Today, I want to introduce you all to the ancient and influential philosophy of Stoicism, and explain how its teachings could be useful and beneficial to your English learning journey!
2000 years ago, one of the greatest and most powerful Roman Emperors spent his spare time writing thoughts and ideas in his private diary. Years before him, a former slave won his freedom, became an influential teacher, and his lectures became well-known in Ancient Rome. At a similar time, a Roman playwright exchanged letters with his acquaintances discussing issues of philosphy.
These three sources, an emperor’s diary, a former slave’ lectures, and a playwright’s letters, contain an immense amount of wisdom and knowledge. They form the basis of Stoicism, a philosphy that has informed the actions of great leaders and still today is popular and well-known.
You may be asking “what relevance does Stoicism have for English learners?” And this is what I want to talk about today!
I’ve loved reading philosophy for years. If you are a Patreon subscriber, you may have watched my bookcase tour I uploaded last week (you can subscribe from just $5 a month) – if you did watch you would have noticed all the philosphy books I have read and collected. It has been a big part of my life and I have always found philosphy to be an incredibly beneficial part of my life.
Recently, I realised that a lot of the famous lessons and ideas in the philosphy of Stoicism, in particular, could be useful for language learners. Using a number of famous quotes from the great Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome, I hope I can give you all some interesting tips and advice to make the most of your learning. And, at the same time, introduce you to some of the key ideas of Stoicism!
What is Stoicism?
Let’s start at the beginning – what is stoicism? Who are the great Stoic philosophers and what do they believe?
Stoicism is a philosophical school that originated in ancient Greece and became influential in the Roman Empire. It was founded by the philosopher Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC and was later developed by other philosophers, including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius is known as the greatest Roman Emperor, and one of the greatest leaders in history. He was not born as a future emperor, but as a child was selected by the Emperor Hadrian to be trained as the future leader. His rule was informed by the principles of wisdom and virtue – we’ll come back to these words later.
Seneca the Younger, the son of a wealthy writer, was tutored by a Stoic teacher as a child and became committed to the idea of self-improvement. He is known as a letter writer and the tutor of the infamous emperor Nero.
Epictetus has a very different background to the other Stoic philosophers. He was not the son of a great writer or a future emperor… instead he was born as a slave. His life was hard and painful – his master once broke Epictetus’ leg and permanently disabled him. After gaining his freedom in his 30s, Epictetus dedicated his life to philosophy.
At its core, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics and a practical guide for living a good life. It teaches that the key to happiness and well-being lies in developing inner strength, wisdom, and virtue. Stoics believed that humans have the capacity to use reason and logic to overcome negative emotions and impulses, and to live in accordance with nature and universal principles.
Stoicism is often associated with its emphasis on self-control, rationality, and detachment from external circumstances. It teaches that we should focus on what we can control and accept what we cannot control. Stoics also emphasized the importance of living in the present moment, gratitude, and developing a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
In modern times, Stoicism has experienced a resurgence of interest as a practical philosophy for dealing with the challenges of everyday life. Its teachings have been applied to a wide range of fields, including business, sports, psychology, and education. In the context of language learning, the Stoic approach can provide a useful framework for developing the discipline, resilience, and inner strength needed to master a new language.
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The Stoic Approach to Learning
According to the Stoics, learning is not just about acquiring knowledge or skills, but also about cultivating virtue and wisdom. They believed that true learning requires a deep understanding of oneself and the world around us. The Stoics emphasized the importance of critical thinking and rationality in learning, as well as the need to have a sense of humility and openness to new ideas.
The Stoic approach to learning also emphasizes the importance of practice and repetition. According to the Stoics, true mastery of a skill requires sustained effort and practice over time. They believed that success in learning depends on a combination of natural ability, hard work, and persistence.
One of the key tenets of the Stoic approach to learning is the idea that we should focus on what is within our control and let go of what is outside of our control. In the context of language learning, this means focusing on the aspects of the language that we can control, such as our own efforts and attitudes, rather than worrying about external factors such as the difficulty of the language or the proficiency of other learners.
Overall, the Stoic approach to learning emphasizes the importance of discipline, focus, and perseverance in achieving mastery. It encourages learners to cultivate a sense of humility, rationality, and mindfulness in their learning journey. By adopting a Stoic approach to learning, English learners can develop the habits and attitudes necessary to achieve success in their language studies, while also cultivating a sense of inner peace and tranquillity.
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Famous Stoic Quotes
Now I want to read a few famous quotes from Stoic philosophers and explain how they are relevant to us as language learners!
