What is Stoicism?
In 300 BC, a Greek merchant named Zeno was shipwrecked on a trading voyage. After losing everything, he went to Athens where he began a philosophical movement that lasts to this day.
Following his immense personal loss, Zeno began to study philosophy as a way to overcome personal suffering. After spending years writing about both his misfortune and subsequent acceptance of it, he began to gain a following in the city. As gatherings became larger, Zeno needed a public place to meet with his disciples. He moved his regular meetings to what would later become known as the Stoa Poikile (STO-ah POY-keel-ee), which translates to “covered walkway.”
Stoicism flourished for 500 years in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was practiced by people in all walks of life. For the next two millennia, Stoicism would prove to be an adaptable philosophy, the core tenets of which have been absorbed by later religious and philosophical movements, including Christianity.
The early Stoics wrote thousands of books but only fragments survive today. Most of what we know of Stoicism comes from the writings of three Stoics who lived under the Roman Empire: Seneca, who was a playwright; Epictetus, a freed slave who became a famous teacher; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.
3 Pillars of Stoicism
In antiquity, Stoicism attempted to understand the world in three major areas:
- Logic: how to apply reason and draw conclusions. This includes understanding the relationship between cause and effect and forming logical arguments.
- Ethics: how one ought to behave in the world. This includes the practice of virtue, and fundamental elements such as the Dichotomy of Control.
- Physics: how the natural world works. the universe is driven by a god-like entity called the logos, which is the driving force of all matter and energy in the universe.
Because modern science has answered many questions about the nature of energy, matter, and the universe through the objective lens of the scientific method, Stoic physics is a branch of the philosophy that is effectively obsolete. Modern Stoics, including the Philadelphia Stoa, tend to focus primarily on ethics and logic.
What is the Goal of Stoicism?
Stoicism is a philosophy of life grounded in the concept that virtue, or excellence of character, is the highest good. The happiness valued in Stoicism is eudaimonia, a Greek word meaning flourishing or wellbeing.
We flourish when we use Stoic virtue to guide our lives, eschewing the emptiness of materialism, wealth, and things outside of our control. Stoics follow the Four Virtues, which Zeno and his disciples believed were inherently good, and worthy of our striving:
- WISDOM enables ONE to make rational decisions and appropriate judgments based on experiential knowledge.
- JUSTICE ENCOMPASSES ACTIONS BENEFITTING HUMANKIND, INCLUDING kindness, benevolence, and goodwill toward others.
- TEMPERANCE HELPS US do things in just measure—not too much and not too little.
- COURAGE ALLOWS US TO FLOURISH AND TRIUMPH AGAINST ADVERSITY.
Foundational to Stoicism is the principle that we don’t control the world around us, but we control our responses to it. When we respond to events in the world with the cardinal virtues of wisdom, moderation, courage, and justice, we live the best kind of life available to a human being and move closer to eudaimonia.
Living a eudaimonic life consists in fulfilling our potential as human beings by optimizing our distinctive nature as rational and social animals. When we do this, we are doing what the Stoics called “living in agreement with nature.” This means living wisely in accordance with our rational nature, living in harmony with other people and working for the common good in accordance with our social nature, and living in harmony with the external world and accepting what is outside our control in accordance with the nature of the universe.
Emotions in Stoicism
It is important to recognize the difference between someone who is stoic (with a small “S”) and one who is a Stoic (with a capital “S”). Being stoic refers to the personality trait of being unfeeling, non-reactive, and suppressing emotions. A Stoic on the other hand is an adherent of the philosophy of Stoicism, a whole way of life and set of ethical values. Stoicism does not advocate suppressing emotions. Stoics especially value healthy emotions such as joy, serenity, and love.
As for unhealthy emotions such as strong anger, fear, and hatred, Stoicism advocates acknowledging such emotions, reflecting on the negative thought patterns that produce them, and redirecting the irrational thoughts to healthier thoughts that enable more effective responses to situations. In this respect Stoicism is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a scientifically-validated and highly successful modern psychotherapy. CBT founder Aaron T. Beck has acknowledged being influenced by Stoicism, citing the Stoic principle that it is the meaning people give to events rather than the events themselves that affect them.