Stoicism: An Introduction to Stoicism & Stoic Philosophy
There are two things we need to make clear about Stoic philosophy right from the get-go. The first is that this approach to life – for indeed that’s what all philosophy is, a way to go about the very living of one’s life – is anything but a relic of ancient history.
Stoicism is an entirely viable way to guide yourself even now, well into the 21st century and some 23 centuries after its founding. And the second thing to make clear about stoicism is that it is not at all about a “grin and bear it” or “keep a stiff upper lip” reserved approach to life.
Contrary to all-too-common modern misconception, Stoic philosophy can be part of a vibrant, engaged life in which an adherent actively seeks happiness and fulfillment. Along the way toward such lofty goals, a proper Stoic will have to learn to accept a degree of unpleasantness along the way. That’s because one instrumental component of Stoic philosophy does involve accepting the less than ideal (or even the terrible) facets of life. But don’t worry, you don’t have to grin at them.
Before we delve any deeper into stoic philosophy or discuss a few of the major stoic philosophers of the original Hellenistic philosophy schools, let’s take a moment to look through a wider angle lens.
What is philosophy anyway?
Philosophy is often thought of, with no small degree of derision, as thinking about thinking. While epistemology and meta cognition both deserve plenty of attention (and, well, thought), those are indeed focused on ways of thinking, whereas philosophy is not: philosophy is about ways of living.
Consider but a few classic philosophy quotes from Plato to see that philosophy is about doing, about action, not merely about musings. For one example, there is Plato’s admonition to: “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”
This wisdom can be applied to oneself, one’s child or spouse, a friend, a client or colleague, or used to help us understand and empathize with someone we may never have met. Or consider his quote: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” Better motivation to vote one’s conscience may not be possible.
Wisdom and moral foundations
When you devote much of your time and attention to reading about, discussing, debating, and yes, thinking about philosophy, you prepare your mind (and your heart, so to speak) for confronting real world situations you will someday face.
The wisdom and moral foundation you can build for yourself through a devotion to philosophy will arm you with knowledge and examples to draw from that help you make the best choices in life, and thereby help you live your best life.
When you have read your share of ancient philosophy, your bit of Voltaire, an Existentialist work or two, and when you have digested their views on how to live a good life, you can (and should) put your own spin on things.
Philosophy is a highly personal and plastic discipline, thus why it has been such a source of spirited debate since the ancients strolled about the Lyceum at Athens or the Roman Forum. So learn from and be inspired by Zeno or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, but make Stoic philosophy work for you.
Before we talk about those ancient philosophers, let’s talk about a single letter, namely the letter S.
A Stoic vs. a stoic: The difference a capital letter can make
If the almost mythical tales can be believed, a good word to describe America’s first president, George Washington, would be “stoic.” He is celebrated for staying the course in the early years of the Revolutionary War when it looked quite likely the hard scrabble Patriots would lose to the British.
He is hailed for bravely wintering over with his men at Valley Forge. And he is hallowed for peacefully resigning from the most powerful office in the land and returning to private life. Calm, collected, uncomplaining, and steady, George Washington was a stoic man.
He was not, however, a Stoic with a capital S. Written as such, the word refers specifically to the branch of philosophy discussed here, while as a noun, according to Oxford Languages, it means: “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.”
To be very clear, you can follow a Stoic approach to life and still be filled with emotions of every kind, from joy to frustration to grief – as with situations that arise, it’s what you do with your emotions, how you respond to them and channel them, that matters. There is never a need to suppress or conceal the fact that you have feelings in the name of Stoic philosophy.
In other words, you don’t need to be stoic to be a Stoic.
A Brief History of Stoic Philosophy
The founder of Stoic philosophy was a man named Zeno of Citium who lived from the later 4th century to the mid 3rd century BC. The new school of thought took its name from the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch”, a colonnade in the Athenian Agora next to the area in which the philosopher lectured and debated.
Zeno’s new way of approaching philosophy evolved from his own background among the Cynics, a group of philosophers dedicated to virtue above all else, with an ascetic life seen as the best way to achieve such. This was taken to extremes by many Cynic philosophers, such as Diogenes, who famously took to living in a large ceramic barrel perched on the side of an Athenian street.
Logic and wisdom
While Stoics would also embrace virtue and morality, their approach did not mandate a life of austerity as a part therein. And the Stoics were arguably the first ancient philosophers to adopt a view still embraced in our modern world, namely that philosophy is not primarily about the quest for knowledge, but about actionable logic and wisdom.
Stoicism spread across much of Ancient Greece and by the 1st century BC was gaining popularity in Ancient Rome. There, it would influence people of varied social rank, including the likes of statesman and playwright Seneca and even, most famously, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180 CE, and whose written work Meditations is considered one of the masterpieces of ancient Stoic philosophy.
In Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations we see a man deeply committed to a life lived with Stoic philosophy as its guide. Ironically, Meditations was penned more as a journal than a treatise – the emperor did not intend for his writings to be published, but they have become his most lasting tangible contribution to civilization, and reading a few of his stoic quotes reveal yet again how practicable the philosophy was and is.
As one good example, note his words about the power we have over ourselves: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century AD, support for stoicism throughout the Roman Empire and beyond became diminished, as it did for any other philosophy or really for any other non-Christian way of thinking across most of the so-called Classical world.
