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Stoicism: theory to practice

To delve into the philosophical realm of stoicism, it’s imperative to understand, through a story, how it all began. Zeno of Cyprus, a wealthy merchant, lost everything when he was shipwrecked in Athens around 300 BCE. For most people, such a predicament would become a cause of upheaval and despair but for Zeno it became the foundation for his life’s work and legacy. Soon after this incident took place, Zeno wandered into a bookstore and became intrigued by reading about Socrates. He then proceeded to seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.

Zeno began educating his own group of students and originated the philosophy of Stoicism whose teachings of virtue, tolerance and self control have inspired generations of leaders and thinkers. The word originated from stoa poikile, the decorated colonnade where Zeno and his followers would meet up for discussion.

The original philosophy of stoicism essentially focuses on how everything operates under a web of cause and effect, resulting in a rational structure of the universe which they called Logos. It states that while we may not have control over the events that affect us, we can control how we approach matters. Rather than wishing for an ideal world, the stoics solely focus on dealing with the world and society as it is. Acceptance of what is will pave the way for everything that’s meant to be. The stoics curated four cardinal virtues for the philosophy: wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. Implementing these into one’s life would eliminate causes of distress and worry both to oneself and to others. This further determines that stoicism was more than just an attitude; it soon became a way of life.

Seneca, a roman author, statesman and a famous stoic once said, “ Sometimes, even to live, is an act of courage.” Seneca campaigned for the humane treatment of slaves at a time when slaves were considered as property in the roman empire. This goes to demonstrate while stoicism emphasises on self improvement, it is not a self centered philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s greatest emperors and a famous stoic writer, stated in his widely acclaimed novel Meditations “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

Aurelius experienced extraordinary circumstances in his life like two major wars and the loss of his children. Adopting stoic principles into his persona helped him in holding his own and standing his ground. Centuries later, his work would enlighten Nelson Mandela while he was in prison, struggling to fight for racial equality in South Africa. Stoicism remained an active school of philosophy for generations and its influence can be felt even today

Epictetus, another famous stoic writer once said, “ We suffer not from the events in our life but from our judgement about them”

This strongly implies that our perception of the world around us influences our reality and the manner in which we perceive our lives lays the groundwork for potential peace, stability and happiness. His teachings have also strongly resonated with modern psychology. For instance, Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy majorly deals with changing self-defeating attitudes and behaviour patterns detrimental to our progress.

Logotherapy, introduced by Victor Frankl, is also based on the stoic principle that we can harness our willpower to give our lives meaning and doing so will help us find our true purpose in life.

Stoicism propagates various life-altering ideas which if implemented, can enhance our quality of life and help each and every one of us lead more centered lives, embracing our true selves and the harsh realities of life simultaneously.One of the essential teachings of stoicism focuses on the importance of emphasising on the things we can control, and ignoring the rest. Psychologists today define this concept in terms of internal and external locus of control, people with internal locus of control take responsibility for their actions and hold themselves accountable for what happens in their lives, while people with external locus of control find ways to blame others for their problems and find excuses not to pursue their goals. They refuse to take responsibility for most of what happens in their lives.

Stoicism also teaches us to accept pain and not chase pleasure. Stoics rightly observed that most of life includes making certain sacrifices, therefore, they framed their idea of virtue in terms of being able to resist short-term pleasures for some long-term gain.

Lastly, the stoics were fond of a practice they called Memento Mori or “Remember you will die”. Aurelius said, “ You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think”. Thinking about death helps one realign one’s actual priorities in life and focus on what is truly significant.

Modern stoicism strongly values these ideals and while this philosophy might be ages old, its essence has remained the same, even if other details might have evolved for the better. Incorporating such ideals into one’s life has been propagated not only by noted contemporary philosophers like Nietzsche and Camus, but also by businessmen like Steve Jobs. This school of philosophy till date remains truly unique and is influencing millions to bring about a positive change in their lifestyle.

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