The Easiest Way to Explain Stoicism
By Jonas Salzgeber/ NJLifeHacks
Stoicism is popular. And its community seems to grow every day.
But Stoic philosophy is also complex and it’s immensely challenging to explain it in simple terms.
The original texts from the Stoic philosophers consist of lecture notes, personal letters, and diary entries. They don’t offer a clear-cut explanation of the philosophy like one out of a textbook. And even modern books fail to explain Stoicism in an easy-to-understand way.
Online posts like my “What is Stoicism” article often list Stoic principles mixed together, which are surely worth studying, but fail to bring across a simple overview to hold onto.
This is the idea behind the Stoic Happiness Triangle. It gives you a simple overview of the core principles of Stoicism. If you know the triangle, you know and are able to explain the most important aspects of what Stoicism is—even to a five-year-old.
The Stoic Happiness Triangle explains Stoic philosophy in a simple and visual way. It’s a visualization of the Stoic’s core teachings.
The Stoic Happiness Triangle is a part of my book The Little Book of Stoicism. In this article, you’ll find the basics. In the book, you’ll find further explanations with helpful analogies and Stoic strategies.
The Stoic Happiness Triangle in a Nutshell
Live with Areté: This is about being your best version in the here and now. If we want to live that supremely happy life, we need to express our best self in every moment. It’s about aligning our chosen actions with our deep values.
Focus on What You Control: This is the most prominent principle in Stoicism. The Stoics realized that there are things we control, and things we don’t control. To get to the good life, we should focus on the things we control, and accept the rest as it happens. We can’t change what already is, but we can choose what to do with the given circumstances. Let’s focus on that.
Take Responsibility: Even if we don’t control everything that happens, we must take responsibility for our own lives. Because every event offers an area we control, namely how we judge the event and how we choose to respond. This is crucial in Stoicism, it’s not an external situation that makes us happy or miserable, but our interpretation of that situation. If we take responsibility and don’t let outside events determine our wellbeing, then we can express our best self and become supremely happy.
That’s Stoicism simplified. Let’s look at each Stoic principle in more detail.
1. Live with Areté: Express Your Highest Self in Every Moment
The classic translation for the Greek word areté is “virtue” or “excellence.” I prefer how Brian Johnson, the philosopher behind the website optimize.me, translates areté: “Expressing the highest version of yourself moment to moment to moment.”
That’s what we need to do if we want to achieve the supremely happy life called eudaimonia, which is positioned in the center of the triangle.
I’m sure you have an idea of what your ideal self looks like. Mine is kind, serene, tolerant, diligent, courageous, and well-organized.
Often, I observe myself acting not according to these ideals. That’s what the gap is indicating. It’s where I need to improve to actually express my highest self.
Living with areté is about trying to close that gap and express the ideal self. Moment to moment to moment, as Brian Johnson puts it.
Basically, this is about your character and being a genuinely good person.
The Stoics determined four broad character traits that make a good person. They’re known as the four cardinal virtues:
These are character traits we value in others and ourselves. And I’m sure your ideal self acts according to those traits.
The Stoics taught that it’s your character and your actions that count, not your job title, your belongings, or where you happen to stay in society.
No matter which role you play in society, whether you wear a suit and tie or a t-shirt and sandals, what matters is your character and the actions you take in every moment.
2. Focus on What You Control: Accept Whatever Happens and Make the Best of It
“What is it then to be properly educated? It is learning to apply our natural preconceptions to the right things according to Nature, and beyond that to separate the things that lie within our power from those that don’t.” – Epictetus
“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.” These are the very first words in Stoic teacher Epictetus’ Enchiridion and the basis of the second corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle Focus on What You Control.
The Enchiridion is a summary of Epictetus’ most important teachings, compiled by his student Arrian.
The central lesson of Epictetus was that there are things which are up to us and things which aren’t; we should always “make the best use of what is in our power, and take the rest as it happens.”
Enchiridion translates into ready at hand—and the mindfulness of what we control and what we don’t, is something we should always have ready at hand.
Because if we’re not aware of what we control and what not, we suddenly get lost in our worries about things we have absolutely no control over.
And worrying about things we have no control over is futile, and therefore foolish, says Epictetus.
What do we have control over then?
Only two things: our voluntary actions and judgments.
According to the Stoics, we can decide what events mean to us (our judgments) and how we want to react to those events (our actions).
All else is not under our control. That’s from the weather to other people and their actions to our health and body, and literally everything that happens around us.
