Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stoicism quotes, thoughts, and readings

Here are the thoughts and quotes I’ve collected that relate to Stoicism that I review on a regular basis, for those that might be interested. And then at the bottom of this post are some reading recommendations for those looking to learn more.

Stoicism quotes and thoughts:

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” –Epictetus

“Never have I put my trust in Fortune, even when she appeared to be offering peace; all those gifts she bestowed on me in her kindness—money, position, influence—I stored where she would be able to reclaim them with no disturbance to me.” –Seneca

“…the wise man is neither raised up by prosperity nor cast down by adversity; for always he has striven to rely predominantly on himself, and to derive all joy from himself.” –Seneca

"People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills; and you too are especially inclined to feel this desire. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return." —Marcus Aurelius

"Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every rough impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by the standards that you have, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things which are within our power or those which aren’t up to us; and if it relates to those things which aren’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me’." —Epictetus

William Irvine: “The Stoics were not opposed to emotion in general but to negative emotions such as fear, anger, and grief -- what sensible person wouldn't be? They saw nothing at all wrong, though, with the experience of positive emotions. Indeed, they strove to put themselves into a state of mind in which they could take delight in the world around them.”

Charlie Munger: 1) Never feel sorry for yourself (even if your child is dying of cancer); 2) Never have envy.

Nassim Taleb on Stoics and Stoicism:

“Having control over randomness can be expressed in the manner in which one acts in the small and the large. Recall that epic heroes were judged by their actions, not by the results. No matter how sophisticated our choices, how good we are at dominating the odds, randomness will have the last word…..There is nothing wrong and undignified with emotions—we are cut to have them. What is wrong is not following the heroic or, at least, the dignified path. That is what stoicism truly means. It is the attempt by man to get even with probability…..stoicism has rather little to do with the stiff-upper-lip notion that we believe it means…..The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life’s gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life’s dirty tricks. But things can be carried to the extreme; the stern Cato found it beneath him to have human feelings. A more human version can be read in Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, a soothing and surprisingly readable book that I distribute to my trader friends.....Good, enlightened (and “friendly”) advice and eloquent sermons do not register for more than a few moments when they go against our wiring. The interesting thing about stoicism is that it plays on dignity and personal aesthetics, which are part of our genes. Start stressing personal elegance at your next misfortune. Exhibit sapere vivere (“know how to live”) in all circumstances…..The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior.”

“Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

“Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.”

“So far, that story is well known, and we have learned to move from the left of the Triad (fragile) to the center (robust). But Seneca went beyond…. He said that wealth is the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside…. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances (we will see with the story of Thales of Miletus the notion of sour grapes—cognitive games to make yourself believe that the grapes that you can’t reach taste sour). Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty…. Seneca even outlined his strategy in De beneficiis, explicitly calling it a cost-benefit analysis by using the word “bookkeeping”: “The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.” Moral bookkeeping, but bookkeeping nevertheless…. So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.” [note to last sentence: “And for those who believe that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was completely against material wealth, I have some news: I accidentally found a mention of his activities in maritime financing, where he was an involved investor, not exactly an activity for the anti-wealth utopist.”]

Only focus on what you can control. You cannot control what others say or how they act. You can only control how you react.

Negative visualization. Imagine losing the comforts of your life and the people and things you love and enjoy. And remember that one day you will lose them; either through misfortune or death.

From dust to dust. We came from the dust of stars and will return to dust one day. Remember that you will eventually die, and that it could happen at any time. Do not dwell on this fact, but reflect on this reality as a way to help you live.


Some people may prefer to go straight to the classics below, which I can’t argue with, but for those that want a good initial overview, I recommend William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (or Kindle format). I haven’t read Ryan Holiday’s new book yet, but it could be another potential option: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (or Kindle format).

Of the classics, I’d start with these 3 as an intro the main Stoic figures:

Epictetus: Enchiridion (or Kindle format)

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations (or Kindle format)

While Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus are generally considered “The Big 3”, Musonius Rufus may be the Big 4th, so it may be good to go to him next:

Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings (or Kindle format)

Another worthwhile addition is The Moral Sayings Of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave.

And then if you want to get a little deeper with Seneca and Epictetus:

Henry Hazlitt also put together a nice collection from the Big 3:The Wisdom of the Stoics: Selections from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Tim Ferriss also posted one of Seneca's great essays: On The Shortness of Life

There is also a lot of Stoic wisdom in Schopenhauer and Frankl:

Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms (or Kindle format)

Jim Stockdale is another more recent Stoic: Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (or Kindle format)

On the fiction side of things, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (or Kindle format) is one to check out.

And Nassim Taleb discusses Stoicism in parts of his books (some of which is quoted in the upper part of this post):


And finally, Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, which has a Stoic tone to it.

If—By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you  
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;  
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;  
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;  
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;  
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,  
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,  
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,  
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,  
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!