Primer on Stoicism: The Ancient Art of Living a Good Life

Life will always be full of ups and downs. Great times and awful times. What if I said there was a way to make the bad times easier to handle? Stoicism could be a philosophy that helps you in this area.

Primer on Stoicism: The Ancient Art of Living a Good Life
Photo by Valentin B. Kremer / Unsplash

Follow the advice of the stoic sages who can guide you through life

This is a repost of a blog post I wrote on Medium a few years ago. I find myself referencing it at times when introducing the concepts of stoicism and its virtues. Therefore I felt that it was worth posting it here too so I more easily can share the article without accounting for the paywall over at Medium. If you have already read the article you can skip it but it might serve as a good reminder. I hope you enjoy it!

Life will always be full of ups and downs. Times when life is great and times when everything is awful. What if there was a way to make the bad times easier to handle? Wouldn’t that be terrific? The fact is, there is an ancient philosophy called stoicism that deals with this problem. This doctrine of philosophy was popular in ancient Rome and Greece but then disappeared until the Renaissance for a revival, and then recently it has become a favorite among many successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. This philosophy has appealed to both slaves as well as Roman emperors. In more modern

So What Exactly is Stoicism?

The short answer is that it is a philosophy of life focusing on the parts of life that we control ourselves. This answer does not paint a very vivid picture so I will try to expand on it. I believe that the foundational concepts of stoicism are negative visualization and the dichotomy of control:

  • Negative visualization is the practice of contemplating what the worst thing that could happen right now is. The act of considering this will hopefully make you more appreciative of what is happening as well as prepare you for the possible bad outcome.
  • The dichotomy of control is the second concept. The idea is that there in life are things that we can control and those that we can’t. Following this stoicism argues that you should only focus on the things you have control over so as to not get upset by the things you can’t control. What is the point of being upset by bad weather or any other unknown thing? Instead, focus your time and energy on the things you can control.
“Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them, or learn to bear them” Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism can seem like a highly individualized philosophy only focusing on oneself, but in fact, the stoics preach a duty towards our fellow mankind. Fellow people are often a source of great joy for us and being social is very important for us. The fact is that when we learn to disregard negative things in our life we find ourselves with more energy to accomplish great things and spread positivity around us.

Stoicism in Everyday Life

Stoicism is a life philosophy, meaning it can guide you through life. This is very different from the modern analytical philosophy which spends a lot of time contemplating what older philosophers meant and are more theoretically focused. Stoicism was created to teach you how to live your life. A good place to start the practice of stoicism can be to try and implement negative visualization during the day, consider what the worst thing that could happen is and then try to feel thankful for the situation which played out in reality. You can also consider the dichotomy of control in your life, are there things you worry over that you don’t have any power over? Then what is the point of worrying? You can’t control it either way and worrying will only worsen your mood.

The practice of lessening the negative emotions in our lives can be a weight lifted off our shoulders. Having this weight removed will help you both in your work and your life outside of it. In today’s world we are often bombarded with negativity from news and online sources, things we have no control over but it can still affect how we feel. Stoicism will help you get a thicker skin and deal with this negativity.

Where You Can Learn More

Here are some sources for additional information on stoicism if your interest is peaked:

  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine is a great place to start if you want to understand stoicism. Irvine is a professor in philosophy and gives you some background on stoicism as well as detailed practical advice. I read this book because of a recommendation by Tobi Lütke which he made on the podcast Invest Like the Best.
  • The Tao of Seneca is the letters that Seneca sent to Lucilius curated by Tim Ferriss, author, and podcaster of renown. Each letter details the different struggles Lucilius had and to which Seneca gave thoughtful responses.
  • Meditations is a collection of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius who is one of the most famous stoics and who was the emperor of Rome. Many view his reign as one of the better ones during the Roman empire and the book offers a peek into his deepest thoughts.


Taking away the negativity in your life will indirectly also increase the amount of positivity you feel. Being happier and spending less time worrying will help you tremendously in life. These ideas have survived for millennia for a reason.