“How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do now.”Epictetus
I find a lot of motivation and inspiration in this quote from Epictetus. He believed that inside us all is our nobler self – a version of us that is actualized and at full potential. We usually think of our nobler self as being far away in the future, as something we will spend our whole life working towards.
Epictetus, however, believed that your noble self is already here. Stop waiting “do what you need to do now”, and decide to be extraordinary.
There are a few lessons for English learners here. First, don’t procrastinate. I’ve recorded a whole episode on procrastination before, and it is a big problem for every single language learner. If you’ve been thinking about starting studying English again, or taking a class, or joining my conversation club… do it now! Don’t wait or procrastinate as it is not helping you to study.
Second, being extraordinary is a choice – you can decide to be extraordinary. It is up to you, and not your natural talent or skills, whether you can learn English. You can make the choice to improve, work hard, and study – no one else can.
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”Epictetus
In other words, don’t be scared or embarrassed if you want to improve. I used to teach Junior High School English in Japan, and so many of the students were terrified of making mistakes or being wrong.
But to learn a language and to improve any skill, you need to accept mistakes and errors. As Epictetus says, you need to “be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” The Stoic philosophers believed that the fear of making mistakes is irrational.
I know how concerning it can be to make mistakes in a foreign language – I’ve made thousands of mistakes in Japanese and Chinese. However, the reality is people don’t generally care about mistakes. Either people won’t notice, won’t care, or they will give you useful and beneficial feedback!
Once you understand that mistakes are not necessarily bad, it makes the language learning journey much easier.
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”Epictetus
This quote, also from Epictetus, means you should surround yourself with people who will help you to achieve your goals.
This is one of the big reasons I started a Patreon and Discord subscription service. There are now 100s of Thinking in English listeners interacting and talking every day. They organise study groups, discussion times, and share tips and advice with each other all the time.
In fact, as I’m writing this episode I received a message from one subscriber saying she wants to organise a session on Monday (the day this is being released) so that my members can share their study tips and goals.
Having this kind of community is essential – you can learn from each other, push each other, and hold each other accountable. Learning a language can sometimes be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be! Find company who will uplift you!
“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.”Seneca
This quote comes from Seneca. “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.” What does this mean?
If you don’t know what your goal or target is, you are not going to know the best way to achieve these goals. At the beginning of this year I wrote a guide to New Year’s Resolutions and this was a key point to that episode.
You need to have a target or goal – and a specific target or goal – to make the most of your efforts. Studying becomes much easier if you have a tangible and real goal that is important to you – taking an exam, having a conversation, traveling to a new country, etc.
“Just because something is hard to master, do not think it is humanly impossible, but, if a thing is humanly possible, consider it within your reach.”Marcus Aurelius
This is the final quote I want to highlight, and it comes from the great Marcus Aurelius.
Sometimes studying English and becoming fluent seems impossible. This is not true. Learning a language is possible – I’ve interviewed people on Thinking in English before who have reached really high levels of English proficiency.
If they managed to do it, so can you. Don’t think of studying English as an impossible task, think of it as “within your reach”. Think of learning English as something you can do!
How the Stoic approach to learning can help English learners
Now I’ve introduced some famous quotes form great Stoic philosophers, let me give you some more direct tips and advice.
Develop self-discipline: The Stoic approach emphasizes the importance of self-discipline in achieving mastery. For English learners, this means setting realistic goals, developing study habits, and sticking to a regular practice schedule.
Focus on what is within your control: As mentioned earlier, the Stoic approach emphasizes the importance of focusing on what is within our control and letting go of what is outside of our control. For English learners, this means focusing on your own efforts and attitudes, rather than worrying about external factors such as the difficulty of the language or the proficiency of other learners.
Cultivate a growth mindset: The Stoic approach emphasizes the importance of personal growth and self-improvement. This means adopting a growth mindset, which involves seeing mistakes and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, rather than sources of frustration or discouragement.
Developing mindfulness and focus: Stoic philosophers believed in mindfulness and focus. Develop techniques for staying present and focused during your language studies, such as meditation, deep breathing, or other mindfulness practices.
Have a sense of inner peace and tranquillity: The Stoics were big advocates of inner peace, even in the face of external challenges or obstacles. For English learners, this means developing techniques for managing stress, anxiety, or frustration during their language studies, such as journaling, mindfulness practices, or other relaxation techniques.
Rather than a detailed explanation of Stoic philosphy, this episode has aimed to take some of the key teachings and lessons from the ancient traditions and apply them to learning English.
Stoicism as a philosophy was concerned with self-improvement and the idea that individuals have the ability to take control of their lives. Hopefully, some of the lessons I’ve talked about today can inspire you to make changes in your study routine!
Who is your favourite philosopher?