Introduction to Stoicism

Approximately 2000 years ago a Roman philosopher named Seneca said the following about the state of philosophy in his day:

“There are indeed mistakes made, through the fault of our advisors, who teach us how to debate and not how to live. There are also mistakes made by students, who come to their teachers to develop, not their souls, but their wits. Thus, philosophy, the study of wisdom, has become philology, the study of words.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

These words ring true to this day, where philosophy, even more than in Seneca’s day, has largely lost sight of this most important question of how to live.

Seneca was a member of the school of philosophy known as Stoicism, and while in our day the word ‘stoic’ is most likely to bring to mind an unemotional individual unaffected by pleasure or pain, the modern definition does not accurately represent the Stoic school of philosophy.

The Ancient Stoic was not one who lived life devoid of all emotion, but instead was one who attempted to rid himself of negative emotions, and cultivate an inner strength and joy that radiated from his being no matter what external circumstances he faced.

As Seneca explained, the Stoic must

“necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

It is because the philosophy of Stoicism sets as its ideal the attainment of tranquility in the midst of struggles and joy in the midst of hardship that it has seen a resurgence of popularity in the modern day. In fact, the principles laid down by the Ancient Stoic philosophers form the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach which is increasingly viewed as one of the most effective means to overcome a variety of mental illnesses.

The roots of Stoicism stretch back to the ancient philosopher Zeno of Citium – Citium being the town in Cyprus where he was born. Zeno lived from 334 to 262 BC and sometime around 300 BC he moved to Athens to practice philosophy. Zeno founded a school of philosophy in Athens, and because he gave his lectures on a ‘painted porch’ (Stoa Poikile) his students were called ‘Stoics’.

Zeno, along with the other Stoic philosophers to follow him was extremely influenced by Socrates. Socrates’ influence was so great that the Roman Stoic Epictetus is quoted as saying: “And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”

While Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it was one of his followers, Chrysippus, who would become the most influential of the Greek Stoics. Although none of his works remain today, Chrysippus is thought to have authored approximately 700 works, and is widely considered the greatest ancient philosopher behind Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

While Stoicism originated in Ancient Greece, it reached its peak of influence several centuries later in the Roman Empire. Most of our knowledge of Stoicism comes from the writings and ideas of these ‘Roman Stoics’. Important Roman Stoics include Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, who was born a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 169 AD.

The Stoics divided philosophy into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. However, their main concern was with ethics, and engaged in the study of nature mainly to solidify their ethical views. The Stoics thought that happiness was acquired by attaining virtue, or excellence of character, which in turn was acquired by ‘living according to nature’. Since virtue was attained by living according to nature, the Stoics deemed it necessary to understand the nature of the cosmos in order to determine how to live.

Looking out at the world the Stoics observed that nature exhibits a complex harmonious structure. They reasoned that this structure must be the product of a single divine principle which pervades the entire universe. They called this divine principle many names, including Universal Reason, Mind, God, and Zeus. Despite the myriad of names, it is crucial to understand that they envisioned this principle not as supernatural or as a transcendent being, but as embodied in the fabric of nature, and thus in a sense nature itself. The Stoics believed the entire cosmos to be one massive organism, of which each of us is but a part:

“All that you see”, wrote Seneca, “that which comprises both god and man – is one; we are parts of one great body.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

Within this one great body that is the universe, the Stoics claimed that all external events are wholly determined by antecedent evens, and therefore that whatever happens is predetermined by the iron hammer of fate.

“Whatever happens to you”, wrote Marcus Aurelius, “has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Despite claiming that everything is predetermined, the Stoics did not advocate an attitude of withdrawn resignation towards life. Instead, they put forth a theory which today is called soft determinism, an idea which leaves room for freedom in a deterministic universe.

The Stoics’ soft determinism arose from their conception of the nature of human beings. While we have a physical and mortal body like all creatures on this earth, the Stoics thought that we are unique in that our mind is literally an ‘offshoot’ of the Universal Reason, or God, which pervades and structures all things. As the slave-philosopher Epictetus noted, most people do not acknowledge this ‘god within’, which is really their true self, and instead identify themselves with their creaturely body:

“Seeing that our birth involves the blending of these two things – the body, on the one hand, that we share with animals, and, on the other hand, rationality and intelligence, that we share with the gods – most of us incline to this former relationship, wretched and dead though it is, while only a few to the one that is divine and blessed.” (Enchiridion, Epictetus)

By cultivating this ‘god within’, the Stoics believed we could achieve an inner freedom untouched by the ‘iron hammer’ of fate. This inner freedom would not enable one to change what has already been predetermined, but instead would allow one to respond and react to these events freely and consciously, and thereby control the effect that such events had on one’s happiness. Seneca, for example, thought that we should accept and even love whatever fate brings our way: “What is a good man’s role?”, wrote Seneca, “To offer himself to fate. It is a great consolation that we are swept along together with the universe.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

To better explain their ideas concerning fate, Epictetus used the analogy of a game of dice which had been put forth by Plato hundreds of years before Epictetus lived: “We must accept what happens as we would accept the fall of dice, and then arrange our affairs in whatever way reason best determines.” (Plato, Republic

The contrast between the events of our life predetermined by fate, and the inner fortress of freedom we have the potential to cultivate, delimits the key tenet of Stoicism: “Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” (Epictetus) According to the Stoics, most things are not up to us, or in other words are beyond our control. The actions and opinions of other people, our health, our reputation, and the amount of wealth we amass, are examples of things not up to us. These things can be influenced one way or another through our actions, but ultimately they are things outside of our complete control. The things which are up to us, or within our complete control, are the things which emanate from our mind – for example our opinions, judgments, beliefs, desires, and goals.

