The Stoics are often perceived as a boring bunch. So why should we observe their philosophy on the road?
Here these ancient thinkers give us 8 ways to get more out of travel.
What is Stoicism?
But first, what exactly is Stoicism? The word Stoic today is used to describe someone indifferent to pain or pleasure. Its philosophical meaning however, has more depth. It was founded by Zeno, from Cyprus, in the early part of the 3rd century, and pioneered by some famous Romans – Seneca, Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. In short, they believed that happiness lies in accepting the law of the universe, and that humans should calmly accept all occurrences as a matter of course. This straight away is of benefit to travellers, who naturally expose themselves to a lot of occurrences.
1) Become a better thinker
What defines us as humans in contrast to animals is the ability (for most of us) to think before we act. With all these amazing activities on the road we are naturally giving ourselves more things to think about. By applying reason to a surplus number of actions trains us in many respects to become more adept at thinking. The traveller becomes a natural philosopher. Something to think about.
2) Become more virtuous
The more places we visit and the more experiences and interactions we have, the quicker we realise that extraneous variables are going to affect what we initially set out to do. To quote Robert Burns from his poem To A Mouse, ‘the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’ The only thing we really control are our own thoughts and actions, and the Stoics believe these should be virtuous. Whatever we face, the only thing we can do is the right thing. There’s torrential rain the day you planned to visit the Roman Forum in the Italian capital, it wouldn’t be right to vent anger at your local guide. But there’s a great (covered) terrace overlooking the ruins from the Musei Capitolini. There are always solutions to things (see points 5 and 6), and our thoughts and actions must mirror this.
3) Understand the good, the bad, and the indifferent
According to Stoic philosophy, the only good is virtue, such as courage, justice, wisdom, self-discipline. The only bad is vice; cowardice, injustice, folly and self-indulgence. The rest is irrelevant for a blissful life. Follow these rules for a happy time on a trip. That said, you can never indulge in enough local desserts in your destination. Don’t tell Zeno I said that.
4) Practise Misfortune
Stoics believe we should play out in our mind a bad scenario so that if and when it happens we are prepared to deal with it. This is difficult on the road when so many scenarios can reveal themselves. But, if we prepare for the unexpected in a general sense, we will be well equipped for travel. There is also something else related to this. Travel gives us the opportunity to witness first-hand the lives of other people across the globe, many of whom are less fortunate than ourselves. To consider how things are for them is a practice of misfortune and can also lead to more virtuous acts of kindness on our part.
5) Make a reverse clause
We can choose our actions but not the outcome. We can always hope for a favourable one. We should also acknowledge however, that the result might not be so advantageous. We then must use our mind to find the good in a bad situation, and redirect our path accordingly. Ryan Holiday in his practical book, The Daily Stoic, calls this ‘the reverse clause’. The early flight you reserved is delayed. The reserve clause here is great, now there’s more time for shopping. Perhaps benefit further by picking up a book on Stoicism at the airport store.
6) Turn obstacles into opportunities
Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (a highly recommended travel read, perhaps while delayed at the airport) ‘What stands in the way becomes the way’. In other words, we must adapt. A life on the road is all about adaptability. Without this, ‘the way’ will always be blocked. A good mind hack for this can be found in Seneca’s essay Tranquillity, and his use of the Greek word euthymia. This is having the trust and belief in yourself that you are on the right path, which will result in peace of mind. There is no other way so make the right adjustments and turn it to your advantage.
7) Love everything that happens
Epictetus said that we should not seek for everything to happen as we wish, but rather wish that everything happens as it is destined to. Alongside adaptability, the most useful word in the traveller’s dictionary is acceptance. Remember, all we can control are our own thoughts and (virtuous) actions. It is necessary to accept everything else. But not just that, we should be loving everything else. What has happened can’t unhappen so accept and love the experience, because otherwise that experience was a waste of time. And we haven’t got time to waste on the road. Or in life. So is it not better to find the positive in it all?
8) The interconnected world
The number 8 in its symmetrical appearance resembles in numerology harmony, peace and balance. Here then is a reminder that at the heart of Stoic philosophy is the connected universe. We are all in this together. Mice and men. Travelling the world and witnessing its varied cultures makes us realise how we really are affected by, and reliant on, each other. Happiness resides in the acceptance of this. A closing thought from Marcus Aurelius:
‘The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together.’ (Meditations, Book 4/40)