“Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” ~ Seneca
In Stoicism, the perfected human is ‘independent.’ They are islands in the sea of humanity. (Many could probably lay claim to ‘continents’.)
In that sense, they are untouchable. It doesn’t matter what fate serves up. It doesn’t matter what happens to them. It doesn’t matter what other people do to them. It doesn’t touch them.
Nero might kill them. He killed a lot of them. But he couldn’t touch them.
The Stoics build this independence in two ways. The first, as I’ve talked about already, is in a radical acceptance of fate (Amor Fati – the love of fate), and training themselves to accept whatever comes, and whatever is not within their control.
When they do this, they take full responsibility for their own happiness – they anchor their happiness in the things they can control, and disconnect it from the things they can’t.
Within that sphere of control they then try to cultivate four things – four virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.
To the stoics, we are our own works of art. We are the creator and the creation.
These virtues are profoundly powerful in and of themselves. If you cultivate wisdom, courage and self-control, you will be able to do amazing things.
But more than that, there is a deep, soul-level satisfaction – an untouchable happiness – in knowing that you have built yourself into a being that is virtuous and noble.
Within this knowledge is a happiness and peace that nothing in the outside world – no tyrant or madman – can mess with.
So it is not just that these virtues are a road to happiness – and they are – but they are also a deep source of happiness in and of themselves.
And which virtues did the Stoics focus on?
Wisdom is discernment in action. The Stoic method of focusing on what you can control and accepting what you cannot, is built on the ability to discern one from the other. Wisdom is the ability to see yourself, and the world, clearly.
“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. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own” ~ Epictetus
Temperance here means self-control. It is the ability to control your appetites and desires, and be the master of your own animal. It is no good having wisdom and the ability to discern right from wrong, if you cannot follow through and drive yourself to do what is right.
Temperance is the ability to put the insights of wisdom into action.
“Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.” ~ Seneca
A you can probably gather, the Stoic path is not an easy one. It’s a path of discipline and meeting fate as it comes. It is not for the faint of heart.
Courage in the Stoic sense really means commitment. It is a commitment to the path, and to doing whatever it takes to live your best life possible. It’s about meeting your fears and doing it anyway.
Cicero said that, “Justice is the crowning glory of the virtues.” By that he means, how impressive is courage if you only use it to pursue selfish ends? And what good is wisdom if it’s not put into service of the world?
Having mastered ourselves, we are able to offer the world a generous and compassionate person. Having cultivated wisdom, courage and self-control, what naturally follows are our highest human expressions – our natural instincts to love and care for each other.
“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” ~ Epictetus
These are the four Stoic virtues.
If you can cultivate these, you will be a formidable force in the world. But more than that, you will have access to a deep inner-peace and happiness that the outside world just can’t touch.
If ever there were stars to navigate by, this is them.