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PMA© Science: What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started

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For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism. It’s a philosophy designed to make us more resilient, happier, more virtuous and more wise–and as a result, better people, better parents and better professionals. Stoicism has been a common thread though some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Marcus Aurelius. Frederick the Great, Montaigne, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Theodore Roosevelt, General James Mattis, —just to name a few—were all influenced by Stoic philosophy. So what is Stoicism? Who were the Stoics? How can you be a Stoic? We answer all your questions and more below. Click the links below to navigate to a specific section or scroll and read the entirety of the page:

I. What Is Stoicism?

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ” — Seneca

The private diaries of one of Rome’s greatest emperors, the personal letters of one of Rome’s best playwrights and wisest power brokers, the lectures of a former slave and exile, turned influential teacher. Against all odds, some two millennia later, these incredible documents survive. They contain some of the greatest wisdom in the history of the world and together, they constitute the bedrock of what is known as Stoicism—an ancient philosophy that was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life. Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.” Given the fact that the mere mention of philosophy makes most nervous or bored, “Stoic philosophy” on the surface sounds like the last thing anyone would want to learn about, let alone urgently need in the course of daily life. It would be hard to find a word that dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.” In its rightful place, Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry. Certainly, many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out: George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics. The ancient Stoics themselves were no slouches. The names you encounter on this site in our daily email meditations—Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca—belonged to, respectively, a Roman emperor, a former slave who triumphed to become an influential lecturer and friend of the emperor Hadrian, and a famous playwright and political adviser. What have all these and countless other great men and women found within Stoicism that others missed? A great deal. Primarily, that it provides much needed strength, wisdom, and stamina for all of life’s challenges.


Who Is Marcus Aurelius?

“Alone of the emperors,” the historian Herodian would write of the man who became known to us as Marcus Aurelius, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.” Cassius Dio: “In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. ”Born April 26th, 121, nobody would have predicted that Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus would one day be Emperor of the Roman Empire. The emperor Hadrian, who would have known young Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, sensing his potential, kept an eye on the boy. His nickname for Marcus, whom he liked to go hunting with, was Verissimus—a play on his name Verus—the truest one. What exactly Hadrian saw in Marcus is unclear. But by Marcus’s 17th birthday, Hadrian had begun planning something extraordinary. He was going to make Marcus Aurelius the emperor of Rome. On February 25th, 138, Hadrian adopted a 51 year old man named Antoninus Pius on the condition that he in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. Given life-expectancy statistics of the time, Hadrian figured this regent and mentor might be at the helm in five years. All was well, except Antoninus lived and ruled for twenty three years. In 161, as Antoninus died and ended one of the longest reigns, Marcus finally became the Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity, as well as the plague that left millions dead. The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just look at the journal that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations: the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser. And for Marcus, Stoicism provided a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history.

Who Is Seneca?

Born around 4BC in Corduba, Spain, the son of a wealthy and learned writer known to history as Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger was destined for great things from birth. Seneca’s father selected Attalus the Stoic to tutor his boy, primarily for his reputation as a man of great eloquence. His son took to education with gusto—by Seneca’s own telling, he cheerfully “laid siege” to the classroom and was the first to arrive and last to leave it. The most powerful lesson that Seneca learned from Attalus was on the desire to improve practically, in the real world. The purpose of studying philosophy, Seneca learned from his beloved instructor, was to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder. ”While his commitment to self-improvement was beloved by his teachers, they also knew that his father—no fan of philosophy—was paying them to train his son for an active and ambitious political career. In Rome, a promising young lawyer could appear in court as early as age 17, and there is little doubt that Seneca was one…but, only in his early twenties, Seneca’s health nearly cut it all short. A lung condition forced him to take an extended trip to Egypt to recover where he would spend nearly a decade writing, reading, and building up his strength. He returned to Rome at 35 in 31 AD—a time of paranoia and violence and corruption and political turmoil. Seneca kept his head down for the most part throughout the equally terrifying reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. His life took a sharp turn in 41 A.D. when Claudius became the emperor and exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica. It would be another eight years away from Rome—and although he started productively (writing Consolation to Polybius, Consolation to Helvia and On Anger in a short span), the many writing consolations soon needed some consoling himself. So began his practice of letter writing, which would continue all his life. Eight years later, in another sharp turn, Agrippina, mother of future emperor Nero and wife of Claudius recalled Seneca from exile to become her son’s tutor and adviser. At 53 years old, Seneca is suddenly elevated to the center of life in the Roman imperial court—a whirlwind of events that history still hasn’t wrapped its head around. In the end, Seneca made only minimal impact on Nero, a man whom time would shortly reveal to be deranged. Was it always a hopeless mission? Probably. But all a Stoic can do is show up and do our work. Seneca believed he had an obligation. As he would later write, the difference between the Stoics and the Epicureans is that the Stoics felt that politics was a duty.

