If, for some reason, you’ve ploughed through the couple hundred articles on my blog, you might get the idea that the titular ‘fit awakening’ is a mission of nutrition. For the most part, it is. Out of the three pillars (muscle, mind, metabolism), the diet is the easiest one to master, and has the potential to produce monumental shifts across your psychophysiology.
Sprinkle in some heavy weights on a consistent basis, and you’re on your way to completing a jaw-shattering transformation.
But then there’s the third side, the one that tends to escape us. The mind game. And it so happens that the path to achieving inner wellbeing is paved by philosophy.
Hopefully you’re not grimacing at the thought of sitting through another mystical influencer stuttering out their take on spirituality. In any case, uncurl your toes. This isn’t an article about spiritualism. We’re not here to ponder existence, just figure out what we need to do to master the mind and become the best version of yourself.
Traipse past the self-help shelves of your local bookstore, and you’ll be treated to a million mixed messages on how to tame the inner self and reach your fullest potential.
Plenty of these books will be condensed down to empty words of affirmation that don’t lead to any long-term progress. Finding the right one for you can turn into a bit of a crapshoot. So it pays to seek out the ones that have stood the test of time, buffering lives across countless generations stretching back into antiquity.
Which brings us nicely back to my favourite slice of history, Ancient Rome.
In between sessions of defensive conquests and civil wars, the Romans had an unprecedented amount of leisure. Some used to live life to the fullest by enjoying the finest pleasures, others did their best to exercise restraint and escape the catastrophe of consumerism. One such group were the stoic philosophers.
Seeing as we’re dealing with the same crisis right now, it would make sense to share notes with the stoics. Luckily, we have several bodies of work that survived the tragic fall of the empire and all its successor states.
Look, I still haven’t gotten over 1453.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism can get an unfair rap due to the unfortunate definition of the word ‘stoic’, which denotes showing indifference to the many waves of emotion. So that makes many view the pursuit of stoicism as the numbing of feeling, the disregard of pleasure, and the death of personality.
But the philosophy of being stoic has more flavour than the stoic of dictionaries. It’s a remarkable way of viewing the world that, despite being hatched up several thousand years ago, hasn’t lost any of its relevance. It worked for the ancient Greeks, it worked for the Romans, and it’s still perfectly applicable in modernity.
And here’s where the definition goes astray. Stoicism isn’t about solving the chaos of the human experience by suppressing emotion, but rather, gaining control over it.
The ancient philosophy aims to imprint the idea that self mastery is an intrinsic endeavour, measured by what’s going on in your head, rather than how many cars you can afford to squeeze into your garage, or how the number of plates you can stack on the leg press.
Emotions are typically reactions to an event. It could be a present event, like being tailgated by a functionally blind pensioner as you pull out of the Waitrose car park, or one looming in the future, as you fret over the possibility of drunk slavs turning Europe into a nuclear wasteland. In either case, it’s a two step process that comes at us incessantly across every waking moment.
You’re perpetually reactly to things, and while emotions aren’t inherently bad, it’s not so hot for your wellbeing when you’re a puppet on strings. You become a slave to the whims of your imagination, and the whims of others.
Given our wonderful capacity to worry, combined with the endless supply of stimuli in the modern environment, it’s not easy to maintain a state of healthy wellbeing.
But there happens to be a third step, nestled in the middle, often forgotten amidst the turmoil.
That crucial step, the ability to formulate a reasonable take on the event, before getting carted away on the roller coaster, that’s where stoicism lies. You don’t just shut off any emotional response and revert to robot mode, you understand and negotiate your interpretation of the experience. Emotions are met with reason.
You worry about what you can control, and accept what you cannot. With that mindset, the world suddenly becomes a lot more bearable. Because suffering is usually the construct of our imagination rather than a result of reality. The absence of that suffering, along with the fulfilment that comes alongside living according to the stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation, is what produces wellbeing.
I’m not laying down a revelation. Even if you buy into the idea of stoicism, it’s a never-ending pursuit rather than a switch that gets thrown and puts the world to right. Emotions will continue to get the best of your ability to reason. You will slip up, and you should relish that fact, because you don’t have progress without failure, and you don’t get to be human without feeling.
The prize is worth the pain, because you can’t achieve wellbeing without taming the inner disquiet. It’s the missing piece of many a jigsaw. You could be starting every day with a cold shower and fasted workout, eat nothing but ribeyes, use blackout curtains to drown out any night light, and you could still feel empty inside.
As Socrates once said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
My Take On Stoicism
To call myself a stoic would be a seismic stretch. People who see me in person struggle to compute this, but I am a fairly emotional individual. I just struggle to express it, because much of that emotion comes wrapped up with anxiety.
This makes me line up quite well with the dictionary definition, but not so much embody the philosophy. But, on the bright side, I am well aware of my faults. Rather than seeing stoicism as an opportunity to silence the disquiet, I’m trying to use it to break the shackles.
