3 Stoic Techniques

Conversion, purpose, and narrative

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

One of the central Stoic techniques is interpretation.

Two people can experience the exact same event. One may be defeated by it, another triumphs. What’s the difference? Interpretation.

I like how the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero put it:

The mere fact that men endure the same pain more easily when they voluntarily undergo it for the sake of their country than when they suffer it for some lesser cause, shows that the intensity of the pain depends on the state of mind of the sufferer, not on its own intrinsic nature.

So, we can endure if we excel at seeing the events we encounter in the right context. How do we do that?

The Stoics gave us many ideas.

Before moving immediately to interpretation though, it is essential to make the distinction between feeling and emotion. Feelings are initial sensations. They are our impressions about the world. We can influence them, but in a real sense they aren’t up to us. They come and go of their own accord.

Emotions are how we respond to them. That’s the value judgment we make about our feelings.

So, when we’re faced with the feeling of nervousness – perhaps at the prospect of giving a public speech – we have the option to interpret those sensations as excitement or anxiety. Excitement and anxiety here are the emotions – how we judge the feelings we’re given.


If feelings of fear occur, that may fuel caution instead of paranoia. What’s the difference? Stoics are fearless, but they aren’t stupid. Some things are worth avoiding. Caution is often warranted.

The initial feelings of fear serve a purpose. They alert us to the potential of danger. For some of us, we may feel them too often. But others may not feel enough fear.

That fearlessness is grounded in the knowledge of what’s worth avoiding –knowledge that is won through experience and good judgment.


Cicero hit on the best way to situate our feelings: in the context of our greater purpose.

What do feelings of nervousness mean before a challenge? If you keep the reason why you're doing what you’re doing in mind, it’s easier to make sense of them.

It’s easier to do this if you remind yourself of the reasons for your actions. When adversity arises, bring to mind the purpose behind your actions and let that help you overcome it.


Another way to see events is as tests given by fate. The Gods, fate, providence – whatever it is is providing you with a challenge. Adversity arises – now's the chance to show you what one is made of.

It’s best motivated by Epictetus:

Whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event.

🎯 Action

Use the techniques of conversion, purpose, and narrative when challenges arise today.

🎵 It’s important to note that this strategy isn’t asking us to come up with false stories. Instead, it’s a process for creating true emotions. Emotions that are grounded in true judgment. This is a fundamental part of Stoic theory. How we think determines who we are.

✉️ Reply with other interpretation strategies you use – it’s always good to hear and learn from readers.

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