LIFE is suffering. If there’s one thing philosophers agree on, it’s that. Whether you’re shivering cold, racked with grief, or dealing with a terrible disease, no one can control the situation they’re in. Stoics teach that instead of panicking in the face of death, disease, and destruction, you should remain cool, calm, and collected.
If you cannot control the world, you can control your reaction to it – that’s Stoicism in a nutshell.
Stoicism promises no treasures, no rewards, no afterlife. Nor is it about a “stiff upper lip” or “grin and bear it” attitude to life. Stoics believe that “virtue is the only good” and that by learning to discipline your thoughts and reactions to outside forces, a person can overcome their innate negativity.
Little wonder such legendary figures as Marcus Aurelius, Frederick the Great, George Washington, Adam Smith, Bill Clinton, and General James Mattis all credit Stoicism for part of their success. Indeed, there’s growing evidence for Stoicism’s benefits in depression.
But what is Stoicism? Who were the Stoics? And how does Stoicism lead to a healthier, happier life? Let’s find out.
WHAT IS STOICISM?
FOUNDED in the early 3rd century BC by Zeno of Citium, Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy concerned with personal virtue and ethics. Unlike dense, esoteric philosophies, Stoicism is highly accessible. The name, in fact, derives from the Stoa, or porch, when Zeno’s Athenian followers gathered to discuss their ideas. Stoicism was open to everyone.
This philosophy of “The Porch” is concerned solely with the canvas of a person’s life. To be stoical today means to be without emotion – someone indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. However, repressing one’s emotions and feelings is not a tenant of the original Stoic philosophy—quite the contrary.
Early stoics believed a person could achieve eudaimonia, or good spiritedness, through virtue. We might call it happiness or contentment. Virtue was not achieved through clever words but right action—Stoics prized self-control and fortitude in overcoming difficult circumstances and destructive emotions.
“Man conquers the world by conquering himself,” proclaims Zeno. Elsewhere he warns, “Nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception.”
WHO WERE THE STOICS?
IN the footsteps of Zeno, generations of Stoic philosophers expanded this school of thought. Little remains from these early stages. Only in the later Roman period did philosophers like Epictetus, Seneca, and, most famously, Marcus Aurelius, create the Stoic canon popular today.
Aurelius’ work Meditations is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of ancient Stoic philosophy. Unlike other philosophy books, it was not written for widespread consumption. We’re actually reading his journal – a thought the wise emperor would probably blush at.
Yet throughout these aphoristic meditations, a clear vision appears, involving developing self-control, exercising clear judgment, and overcoming destructive emotions. Throughout the 2nd to 4th centuries, Stoicism flourished in the Greco-Roman world, only diminishing with the rise of Christianity.
The sage words of wisdom remained, however, becoming one of the most lauded works in philosophy. It’s not hard to see why. In one of the most powerful passages, Aurelius calmly advises:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together.”
Categories: History, Philosophy
Thanks for this, looking forward to reading more on stoicism now