I’m always working on trying to improve myself, on trying to become the best version of myself that I can be. I don’t always succeed, actually far from it. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a project that’s never complete. But there is something to be said for making the effort, for having self-improvement always in the back of your mind. And when I talk about improving myself, I don’t necessarily mean the outer aspects of myself, like my eating habits, my workout routines, or even my career.
Don’t get me wrong, those are important things to work on, and I do work on them, but they are secondary projects to me, projects distinct from what I mean when I say improving myself. Really I’m talking about something like improving my mental habits, my character, my soul.
Maybe that’s why I always find myself drawn to Stoic philosophy, because that was what the Stoics were concerned with first and foremost; becoming the best version of oneself that one could be. Of course, the Stoics had very specific ideas about what that meant.
For the Stoics, self-improvement involved practicing the 4 Virtues (in Greek: Arete), Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. No matter what Stoic writer you read, these Virtues will always come up in one form or another. I’m always amazed when I read what kind of advice Seneca or Epictetus would give people who came to them with various personal problems that they were experiencing. These Stoics would always find a way to resolve the problem by tracing it’s solution back to one of these Virtues.
So, the Virtues set the standard for how to behave and so, the closer you adhere the Virtues, the more you are improving yourself. I’ll try to explain the Stoic Virtues below, as I as far as I have understood them:
Wisdom (in Greek: Sophia) is, simply put, knowledge of what we should and should not concern ourselves with. What should we not concern ourselves with? Everything outside of us that isn’t in our power to control, and that list is quite large: life, death, reputation, health, wealth, social status, the list goes on and on.
But you might say, “Of course I have the power to control things outside of me, what are you talking about? If I want to be healthy, I’m gonna exercise every day. If I want to make more money, I’m gonna move up the ladder at work. I’m not just gonna sit around and do nothing, that’s stupid.”
And I don’t think the Stoics would disagree with you. Yes, go out there and work on building your career, start eating healthier and work out. But remember, you’re not guaranteed to keep those external things that you want. They’re nice to have, worth going for, helpful in a lot of ways, but not absolutes. A major economic downturn can make your money worthless, you could be paralyzed in a freak accident. Don’t base your entire existence on them, they are not fundamentally under your power.
So what is important? The only thing we should really be concerned with is what is in our power to control and that’s really only two things: our thoughts and our actions.
What the Stoics are getting at with placing your thoughts and actions exclusively under your control is that you are ultimately responsible for everything you think and do. Someone was rude to you and it caused you to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day? Well you have no control over the other person’s attitude, but you are in control of refusing to let those emotions get the better of you.
Making this distinction between what is in your power and what isn’t in your power seems easy, but it is something you have to develop on a daily basis, constantly asking yourself, is this something that should concern me? Is this something that’s worth my time worrying over?
Justice (in Greek: Dikaiosune) is a concern for the common good, for the welfare of other people.
It’s very easy to say to yourself, “Well, because I should only concern myself with what is in my power to control, then I shouldn’t worry about other people. They’re having a bad day? That’s their problem, they need to work on that themselves.”
But when we say things like this to ourselves we are ignoring how interconnected we are with one another. The Stoics believed that the universe was one enormous organism, and that each and every human being was part of this greater whole. Given that, one’s actions shouldn’t be merely for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others as well. To me this means having a compassionate and understanding attitude towards other people, even when you may not see eye to eye or just plain don’t like each other.
But this doesn’t mean that you should just allow people to walk all over you either, or say to yourself when you see terrible things happening on the news, “Oh well, I have to accept that people are just people.” Far from it. After all, if you view all of the world as interconnected, then other people’s problems are also your problems. Given this, it is almost as if it’s your obligation to stand up for others, to correct bad behaviors from other people, and at the same time not be just an all-around jerk yourself.
Courage (in Greek: andreia) is more than just being unafraid. It doesn’t mean that you can pick a fight without hesitation either. Courage is acting the right way, doing the right thing, being your true self, despite whatever fears you may have. You’re not pushing your anxieties or worries away when you do this either, you’re recognizing that they’re there. But you’re also recognizing that the thing that you have to do, whatever it may be, is in keeping with you being Virtuous.
The word Temperance (in Greek: Sophrosune) always makes me think of someone who abstains from drinking alcohol, doesn’t even dare talk to women, and is just an overall un-fun person to be around. I think a better way to describe this Virtue is that it is something like self-control, or self-discipline. I can get behind that, who doesn’t want to be in better control? But in better control of what?
The easy answer is: in control of the things that give you physical pleasure. I like to drink beer, but I also have a history of doing very stupid things when I’ve wanted to keep the party going longer that it should. So I intentionally practice drinking in moderation. Maybe a victory beer after a particularly hectic week at work, or when I’ve decided to treat myself and cooked myself a burger and need something to pair it with. By practicing self-control, I can still do the things that give me pleasure, but in a way that won’t kill my liver.
A more subtle way of looking at self-discipline is when it comes to your emotions. We all experience anger, fear, jealousy, sadness. We’re all human beings, it’s a normal thing. But when we let those emotions lead us and start to guide our decision making, then we can get into all sorts of trouble. Remember, for the Stoics, Wisdom is being able to make a distinction between what’s important and what’s not. If your thinking is clouded by anger or sadness, how well do you think you will be able to make important decisions?
Of course, it’s easy to say, “Shut off your emotions, be a robot, only think logically.” That’s not what I think the Stoics are advocating either. What I think they are pushing instead, is an awareness of the presence of those emotions, of looking at something like anger straight in the eye and telling it, “You’re not the boss of me. You can’t fool me into doing something I’ll regret later. I am the boss of me. I decide what I do.”
Those are the Stoic Virtues to the best of my understanding. Because I practice them daily does that mean I consider myself a Stoic? Do I consider myself a Wise, Just, Courageous, Temperate person? Far from it, but on a practical level I can derive benefits from making the attempt. I invite you to try to examine yourself and see if you can also draw any benefits from trying to live according these principles.