Existentialist in Thought, Stoic in Action


Quick Takes:

  • Existentialists and stoics are more similar than people let on
  • We can learn a lot from historical scientists, statesmen and philosophers
  • A lot of modern thinking (this blog included) relies on past teachings
  • If you’re looking for deep insights on life and success, it’s better to go right to the source

“I’ve lived a third of my life but I haven’t read a third of the books I want to read.”

This was said by a friend of mine. Kind of sad when you think about it. Nassim Taleb expressed a similar sentiment in The Black Swan when he wrote about Umberto Eco’s “anti-library.” Eco, a scholar, has an impressive library of over 30 thousand books, yet he’s more concerned with the books he hasn’t read than the books he has.

Taleb sums it up by saying, “a private library isn’t an ego boosting tool but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones…You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.”

But with so many books to read and so much knowledge to absorb, where does one start, and more importantly, where does one end?

Because the book publishing industry is just that: an industry. While there are many books worthy of your bookshelf, there are many books that aren’t. In fact, even some of the best selling books of this century shouldn’t make the cut.

I mean, what’s the point of reading a book? It’s the accumulation of knowledge, right? Knowledge that can be put into practice. And with so many books, it makes sense to skip most of them and go right to the source of the knowledge itself.

There are a few men and women, philosophers, politicians, scientists and the like, who have withstood the test of time and whose teachings are still being spread today, and for good reason.

Take the stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, for example. Born in 4 BC, he mused in his essay On the Shortness of Life, “how stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans into our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”

While this was written more than 2,000 years ago, it seems like advice written for today. How many of us despise our jobs, working 50 weeks for 2 weeks off? How many contemporary books, podcasts and blogs stress the importance of living in the moment and not putting of your desires until tomorrow? Well, if this principle still holds true 2,000 years after it was written, it’s safe to say that it represents a piece of human nature that should be seriously considered.

And lets not forget about the existentialist movement. Jean-Paul Sartre quipped in his famous 1945 lecture that, “life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.”

Sound familiar? Modern society has done a great job of amplifying our existential angst, yet the principles of existentialism and the key to alleviating our existential thoughts lie in the original proponents of the philosophy. Sure, 1945 is more recent than 4 BC, but if you want to read a piece on the meaning of life, it’s probably best to go to those who first said that life has no meaning other than the meaning you give it.

And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the well known stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who was born in 121 AD and held the Roman throne from 161 AD to his death in 180 AD. I don’t know about you, but if someone’s been the Roman Emperor for nearly 20 years, I’d  like to hear what he has to say:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial,” Aurelius tells us. “All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of good and that it is beautiful, and the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of home, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation.”

Man, that Marcus Aurelius is a long winded fellow! Regardless, we all know someone who fits Aurelius’ description in the beginning, and we would all like to respond to those people like he suggests. Seems to me that Aurelius is describing the essence of human nature, and how humans should react to “haters.” This was written almost 2,000 years ago yet is more true today than ever.

While there are many other philosophies out there, it seems that stoics and existentialists have an outlook on life that’s more fit for our 21st century than even the centuries in which those schools of thought were incepted. So why keep reading and learning from contemporaries, when many of them (myself included) are recycling principles discussed in years past?

Better to take principles from each of these philosophies and repurposing them for personal use in this modern age.

Existentialist in Thought

Existentialism is a school of philosophy that deals with the meaning of life, and a person’s thoughts on the matter. To existentialists, life has no meaning other than the meaning an individual gives it.

According to the existential philosopher and classically trained Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, “we can discover the meaning of life in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

To Frankl, being human, and therefore finding meaning, always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself. I’ve found that my existential angst is strongest when I haven’t been caught up in any acts of kindness or haven’t connected with anyone in a while.

Existentialism came about in the early 20th century, yet it does a great job describing the human condition many of us feel today. The idea of passion, purpose and meaning are more prevalent now than at any point in time, and people struggle more with the point of life than ever before.

We can blame that struggle on our lack of a tribe, an increased amount of TV time or anything in between, but it makes sense, then, to leverage the writings and knowledge of leading existentialists to help us solve our personal problem of meaning.

Because, according to Sartre, “man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

A scary thought, I know, but existentialism teaches us to take control of our own lives and to actively search for our own personal meaning. In the 21st century, this principle gives us the direction we need to discover our purpose.

In the world of today, fulfilling our unique existential meaning of life is the only thing that makes us feel complete.

Stoic in Action

Stoicism is a set of philosophical concepts that came about much earlier than existentialism, and for good reason. Stoicism, in a nutshell, preaches that the obstacle is the way, and that people should dedicate their lives to a larger organization – in Rome’s case the State itself – and work hard and employ their skills for the bettering of society.

Further, Stoics believe in frugality and an increase in quietude so  the mysteries of the universe can be pondered. Don’t be mistaken however, hard work comes first, contemplation second.

The reason why Stoicism became a prevailing school of thought is that it came about in a hard time in human history. During Seneca’s life, which spanned 4 AD to 64 AD, life was naturally much harder than it is today. Death was a common occurrence and many people had to work hard in a class-based system for years, with no reward.

Therefore, stoicism championed the idea that life is hard and that a hard life should be complemented with hard work and frugal living. This hard work and frugality should increase the amount of time a person has for what Seneca and Aurelius call “leisure,” which today would be akin to silent reflection and the active seeking of knowledge.

While some of the stoic philosophies are a little out-dated, a lot of the core principles remain true even today.

Hard work pays off, in today’s world, literally, as Seneca reminds us 2,000 years ago:

“You had promised higher and greater things of yourself. There will not be wanting men who are completely worthy and hard-working.”

The common denominator of successful people, and the common trait that unsuccessful people lack, is work ethic. It isn’t money, it isn’t fame and it certainly isn’t luck, it is self-awareness  and understanding that hard work and perseverance will lead to the attainment of higher goals.

Additionally, stoicism, similar to existentialism, champions the idea that life is short and that you’ll die one day, so you might as well live your life in the best way possible. Marcus Aurelius tells us that “since it is possible that you might depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.”

Seneca adds on by telling us to slow down and enjoy life, saying, “everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.”

In today’s world of 140 characters, red notifications and email marketing blasts, Seneca’s advice is more true than ever. Which makes me think, if these words were written around the time of Jesus himself (the historical figure, not the prophet), what are we missing by omitting other past luminaries?

Because human nature is human nature, regardless of time period. Life is long if you know how to use it, Seneca reminds us, and I think it’s time we learn from the right people.