Stoicism is a Helenistic philosophy, created by Zeno of Citium (335 – 263 BC) around the third century BC. Its roots come from the Cynics, stating that Virtue is the only good. But, Stoicism adds Logic and Metaphysics to the equation, creating a more rational and reasoned philosophy. According to the Stoics, the Logos is the all encompassing force. Some call it God, Nature, or the Universe. It is what ordains all and to what everything belongs to. The goal of Stoicism is to live a fulfilled life in accordance with Nature. This way we can reach the state of Eudaimonia. Roughly translated it means; happiness, contentment, fulfilment, purpose.
For Stoics, there is perfect order in the universe. Rational beings can learn to understand this and then live in accordance with Nature. This is what they called the ‘Logos’, which operates in both individuals (nature) as in the Universe (Nature) as a whole. What sets us apart from the rest of the animals is that we have the capacity to reason and rationality. To live a virtuous life, we need to apply reason to our lives and to all that it involves. By Virtue the Stoics differentiate between Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance. We need to make sure that we apply the Virtues in all our actions. We do this by testing them using reason.
“Enable my mind to adapt itself to whatever comes to pass.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 2, chapter 2.21
The first Stoic
When Zeno of Citium was on a business trip, transporting a shipment of purple dye, he was shipwrecked. Having lost everything, he was wandering and looking for answers. It is interesting to see that many who are studying philosophy for practical reasons of self-growth and improvement, also have moments of crisis to start their journey. Zeno came across books on philosophy and they caught his attention. Wanting to learn more, he was directed to Crates of Thebe, a known Cynic philosopher, who happened to walk passed the bookshop. Thus Zeno started learning at the Cynic school. His desire for the truth led him to join the school of the Academics and Megarians. After decades of studying, Zeno created his own philosophy and started teaching it in Athens.
His students were first known as Zenonians, but this changed to Stoics soon after. Since Zeno taught his classes walking up and down the Stoa Poikile, the ‘Painted Porch’, this philosohpy become known as Stoicism. While Zeno started Stoicism and Cleanthes (331 – 232 BC) followed him as the leader of the school, it was Chrysippus of Soloi (c. 280 -207 BC) who brought it closer to the idea of Stoicism we have now.
Stoicism through the ages
The following phase of Stoicism is traditionally called the ‘Middle Stoa’, with teachers such as Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185 -110 BC) and Posidonius of Apamea in Syria (c. 135 – 50 BC). Where in the beginning, the ideal of the sage, the wise man, was the focus. In the Middle Stoa it changed more to deal with the situations in which the aspiring sage could find herself. Stoicism geared more towards the practical applications of everyday life.
We have lost most of the Stoic texts. What we do have comes from the ‘Roman Stoa.’ We can read many of Seneca’s (4 BC – 65 AC) letters, Epictetus (55 – 135 AD) didn’t write anything himself, but one of his students, Arrian, took notes. These are recorded in the Discourses and the Handbook (Enchiridion) he created from the teaching of Epictetus. There are some texts that made it to us from Musunios Rufus ( 30 – 100 AD), who was Epictetus’ teacher.
And the most famous text on Stoicism are the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius ( 121 – 180 AD). These are the personal notes of this Roman Emperor in which he documented his thoughts. Never meant for publication, someone got it and published it. Which means we can read it all now. We also know a lot of Stoicism from a Roman statesman and orator called Marcus Tullis Cicero (106 – 43 BC). Although he himself leaned more to the Academics, he did refer to Stoicism all throughout his works.
Stoicism goes dark
After this period, Stoicism lost in popularity and moved to the background, but we can still find traces of it everywhere. Such as in Christianity, Seneca’s brother met with St. Paul, and philosophers in the Middle Ages also referred to the Stoics. Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) used many of Seneca’s writings in his essays. In recent years, Stoicism is starting to make a sort of a comeback. The Meditations has inspired world leaders, such as Nelson Mandela and George Washington to get through their challenges. And in our present times, where pace has picked up, going back to reason and rational thinking seems to be the remedy.
