Journal Like a Stoic
My new book, Journal Like a Stoic: A 90-Day Program to Live with Greater Acceptance, Less Judgment, and Deeper Intentionality, comes out from Penguin Random House on November 22. It's a series of three 30-day courses with short daily lessons and journaling prompts:
Course A: Examining the Inner Critic
Course B: The Road to Acceptance
Course C: Living with Virtue
Today I'd like to share a few excerpts from Part I (Understanding Stoic Philosophy), and Part II, Course C (Living with Virtue).
The Four Virtues
What makes a good life? The ancient Stoics believed the answer is virtue, or inner excellence. When we focus on building up our inner resources—our mindset, character, and moral choices—we activate a deep, rich, and long-lasting happiness. No matter what craziness is happening around us, we can find peace and purpose through virtuous action. While it takes time and training to build up to this ideal, it’s something we can all achieve with patience and hard work. Far from being dull or restrictive, virtue represents the pinnacle of human achievement. Each one of us has the potential to bring out the best in our nature by cultivating the following four primary virtues.
We all face choices in life, and wisdom helps us make decisions that reflect our deepest aspirations and intentions. Wisdom shows us what’s important, what’s worth fighting for, and when we should step back or let go. Wisdom challenges us to look deeper into the nature of things, to see past surface appearances and focus our limited time and energy on meaningful projects.
In the Stoic context, justice refers to how we treat other people. Do we treat others with respect and set a good example? Do we understand that no one person (including ourselves) is more important than another? When led by the principle of justice, our attitudes and actions are fair and evenhanded, even generous, and benevolent when appropriate. Justice helps remove the overreactive, self-centered, or biased component of our interactions with others, enabling us to focus less on ourselves and more on the collective human experience. Through Stoicism, we learn to care more deeply about others, from our dearest friends to people on the other side of the world.
Stoic courage involves training our mind, body, and spirit to endure difficulty. As one ancient source put it, “Courage concerns instances of standing firm.” Do we have what it takes to overcome challenges, even when it’s hard? Do we persevere through hardship, take on demanding tasks when required, and stand by our beliefs even when no one supports us? For Stoics, when we move closer to these questions, we begin to live courageously.
The idea behind temperance is to control our impulses, keeping them within reasonable bounds. When guided by temperance, we shift our desires away from superficial temptations (physical pleasure, money, power, fame) and move toward inner riches that promote long-term flourishing (self-discipline and skillful patience). Temperance is not about giving up all your pleasures in life; it’s about finding an even greater joy in those things that are truly valuable, like being an ethical and honorable person.
Course C: Living with Virtue
In Course C, you’ll focus on how to align your purpose and values with your everyday life: to live with deeper intentionality. We’ll explore the relationship between generosity and inner freedom, and uncover what integrity has to do with long-lasting happiness. At the end of your 90 days, you’ll see the discipline you’ve developed as you head into the world more grounded, confident, just, and wise.
Day 63: A Disciplined Artist
What is your art? To be good. And how is this accomplished well except by general principles, some about the nature of the universe, and others about the proper constitution of humankind?
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.5
All artists must master some basic principles in order to bring energy to their creation. The art of living is no different. Here, Marcus Aurelius explains that to live well, we need a foundational understanding of human nature and our place in the cosmos. If all we can control is our response to our environment, our choices become the canvas on which we paint our life.
1. Choose one of these virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance. Explain how it will guide your choices over the course of this week.
2. What virtue feels most present in your life right now? How does this virtue help connect you to the big picture, such as your place in the cosmos?
Day 82: What Rules You?
Hasten to examine your own ruling faculty and that of the universe and that of your neighbor: your own that you may make it just: and that of the universe, that you may remember of what you are a part; and that of your neighbor, that you may know whether they have acted ignorantly or with knowledge, and that you may also consider that their ruling faculty is akin to your own.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.22
Marcus lists three aspects of life we should routinely examine: our mind, the universe, and the people around us. These aspects correspond to the three Stoic disciplines of logic, physics, and ethics. To live as the great Stoics, take time throughout your busy day to examine your choices and actions in all three disciplines.
1. In the past day, how have you tried to see things clearly and accurately? How often have you paid attention to your thoughts, attitude, and choices?
2. In what ways have you shown compassion to the people around you? What helps you remember that people do wrong involuntarily?
3. What connects you to the larger human experience?