What does it mean to be a man?
If you asked this question of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or Epictetus they would answer that it means to live with virtue. In fact, vir is the Latin word for “man”. The word “virtue” finds its roots in the Latin word for manliness, which is “virtus”.
There are 4 cardinal virtues that the ancient Stoics abided by:
It is these 4 virtues that I have strived (and continue to strive) to embody more of in my life to narrow the gap between the man I am and the man I know I’m capable of being. Hopefully they can help you do the same.
Virtue #1 - Wisdom (Knowledge of life)
The word philosopher literally translates to “lover of wisdom”. The ancient Stoic philosophers were in love with learning and understanding the process of how to live optimally. Whether you look at Seneca (who was a statesman, playwright, and tied in to the upper echelon of Roman society) or Epictetus (a former slave who won his freedom, became a Stoic, and was eventually one of the biggest influences on Marcus Aurelius) or Marcus Aurelius (the most powerful man in the world during his time) - the ancient Stoics were active members of society. This is contrary to how philosophy is taught through the modern education system whereby students are taught to become mere “librarians of the mind” rather than “warriors of the mind” - as were the ancient Stoics.
The fundamental Stoic wisdom is to concern yourself only with that which is within your control. As Epictetus puts it:
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.
There are only two things that we have control over - our thoughts and our behaviors. Run an honest audit of your day. How many of your decisions were a series of pre-programmed patterns and how many of your decisions were planned and deliberate?
As men, the ultimate wisdom we can embody is clarity of our path and purpose. Seneca uses the word “euthymia” or “energized tranquility” to describe this:
Believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path, and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wandering in every direction.
Your thoughts and behaviors need to be directed towards some end, some purpose, for them to have any meaning. As Seneca puts it:
Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.
If you’re currently lacking clarity in your path and purpose as a man, write your own eulogy. This is a daunting task but, trust me, doing so will provide massive insight towards the type of man you wish to become.
Take out a pen and paper, imagine yourself at your own funeral, and journal your answers to questions as such:
- What do the people in attendance have to say about you?
- How do they describe you?
- What will others miss about you?
The more deep the questions, the better. 99.99% of you won’t do this, but if you do, it will provide massive clarity in your life.
Virtue #2 - Justice (Integrity)
To live with justice means to live in integrity with your highest ideals. Are you consistently acting in accordance with what you deem valuable or are you stuck in the perpetual cycle of going through the motions and procrastination?
The ancient Stoics used the term “Eudaimonia,” which describes the state of being best friends with your inner daemon. The daemon can be visualized as your inner guide, the highest version of you that is eternally present and taking notes on every single thing that you do. To experience a state of inner flourishing, you have to be on good terms with your inner daemon. Because at the end of the day, what matters most is what you think of yourself when you are by yourself.
How to build integrity:
- Keep a to-do list every single day and complete it.
- Set deadlines for your goals.
- Make commitments and live up to them.
- Do what you say you’re going to do; don’t say you’ll do something you won’t.
Virtue #3 - Fortitude (Courage)
The word “courage” comes from the Latin word for heart. Courage is the virtue that vitalizes all your other virtues just like your heart vitalizes all your other organs.
We all feel fear, but the ability to act in spite of fear, i.e. courage, is a large part of what makes a man manly. By definition, growth in any area of your life requires you to do something you’ve never done before, i.e. to step outside of your comfort zone.
If you’ve been holding off on something, it’s time for you to take Nike’s advice and just fucking do it.
How to build courage:
- Cold showers
- Cold approach women
- Strive to set personal records in the gym
- Practice a martial art
Also keep in mind that you are only entitled to the action and not the fruits of your action. The Stoics always used a reserve clause, Deo valente, i.e. if fate shall have it. The struggle is guaranteed but the results aren’t. Having a reserve clause in place instills a frame of calmness and levelness because you are not overly attached to the outcome.
Virtue #4 - Temperance (Self-mastery)
There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.
- Charles Kingsley
Self-mastery is simply a matter of doing what needs to get done regardless of whether you feel like it or not. It is about striving to consistently narrow the gap between the man you are and the man you know you are capable of being. There is no end to this journey. There is only moving toward the ideal or moving away from it. The ideal can never be achieved, but it is always there to indicate whether or not we are moving in the right direction.
How to develop self-mastery:
- 30-day challenges
- Track your habits
- Build momentum on your habits
Remember that if you ever begin to believe that you’ve reached your potential, you strip away your power in taking it to the next level. There is no finish line. Self-mastery is a journey in discovering what you’re truly capable of. And your potential as a man is a moving target.
The ancient Stoics tell us that to be a man means to know your path, to have the courage to walk it, to consistently strive for improvement, and to live with your lips pressed against your fears. These are the 4 cardinal virtues of Stoicism and working on integrating them into your own life will help transform you into a more grounded and powerful version of yourself.