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Stoicism and Epicureanism were the two main Hellenistic schools of philosophy (i.e., schools which came after Aristotle). While differing in their fundamental tenets, both philosophical schools recognized the goal of philosophy to be the transformation of the self into a sage.

A sage is one who has attained a ‘plenitude of being’, or ‘perfection of being’, unattainable to us fallible creatures, and therefore, like wisdom, an unrealizable ideal. No human being can ever become a sage. Nevertheless, although ideals can never be attained, they can be progressed towards, and the progression towards a greater state of perfection of being was the goal of both Stoicism and Epicureanism.

In the passage below from the book Letters from a Stoic, Seneca, a Stoic who appreciated the philosophy of Epicureanism, noted the main difference between his Stoic school and the school of Epicurus. Epicureanism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of ‘training one’s desires’.

Man is miserable, thought Epicurus (the founder of Epicureanism) because he desires things that he need not desire. If we would but learn or habitualize ourselves to desire only those things which are necessary and natural to us as human beings, we would be able to bathe in the ‘pure joy of being’; that is, learn to understand how pleasurable it is just to exist. The Epicurean sage, or one who has attained the ideal which Epicureanism sets forth, is one who, given that his basic needs are met (shelter, food, etc.) is able to rival ‘the gods’ in happiness.

Stoic philosophers, in contrast to Epicureans, believed that there are many things outside of our control in life, and therefore many things which could befall us and make our lives very difficult. Sickness, loss, poverty, death and other tragedies which commonly befall human beings are things which in general we have little control over. Should the goddess Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck or fortune) decide that a terrible ill must come upon us, in many cases there is little we can do except wait and hope the terrible storm will soon pass, and not wipe us away for eternity.

Unlike Epicureans, the Stoic philosophers stressed that to be alive means to be open to the many troubles which can arise in our lives at no fault of our own, and that the attainment of happiness is not merely a matter of ceasing to desire things we need not desire. What is required in order to live a successful life according to the Stoics is courage, moral strength, and of course, wisdom. Surely bad things will happen to us, and moreover surely we will have desires for things the attainment of which will not benefit us. But one who has become a true Stoic, a Stoic sage, will bear the vicissitudes of fortune with strength, understanding, and equanimity; and will refrain from acting upon or giving to his base desires/impulses.

Or, in the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca…

“The difference here between the Epicurean and our own school is this: our wise man feels his troubles but overcomes them, while their wise man does not even feel them. We share with them the belief that the wise man is content with himself. Nevertheless, self-sufficient though he is, he still desires a friend, a neighbour, a companion. Notice how self-contented he is: on occasion such a man is content with a mere partial self – if he loses a hand as a result of war or disease, or has one of his eyes, or even both, put out in an accident, he will be satisfied with what remains of himself and be no less pleased with his body now that it is maimed and incomplete than he was when it was whole. But while he does not hanker after what he has lost, he does prefer not to lose them. And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I speak of his being ‘able’ to do this, what I am saying in fact amounts to this: he bears the loss of a friend with equanimity.”(Letters from a stoic).

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