What Can We Learn From the Stoic Philosophers?
Posted October 29, 2021 by Matthew Romans
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading the book "A Guide to the Good Life" by William B. Irvine. This is a book that I purchased over a year ago at the recommendation of my friend Al Coleman, who studied philosophy in college. I kept meaning to read it, but it sat on my coffee table as I pursued other books in the interim. Eventually, I decided to stop procrastinating and cracked it open, and I'm glad that I did. I have read other philosophical-themed books over the years, but this excellent work not only gives a historical account on the beginnings of the Stoic school of philosophy, the author also details some strategies to incorporate its teachings into your lifestyle.
The Stoic school of philosophy was founded in ancient Greece by Zeno of Centium. Stoicism made its way to Rome in the early parts of the 3rd century B.C., and Roman Stoicism differed slightly from Greek Stoicism. The Greeks were primarily focused on the attainment of virtue, while the Romans largely sought tranquility, which is the absence of negative emotions and presence of positive emotions. Stoic philosophy was one of several philosophies that was popular during this time period, and the most recognizable Stoic teachers were Seneca, Gaius Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, who later became known as the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. Stoicism became popular because its tenets were easy to follow, and unlike its philosophical predecessor, Cynicism, did not require you to live in squalor. Unfortunately, Stoicism declined in popularity after Marcus' death, in part due to there being no charismatic teachers around to take up the mantle, but also because of the rise of Christianity. Fortunately, many of the writings of these philosophers have survived and are available for us to learn from.
How do the Stoics expect to achieve tranquility? One method that they use is what is called the trichotomy of control. This means they put everything in life into one of three categories: things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control. The Stoics believe it is foolish to waste precious time and energy worrying about things in which we cannot control, such as whether there will be heavy traffic on our daily commute to work (although you can prepare for such an event by giving yourself extra time). Instead, it is better to focus our efforts on the things which our actions can have a direct impact on the outcome, since those are things that are within your power to change. If you look at it from an exercise perspective, you have no control over the genetic hand you have been dealt; as the saying goes, you cannot pick your parents. However, you do have a say in how your genes are expressed, and your actions can either optimize or diminish your genetic potential. You can maximize your physical potential by making good dietary choices (something well within your control) and by giving your best effort in your Total Results workouts. A good strategy is to set internal rather than external goals; instead of trying to complete a certain number of repetitions on a given exercise, focus instead on working at a high level of intensity using perfect form throughout. Don't try to compare your performance to that of someone else you know, just concentrate on doing your absolute best. If you do that, you will not be disappointed.
The Stoics also practice something that is known as negative visualization. This technique "...Teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it." This helps us to enjoy what we have, but also reminds us that things can be taken away from us at a moment's notice. As Seneca said, "All things human are short-lived and perishable." If you visualize (but don't obsess about) the worst thing that can happen to you, it takes the sting out of it and helps you to prepare for a worst-case scenario if and when that time comes. For example, what is the worst thing that can happen during a Total Results workout? You will likely experience temporary exertional discomfort, you could have a less than optimal performance, and if you exhibit poor form you could experience injury. Certainly our goal is to avoid injury, but even a minor injury is not the end of the world, and muscular discomfort and a suboptimal workout will fade over time. In the end, you will be stronger mentally and physically for the experience, and you will learn not to repeat those mistakes in the future.
Voluntary discomfort is something that the Stoic philosophers embraced and recommended to their followers. Their thinking was that man was destined to encounter hardship at some point in life, and that if they periodically undertook some self-inflicted discomfort it would harden them against the inevitable hardship that life was destined to throw their way. This can be done by simply undergoing a periodic fast, walking shoeless, or taking a cold shower rather than a hot one. According to William B. Irvine, "Alternatively, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as an insurance premium which, if paid, makes us eligible for benefits: Should we later fall victim to a misfortune, the discomfort we experience then will be substantially less than it otherwise would have been." This ties in nicely to the Total Results exercise philosophy. Think about it: our workouts, while brief and relatively infrequent, can hardly be considered fun. They require focus, discipline, and patience, and during the entire twenty minute duration of the workout, you experience significant muscular discomfort. It is all done voluntarily. The physical benefits you derive from our workouts are your insurance policy against injury and chronic disease, and at the same time the experience makes you mentally and physically more resilient.
Lastly, the Stoics talk about the importance of preparing for old age. They caution us not to take things for granted when we are young and in good health. It is important to value health even as we age, and to do the things necessary to prolong your health as the years advance. Performing regular weekly Total Results workouts, in addition to being both physically and mentally active, will help senior citizens to lower medical costs, maintain independence, and enjoy the golden years.
Some aspects of Stoic philosophy are not really relevant to the Total Results exercise philosophy, such as how to deal with grief and anger, or the perils of seeking adulation and fame, but as you can see, a few of the Stoic principles tie in nicely to our concepts. You don't have to be a full-fledged Stoic to reap the benefits of their teachings, and adopting some of these ideas requires very little effort. Stoicism can give you a new appreciation for exercise, and in the words of Marcus Aurelius, "... It is possible, through the practice of Stoicism, to gain a whole new life."