November 18, 2016 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
When to use it
Use this exercise as an all-purpose one. You can use it for contemplation when you have free time or use it anytime you face a problem.
How does it work
Think of someone who has attained the Stoic ideal. Let’s call this person a sage. The sage is not a real person but can be a composite of many people we admire and would like to emulate. Our sage is steadfast in his (or her) daily life. You might imagine something like this:
The sage gets up in the morning relaxed and refreshed. He doesn’t appear to have any anxiety about the day ahead, and he is not mentally rehearsing his fierce responses to all bad things that might happen to him during the day. He is just confident that he can respond appropriately when the time comes.
As he walks down the street, someone says something rude to him, but it doesn’t bother him. When he gets to the office, someone starts arguing with him, but he is not upset. He doesn’t react to the person’s negativity (if it is really the case) and insinuations (if any) but simply addresses their concerns in a calm way. He doesn’t attribute any dark motives to others. He doesn’t take offense and doesn’t take things personally. He forgives quickly and doesn’t brood over things that are over and done with. He is not envious of others. He is not afraid of the future for he knows whatever brought him up to this point will continue to guide him.
He does not care if he has something or does not. He prefers the good things in life but continues to be happy if he loses things that are dear to him. He looks after his body by working out and being active, and nourishes his body with healthy food. But he is not obsessed with his body or his looks. He is concerned about other people’s welfare and does what he can to help others, but doesn’t obsess over it. He does not carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
To this description, add anything you feel a happy person would do. Imagine this person very vividly.
How to apply it
Now see yourself, in your mind’s eye, acting like this person several times a day. Whenever possible, match your behavior to that of this idealized person. When you confront any friction during the day, ask yourself: What would Sage do? Even if you think you will never achieve perfect happiness, contemplating a model can only increase the quality of your life.
What is the basis of this exercise?
Stoics believed our ultimate goal is to become a sage. However, according to Stoics, sage is an idealized concept that most people could not expect to achieve. We are all prokoptons (ones making progress toward the ideal) trying to emulate the sage. Stoics idolized Socrates and often used him as an example for their actions, although they did not say even Socrates was a sage. So we can take someone whose Stoic qualities we admire. This person can be real or imaginary, a composite personality or a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius. Having a role model in the form of a sage would help us shape our behavior as we go through life.
The Stoic quote
“I will never be Milo … nevertheless, I don’t neglect my body. Nor will I be another Croesus – and still I don’t neglect my property …We do not abandon any discipline for the despair of ever being the best at it.” (Epictetus, Discourses 1.2.37)
(Photo credit: By C messier – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47318427