Four Quotes From Ancient Stoic Philosophers That Still Apply Today

Tom Stevenson by Alex Block on Unsplash

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BC. The philosophy is based on a set of personal ethics that is informed by logic and the representation of the natural world.

The most famous proponent of Stoicism was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His journal, written during many long nights on the battlefield and widely known today as Meditations, is one of the most popular stoic texts.

Other famous proponents of the school are the philosophers Epictetus and Seneca. Although not as well-known as Marcus, their writings are no less important and influential.

The beauty of stoicism is that its messages are easily applicable to life. A misconception about the philosophy is based around the modern connotation of the word ‘stoic’.

For many, it refers to a person who is unemotional or indifferent to pain. But Stoicism does not teach you to extinguish emotions, something that would be difficult even if you tried. Instead, it encourages adherents to slightly withdraw from their emotions — to think more clearly and develop inner calm.

In a world that is polarised, noisy, and chaotic, the words of stoic philosophers are more useful than ever. We like to think of our concerns as new and relevant only to us. Yet, that’s not the case.

When you delve into texts by Seneca, you soon discover that most of the issues he’s referring to are ones we still experience today. Pain, anger, concern over old age — these issues are a universal part of the human experience and haven’t changed much in two thousand years.

Today, numerous self-help books exist purporting to help us with all of these issues. The truth is, none of them provides the same value as these ancient texts. They ground you in reality and make you release that the troubles that afflict us today are nothing new. They have been occurring for millennia and longer.

Listing all the phrases that have helped me since I started reading stoic philosophy would result in one incredibly long article. Instead, I’ve cut it down to four key musings which I feel will help you take charge of your life and become a better person.

“What stands in the way becomes the way.”

This is one of Marcus Aurelius's most famous quotes. It’s this phrase that inspired

Ryan Holiday to write his bestselling book, The Obstacle Is The Way.

It’s a simple but powerful phrase that sums up life. Throughout our lives, there will be up and downs, but the quality of our existence will be determined more by how we handle those lows rather than the highs.

It’s all too easy to look at an obstacle and think it’s insurmountable. I faced this a lot last year when two friends and I were driving around Europe climbing mountains.

Some of the trails to get to the peak were long and arduous. Many times I felt like turning around and giving up. That’s not to mention the hours and hours of driving and the issues with the car we suffered.

One such problem was when the auxiliary belt snapped as we were parking the car shortly after arriving in Valencia. Suddenly, from only staying a day in Valencia, our plans had changed completely.

We now had to find a garage that could repair our car as quickly as possible so that we could head up to Andorra. Thankfully, I can speak Spanish, but words relating to cars were not in my vocabulary.

It was a challenge I could have shirked away from, but after visiting a few garages I was able to explain what was wrong and get someone to fix it for us. From a situation that appeared bleak when we arrived, four days later we were driving out of the city.

At that time, we stressed about getting the car fixed but we also had a great time meeting lots of interesting people at the hostel we stayed at. An obstacle was planted in our way and we found a way around it.

The quality of your life hinges on these moments. It’s in times of struggle that we find out who we truly are.

“We suffer more in imagination than reality.”

This is one of my most-loved phrases from Seneca because it’s one I can relate to. Ever since I can remember, I have been a vivid thinker. This helps when it comes to writing and other creative pursuits, but it can be a huge pain when it comes to other aspects of my life.

I tend to overthink matters and imagine all the possible worst-case scenarios that might occur. Nowhere was this more evident than when we drove from Kosovo into Albania last year.

Our car had insurance for countries in the European Union, but for those outside of the bloc, it was necessary to buy insurance that lasted for 30 days once you crossed the border.

We had done this a few times after driving into Montenegro and Kosovo, so we were prepared for what would happen. However, a few things went wrong. First, the price was €50, which was more than the €15 we had paid in the previous two countries.