Deeper understand of Stoicism
What Stoicism is not is to suppress our emotions. The stigma Stoicism often gets is that we should ignore emotions and keep going on without showing them. The Stoics learn to embrace their emotions. By examining them and understanding where they come from, we can get a grip on them. From there we can grow as individuals and become better members of society. If we learn how to better deal with anger, grief, love, etc, then we can have a better balance and live in accordance with nature.
Stoicism can be seen as a mental training program. A principle you’ll hear a lot is the dichotomy of control. Epictetus starts with it in his handbook, that is how important it is.
“Some things are up to us and others are not. Up to us are opinions, impulse, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever is our own action. Not up to us are body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own action. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; but those that are not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own.”Epictetus, Handbook, 1
Starting with this, you can examine every situation and ask yourself whether it is under your control. If it is not, then there is nothing you can do about it. Which are all the external factors that happen to you; Nature. Then there is your reasoning faculty, your mind, that’s where your control lies. It is up to you to decide how you view the external events happening to you. There is no inherent good or bad in these events, it’s all about the impressions they leave on us.
What are impressions
Learning how to deal with impressions is a big step in creating a more peaceful life. To help us get started we need to remind ourselves that the Universe is change. Since we are part of the Universe, we also change. We are born, grow older, and at one point we die. Death is a recurring topic throughout the Stoic texts. Understanding what it is, eliminating the fear of death, allows us to live in freedom. Coming to terms with our own mortality and accepting it. Not just our own death, but also those around us. Death and the limited time we have makes life worth living.
“Life, it is thanks to death that you are precious in my eyes.”Seneca, Dialogues and Essays, Consolation to Marcia, 20
What set the Stoics apart from the Cynics is how they view parts of life, such as, health, wealth, fame, status, possessions. These are all prefered indifferences. Although Virtue is still the only good, we would prefer health to illness, wealth to poverty, a good job to no job. But these can’t steer us away from living a virtuous life. Next, we can’t get attached to them. If, by doing our duty, we have a good job, a nice house, a fancy car, then there is no problem with that. As long as we are ready to give them back when Fortune asks for them. This doesn’t only apply to these things, but also to the loved ones in our lives. They are not ours, but part of the Universe.
“What harm is there while you are kissing your child to say softly, ‘Tomorrow you will die’.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 24.87
Living in the moment
Part of stoicism is to remind ourselves that things come and go. This way we can learn to live more in the moment. The present moment is all we have got. The past is gone and the future is unknown, they are not under our control. We can learn from the past and set some goals for the future, but we can’t let them affect our mindset at this very moment. It is often referred to as mindfulness, a term we have seen gaining in popularity in recent times. Which shows us the impact and connection Stoicism has to modern day thinking as well.
Currently, Stoicism is making somewhat of a comeback. There are authors such as Massimo Pigliucci, William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and Ryan Holiday, who have published books on Stoicism. All giving it their personal touch to it and showing us a way to apply it in our lives. There is an annual Stoicon conference and there are many Stoas in the world. More and more content can be found online, such as my humble attempt to share my experiences and how I try to apply its teaching to my life.
What is Stoicism
Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life that can be adapted by anyone from all walks of life and any background. The fact that the Stoics are so direct in the way they share their ideas, speaks to me. My suggestion is to read some of the texts and see what they tell you. But there are other philosophies out there with similar ideas. Any life is better when philosophy is applied to it. Philosophy means the love for wisdom and is in constant search for the truth. Stoicism is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive philosophy because of its straightforward and pragmatic attitude. As Marcus Aurelius displays in his Meditations.
“To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 10.16
Stoicism teaches us to live a good life, to be good people and to do our duty. If we live in accordance with Nature, we can be good members of society and contribute to the people around us. Although we life our lives alone, we are part of the greater whole. We don’t have to be Emperors of Rome to be great, such as Marcus Aurelius. Of whom we can say that he was great despite being emperor. But we can also look at his inspiration, Epictetus, who was born a slave and turned philosopher. Who created a school to which many traveled to learn from him. Thus, Stoicism is for everyone and the best time to start is now. Because that’s the only moment we have.