Stoicism, the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd century BC, provides profound and timeless wisdom on overcoming destructive emotions and living a virtuous, tranquil life. Despite its enormous benefits in cultivating resilience and eudaimonia (meaningful happiness), Stoics must remain vigilant in avoiding certain habits that contradict the philosophy’s core principles.
Stoicism’s founders and leaders left extensive writings examining how best to live rationally and virtuously. By studying their insights, we understand what ways of thinking and acting to embrace and what tendencies to reject. Avoiding detrimental habits and mindsets helps ingrain Stoic ideals until they become second nature.
This article will examine seven key areas that Stoics should be cautious to steer clear of. These include complaining, boasting, overindulgence, excessive talking, avoiding difficulty, materialism, and anger. For each one, Stoic luminaries provide incisive teachings on how such habits conflict with rational self-mastery and virtue. We can deepen our understanding and practice of Stoic philosophy by scrutinizing these pitfalls.
1. Don’t Be Overheard Complaining
The Roman emperor and prominent Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “Don’t waste the rest of your time here complaining about your situation; you can put it to good use.” Stoics understand that complaining – even just to oneself – is useless. Voicing displeasure over what we cannot control reinforces a sense of victimhood and negativity. Rather than complain, Aurelius tells us to put our situation to good use, finding growth opportunities in any circumstance.
Catch yourself complaining internally, and redirect your thoughts to what you must be grateful for. Discontent focuses us on what we lack; gratitude focuses us on the blessings we do have. Drop the habit of voicing complaints, even privately, and move your mindset to one of thankfulness and possibility.
2. Don’t Boast of Self-Improvement
Another Stoic luminary, Epictetus, warned his students against boasting their wisdom or progress in practicing philosophy. Arrogance over one’s Stoic development undermines moral growth by inflating ego and vanity. We should cultivate the Stoic virtues because they intrinsically improve our lives, not to flaunt our righteousness to others.
Actual Stoic development is its reward, requiring no external validation. So resist the urge to trumpet your self-discipline to others. Humility and quiet virtue denote inner strength and wisdom far more than boastful claims of enlightenment.
3. Don’t Overindulge in Eating and Drinking
Musonius Rufus, an influential Stoic teacher in ancient Rome, taught that gluttony and drunkenness cloud the mind and lead us away from clear judgment and self-control. While Stoics do not categorically renounce enjoying food and drink, overindulgence contradicts the philosophy’s emphasis on discipline and restraint.
By eating and drinking in moderation, we maintain the physical and mental clarity needed to live wisely and make good choices. So avoid overconsumption driven by hedonistic cravings. Nourish the body, but don’t lose control of your mind and reason.
4. Listen More Than You Speak
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, famously emphasized that students should listen and learn from others rather than primarily seeking to lecture them. Focused listening provides far more benefit than idle talk rooted in personal opinion rather than proper understanding. Zeno said, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak.”
Restating others’ ideas thoughtfully reflects comprehension much better than simply opinionating. So make it a habit to listen carefully when others speak before offering your thoughts. You’ll gain the wisdom and perspective that excessive talking does not provide.
5. Don’t Shirk Difficulty
“The Stoic sage conquers adversity not by avoiding it, but by facing it head-on with courage and wisdom,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Avoiding problems is avoiding responsibility. Stoics understand that life’s hardships, while unpleasant, present opportunities to test our character and develop strength—if we can face them with steady reason.
So don’t let difficulties deter you or sap your will. Confront them courageously, use them to grow, and know that your principles will carry you through. Shying away from hardship means shying away from the chance to evolve and make progress.
6. Don’t Tie Identity to Possessions
Cato the Younger, a leading Stoic statesman in ancient Rome, taught that externals like wealth, fame, and material goods do not determine self-worth—only wisdom and virtue can do that. The clothes we wear, and possessions we own are ultimately fleeting. Stoics avoid defining themselves by such shallow trappings.
Plain living with few material distractions allows for more precise judgment untainted by vanity—true identity springs from ethical principles and disciplines of the mind, not the contingencies of wealth. So avoid tying your sense of self to belongings and status. Cherish things moderately but not excessively.
7. Master Anger
Seneca counseled Stoics to master anger before it masters them. Anger clouds reason and disrupts tranquility. Wrath drives us to retaliation, perpetuating cycles of wrongdoing. Stoics understand that returning harm for harm benefits no one in the long run. Forgiveness breaks cycles of retribution to create space for redemption.
Rather than suppress anger, Stoics aim to channel strong emotions into productive action to rectify injustice. But punishment should stem from principle, never unchecked rage. Confront wrongdoing dispassionately, with wisdom and discipline. Never allow anger to overtake reason.
Avoiding pitfalls is only half the challenge; just as important is embracing Stoic practices. Along with reflection, Stoics should meditate on death’s inevitability; differentiate between what’s in our control and what isn’t; focus on virtuous principles rather than emotions; and contemplate how best to serve humanity.
With vigilance and practice, these positive habits can overcome the negative. The following reason leads to eudaimonia—happiness achieved by aligning with nature and excellence. This takes work but pays eternal dividends. Stoics walk a narrow path, avoiding missteps while moving forward with wisdom. The journey requires persistence but leads to boundless personal growth.