Thinking like a Stoic

Managing impressions well

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

🏛️ Theory

Have you ever felt the satisfaction of knowing that you made an excellent decision? The feeling that arises when you’ve thought through a matter carefully and chosen the right path?

One way to frame Stoicism is that it is a philosophical program that helps us experience the emotions of success and confidence more often. Fundamentally, it is about building the character to think well.

By changing how we think, we can change how we experience the world and who we are. We can manage our negative emotions and transform into better people.

The essential part of this art is managing impressions.

Marcus Aurelius once captured this in his advice:

If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past…and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present) . . . then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.3

Impressions are our initial sensations or appearances. They are how things appear to us. Consider the line: 

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space we find our freedom.

Impressions are the stimuli. Hence, how we manage impressions is of central importance to the Stoics. Epictetus encourages us to see impressions as they are –as impressions, not reality. We are not our thoughts and our thoughts often do not reflect reality.

Responding to impressions well makes the difference between a happy and unhappy life.

Someone who is always reacting to events is not acting freely. They are like a puppet controlled by factors outside of their control. But someone who pauses and doesn’t let their first impression knock them off their feet can live a full and meaningful life.

This is why the Stoic philosophers called our ability to use impressions well “the most beautiful thing.” It unlocks an excellent life. 

To manage your impressions well, focus on seeing things as they are. Believing the true, rejecting the false, and suspending judgment in the face of uncertainty. Develop the mental skill to change your mind when you should and act with resolve when you must. This is what it is to think like a Stoic.

🎯 Action

Catch impressions before agreeing with them immediately several times today.

🏛️ We just launched a new set of lessons on How to Think Like a Stoic on the Stoa App. It includes lessons on the essential theory and then moves to more practices you can start using today. Check it out in the Learn section.

As always – if you truly cannot afford the app but want to use it, reach out to us and we will set you up with a free account.

🎧️ Listen to a conversation between Michael and I in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. The book covers two key thinking styles that can deepen one’s knowledge of Stoicism and help one think better.

📖 Donald Robertson put together a monograph on The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy connecting Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a useful deep dive if you want a thorough look at the techniques of both. His How to Think Like A Roman Emperor is also excellent. It shows how Marcus Aurelius used Stoic philosophy and techniques in his life – and how you can do the same.

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