An introduction to Stoicism


My name is Keith and I am the other co-owner of Point Bliss Yoga. I see yoga as a continual practice of self improvement, a way to train both the body and the mind. There are of course many ways to train both of them, to train the body, how many different exercise fads and standbys can you name? Too many to count, there seems to be a new one every week! The mind is no different though, the problem as I see it, is that we don't practice mental exercise as much. Training one's mind through education, research, meditation and practice to me is just as, if not more important than training one's body.

I personally view myself as a Stoic, a person who ascribes to the stoic philosophy. So for our inaugural #Wisdomwednesday, I would like to introduce the philosophical school of Stoicism. Philosophy you might think, isn't training, it's just some lofty ideas that long past scholars pontificated. You would be right to a certain degree, but I see learning and practicing philosophy as a mental exercise, a way to stretch and strengthen the mind and build what I like to call my "mental tool-kit" for dealing with life's ups and downs. Stoicism was founded in Greece around 300 B.C. by Zeno of Citium and was greatly influenced by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The name "Stoic" was created from "stoa poikile" or "painted porch" which was an open market in Athens where stoics would meet and teach their burgeoning philosophy.

The stoics sought to adapt a set of principles for guiding oneself through the pitfalls of life. They adapted practices and principles that allowed them to live what they believed was their best life, long before the popular hashtag #livingmybestlife. The stoics believed in four cardinal virtues that one must live by to attain what they called "Arete" or "excellence", in this sense, fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one's full potential. Using arete as a principle for living life means that you are focused on the quality of everything you do and experience. Avoid actions that lack arete, take actions that focus on arete. When most people think of virtue, they look at moral virtue. But arete as a way of describing quality, touches on much more than that. A beautiful painting can have arete, even though it isn’t ethically superior to a dull painting.

The Virtues are: Phronesis: Prudence or practical wisdom

Dikaiosune: Justice or morality

Sophrosune: Temperance or moderation

Andreia: Fortitude or courage

Phronesis or prudence is really the practical application of wisdom, the ability to discern what is good, bad and indifferent. This isn't simply what is good and evil, but what is best or good in according to nature (also called the universe or God). The stoics believed in acting in accordance with nature and discerning the value of different things and actions. Indifference can also be key to maintaining prudence, if something doesn't affect you or cause you to react, then is it not wise to remain indifferent to it?

Dikaiosune or justice/morality can also be loosely translated to righteousness, but is not limited to what words we have in English today. The word "justice" as understood today is much too narrow for an accurate translation, the Stoics viewed Dikaiosune as moral or social virtue. Doing the right thing with the best intentions, so in this sense; benevolence, kindness and goodwill towards others.

Sophrosune or temperance/moderation in the Stoic sense is most closely related to the term "mindfulness" in today's culture. The idea is to be present and aware of your desires, temptations and mentality as much as possible. This is more the idea of curbing one's impulses, a sort of moral consciousness about one's own desires and appetites, this applies not only to the negative or self destructive impulses, but positives as well, temperance is the guarding against extremes, both high and low. To the Stoics, finding the middle ground was seen as best, and finding the right ratio/balance in everything was the key to happiness.

Andreia or fortitude/courage is the most straight forward translation, it simply means to overcome fear or cowardice, to overcome obstacles and things that may terrify or cause us to freeze. This doesn't necessarily mean jumping out of a plane, buying a tarantula or climbing a mountain, it can also mean asking for a raise at work, or discussing a difficult subject with a loved one. The idea is to accept the fear and hesitation you feel, and conquer it. Andraia also encompasses fortitude or endurance in all things, pain and discomfort, agitation, irritability. The notion that all things pass with time, one should reflect during difficult times, on all the great and terrible things that have been endured throughout one's life.

With this brief introduction into the Stoic philosophy, I hope you take some time to think about where in your life you can apply arete, maybe it's in focusing on mastering a new asana, or maybe it's just finding peace within yourself throughout the day. We'll be back next week with more from #wisdomwednesday! #stoicism #stoicphilosophy

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