Second, we didn’t have enough money with us to purchase the insurance. No problem I hear you say, just head over to an ATM and withdraw some money. Well, for a reason that remains inexplicable to me, there were no ATMs at the border crossing.

We couldn’t afford the insurance, the clerk wouldn’t take less than the official amount and the police were of little help, telling us to drive the three hours to Tirana without any insurance.

I knew that if we were stopped we could get a big fine, but my mind went into overdrive at this point. What if they arrest us for not having any insurance? Will we ever get out of the country again? Thoughts like this were racing through my mind for the three-hour drive, which wasn’t helped by seeing the most police cars I have ever seen on a drive.

We must have passed over 30 police cars on that drive and do you know what happened? Nothing. We got to Tirana without being stopped, parked the car, and the next day I bought the insurance from a vendor in the city. I then spent the rest of the day enjoying the various things to do in Tirana with a weight lifted from my shoulders!

The moral of the story is our minds can be our worst enemies at times. I suffered more in my thoughts than I did in reality. So remember: worst-case scenarios don’t always come to pass.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

In this age of consumerism and obscene wealth, it can be hard to avoid all the posts on Instagram of celebrities and internet gurus in their big houses with their flashy cars.

It’s easy to compare your life to these figures and think you’re missing out. The problem with this line of thinking is that the comparison isn’t valid. You’re only seeing a snapshot of that person’s life. One that they want to share.

They may appear to have everything and live a happy life, but without knowing them, you can never tell for sure. In my life, some of my happiest moments have come when I’ve had little and not yearned for more.

I remember going to Australia with nothing but my backpack in 2012. I had to leave everything I owned bar some clothes, my phone and a few other valuables at home. At first, I thought it would be difficult but after a few weeks, I got used to this new way of living.

What I learned is that you need very little to make you happy. Sure, I had my iPhone, and I bought an iPad after a few weeks so I could speak to my parents, but other than that I was content with what I had.

It was during this trip that I realized that much of modern advertising is built on our desire for constant consumption. That if only you buy the latest gadget or more clothes, you’ll finally be happy. The thing is, you won’t. You’ll end up chasing that high, which will wear off after a few hours or days leaving you discontent.

The wealthy person is not the one with the largest account but the one who recognizes that true wealth is being grateful for what you have.

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

I have spent a lot of time pondering this phrase. It comes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Let’s not forget that this phrase was written by the Roman Emperor himself, the highest authority in the world at that time, reminding himself to be a good man.

It’s a striking passage. Can you imagine a modern-day leader writing something similar? I can’t think of many that would. Yet, it’s such a powerful phrase because it’s true.

We often spend too long wondering about how we can be virtuous instead of just doing it. Today, arguments on Twitter reverberate around a lot of life’s minutiae. You can drop into any corner of the platform and witness absurd debates around topics that have no material impact on one’s life.

All this time that is spent arguing about these trivial matters could be better utilized in improving ourselves today. The truth is, that most of us know what it takes to be better. We know what our flaws are and how we can better ourselves. Often, it’s the thought of changing that puts us off.

Yet, if we really wanted to, we could make the changes tomorrow. This is what Marcus is imploring himself to do in this passage. Maybe he argued with Roman senators about laws or quarreled with his co-Emperor, Lucius Verus, who was his adoptive brother.

He would have faced people who riled him, who forced him into arguments he did not want to have and questioned his beliefs. Sure, he could have argued about the merits of these approaches, but much like on Twitter, this saps away time that could be better spent.

When it comes to being a better person, no amount of arguing or reading self-help articles will benefit you. The best thing you can do is to lead by example and just be a better person.

These are just a slither of the useful phrases you can discover in stoic texts. as you can see, despite being written over two thousand years ago, they are as relevant today as they were back then.

The human condition hasn’t changed an awful lot. We still have the same desires, problems and worries, all that’s changed is the nature of them.

Meditate on these phrases, ponder how you can answer the questions they create, and most of all, decide to be the best version of yourself you can be today.

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