Living a Stoic Lifestyle
Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking more and more about what it means to live a Stoic lifestyle—to live in agreement in every aspect of life. As Stoics we talk a lot about our mental state, since this is the source from which all our attitudes, actions, and lifestyle factors should flow. But I want to devote this post to more casual lifestyle topics that both derive from and reinforce our philosophical commitments.
How should a Stoic consume media? As always, the exact response depends on your condition in life and whether your work depends on social or traditional media. But in general I think the answer should be “very carefully.” At the very least, we need to relentlessly question the news and opinions we receive from media sources. No matter what podcast you are listening to or what news outlet you are reading, you should be asking what the reporter wants you to feel or believe as a result of the story. Every news item, even the ones that seem objective, has some sort of angle. For example, the reporter had to choose some facts to report instead of others, and they chose to include some facts at the beginning and put others at the end. Plus, the very fact that this story was deemed newsworthy (while thousands of other things that happened that day were ignored) shows the sorts of judgments that went into creating this news item. Whenever we read something online, we can assume nothing is really objective.
I think we can adapt Marcus Aurelius’ famous injunction to help us with our media consumption:
With everyone you meet, begin at once by asking yourself, “What ideas does this person hold on human good and ills?” For if he holds particular views on pleasure and pain the causes of each, and on reputation and disrepute, and on life and death, it will not seem extraordinary or strange to me if he acts in some particular way, and I shall remember that he has to act as he does. (Meditations, 8.14)
With every story we read, we can begin at once by asking ourselves, “What ideas does this writer hold on human good and ills?” Unless you’re consuming specifically Stoic media, it’s very unlikely the writer is going to value virtue above material goods and social status. So it’s pretty safe to assume that the reporter values their job and the good opinion of other people, and they are going to do whatever they can to get clicks, reads, shares, and likes. News organizations are desperate for eyeballs, which tends to translate into sensationalized stories and reliable clickbait. Once you think about the reporter’s or the news organization’s values and goals, you know what kind of material to expect from them.
We can’t eliminate media consumption altogether, because we do need to stay informed about the world. But we should turn on our skeptical filters whenever we open social media pages or read a news story. And we should remember that, unfortunately, the popularity of a reporter or viral post is no guarantee of quality or accuracy. In our politically and socially polarized world, yellow journalism sells best.
Health and Wellness
Health is a preferred indifferent in the Stoic system of thought, meaning that it is not a good in and of itself. You can still be a good person and live a good life even if you are not physically healthy. Nevertheless, good health is worth working toward if possible because we can contribute to the greater good if we are healthy, and we can avoid being a burden to others.
The specifics will depend on your condition in life and how much time you can devote to health. For me, that means yoga, running, and taking nature walks whenever possible. For my husband, it means playing soccer and coaching our kids’ soccer teams. And of course we try to establish healthful habits in our kids by leading an active, outdoor-intensive life. Our focus is not on a specific fitness goal but on feeling healthy and enjoying healthful activities.
When it comes to eating, temperance (moderation and self-control) is a very relevant virtue. We should not eat a lot more than our body needs, and we shouldn't eat foods that are too expensive, because that indicates a focus on the wrong things. I don't think it would be Stoic to have a diet consisting of high-fat, processed foods, such as fast food. Basically we should aim for a moderate diet with lots of plants, avoiding processed foods as much as possible. That might mean eating out less (even after the pandemic), since it's difficult to tell what ingredients restaurants are using and they often provide overlarge portion sizes.
I would say the biggest mistake a Stoic should avoid is obsessively focusing on their own body. If you become so concerned with your fitness regimen or diet that you start to value it for its own sake, you have missed the mark. As Seneca says, "Whatever you do come back quickly from the body to the mind; exercise your mind night and day" (Moral Letters, 15). Stoics should always aim for good health as a preferred indifferent: not a good in itself, but worth working toward if fate permits.
Simplicity of Lifestyle
We live in a complex world. There is a lot of pressure on us to live complex lives as global citizens. Busyness seems to be valued in itself, because (according to common opinion) it indicates that you are important, connected, and relevant. If you want to keep up with others, you have to buy the right stuff, be seen in the right places, participate in the right activities. Everyone is in a hurry all the time, because if you’re not going somewhere you are obviously left behind.
This is a problem going back to ancient times. Both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius—who obviously were rich, powerful, and probably very busy men—extol the virtues of simplicity over busyness. As Stoics, we should not engage in non-essential activities just because we want people to think we’re important. We should simply do what needs to be done because it needs to be done. In our hearts we should disconnect our busyness level from our sense of importance or self-worth. That’s not to say we should retreat from the world, only that we should evaluate the worth of each activity based on how much it actually contributes to the common good.
Likewise, we need to be very deliberate in our relationship with material things. Full-blown minimalism isn’t realistic for most people, but we can at least moderate or pare back what we have. You have to be pretty relentless to keep stuff from taking over your life: before you bring a new object into your home, triple-check whether you really need it. If you do need it, try to identify another object you can let go of. If we’re not very intentional, stuff tends to accumulate without our being aware of it. Don't let material possessions, or a desire for material possessions, dominate your life.
Stoicism is all about working toward the common good. Stoics insisted that we should see all humans as members of one family, and that we are inextricably linked to others in a bond of rational companionship. It is, therefore, essential for us to get involved on some level in making the world a better place. Your personal contribution depends (as always) on your particular situation in life. I’ve learned that at some times in my life I am not able to do as much as at other times. Just do as much as you can without feeling guilty.
This might mean donating money or time to causes you believe in. If you’re looking for a straightforward and meaningful charity, I recommend Kiva.org, which makes microloans to individuals and groups all over the world. You can also try VolunteerMatch.org to look for places to devote your skills and energy. Personally, I like to contribute to both local and international organizations. We can perhaps have the greatest impact in our own communities, but it’s nice to reach out across the world, too.
Sustainability and Environmental Impact
It’s almost impossible to talk about a philosophical lifestyle in the 21st century without considering environmental impact. This is another area where we need to be very deliberate in our choices and not just unthinkingly follow the crowd. Obviously, “living in agreement with nature” points us plainly in the direction of caring for our natural world. We should try to reduce our impact as much as possible and work toward preserving natural environments as much as possible. A lot has already been written about this in Stoic circles (see, for example, Chris Gill's discussion in Modern Stoicism), and I don't have much to add that hasn't already been said. Do your part!
Avoid Judging Others
I just want to finish up by reminding all of us that it is often not appropriate to criticize other people who do not share your beliefs or lifestyle. If you are in a position to change someone’s mind by talking to them, then by all means do so respectfully and kindly. But more often than not, judging or arguing with someone is not going to change their mind in a positive way—it will just make them dig in their heels. We should show our commitment to our principles by living them, not trying to force others to accept them. A positive example is worth a thousand words.