Who Is Epictetus?

While Seneca would speak, with surprising relatability, about slave owners who became owned by the responsibility and management of their slaves or other Stoics would congratulate themselves for their humane treatment of their human chattel, Epictetus actually was one. His given name is not known. Epictētos is Greek meaning “acquired.” Epictetus was born into slavery. Epictetus’ mention of his owner, Epaphroditus, is surprisingly neutral because we know Epaphroditus was cruel even by Roman standards. Later Christian writers tell us that Epictetus’s master was violent and depraved, at one point twisting Epictetus’s leg with all his might. As a punishment? As a sick pleasure? In a wrestling match? Trying to get a disobedient young kid to follow instructions? We don’t know. All we hear is that Epictetus calmly warned him about taking it too far. When the leg snapped, Epictetus made no sound, he uttered no tears. He smiled and looked at his master and said, “Didn’t I warn you? ”For the rest of his life, Epictetus would walk with a limp. But Epictetus remained unbroken by the incident. “Lameness is an impediment to the leg,” he would later say, “but not to the will.” Epictetus would choose to see his disability as only a physical impairment, and in fact it was that idea of choice that defined the core of his philosophical beliefs. Life was like a play, he liked to say, and if it was the playwrights “pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.” And so he did. Law established by Augustus in 4AD determined that slaves could not be freed before their 30th birthday. Epictetus didn’t obtain his freedom until shortly after emperor Nero’s death. He chose to dedicate himself fully to philosophy and taught in Rome for nearly 25 years…Until the emperor Domitian famously banished all philosophers in Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Greece where he founded a philosophy school and taught until his death.

IV. What Are The 4 Virtues of Stoicism?

Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. They are the most essential values in Stoic philosophy. “If, at some point in your life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.” That was almost twenty centuries ago. We have discovered a lot of things since then—automobiles, the Internet, cures for diseases that were previously a death sentence—but have we found anything better?…than being brave…than moderation and sobriety…than doing what’s right…than truth and understanding? No, we have not. It’s unlikely we ever will. Everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four traits:


If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s dark and beautiful novel All the Pretty Horses, you’ll remember the key question that Emilio Perez asks John Grady, one that cuts to the core of life and what we all must do to live a life worth living.

“The world wants to know if you have cojones. If you are brave?”

The Stoics might have phrased this a bit differently. Seneca would say that he actually pitied people who have never experienced misfortune. “You have passed through life without an opponent,” he said, “No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you. ”The world wants to know what category to put you in, which is why it will occasionally send difficult situations your way. Think of these not as inconveniences or even tragedies but as opportunities, as questions to answers. Do I have cojones? Am I brave? Am I going to face this problem or run away from it? Will I stand up or be rolled over? Let your actions etch a response into the record—and let them remind you of why courage is the most important thing.


Of course, life is not so simple as to say that courage is all the counts. While everyone would admit that courage is essential, we are also all well aware of people whose bravery turns to recklessness and becomes a fault when they begin to endanger themselves and others. This is where Aristotle comes in. Aristotle actually used courage as the main example in his famous metaphor of a “Golden Mean.” On one end of the spectrum, he said, there was cowardice—that’s a deficiency of courage. On the other, there was recklessness—too much courage. What was called for, what we required then, was a golden mean. The right amount. That’s what Temperance or moderation is about: Doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way. Because “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle also said, “therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit. ”In other words: Virtue and excellence is a way of living. It’s foundational. It’s like an operating system and the code this system operates on is habit. As Epictetus would later say, “capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” So if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without herculean effort or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes—that’s what it takes.P.S. Daily Stoic sifted through the greatest Stoic wisdom and aimed it at one of the most challenging parts of life: habit formation and growth. Check out Daily Stoic Habits for Success, Habits for Success Challenge! Challenge yourself to change what you “repeatedly do.” We are promising that if you can do that, you can achieve excellence—personally and professionally. 


Being brave. Finding the right balance. These are core Stoic virtues, but in their seriousness, they pale in comparison to what the Stoics worshipped most highly: Doing the right thing. There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.

  • Cato gave his life trying to restore the Roman Republic.
  • And Thrasea and Agrippinus gave theirs resisting the tyranny of Nero.
  • George Washington and Thomas Jefferson formed a new nation—one which would seek, however imperfectly, to fight for democracy and justice—largely inspired by the philosophy of Cato and those other Stoics.
  • Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a translator of Epictetus, led a black regiment of troops in the US Civil War.
  • Beatrice Webb, who helped to found the London School of Economics and who first conceptualized the idea of collective bargaining, regularly re-read Marcus Aurelius.

