Stoicism Basics for Creatives & Other Human Beings

creativity personal development stoicism Feb 11, 2019

I assert that "stoicism is stupid."

To be clear, what I mean is, common English usage, lower case "s" stoicism is a pretty poor strategy for cultivating happiness while building a life worth living.

Meaningful living and work, without question, involves challenges, misfortunes, and invitations for shame and suffering. And "keeping a stiff upper lip" and grimly enduring such hardships will bring no feelings of peace, prosperity, or wellbeing.

On the other hand, capital "S" Stoicism, the ancient philosophy of life, has much wisdom and value to impart to those who strive to endeavor better. First and foremost, Stoicism asserts that excellence of character is all that is required to "live the good life."

Although virtue is sufficient, Stoicism also encourages us to strive to make both the world and ourselves "better" and also provides principles and practices for doing just that.

The video above is from a Facebook Live broadcast from the Creative On Purpose Facebook Page titled, How Stoicism Can Help You Endeavor Better. Below I've shared further thoughts on stoicism Vs. Stoicism from my first title, The Stoic Creative Handbook. The virtues of intentional enterprises is further unpacked in my follow-up title, Endeavor: Cultivate Excellence While Making a Difference.

A Quick Look at Stoicism & Additional Resources

“Keep your philosophy to yourself for a bit.” - Epictetus

What the Heck Does Stoicism Have to Do With Creativity?

My early engagement with Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca at an early age fostered a lifelong interest in Stoicism. Applying Stoicism to my creative journey cultivates a greater sense of fulfillment and well-being while doing meaningful work.

When I share lessons drawn from Stoicism in my daily life I don’t always mention the source of that wisdom unless someone asks, “Where do you get this stuff? The Stoics themselves advocated a covert practice of the principles they preached. Epictetus, the best known Stoic teacher from the ancient world, advised his students, “Keep your philosophy to yourself for a bit.” Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most powerful, yet uncorrupted, Stoic of all time admonished himself in a similar fashion by writing in his journal, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Love for this beautiful, sublime, and powerful philosophy fed my desire to shun this advice and marry Stoicism to my love of the creative process.

It resonated with many and I deeply appreciate that.

But far too many prospective readers who would otherwise benefit from the concepts and process within these pages passed it over because of the overt Stoic reference. For some, it was unfamiliarity with Stoic philosophy and the association of the term “stoic” with grim resignation. For others, it was a perception that engaging with this content required signing up for some sort of arcane dogma.

For those attracted to the Stoic references, rest assured they are still here, just not as overtly as in the original work. For those intrigued, I offer A Quick Look at Stoicism and resources for further investigation in.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within our control and some things are not.” - Epictetus

“stoic” Vs. “Stoic”

Isn’t a "stoic" someone who is passionless and a "creative" someone fueled by passion?

The meaning of the word stoic depends on whether it begins with a small s or a capital S! In common usage “stoic” describes a person who grimly endures life’s challenges. A “Stoic” is a student of an ancient philosophy that cultivates a sense of well being by developing your potential.

The common usage of stoic is the opposite of what Stoic philosophy teaches!

And Stoic philosophy can teach Creatives plenty!

A Quick Look at Stoicism

Let’s take a quick look at the philosophical tradition and teachings of Stoicism that will inform many of the exercises in this handbook. This chapter is an intentionally quick introduction. If you’d like to investigate this beautiful philosophical tradition more deeply, I’ve included several references in the final section.

For the ancients, philosophy was not a navel-gazing activity reserved for academics, but a daily practice for everyone. Every ancient philosophy tried to determine what it meant to be truly human and happy and develop systems for becoming more of both. Among the competing philosophies, Stoicism endures. Why?

Stoicism was founded in 300 B.C. by Zeno of Citium, a shipwrecked merchant who lost everything and landed in Athens, Greece. Making the best of his situation, he took up philosophy by reading about Socrates and studying with a teacher. Over the years he developed his own philosophy based on what he had learned. He taught and discussed it with his students in a covered portico in the Athens market, the stoa poikile (the painted porch), from which Stoicism gets its name.

Stoicism was popular in ancient Greece and thrived for years thanks to subsequent leaders of the stoa, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus in particular. As the power of Athens and Greece faded and that of Rome rose, Stoicism continued to develop and remain popular. The primary Roman Stoic writers were a freed slave turned teacher; Epictetus, a playwright, and political advisor; Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “good emperors” of the Roman Empire.

With the rise of Christianity, secular philosophy fell out of favor, but what little literature from the Stoics remained continued to find an audience throughout history. Stoicism is undergoing a resurgence now thanks to the many books, blogs, sites, and events that advocate Stoicism’s virtues, values, and relevance.

So, what is Stoicism and what are its basic principles and practices?

Like most ancient philosophies, Stoicism addresses “What is the good life?” In other words, what does it mean to be human and happy, and can we become more of both?

The Stoics believed that “the good life” was one of “human flourishing.” The ancient Greeks had a word for it:εὐδαιμονία or eudaimonia.

All that is required for such a life is virtue. For the Stoics, virtue is the only true good and virtue is its own reward. The ancient Greek word for virtue was arete, which translates as “excellence of character.”

Striving to achieve our potential as happy and healthy humans requires us to “live in agreement with nature.” Meaning not only living in agreement with our human nature as social creatures born with the capacity for reason but also aligning with the entirety of the natural world which includes the cosmos.

Applying reason to social living for greater tranquility and thriving is central to the teaching of Epictetus who began The Handbook (based on notes taken by his student), with the following statement, “Some things are up to us, and other things are not.”

Staying in the “here and now” (hic et nunc, the Romans would say), and mindfully addressing what is within and what is outside our control is at the heart of Stoic practice, as is what is within our influence.