According to the Stoics misery and suffering result from the fact that people make their happiness dependent on things which are ultimately outside of their control and in doing so enslave themselves. Epictetus, a born-slave who became a free man later in his life, is quoted as saying:

“A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.” (Enchiridion, Epictetus)

To give up our self-imposed slavery, we must regard as ‘indifferent’ all those things which do not lie within our control, and make our happiness dependent only on those things which are ‘up to us’. For example, since our desires are up to us, we can train ourselves to cease desiring the things which are not in our control. The vast majority of people do not do this but instead slavishly chase after external goods such as wealth, power, or sexual gratification, believing that it is only by attaining these things that they will feel good. Epictetus contrasted this slavish individual with the individual who has attained inner freedom:

“Whenever you see someone holding political power, set against it the fact that you yourself have no need of power. Whenever you see someone wealthy, observe what you have instead of that. For if you have nothing in its place, you are in a miserable state; but if you have the absence of the need to have wealth, realize that you have something greater and much more valuable. One man has a beautiful wife, you have the absence of longing for a beautiful wife. Do you think these are little things? How much would these very people – the wealthy, the powerful, the ones who live with beautiful women – pay for the ability to look down on wealth and power and those very women whom they adore and get? (Enchiridion, Epictetus)

The problem with making our happiness dependent on things outside of our control is that when such things are lacking we will be miserable, and alternatively when we do have them we will often be so anxious about losing them they we won’t even enjoy them.

It is crucial to note here that the Stoics did not advocate that one shun all those things which are not up to us. Rather things such as health, wealth, a good reputation, good food and drink, love and sexual pleasures, all these and more were things which the Stoic enjoyed if they came his way. Yet unlike practically everyone else, the Stoic was not attached to them and his happiness was not dependent on them. This meant not only that in their absence the Stoic still lived a life filled with joy and tranquility, but that when external goods did come his way he was able to enjoy them without being anxious about losing them. As Seneca stated:

“It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

But what about the times in our life when we face not just the absence of certain external goods, but grave misfortunes and adversity? What advice did the Stoics have for these times? To understand how a Stoic would approach such a situation we must heed the words of Epictetus: “It is not things that trouble us, but our judgments about things.”

The loss of a loved one, the crumbling of a career, sickness, or the utter destruction of one’s reputation, are not inherently bad, but are only bad because we judge them to be so.

If we would but look at our misfortunes with a new set of eyes and assume a different attitude towards them, the Stoics maintained that we could benefit from our troubles, and see them as mountains to climb instead of pits to fall into:

“It is difficult circumstances that show real men.” claimed Epictetus. Constant misfortune”, wrote Seneca “brings this one blessing: Those whom it always assails, it eventually fortifies.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

Or perhaps most powerfully, Seneca stated:

“Excellence withers without an adversary: the time for us to see how great it is, how much its force, is when it displays its power through endurance. I assure you, good men should do the same: they should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

The principles which guided the Stoics’ life will likely seem extreme to many and exceedingly difficult to follow. In fact, Epictetus claimed that the Stoic way of life is so difficult that never has there been a true Stoic: “By the gods”, he said, “I would love to see a Stoic. But you cannot show me one fully formed.”

The Stoics maintained that if there ever existed an individual who perfectly embodied the Stoic principles, such an individual would be what they called a Stoic Sage, and would be more godlike than human. The Stoic Sage, Chrysippus is said to have claimed, would be perfectly serene and happy even in the Bull of Phalaris. The Bull of Phalaris being a bronze replica of a bull which the tyrant Phalaris would place his enemies into before lighting a fire beneath its belly, roasting the victim alive.

Seneca described the godlike nature of the Stoic Sage with these words:

And if you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers, never affected by cravings, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, is it not likely that a feeling will find its way into you of veneration for him? Is it not likely that you will say to yourself, ‘Here is a thing which is too great, too sublime for anyone to regard it as being in the same sort of category as that puny body it inhabits.’ Into that body there has descended a divine power.” (Lucius Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)

While the Ancient Stoics knew that few, if any, would ever become Sages they did believe that great benefits could be had for the individuals who strove after such an ideal. The Stoics were extremely cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of people are incapable of dealing with the hardships of life without becoming worn down and eventually defeated.

The Stoics thought of philosophy as a tool we can use to help us sculpt and shape our character into an impenetrable fortress, one able to withstand struggles and adversity with calmness and strength. Epictetus in fact characterized philosophy as concerned with the ‘art of life’, that is, with how to make it through the battle that is life not only intact but having lived a good life.

For as the great Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius put it:the art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Recommended Books

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine

Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems – Jules Evans

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Donald Robertson