How to Be a Stoic in Your Everyday Life: Philosophy Professor Massimo Pigliucci Explains

To a view­er on the inter­net, TED Talks and TEDx talks may seem more or less the same. That makes sense, since the main dif­fer­ence between them isn’t of for­mat, but phys­i­cal loca­tion: TED talks take place at offi­cial TED con­fer­ences, and TEDx talks at TED-licensed but inde­pen­dent­ly-orga­nized events. The lat­ter are more numer­ous, and also more geo­graph­i­cal­ly var­ied. Take the talk above from TEDxA­thens, the ide­al place for speak­er Mas­si­mo Pigli­uc­ci to deliv­er his open­ing his­tor­i­cal sketch, which he begins by ask­ing his audi­ence to “imag­ine, if you will, that you’re walk­ing down the streets of Athens 24 cen­turies ago, give or take.”

In such a set­ting, “you might meet this guy: Zeno of Citium.” A once-pros­per­ous mer­chant strand­ed by a ship­wreck, he’d wound up in the Greek metrop­o­lis, where he spent his days hang­ing around book­stores. One day “he read Xenophon’s Mem­o­ra­bil­ia, which is a book about Socrates, and he was so intrigued that he turned to the book­seller and said, ‘Where I can find me one of these peo­ple, one of these philoso­pher folks?’ ” Luck­i­ly for Zeno, the streets of Athens were crawl­ing with philoso­phers at the time, and it was under their tute­lage that he devel­oped his own philo­soph­i­cal acu­men to a lev­el that pre­pared him to found his own school: Sto­icism, so named because its mem­bers met in the stoa, where the mar­kets set up.

The ear­ly Sto­ics were con­cerned with every­day life, and how it can be lived “accord­ing to nature”: the world’s nature, but also our own. Then, as now, a great many peo­ple suf­fered unnec­es­sar­i­ly out of con­fu­sion as to where the world end­ed and they began. They had, in oth­er words, no clear sense of what was under their con­trol and what was­n’t, a con­di­tion that the core teach­ings of Sto­icism are designed to rec­ti­fy. “The idea is that you can do things, you can make deci­sions about your health, your rep­u­ta­tion, et cetera, et cetera, but ulti­mate­ly, you don’t con­trol the out­come,” Pigli­uc­ci explains. In prac­tice, this means that “we should try to walk through life by inter­nal­iz­ing our goals — not wor­ry about the out­comes, because those are out­side our con­trol, but wor­ry about our inten­tions and our efforts, because those are very much under our con­trol.”

“Wor­ry” may not be quite the appro­pri­ate term. It con­notes, in any case, a self-defeat­ing habit that would hard­ly be con­doned by his­to­ry’s best-known pro­po­nents of Sto­icism, like the first cen­tu­ry Roman states­man and man of let­ters Seneca, the sec­ond-cen­tu­ry Roman emper­or Mar­cus Aure­lius, and espe­cial­ly the Greek ex-slave Epicte­tus, whose life bridged those eras. Epicte­tus believed, as Pigli­uc­ci puts it, that “a great part of hap­pi­ness lies in the seren­i­ty,” in “the idea that you always walk through life by know­ing that you’ve done your best, and that noth­ing else could be done on top of that.” We can learn more about how, exact­ly, to do our best from the work these Sto­ics left behind, all of which is free online: Epicte­tus’ Enchirid­ion, Mar­cus Aure­lius’ Med­i­ta­tions, the col­lec­tion of Seneca’s writ­ings pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

Of course, we could also read Pigli­uc­ci’s own book, How to Be A Sto­ic: Using Ancient Phi­los­o­phy to Live a Mod­ern Life, or even watch “Think Like a Sto­ic: Ancient Wis­dom for Today’s World,” his series from The Great Cours­es (which is also avail­able through Audi­ble free to its mem­bers). Pigli­uc­ci is but one of the host of prac­ti­tion­ers will­ing to intro­duce us to the prin­ci­ples of Sto­icism, even these 24 cen­turies — give or take — after its inven­tion. But whether on the streets of ancient Athens or in the dig­i­tal labyrinths of the 21st cen­tu­ry, the best teach­ers of this par­tic­u­lar phi­los­o­phy are the vicis­si­tudes of life itself. Whether we can meet them with virtue and equa­nim­i­ty is up to us — and indeed, to put it Sto­ical­ly, the only thing that’s ever been up to us.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Sto­icism, the Ancient Greek Phi­los­o­phy That Lets You Lead a Hap­py, Ful­fill­ing Life

What Is Sto­icism? A Short Intro­duc­tion to the Ancient Phi­los­o­phy That Can Help You Cope with Our Hard Mod­ern Times

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

350 Ani­mat­ed Videos That Will Teach You Phi­los­o­phy, from Ancient to Post-Mod­ern

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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