Regular readers might remember, all of five articles back, that I labelled an anxiety disorder as something that’s driven by mitochondrial dysfunction. I’m not doing a 180, and the carnivore diet remains the best thing I’ve done for alleviating the symptoms.
But the pangs are still there, and easily flared if I indulge in a sloppy weekend. I still have the odd mood swing, my sense of self worth is still tenuous, and I have far too much of an attachment to my Big 3 total.
As I see it, the changes I’ve made to the diet have changed my mental health radically for the better, but I still have plenty of work to do, and the progress I need is not going to come without dipping my toes in some philosophising.
So I’m not a stoic. Two of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Roman times, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, didn’t claim to be ones either. They considered themselves in the stage between ignorance and sagedom. Seneca wrote that the stoic sage only came around once every five hundred years. They were just students, practising rather than preaching from the summit.
Marcus Aurelius was the final emperor of the fabled Pax Romana, the time when Rome wasn’t continuously getting its shit kicked. Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome, and the tutor of the emperor Nero. They had the world’s luxuries at their feet, and still they felt the need to engage in restraint and temper their emotions.
They did it, in the knowledge that ‘living life to the fullest’ wasn’t achieved by seeking out pleasure. They got there by living according to those previously stated virtues.
How To Be A Student Of Stoicism
While the word ‘virtues’ may get you thinking about prudish Victorians, they are in fact quite relatable, forming a timeless moral compass that could still guide a frazzled trader through a day at the stock exchange, or a mother trying to get her three kids in one place for dinner time.
The Four Stoic Virtues
Wisdom – Understanding the world around us and seeing it for what it is, without judgement.
Courage – Acting in the right way despite your fears and desires.
Justice – Fairness, kindness, and treating others with respect.
Moderation – Exercising restraint and avoiding being swept away by external events or desires.
By using those virtues to guide you through the day, you bring a sense of calm amongst the chaos, by focusing on the one thing you can control. Your actions.
But, if you like what the stoics are selling, you should be wanting something more tangible than four words scrawled across the back of your hand. As a creature of habit, I adore action items, and the stoics did plenty of journaling. Both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca kept a daily evening practice where they reviewed their activities before bed. They would likely have posed questions like.
What did I do well?
What did I do badly?
What did I leave undone?
What could I do better?
Each evening the stoics held themselves accountable, examined their mistakes, and endeavoured to do better. They criticised the reclusive philosophers who nestled away in their ivory towers while pondering the meaning of life. They demanded action as the necessary step for the progress of one’s character.
As an aside, progressor happens to be the latin word for the person who travels along the path of stoicism.
So if you would like to be a progressor, then the first point of call would be to start an evening journal. Even if you struggle to grapple with the stoic code of conduct, you’d still be offloading problems by committing thoughts to paper, and thereby improving the quality of your sleep.
The Stoic Code Of Conduct
1. Live in agreement with nature.
2. Virtue is the only true good.
3. Accept that most things are not under your control.
4. Focus on the things you can control: your response and inner judgement.
5. When something negative happens, we should see it as an opportunity to create a better situation.
6. Virtue is its own reward, and through it we receive true wellbeing, known as eudaimonia.
7. Real philosophy involves making progress.
8. It is essential that we contribute to society, so you can’t just be a tranquil hermit.
Wrapping Up – The Ancestral Perspective
Now for the mammoth in the room. Is stoicism the ancestral philosophy? Technically, it was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. Which puts it a fair chunk of time after the curtains closed on the palaeolithic. But while the stone age hunters didn’t necessarily follow stoic doctrine and keep daily journals, there is plenty to suggest that they were stoics by nature.
“Often I have had cause to notice this same good cheer and readiness to laugh and joke among the people of the Gibson Desert [hunter-gatherers in Australia], even when they are plagued by boils and heat, pestered by flies, and short of food. This cheerfulness seems to be part of a disciplined acceptance of frequent hardships which complaints would only aggravate.” – Anthropologist Richard Gould.
It’s worth keeping in mind that any modern hunter gatherers are in a sore spot, since their natural prey have been all but wiped out, and their land is being constantly encroached on by farmers and tourists. So for them to still be light on their feet, is an exhibition of stoic thinking.
Compared to them, their stone age ancestors likely led easier lives, with more food, and fewer doctors pestering them to grow vegetables. You could make a convincing argument that they had less need for stoicism than we do. But given that they were undoubtedly in tune with nature, and without proclivity towards consumerism, we should be able to make the stab and call them ‘pretty stoic’.
If you somehow waded through that mess, then I’m deeply grateful. My next article on the topic will be a list of books I’d recommend for further reading on stoicism. Until then, the next time you’re angry at someone or an inanimate object, just ask yourself.
Was I harmed?
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