Stoic philosophy has long been the secret weapon of history’s greatest and wisest leaders—from emperors to artists, activists to fighter pilots. People of all stripes are seeking out Stoicism’s unique blend of practicality and wisdom as they look for answers to the great questions of daily life. They realize that the most valuable wisdom is timeless and that philosophy is for living a better life.
Whatever it is, whatever you’re going through, there is wisdom from the Stoics that can help.
In The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, authors Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman offer a daily devotional of Stoic insights and exercises. By following these teachings, you’ll find the serenity, self-knowledge and resilience you need to live well.
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October 17: The benefit of kindness.
“A benefit should be kept like a buried treasure, only to be dug up in necessity… nature bids us to do well by all… wherever there is a human being, we have an opportunity for kindness.” —Seneca, On the Happy Life, 24.2-3
The first person you meet today, whether a passing acquaintance or friend, and no matter the context—positive or negative—is an opportunity for kindness. Or as different translators have taken this line from Seneca to mean, it is an opportunity for benefit. For both of you. You can seek to understand where they are coming from. You can seek to understand who they are, what they need, and what forces or impulses might be acting on them. And you can treat them well and be better off for it.
The same is true with the second person you encounter, and the third. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will return the favor, but that’s not our concern. As always, we’re going to focus on what we control: in this case, the ability to choose to respond with kindness.
October 18: Frenemies.
“There’s nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs. If you are good, straightforward and well-meaning, it should show in your eyes and not escape notice.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.15
It’s pretty obvious that one should keep away from the wicked and two-faced as much as possible—the jealous friend, the narcissistic parent, the untrustworthy partner. At first glance, Marcus Aurelius is reminding us to avoid false friends.
But what if we turn it around? What if, instead, we ask about the times that we have been false to our friends? Ultimately that’s what Stoicism is about—not judging other people’s behavior, but judging our own.
We’ve all been a frenemy at one point or another. We’ve been nice to their face—usually because there was something in it for us—but later, in different company, we said how we really felt. Or we’ve strung someone along, cared only when things were going well, or declined to help even though someone really needed us.
This behavior is beneath us—and worth remembering the next time we accuse someone else of being a bad friend.
October 19: Good habits drive out bad habits.
“Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses to gain and avoid outside our own choice, we should set a contrary habit against that, and where appearances are really slippery, use the counterforce of our training.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 3.12.6
When a dog is barking loudly because someone is at the door, the worst thing you can do is yell. To the dog, it’s like you’re barking, too! When a dog is running away, don’t chase it—again, now it’s like you’re both running. A better option in both scenarios is to give the dog something else to do. Tell it to sit. Tell it to go to its bed or kennel. Break the pattern, interrupt the negative impulse.
The same goes for us. When a bad habit reveals itself, counteract it with a commitment to a contrary virtue. For instance, let’s say you find yourself procrastinating today—don’t dig in and fight it. Get up and take a walk to clear your head and reset instead. If you find yourself saying something negative or nasty, don’t kick yourself. Add something positive and nice to qualify the remark.
Oppose established habits, and use the counterforce of training to get traction and make progress. If you find yourself cutting corners during a workout or on a project, say to yourself: OK, now I am going to go even further or do even better.”
Good habits have the power to drive out bad habits. And habits are easy to pick up—as we all know.
October 20: Marks of the good life.
“You have proof in the extent of your wanderings that you never found the art of living anywhere—not in logic, nor in wealth, fame, or in any indulgence. Nowhere. Where is it then? In doing what human nature demands. How is a person to do this? By having principles be the source of desire and action. What principles? Those to do with good and evil, indeed in the belief that there is no good for a human being except what creates justice, self-control, courage and freedom, and nothing evil except what destroys these things.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.1.(5)
What’s the meaning of life? Why was I born? Most of us struggle with these questions—sometimes when we’re young, sometimes not until we’re older. Rarely do we find much in the way of direction. But that’s simply because we miss the point. As Viktor Frankl points out in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is not our question to ask. Instead, it is we who are being asked the question. It’s our lives that are the answer.
No amount of travel or reading or clever sages can tell you what you want to know. Instead, it is you who must find the answer in your actions, in living the good life, by embodying the self-evident principles of justice, self-control, courage, freedom, and abstaining from evil.
October 21: Heroes, here and now.
“Such behavior! People don’t want to praise their contemporaries whose lives they actually share, but hold great expectations for the praise of future generations—people they haven’t met or ever will! This is akin to being upset that past generations didn’t praise you!” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.18
Alexandria, the city in Egypt, still bears the name of its founder, Alexander the Great, some 2,300 years after he set foot there. How cool would it feel to have a city named after you for so many centuries? To know that people are still saying your name?
Here’s a thought: It wouldn’t be cool. Because, like Alexander, you’ll be dead. You’ll have no idea whether your name lasted down through the centuries. No one gets to enjoy their legacy—by definition.
Worse, think of all the horrible things Alexander did to achieve what he did. He fought pointless wars. He had a terrible temper—even killing his best friend in a drunken fight. He was ruthless and a slave to his ambition. Is he really so admirable?
Instead of wasting even a second considering the opinions of future people—people who are not even born yet—focus every bit of yourself on being the best person you can be in the present moment. On doing the right thing, right now. The distant future is irrelevant. Be good and noble and impressive now—while it still matters.
October 22: It’s easy to get better, but better at what?
“So someone’s good at taking down an opponent, but that doesn’t make them more community-minded, or modest, or well-prepared for any circumstance, or more tolerant of the faults of others.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.52
Self-improvement is a noble pursuit. Most people don’t even bother. But among those who do, it’s possible for vanity and superficiality to corrupt this process. Do you want six-pack abs because you are challenging yourself and committing to a difficult goal? Or is it because you want to impress people with your shirt off? Are you running that marathon because you want to test your limits or because you’re running away from your problems at home?
Our will shouldn’t be directed at becoming the person who is in perfect shape or who can speak multiple languages but who doesn’t have a second for other people. What’s the point of winning at sports but losing in the effort to be a good husband, wife, father, mother, son or daughter? Let’s not confuse getting better at stuff with being a better person. One is a much bigger priority than the other.
October 23: Show the qualities you were made for.
“People aren’t in awe of your sharp mind? So be it. But you have many other qualities you can’t claim to have been deprived of at birth. Display then those qualities in your own power: honesty, dignity, endurance, chastity, contentment, frugality, kindness, freedom, persistence, avoiding gossip, and magnanimity.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.5
It’s easy to blame our circumstances. One person curses that they weren’t born taller, another that they’re not smarter, with a different complexion, or born in a different country. It’d be hard to find a single person on this planet—from supermodels on down—who doesn’t think they’re deficient in at least some way. But whatever your perceived deficits are, remember that there are positive qualities that you can develop that don’t depend on genetic accidents.
You have the choice to be truthful. You have the choice to be dignified. You can endure. You can choose happy. You can choose to be chaste. You can choose to be thrifty. You can choose to be kind to others. You can choose to be free. You can persist under difficult odds. You can avoid trafficking in gossip. You can choose to be gracious.
And honestly, aren’t the traits that are the result of effort and skill more impressive anyway?
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Excerpted from The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, 2016.
Stephen Hanselman has worked for more than three decades in publishing as a bookseller, publisher, and literary agent. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he received a master's degree while also studying extensively in Harvard's philosophy department. He lives with his family in South Orange, New Jersey.