Our body, for example, is not completely under our control. We can surely influence it with our lifestyle choices, but we can’t control it fully. There are other things which influence our body that we have no control over such as genes, early exposure, or injuries.
William Irvine explained it well in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The so-called Stoic dichotomy of control— that some things are up to us, and others are not—is really about the recognition of three levels of influence we have over the world:
While there are many things we don’t control, we’re still left with plenty of power. Living with areté, the key component to get to the good life, is something we can control.
“This is wholly up to you—who is there to prevent you being good and sincere?” Marcus Aurelius often reminded himself of the power he was granted by nature—the power to choose his actions and craft his own character.
He said people can’t admire you for what’s been granted to you by nature, but there are many other qualities to cultivate. “So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.”
We can’t change the past or what is right now, but by focusing on our daily choices, we can influence the present of tomorrow.
3. Take Responsibility: Get Good from Yourself
“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” – Epictetus
The third corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle is Take Responsibility.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them,” Epictetus tells us. We must realize that external events are neutral, and only how we choose to react to them makes them good or bad.
Either we’re a victim to our circumstances and get jerked around, or we choose to stand responsible for how we handle the circumstances. While the former is never helpful, the latter, taking responsibility, gives us the power to make the best with the given circumstances.
Every outside event offers an area of our own control, namely what we choose to make with that event. This is a true and fair amount of control. Being able to choose means we have a choice, and having a choice means freedom. Let’s call this the freedom of choice, inspired by Viktor Frankl, who says in his book A Man's Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
What happens here is that you get jerked around by an outside event that you don’t control and can’t change. You let an outside circumstance determine how you feel and act. If we generally go with our default reactions, we’ll always be dependent on what happens around us (and most certainly won’t live with areté).
It doesn’t need to be this way.
Potentially, there’s a gap between stimulus (dirty dishes) and response (anger and swearing). Thanks to this gap, we have the chance to choose our voluntary reaction (or non-reaction) to a given situation.
If you want to get in that gap and choose your best response, you need the awareness to spot your first impression. Once you recognize this impression, you can step back, and question whether this impression is good to go with or not. This way, you can avoid rash, impulsive, and automatic behavior.
The Stoics argue that events carry no meaning at all and only our judgments make them good or bad. It’s not events, but our opinions about those events that are the cause of a troubled mind. Ultimately, good and bad can only be found in our judgments and actions, the things we control.
If we take responsibility in our situations, we become immensely powerful. We can think before we re(-act). No matter the situation, we can choose our response and decide what this situation means to us. We don’t need to get upset by anything outside our control.
Suddenly, what happens around us doesn’t matter so much anymore. And we can choose to align our actions with our best self and act in a wise, serene, and forgiving way.
That’s why Epictetus advises to always have two rules ready at mind:
The lesson here is simple: Resistance is futile; never blame other people or outside events for our state of mind, but take responsibility, accept the things as they are, and try to make the best given the circumstances.
Interpretation of the Stoic Happiness Triangle
“If you want anything good, you must get it from yourself.” – Epictetus
The three corners of the Stoic Happiness Triangle are heavily intertwined. The core principle in Stoicism says that there are things we don’t control, and things we do control, and we should solely focus on the latter.
While we cannot control the situations we find ourselves in, we have the power to choose what these situations mean to us (our judgment), and what we do with them (our actions.) No matter what happens to us, we should focus on what we control, take responsibility for our judgment of the situation, and then live with areté by choosing to express our best self.
In modern terms, this is a process goal. The Stoics did not focus on the future outcome (eudaimonia) but on the process in the present moment. This process consists of the said three principles and should ultimately lead to the wished outcome of a happy life.
This focus on the process is what makes aspiring Stoics responsible for their flourishing because they’re in control of that process. While the outcome can be prevented by external events, the process and our intentions are completed in the present moment and cannot be prevented by anything outside our control.
As Seneca puts it, “The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.”
Stoicism teaches that we’re very much responsible for our own happiness and unhappiness. It’s not what happens to us that matters, but how we respond. We can refuse to let the hands we’re dealt decide over our wellbeing.
The Stoics say that outside events and other people may have the power to affect how and even whether we live, but they don’t have the power to ruin our lives. Only we can ruin our lives by getting jerked around by things we don’t control. Therefore, we must take responsibility and focus on where our power lies.
That's the core teaching of Stoicism, simplified.
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