10 Stoic Life Rules: An Ancient Guide to Good Living

It would be fantastic if life never tempted you, if you could just go day by day, winging it, and always doing the right thing. But that isn’t how the world works. That is not who you are. If we are left to our own devices and given enough opportunities, we will inevitably make mistakes—we will drift and stray.

That is why greats have what Marcus Aurelius referred to as “epithets for the self” or what General Mattis referred to as “flat-ass rules.” Know what you stand for and stick to it, he advised. Draw a line and hold it.

Stoicism, in theory, is a philosophical system. In practice, it is a set of rules to follow. The Stoics believed that life was difficult, and, more significantly, exhausting. So the goal of creating rules was to help ensure that we stay on track, that we don’t let the intricacy and depth of each specific circumstance cause us to compromise on the great, high standards we know we have. In this essay, we will go over 12 Stoic guidelines for life. This is a long post. It should be bookmarked and revisited. It can be read in its entirety, or you can use the links below to jump to a specific area.

10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living
10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living

Rule 1: Own the morning.
“When struggling to get out of bed in the morning, remind yourself that you need to go to work as a human being. “I’ll pursue my true purpose. Is this what I was designed for? To burrow under the blankets and keep warm?” — Marcus AureliusOne of the most accessible passages in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is his dispute with himself at the beginning of Book 5. It’s clearly a debate he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—just like many of us: He knows he ought to get out of bed, but he really wants to stay beneath the warm covers.

The content is both relatable and remarkable. Marcus didn’t need to get out of bed. He didn’t really need to do anything. Tiberius, one of his predecessors, essentially gave up the monarchy for an exotic island. Hadrian, Marcus’s adopted great-grandfather, spent very little time in Rome. The emperor had many prerogatives, and Marcus insisted on getting up early and going to work.

Why? Marcus understood that winning the morning was the key to winning the day and winning in life. He hadn’t heard the phrase “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day properly started is half done. But it begs the question: what exactly does winning the morning look like? What should you do after waking up early? From the Stoics, we can learn three behaviors that make the morning a success: Journal. Take a walk. Do in-depth work. Let’s examine each of these individually:The Stoics were huge fans of journaling. Epictetus, the slave. Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor. Seneca, the powerbroker and dramatist. These three very different guys lived vastly different lives. However, they all had the habit of journaling. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are a compilation of personal self-help notes that he never intended for publication. Epictetus also encouraged his students to write down their ideas and reflect on their actions every day. The Stoic “keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush,” he stated.

Journalists include Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, and Ben Franklin. And for good reason: it works. Journaling is one of the most time-tested and documented practices. It clarifies the mind, allows for peaceful, private thinking, keeps a record of one’s ideas throughout time, and prepares you for the day ahead. There’s no better way to begin the day than with a notebook. The Stoics desired stillness. One does their best work when their mind is still. The paradox is that moving the body may be the single most effective approach to calm the mind. Runners and cyclists will tell you that this is as true as any equation. That is a fact. However, you don’t have to go that far or work as hard to achieve what the Stoics desired. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” he added, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed.” Before entering the office, take a walk through the parking lot. Take a walk around the neighbourhood. Take a walk to the nearby coffee shop and return. By the end, you’ll be in the right mindset to…

10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living
10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living

“Concentrate on what’s in front of you like a Roman,” Marcus Aurelius said. “Do it like it’s the last and most important thing in your life.” Marcus learnt from his stepfather, Antoninus, how to labor long hours and stay in the saddle. He writes in Meditations that he admired Antoninus’ ability to organize his bathroom breaks so that he could work for long periods of time without interruption. Ryan Holiday discusses how he begins his day at his office with two to three hours of deep work. James Clear, author of the excellent bestseller Atomic Habits, told us on the Daily Stoic podcast that he sets aside “two sacred hours” in the morning to write. That is it. “I know it doesn’t seem like much,” Holiday continues, “but the Stoics understood that effective work is accomplished in tiny stages. It’s not a trivial matter, but good work is born in small increments.”

The day might easily get away from us. Well-intended ideas go apart. Our willpower fades. So it is critical that we prioritize the vital tasks and establish a habit of completing them early.

Rule 2: Concentrate solely on what is within your control

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control…” — EpictetusThe single most essential discipline in Stoic philosophy is determining what we can and cannot alter. What we can and cannot influence.

How does this appear in practice?

Sports provide a wonderful illustration. An athlete has little control over whether the opposing team cheats or if the referees always make the correct calls. They have little influence over whether individuals in the media understand what they are saying or if they take stances just to be provocative or contrarian. They have no influence over the weather or on-field circumstances.

So, what’s left? One thing: their own performance. As Marcus Aurelius would say, it doesn’t matter what others say or think; what counts is what you do.

Rule 3: Do not suffer imagined worries.
“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — SenecaYou’re not crazy to be worried. Bad things could happen to any of them. An automobile collision. An economic downturn. A surprising diagnosis.

Let’s go back in time: a month, a year, and five years ago. What were you concerned about then? Mostly the same stuff, correct?

And how many of those concerns came to pass? As Mark Twain once said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Even those that did come to pass…Clearly, fretting did not help stop it, right?

Seneca has the perfect one-liner for this feeling: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than reality.”


10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living
10 Stoic Life Rules An Ancient Guide to Good Living

Seneca advised against being unhappy before a crisis. We have the habit of exaggerating, envisioning, or anticipating sorrow.” Do not prepare for grief. Don’t let fear and stress overwhelm you. Don’t allow your anxieties outweigh what could actually happen. Don’t allow your imagination take over reality.

Rule 4: Treat success and failure as the same
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” — Marcus AureliusHe believed that everyone, including emperors and soldiers, was like a rock. Throw the rock up in the air, he added, and “it loses nothing coming down and gains nothing going up.” The rock remains the same.

We can imagine that his actual life follows this comparison. He was an ordinary man chosen by Hadrian to be Emperor. However, he may have been dethroned at any time. Did this change Marcus’ personality? Did this imply he was better or worse than others?

No. He remained the same rock. And so are you. Whether your day starts with a promotion or concludes with a dismissal, you are the same. Whether you win the lottery or declare bankruptcy. Whether you’re addressing a crowd of thousands or having difficulty getting your calls returned. The question is how we will react to these whims of fate, if we can follow the words of Kipling’s iconic poem, “If—”:

Rule 5: Do one thing every day.

“Well-being is attained by little and little, but nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — ZenoSeneca wrote many letters to his buddy Lucilius. We don’t know much about Lucilius save that he came from Pompeii, was a Roman knight, served as the imperial procurator in Sicily before becoming Governor, and possessed a country home in Ardea. Despite his accomplishment, he appears to have struggled with many of the same issues that we all face: Anxiety, distraction, fear, and temptation. Self-discipline.

So it’s a good thing he had a buddy like Seneca, who cared for him, told him the truth, and offered advise. Seneca gave some of his best advice, which was actually quite basic. “Each day,” he said to Lucilius, “you ought to “acquire something that would fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other disasters, as well.”

One gain per day. That is it.

This is how we can overcome our procrastination tendencies: remember that incremental, steady, humble, and persistent work is the path to growth. Your business, book, job, or body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with small steps every day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former governor, professional bodybuilder, and a father of five. He’s also a devotee of the Stoics, saying in a video to individuals attempting to stay strong and sane throughout the pandemic, “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.”

excellent advise is excellent advice, regardless of whether it comes from Seneca or Arnold. One thing per day adds up. It only takes one step at a time. You just need to gain one modest win. Getting started as soon as possible can improve your overall well-being.


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