Early church leaders were ill content to allow any competition to their way of thinking. Fortunately, more than enough of the writing and recorded thoughts of the original stoic philosophers to be able to channel and build off the philosophy and theories of Marcus Aurelias, the former slave Epictetus, and the others who laid the foundation of this way of living.
What does Stoic philosophy teach?
Now we arrive at the main event: the tenets of Stoic philosophy and how they can be applied to your actual life, both each and every day and in the bigger picture.
At its core, Stoicism has three pillars upon which it stands.
The first of these is virtue – think of virtue in this context as doing the right thing every single time you have a choice to make, or at least doing your damndest to do so. Self control is a key aspect here.
Next, we have responsibility – which means, to the Stoic, knowing when to take ownership of a situation and take action, and also means knowing when something is not in your purview, or not your problem.
The dichotomy of control
Third, we have the “dichotomy of control.” This can be thought of as awareness that some things are in our control, and therefore we should take action, but that many others are beyond our control, and that we should not take up any of our mental or emotional reserves.
At its very simplest breakdown, you can think of Stoic philosophy in terms of the so-called “Serenity Prayer” written in the mid 20th century by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which goes:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Note that we have omitted the word “god” from the start of the prayer in keeping philosophy and religion separated, as indeed they should be for our purposes.)
See? There is wisdom and knowledge and whatnot baked into Stoic philosophy to be sure, but all the theories in the world, the debate over good or bad, right or wrong, the discussion of the nature of life, and all of it, is worth nothing much without action attached to it, or with action withheld but consciously so.
Let’s work through a few practical examples of how you can use Stoic philosophy in your everyday life.
Practical Stoic philosophy in the modern world
Sometimes the intersection of life and philosophy are cut and dried. If you see a neighbor’s house on fire, you rush to save your neighbor. If you see a lady drop her wallet, you recover and return it. If you hear a man calling for help, you heed the call.
Sometimes, however, identifying the right action to take (or not take) is a bit more subtle.
Say you are watching the news and you see a pundit from a political party at odds with your own say something xenophobic and outrageous. You feel disgusted, offended, and angry. What can you do that will be of real, consequential benefit?
Stoicism teaches us that the answer is, essentially, to do nothing. You can absorb the way their vitriol makes you feel, but there’s really nothing you can do about the talking head on the TV, so it’s best to recognize your lack of control. You need not take action anyway save for gaining an example of how you would never conduct yourself.
Now say you see a candidate for political office say much the same thing. Now you not only can do something, but virtue compels you to, in fact: you can take action and vote against this person with whom you disagree.
Stoicism as guide to action
A mind primed by Stoic philosophy can quickly identify situations in which action is merited as well as times when reserve is the best course of action. The Stoic becomes adept at knowing when it’s worth it to speak up or go to the proverbial mat, when it’s worth serving as an example to others, and also when it’s best to hold your tongue and stay your hand. This can be harder than acting, and more noble, in many cases.
And here’s a little secret to keep in mind: at our core, we’re all rather Stoic philosophers in the first place anyway. Human beings, unless taught by painful and fraught experiences, have it in our nature to help one another, to do the right thing in general.
Practicing Stoic philosophy in everyday life really means little more than following through on those things you probably already know are proper. The more you steep yourself in Stoicism, the better you will get at making such discernment and the more ready you will be when situations arise.
Just like practice makes you better prepared for game day in a sport, so too does reading, discussing, debating, and musing on Stoic philosophy make you better prepared for major moments in your life.
Stoic philosophy wants you to be happy
Far from that buttoned-up, emotionless, and stiff upper lip whatnot we touched on earlier – the lower case stoic, in other words – Stoic philosophy is about maximising human happiness and satisfaction, not about reducing our expectations and prompting us to just deal with it all.
Yes, proper following of the Stoic approach to life does sometimes mean accepting the bad parts of life and it means accepting that often there is nothing we can do to change something, even as odious as it may be. As the main examples to consider, you can ponder death and disease, the need to devote much of life to working, and the unfairness in our world between the so-called haves and have nots.
You could spend a lifetime hating that you and everyone else will one day die, that you will spend more that lifetime working than playing, and that many people are dealt an unfair hand in life by no fault of their own.
Or you could instead embrace the numbered years you have, find a job you like or, better yet, even love, and you can devote some of your time and energy (and earnings) to making life perhaps a bit better for someone born in a community less fortunate than yours.
Stoic virtue and living a virtuous life
By living a truly virtuous life, which does not mean a perfect life, which is impossible, but means a life in which you try to do the right thing as often as possible and isolate those occasions on which you fall short, you will remove that self-doubt (or even self-loathing) that can be terrible burden and a thief of happiness.
Stoic virtue need not mean a cold, emotionless way of life, but rather can mean one of unbounding energy and joy for you are unburdened by a truly deleterious human emotion: shame.
For perhaps the best short description of the ideal Stoic life, we actually can look back to the famed Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived just a few short years before the founding of Stoic philosophy (and who was, of course, the pupil of Plato, himself the pupil of Socrates). Some 2,350 years ago, Aristotle said:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
In other words, it is the practice of philosophy that leads to a good life. You can take these teachings into yours today!