The words of Epictetus often remind people of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Stoic Mindfulness Exercises

Developing Stoic mindfulness to life’s celebrations and Stoic resilience to life’s challenges are achieved through exercises that apply our reason to what we experience in the here and now, and to do what is best for ourselves and others, in alignment with our virtue. Here are a few.

The View From Above – Imagining a bird’s eye view looking down at ourselves from above and beginning to zoom further and further out. This exercise helps contextualize our place in the planetary community and beyond.

Hierocles’ Circle – This is similar to the exercise above, but reminds us of our place as social creatures in service to each other. Again, starting with ourselves, we reach out to ever-widening circles of contact. Our family, our friends, our neighbors, people living in the same city or town, and so on, to the planet and beyond. As we reach each new circle, we imagine pulling those people closer to us and into the previous circle.

Negative Visualization – Beginning the day by imagining what obstacles or misfortunes we may meet and planning how we might face or handle them in alignment with our virtue. This exercise helps us de-catastrophize minor issues and perhaps see impediments as opportunities.

Gratitude for What You Already Have – Contemplating the simple gifts and benefits already in our possession. Not material objects necessarily, but basic human needs, connections, the beauty of the natural world, and another day of life to live.

This overview of Stoic philosophy is a very brief introduction to the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy and practice. There are many resources for further investigation into this beautiful and powerful philosophy of life at the end of this handbook. However, with this brief overview complete, let’s continue our journey and apply some of these ideas and exercises to develop a courageous creative posture and a thriving artist’s mindset.

A Quick Look at Stoicism  - Relevant Anecdote

Author's Note - I unpack my lifelong creative adventures as informed by Marus Aurelius' Meditations in an article written for The Modern Stoicism blog, Stoicism Today, titled The Creative Stoic – An Artist’s Adventures with Marcus Aurelius.

In middle school, I began studying Latin with an extraordinary teacher, Don Kelly. In that class, we translated quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The reminders of an emperor of Rome to himself in the second century AD resonated with me. I even asked for additional quotations to translate! Instead, Don lent me his copy of Meditations. I read it multiple times before I returned it and borrowed it to read through at least once a year through high school. At the end of my senior year, Don presented me the book as a graduation gift.

I continued to read it at least annually through college and beyond. I don’t recall associating the book with Stoic philosophy until well into my forties. It was a journal written by a man who talked to himself the same way I did. Marcus urged and pushed himself to become a better human being in the very way I wrote to myself in my childhood journal and continue to do to this day.

The words of a Roman emperor written almost two thousand years ago had a significant impact on my development as a teenager and informed the adult I became. Sure, Stoicism is powerful medicine, and I encourage you to take it. But the power of its lessons is in the way we put them to use.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius

Key Takeaway and Exercise

Key Takeaway

Achieving your potential as happy and healthy human beings is a struggle without a blueprint and an operating system. The time-tested approach of Stoicism has been successfully applied by slaves and prisoners, artists and entrepreneurs, and employees and emperors.

To realize our potential, we must identify, understand, and work with our strengths and weaknesses. Developing ourselves and delivering the goods will require us to handle internal doubts and fears as well as external obstacles and misfortunes.

To do this, we need to develop our creative nature, apply our capacity for reason, and develop our social instincts. Whether or not you become a declared Stoic, you can draw upon the philosophy’s lessons and exercises to undertake this journey with a greater sense of thriving.

An Exercise

The Stoics aspired to be an ideal human being called the Stoic Sage, one who was wise and a citizen of the world. The Sage experiences natural emotions and desires but is not enslaved by them. The Sage loves others and loves fate, even when doing so subjects him or her to misfortune and poor treatment. Through all life’s vicissitudes, the Sage remains unperturbed, tranquil, and joyful

Is becoming the Stoic Sage likely? No. Many Stoics believed no such person has yet walked the earth, but they did see glimpses of the Sage in men like Socrates and other great teachers.

Sit and contemplate for a minute how the ideal human being thinks and acts. Make a list of people who exhibit those qualities. They can be people you know, people from ancient or recent history, or characters from books or movies. Write them down and list the virtues or acts that you associate with each one. Identify your heroes, and it’s more likely you’ll become one.


Stoicism Resources

Here are my favorite translations of the defining works of the Roman Stoics:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - My go-to Stoic. Meditations is a collection of the Roman Emperor's journal entries. Timeless reminders and reflections.
  • The Art of Living by Epictetus - This former slave wrote down ninety-three succinct, witty and insightful practices on how to meet the challenges of living every day.
  • Letters from a Stoic by Seneca - Perhaps the most en vogue Stoic. A Roman businessman and political advisor deliver timeless advice to his friend Lucilius.

And here are some of my favorite contemporary Stoic advocates and resources:

  • Donald Robinson - Donald is a leading figure in the Modern Stoicism movement. His book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is an accessible deep dive into the philosophy’s must-know principles and practices. He also has several online courses on understanding and applying Stoicism.
  • Massimo Pigliucci - Massimo is a professor, author, and blogger. His book How to Be a Stoic and blog by the same name are a treasure trove of engaging and useful information about Stoicism.
  • William Irvine - William’s, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, is an engaging and easy to understand approach to learning about what Stoicism is, why it matters, and how to start putting its principles into practice.
  • Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman - The Daily Stoic, is part of my morning routine.

I could go on for pages on Stoic resources. Instead, here are names and links to more top picks:

Finally, I regularly share thoughts and resources on Stoicism and creativity on my blog and Facebook Page, where I also host a weekly live broadcast. I  have a free online course called Stoicism 101 that is a painless introduction to this pragmatic and profound philosophy. You can also watch replays of my interviews from the Creative On Purpose Broadcast or listen to the podcast on iTunes.

Scott Perry, Chief Difference-Maker at Creative on Purpose

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