Last summer I read a book titled 'The Obstacle Is the Way' by Ryan Holiday, which talked about the Roman philosophy of Stoicism. Since then, I have been researching more into the teachings of the philosophers of antiquity, and the practical application to every day life. It hit a nerve with me because of my Spartan way of thinking, the work that I do and the numerous books I've read on personal development that appear to have roots in Stoicism. I am realizing that most of the personal development and self-help books out there from the early writers such as the Englishman James Allen and his ‘As a Man Thinketh‘ to today’s Anthony Robbins and Stephen Covey, appear to have origins in the writings of Epictetus, Epicurus, Socrates and the ‘Meditations‘ of Marcus Aurelius as well as other great thinkers of the past.
Philosophy, even in my previously unenlightened view was one of musing and debating the deeper questions about life. Little did I realize how practical the great philosophers were. Not only did they extoll the virtues of their philosophy, both in terms of better thinking for a happier life they were also great practitioners of physical well-being through regular exercise. Many of the philosophers served in the Athenian and Roman armies. Even after rejoining civilian life they continued practising an active exercise filled life.
I am naturally a minimalist and a great believer of self-control and planning. So as I read about the Stoics, the Cynics and Epicureans, the one school of thought that hit home for me is Stoicism. It naturally fits with my approach to life, work and leisure. For me Epictetus – a Stoic – who was born in Hierapolis, which today is in modern day Turkey, espoused a philosophy on resilience that is valid today as it was back in AD55. This philosophy of resilience was centered around what we can or cannot 'Control' in our lives, that causes anxiety, anger, frustration and lack of happiness.
He talked about how we cannot control things like our parents, siblings, co-workers, our boss, weather, our eventual death, the future and the past. Yet, most people’s trials and tribulations in life stemmed from trying to control the uncontrollable. If I look at 2017 the two major upheavals that has many people worried, anxious and tying themselves in knots, is the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump to the US presidency.
Epictetus said that we only had one thing in our control which was,
and that was it. This area of how we think and from where our beliefs are derived from determine our freedom, self-determination and sovereignty. He said we always have a choice of what to think and what to believe. The Stoics asserted that what we choose to believe is our choice and our choice only, and no one can force us otherwise.
External factors like the economy, weather and who is running the country is outside of our control, but we can choose how to respond or not to them. Epictetus explained people spent too much time and effort trying to control the external elements, which we fail at and then become angry, frustrated and miserable. Yet, we take little responsibility for our thoughts and beliefs, which are within our control.
I am just starting my journey learning the philosophies that graced Athens, Rome and Alexandria of old. My current read is, 'Meditations' by Marcus Aurelius. He was called one of ‚ '5 Good Emperors of Rome' and I can see why. His writings are mind-blowing, yet simple and true today as they were during his reign of AD161 to AD180. He spent the last ten of years his life fighting the barbarian Germanic tribes in the cold, brutal north of Europe. Yet, it was his Stoic philosophy that allowed him to maintain his resolve and stay at his post.
As I delve into this new arena of learning I am looking forward to exploring the worlds of Diogenes, Seneca, Pythagoras and of course Plutarch. Maybe, just maybe an undergraduate degree in Philosophy is calling.