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Don’t Believe. Understand. Then Do.

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Since the time of the Roman Stoics, philosophy has generally been turned into a field inhabited solely by intellectuals that like using multi-syllabic words, writing almost incomprehensible texts that only their academic friends could understand (I’m looking at you Hegel.) Ultimately, the field became mere contrarian word games, ensuring academics get published and keep their jobs, doing almost nothing to better the lives of the general population.

One can claim to be an Existentialist or Kantian, but in functional terms, it means little. They are mere labels. Even if one’s thoughts are imbued with their writings, that still has almost no meaning to the rest of the world, unless, of course, you want to sound interesting in the coffee shop or cocktail party. Claiming to follow a philosophy or philosopher from the past few hundred years in no way expects you to behave a certain way, or more importantly, guarantee happiness.

Such is not the case with the ancient Roman Stoics. They did the best they could to live by the principles they espoused, for they knew that merely studying philosophy was useless, and that it must have real world applications to be of any real value.

Some, such as Seneca, did write lengthy essays and letters focused on philosophy, yet the focus was always the practicality and usefulness of the ideas to limit suffering and increase joy. Word and logic games were frowned upon and avoided.

But if one lacks the time or interest in extensive reading, one need only pick up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Enchiridion. Both are concise and easily understood explanations on what one needs to focus on in order to have a good life, based on reason, truth, and wisdom—with the reality of “what is.” That last point is very important.

For, over the centuries, as philosophy became more and more rarefied and disconnected from the lives of average humans, the avenue of faith in superstitions grew in strength. No reason is required, no analysis of what truly exists a prerequisite; only “believe in this…the words of such and such prophet/deity.”

But, what is worse than a philosopher not living a life based on the ideas supported by his or her very profession?

The answer to that question is simple: People who walk through life thinking that merely believing in something makes them good.

What one chooses to believe might be important to an individual, but one’s beliefs mean nothing to the rest of humanity.

What does matter?

One’s actions.

Going through your days claiming to be a philosopher or religious adherent might give you the feeling of having a worthwhile life, but does that mean it really is?

Go to any news source at any given time day or night and one will be deluged with an ocean of politicians, media stars, and supposed holy men espousing what they claim to believe. In the information age, when all it takes is a smartphone and a YouTube channel (let alone an entire marketing department) it is easier than ever to share what one believes and make it appear as if it is a thing of substance.

But it is not. In the end, as Marcus Aurelius would say, it is nothing but smoke and dust (or, I guess, in this case, pixels and bytes.)

There are religious adherents that kill, and those that heal. Some in a particular political party may be intent on serving others, while those who self-apply the same label are only intent on serving their own selfish needs. Many claim to believe the same religion or culture, yet behave in wildly divergent ways.

No. At the end of the day, and just as important, at the end of one’s life, it is not what you believe that matters.

It’s what you do.

And since the Stoics dealt in reason, they didn’t even have to say, “I believe.” They could say, “I understand. And since this I understand, I now must act.”

Acta Non Verba: Whether you do it yearly, monthly, or daily (that last option is best if you are new to the Stoic path), evaluate, compare, and contrast what you do with what you think, or claim to believe, and ask yourself, “Do my deeds match up with who I claim to be?”

Ab Aeterno

Philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior. – Musonius Rufus

How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. – Epictetus

Stop all this theorizing about what a good man should be. Be it! – Marcus Aurelius

Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Original, non-meme image from Isaac Davis via

Categories: Character Reason

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Stephen Sumner

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