The Modern Wimp’s Introduction to Stoicism

Contrary to common perception, being stoic doesn't mean being emotionless. The real quality of Stoicism is far more masculine than not caring about anything - it's about knowing when to care, when to be upset, and how to accept the inescapable with your head held higher than you thought possible.

The first thing you need to know about Stoicism is that it isn’t exactly the same today as it was in ancient times—in fact, none of the first Stoic texts are known to exist, and all we know of it today we know from stuff written before Justinian I banned philosophy schools. The second thing you need to know is that Stoicism isn’t for mental or emotional wimps, if you think you’re tough, read on grasshopper.

The basic tenet of Stoicism (and many other philosophies, by the way), isn’t to take nut shots ‘like a man’, but to live in accordance with nature—so if, and this is a big IF, you happen to be treated to a nut shot, (a) maybe Nature thinks you might deserve it, and (b) if you deserve it, then it’s because you’ve done something to deserve it or it’s your turn to get the shot, and most importantly, (c) there’s no use in crying about it, because it is what nature has deemed just and proper at that time—and you can’t control nature.

The last thing there, that’s what Stoicism is about. This is why a lot of Hemingway’s stories revolve around men and nature. If you can learn to understand what nature wants, what’s natural, and what must be dominated (usually your own response to stuff), then you can live a virtuous life, and no nut shot on earth can perturb your Zen. And that’s Stoicism. Yeah, Stoicism is Western and Zen is Eastern, but lots of the tenets they profess are really similar.

The most similar thing between Zen and Stoicism is that if you can develop the self-control to control negative emotions, like wanting to return the nut shot favor, like calling your boss what he needs to be called, scoring with your friend’s girl while he’s not looking (or inviting your girl’s sister over while your girl is outta town), then, according to the Romans, you could take a peek at the Logos—the Word, or the universal reason; if you practice (by not practicing!!) Zen, then you can peekaboo the Buddha-Nature. Again, not the same thing, but like hand grenades and horseshoes, in philosophy it’s close enough.

Article quote - no man can bearAfter this, no matter what you call it, Buddha Nature, Nirvana, Logos, or whatever, you are well on your way to clearing your mind of all attachments to the physical world; very close to becoming Plato’s Philosopher King type—someone who makes moral and just decisions with no thought for himself, but for a higher purpose. Getting there, by the way, is reaching Nirvana, which is when you’re free of suffering. See? Almost the same things.

Bottom line here is this: once you’ve been THERE, no matter what you call it, where it is, or what’s there when you get THERE, you are different from everybody else that hasn’t. It’s like being in a club or something.

The kicker is this: however you get THERE, once you do, you are THE MAN. You’ll know when and if to cry, when and if to scold your kid, make up with your wife, or your asshole friend who slept with your girl while you were outta town, in short, EVERYTHING. Shit dude, even the Scientologists got this shit; they call it being “Clear”—you know, having got rid of all those pesky Thetans; Tom Cruise level stuff.

Now, if I believed any more than half this shit, I’d be hanging out with Tom Cruise, the Dhalai Lama, or maybe Clint Eastwood, making a fortune selling self-help stuff. But I cannot tell a lie: a nut shot will always hurt—a lot. You will get pissed you got passed over for promotion, and you’ll wanna cry if your gf leaves you for the dude who was your best friend. Nothing can really change that. Still, if you manage to get anything from Stoicism, it should be this: There are things we can never control, and there are things we can. I’ll pay you if I can sledgehammer your ‘nads, without you showing it on your face. Not gonna happen. But if you don’t manage to wig out and set your boss, his office, and your coworkers on fire, that’s a good first step. A laudably Stoic goal in today’s world.

Marcus Aurelius bustThings like keeping your hand in the flame of a lighter or taking a nut shot are easy. Stupid, but easy. In light of the mental toughness that Stoicism is really about, it should come as no surprise that the most famous Stoic is probably Marcus Aurelius, Roman general and Emperor, who — get this– while commanding troops in active combat on various war fronts between 170 and 180 c.e., found the time to write Meditations – probably the most important book on Stoicism ever written (well, that we know of, anyway).

