the other hand, is under your control.
Now, I told you about the dichotomy of control being one of the two fundamental pillars of Stoicism. Here’s how Epictetus himself explains it. He says:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, and in a word, whatever is of our own doing. Not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”
And note, if you stop for a second and think about it, it’s like that is weird. He’s saying that my body, my property, my reputation are not in my power? What do you mean?
I can decide to go to the gym and eat healthy. Of course, my body’s under my power. Unless a virus strikes you down. Unless you have an accident and you break your leg.
The idea is that you can do things, you can make decisions about your health, your reputation, etcetera, etcetera, but ultimately, you don’t control the outcome.
So what does that mean in practice? It means that we should try to walk through life by internalizing our goals, not worry about the outcomes, because those are outside of our control, but worry about our intentions and our efforts because those are very much under our control.