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Stoicism-Based Suggestions For New Year's Resolutions

For a Good New Year Just Be Good -- Act Like the Stoics


This is intended as a hopefully helpful, but somewhat lighthearted look at ancient philosophical beliefs that would make five fine New Year's resolutions for today. They are meant as a counter to typical New Year's resolutions, like these from 2007 (*see below for the most recent list):
  1. Lose Weight
  2. Manage Debt
  3. Save Money
  4. Get a Better Job
  5. Get Fit
  6. Eat Right
  7. Get a Better Education
  8. Drink Less Alcohol
  9. Quit Smoking Now
  10. Reduce Stress Overall
  11. Reduce Stress at Work
  12. Take a Trip
  13. Volunteer to Help Others
Source: U.S. Government site
Have you written a list of New year's Resolutions? Does it include something geared to making you more like a Hollywood ideal? Something like losing weight? We start each new year with a clean slate, but as soon as we break down and eat that tempting cream-filled puff pastry, we think we've failed and give up. Might as well have a couple of beers and a pizza. Oops! By February the scale has moved in the wrong direction. One question we should ask before coming up with the duly anguished-over creative list of new resolutions is whether or not they're the result of social pressure. It may seem easier fitting into someone else's list of shoulds than changing our own attitudes, but if you've ever tried to quit smoking because your family begs you to, you probably know that's not enough.

People compile New Year's Resolutions in an effort to improve specific aspects of themselves, thinking behavior elicited by the resolutions will make them better people. If they volunteer one day a month (making them better in the brotherly-love department) and exercise three times a week (back to conforming to social pressure mode), including a yoga class (eliminating stress one minute at a time), and if they put 10% into a money market account (for retirement, as the news media drums into our heads each December), life will magically improve. Even if it did work, this seems like a piecemeal approach in need of a master plan. And therein lies the beauty of ancient philosophy.

Masterplan: Emulate the Stoics

This list of 5 resolutions includes passages from the writing of leading Roman Stoics, Epictetus (really a Greek, but he lived in Rome), Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, with applications or parallels in the modern (or at least post-classical) world. The Stoics have had a profound influence on Christianity and modern philosophy, so the ideas may seem very familiar. There are even sayings and modern song lyrics reflecting the Stoic philosophy. One problem of the Stoics for our contemporary, secular world is the ongoing references to god. This god is really more like reason, nature, or logos, but may still cause trouble for non-theists. To avoid this, I have attempted to minimize the god-context in my selections.

The Stoics believed in one basic behavior: being good. People do this by, among other things,

  1. living according to nature,
  2. helping others,
  3. commitment to self-improvement routines,
  4. being dutiful, which may include attempting to persuade others of one's beliefs, and
  5. central to all else, maintaining a proper attitude.
The good person is not evil. He also happens to be a philosopher. This may be another sticking point for moderns, but the self-help books so popular today are like philosophy, so if the idea of being a philosopher is too profound, consider these suggestions as well-testified popular psychology instead of philosophy.

1. Live According to Nature: To Everything There Is a Season

Stoicism comes from the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece, which began around 300 B.C. There was no electricity. There were no in vitro pregnancies. Most people used their own feet for transportation. People followed the natural cycles of day, night, and the seasons. Everything took time. We've been spoiled by artificial light, microwave ovens, airplanes, and other conveniences, so we no longer have to worry much about natural cycles. Instead, we impatient multi-taskers try to cram everything in. This means that however much the ancient Stoics might have had to struggle to try to live according to nature, we've got to work even harder.
No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.
- Epictetus: Discourses Chap. xv.
Stoics believed in the idea of one universal human family. Just as it is contrary to nature to cut off your nose to spite your face, so it is contrary to nature to hurt members of your family, even if accepting people without being annoyed by them requires patience.
For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
- Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Book II
Next: Do Unto Others | Practice Makes Perfect | Do Your Duty | You Get What You Need
  1. Lose Weight
  2. Volunteer to Help Others
  3. Quit Smoking
  4. Get a Better Education
  5. Get a Better Job
  6. Save Money
  7. Get Fit
  8. Eat Healthy Food
  9. Manage Stress
  10. Manage Debt
  11. Take a Trip
  12. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
  13. Drink Less Alcohol

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