Reading Meditations is just as important to a Stoic as reading a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War (the real one, not the thousand and one bullshit versions out there for ‘business’ or ‘relationships’). If you’re going to be any kind of man at all, whether it’s a Dirty Harry, hard nosed, take no prisoners SOB in control of just about everything around you, or if you just want to make your gf want to jump your bones in the office elevator (cool, but illegal), or even if you just want to seal the deal in the missionary position, get both these books or GTFO.

Like I said, doing stupid things might show others that you’re brave, though most likely a few years from now you’ll think of that nutshot as what it was– stupid, rather than valiant. Stoicism just doesn’t quite work that way. In fact, Aurelius already tells us that “Nothing happens to any man which he is not framed by nature to bear.” i.e., if it happens to you, you can take it.

Taking a nut shot, or burning the idiot’s hand attached to your arm isn’t Stoic because there’s no great bravery in doing something you’re built to handle, is there? Now, total self immolation, there’s a statement! Mostly “AAAAGGGGGHHHH, gurgle, gurgle,” but close enough, though that’s not what Stoicism is about—the Stoics realized that anybody could do that type of stuff.  In fact, if you’re going to adopt Stoicism in any form, for any reason, you would do well to start every day with this mantra:

…but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also” (Meditations vi.19)

What Stoicism is about is the really scary stuff…

Things like being laughed at during the wedding reception, the death of a loved one, fear of succeeding (yeah, it’s real, go figure), your kid’s safety, and probably the worst one of all, being brutally honest with yourself (though your girlfriend doesn’t have to know if you think you’ve got…um…shoe size issues).  Stoicism can help with all these things, no matter how much they make little buddy shrink into the background. And it’s easy! (well, relative to getting teeth pulled).

If you want more confirmation, no less a man’s man than “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood’s Ubercop in the  Dirty Harry movies) says to Lt. Briggs that “A man’s got to know his limitations,” just after Briggs drives away in a beater with a bomb in the back seat.

Article quote - wish for them as they are

Philosophically speaking, you’re a human being. You’re born, you live, you will die one day. Accept these things. Not only will the pain you might experience in life seem trivial, but it frees you to be the best possible man/lover/father you can be. This is the most important thing you can realize. It is the last chain that holds you to the-world-as-we-know-it, and once broken, you get Satori, Nirvana, Logos, and all the good stuff that comes with it. When you ain’t afraid of death, you can be in the moment, no matter what it is you’re doing. Sex gets better, you can face down Andre the Giant like in “Princess Bride,” the whole shabang. You even get better at football (I mean real football, not soccer).

Know how far your mind can take you.

Now, the coolest part about this is that in order to know your limitations, you’ve got to test them. No, jerk, not by drinking until you pass out. That’s your body doing something it can do, so no virtue there. Go ahead, spend a year celibate, if you can, and you’ve proven to yourself that no woman can bring you to your knees. (And trying makes them wild, trust me on this one.)

Go ahead, conquer your fear of death by doing—no, no, no…I don’t want your mom suing me for wrongful death. Conquer your fear of death (or at least your fear of serious bodily harm) by going sky diving or cliff diving (stay away from the fantasy sports camps for cripes sake, those are fantasies). Try mountain climbing or caving (and don’t call them spelunkers. They hate it when you call them spelunkers, and I would too).

Marcus Aurelius quote - I shall meet today ungrateful men

As a former Marine, I can tell you for a fact that it’s the little guys, the guys who’ve got to push through without the benefit of huge muscles, the guys who have to gut it out, that are the ones that mark the difference between Marines and just about everyone else, (though the other branches have some pretty tough dudes too). By the way, Whup! to the soldiers out there and Hoo-rah to my fellow Leathernecks. If you know any, pay attention, those SF guys have all this down. Zen, Satori, Nirvana, Logos and everything else wrapped up in a bow.