Countless other activists and politicians have turned to Stoicism to gird them against the difficulty of fighting for ideals that mattered, to guide them towards what was right in a world of so much wrong. A Stoic must deeply believe that an individual can make a difference. Successful activism and political maneuvering require understanding and strategy, as well as realism… and hope. It requires wisdom, acceptance and also a refusal to accept the statue quo. It was James Baldwin who most brilliantly captured this tension in Notes of a Native Son: It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength. A Stoic sees the world clearly…but also sees clearly what the world can be. And then they are brave, and strategic enough to help bring it into reality.


Courage. Temperance. Justice. These are the critical virtues of life. But what situations call for courage? What is the right amount? What is the right thing? This is where the final and essential virtue comes in: Wisdom. The knowing. The learning. The experience required to navigate the world. Wisdom has always been prized by the Stoics. Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen more than we talk. And since we have two eyes, we are obligated to read and observe more than we talk as well. It is key today, as it was in the ancient world, to  be able to distinguish between the vast aggregations of information that lay out there at your disposal—and the actual wisdom that you need to live a good life. It’s key that we study, that we keep our minds open always. You cannot learn that which you think you already know, Epictetus said. It’s true. Which is why we need to not only be humble students but also seek out great teachers. It’s why we should always be reading. It’s why we cannot stop training. It’s why we have to be diligent in filtering out the signal from the noise. The goal is not just to acquire information, but the right kind of information. It’s the lessons found in Meditations, in everything from the actual Epictetus to James Stockdale entering the world of Epictetus. It’s the key facts, standing out from the background noise, that you need to absorb. Thousands of years of blazing insight are available to the world. It is likely that you have the power to learn anything you want at your fingertips. So today, honor the Stoic virtue of wisdom by slowing down, being deliberate, and finding the wisdom you need. Two eyes, two ears, one mouth. Remain a student. Act accordingly—and wisely. P.S. If you’re looking to be a better reader—to build a real reading practice—the Stoics can help. We built out some of their best insights into our Daily Stoic: Read-to-Lead Reading Challenge. It’s going to walk you through more than a dozen actionable challenges that will help you elevate your game as a reader, learn how to think more critically and discover important books that will change your life. We’ve got videos and worksheets and all sorts of recommendations and strategies for you. If you’ve liked any of our other courses, you’ll love this one—it’s awesome, it’s actionable and it will help you get a better ROI out of one of the most important ways we spend our time and enrich our minds. Give it a shot. 

V. What Are The Best Books On Stoicism?

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Meditations is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Marcus stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises—reminders designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with. You cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will be helpful to you next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied.

Letters From A Stoic by Seneca While Marcus wrote mainly for himself, Seneca had no trouble advising and aiding others. In fact, that was his job—he was Nero’s tutor, tasked with reducing the terrible impulses of a terrible man. His advice on grief, on wealth, on power, on religion, and on life are always there when you need them. Seneca’s letters are the best place to start, but the essays in On the Shortness of Life are excellent as well.

Discourses by Epictetus That Epictetus’ teachings survive to us is remarkable. It is only thanks to a student named Arrian, who’s credited with transcribing the lessons he learned in Epictetus’ classroom at the beginning of the second century AD. Arrian wrote in a letter prior to the Discourses’ publishing, “whatever I used to hear him say I wrote down, word for word, as best I could, as a record for later use of his thought and frank expression.” Arrian would use those lessons to achieve renown throughout Rome as a political advisor, military commander, and prolific author. Interestingly, in the first book of Meditations, titled “Debts and Lessons,” Marcus thanks one of his philosophy teachers, Rusticus, “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures – and loaning me his own copy.”

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living features not only 366 all-new translations of brilliant stoic passages but 366 exciting stories, examples and explanations of the stoic principles from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus but also some of the lesser known but equally wise stoics from Zeno to Cleanthes to Chrysippus. The book takes the reader on a daily journey through practical, pragmatic philosophy. Each day offers a new stoic insight and exercise. By following these teachings, you’ll find the serenity, self-knowledge and resilience you need to live well.

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday Inspired by Stoicism and the maxim from Marcus Aurelius—“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”—The Obstacle Is The Way is a primer of the key principles for thriving under pressure. Through historical examples of great men and women, it teaches us how to overcome adversity and difficulties, turn obstacles upside down, and shows us how to love our fate, no matter what it might bring. The book has become a cult classic with coaches and athletes alike and has been featured in prominent outlets like Sports Illustrated and ESPN.


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