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50 Very Short Rules for a Good Life From the Stoics

 Photo: Thibault Vr/EyeEm/Getty Images

The best pieces of wisdom gathered from a body of work that spans 2,000 years

What is the job of a philosopher?

“When the standards have been set,” Epictetus said, “the work of philosophy is just this, to examine and uphold the standards, but the work of a truly good person is in using those standards when they know them.”

Pretty straightforward then: Define your rules. Live by them.

But the Stoics were not quite so direct in practice. While they spoke, wrote, and debated, nowhere did they put their “commandments” down in one place. Not in any form that survived, at least. One Stoic, Chrysippus, supposedly wrote 500 lines a day — the vast majority of which are lost.

In studying their writings for my own practice, I’ve compiled 50 rules from the Stoics, gathered from their immense body of work across two thousand years. These rules functioned, then, as they do now, as guides to what the ancients called “the good life.” Hopefully some of them will illuminate your own path.

1. Focus on what you can control.

2. You control how you respond to things.

3. Ask yourself, “Is this essential?”

4. Meditate on your mortality every day.

5. Value time more than money and possessions.

6. You are the product of your habits.

7. Remember you have the power to have no opinion.

8. Own the morning.

9. Put yourself up for review. Interrogate yourself.

10. Don’t suffer imagined troubles.

11. Try to see the good in people.

12. Never be overheard complaining—even to yourself.

13. Two ears, one mouth for a reason.

14. There is always something you can do.

15. Don’t compare yourself to others.

16. Live as if you’ve died and come back (every minute is bonus time).

17. “The best revenge is not to be like that.” —Marcus Aurelius

18. Be strict with yourself and tolerant with others.

19. Put every impression, emotion, to the test before acting on it.

20. Learn something from everyone.

21. Focus on process, not outcomes.

22. Define what success means to you.

23. Find a way to love everything that happens.

24. Seek out challenges.

25. Don’t follow the mob.

26. Grab the “smooth handle.”

27. Every person is an opportunity for kindness.

28. Say no (a lot).

29. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

30. Find one thing that makes you wiser every day.

31. What’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee.

32. Don’t judge other people.

33. Study the lives of the greats.

34. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

35. Make a little progress each day.

36. Journal.

37. Prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks.

38. Look for the poetry in ordinary things.

39. To do wrong to one, is to do wrong to yourself.

40. Always choose “alive time.”

41. Associate only with people that make you better.

42. If someone offends you, realize you are complicit in taking offense.

43. Fate behaves as she pleases…do not forget this.

44. Possessions are yours only in trust.

45. Don’t make your problems worse by bemoaning them.

46. Accept success without arrogance, handle failure with indifference.

47. Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. (Always).

48. The obstacle is the way.

49. Ego is the enemy.

50. Stillness is the key.

I’ll leave you with the one rule that captures all the rules. It comes from Epictetus: “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Don’t talk about it, be about it. The whole point of Stoicism is what you do. It’s who you are. It’s the act of virtue, not the act of talking about virtue. Or reading about it. Or writing about it. It’s about embodying your rules and principles. Letting your actions speak for you. So, Marcus Aurelius reminded himself and now us, “Waste no more time talking about what a good man is like. Be one.”


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