Know how far your mind can take you, just talk to your doctor before you’re off to Pamplona and the running of the bulls. (Tip on Pamplona: stay toward the edges of the streets, close to the buildings; if you’re in the middle, they’ll be scraping bits of you from the bull’s horns and hooves—seen it, not pleasant. )

In short, test how far your mind can take you before you freeze and become a drooling, babbling idiot. Another man’s man who knew this was Papa Hemingway. Read the Nick Adam’s stories (also required reading for the Stoic). Nature does not forgive, but if you know your limitations, you won’t have to ask for her forgiveness.

Epictetus illustrationEpictetus, another great Stoic who happened to be a slave, counseled “Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.” This is another tenet of Stoicism that sort of escapes modern interpretations. What you take from this one is this: you’re not going to be the action hero that bends the world to his will, instead, you’re going to be the action hero who grins and bears it when his stupid boss gives his cousin what would have been your job. Trust me, the latter is infinitely preferable to the former.

Think: the first is that weirdo who went out on a solo ‘mission’ to capture Osama Bin Laden, while the latter is the one who, like me, got some of the best tail of his life (and keeps getting it) because he graciously puts up with his girlfriend’s rather…intolerant…parents. Anyway, the point is, you can control how you act, how you think, and what you think, and that is infinitely more likely to get you a great job, a great lady, and a great life, than mastering the Stoically painless nut shot ever could. The latter of these makes you a man, the former a sideshow freak (but the white jacket with all the buckles is rather nice). I’m not even sure you can stand there and take a nut shot without some expression anyway.

The Pocket Stoic

I’m agnostic, so no religious stuff for me, but I know the importance of ritual. So I have a list of quotes and stuff I read every morning and most nights (you ain’t the only one that drinks, buddy). If you’re going to be a Stoic man, you “pray” these to yourself before you open your front door (which is a lot like stepping into the midst of battle when you think about it).

“I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman…”  –  Marcus Aurelius

Ok, I usually don’t go past the “…good and ill…” part, but that’s just me. The important part is that if you are a Stoic, you’ll realize that there will be people out there who will test your resolve, and knowing this, you take a page from a very familiar group heavily influenced by Stoicism: the Boy Scouts. As they say “be prepared.” If you’re ready for it, there’s little reason to wimp out, is there? Well, I keep telling myself that, anyway.

“The wise man consciously subordinates his life to the life of the whole universe, and recognizes himself as a cog in the great machine.”   –  Seneca

Live or die, the stuff you do is wise if you do it according to not only your nature, but the nature of the universe…Stoicism isn’t about just taking it, whether lying down or standing up. That’s also contrary to nature—you’re a human being—an incredibly complex creature that, bluntly, is designed to throw his DNA as far forward into the future as he can—can’t do that if you’re dead, right? How you gonna make little you’s if you don’t fight long enough to get a really great her?  What do you do? You remember what Mark Twain said:

“It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.”   – Mark Twain

“The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.”  – Seneca

“A man’s got to know his limitations”  –  “Dirty” Harry Callahan

People always ask me about this one because it seems to contradict the Twain quote. It doesn’t. Twain is not talking about your limitations per se. He’s talking about the fact that you may perceive some things as important (like the size of the dog), when they aren’t. On the other hand, Callahan is saying that you shouldn’t get into a fight you can’t get out of, so to speak. In a clash between you and your boss on how best to do your job, your boss is gonna win—I don’t care how right you are. You have to realize that the boss is gonna be right, no matter what. So why pick that fight?

I’ll leave you with my favorite, probably because I’m a writer, but mainly because it’s one thing always on the true Stoic’s mind:

“…all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”      –  “Papa” Ernest Hemingway

Clear enough for ya? Now, go forth my little grasshoppers, and do your friggin’ job: Kick ass, take names, and get the girl. In that order.

Photo credit for Zeno's head.

Joel Mendez is a freelance writer, graphic designer and artist. His blog,, is where he really lets loose.