What is Stoicism?

Stoicism and the search for inner strength and peace is as popular today as it was in Ancient Greece. Learn about this eternally relevant philosophy and what it means to be a stoic.


An introduction to the Stoics

In 65 AD, the philosopher Seneca was sentenced to death after being accused of plotting to kill Nero. On his deathbed, Seneca mourned, not for his own death, but for the state of philosophy as he saw it in his lifetime.

Seneca stated that *“philosophy, the study of wisdom, has become philology, the study of words.”* Seneca was a member of the **Stoic** school of philosophy. While a ‘stoic’ today is someone known to be unaffected by emotions or pleasure or pain, this does not accurately describe the true meaning of stoicism as taught by ancient philosophers.

The ancient Stoics believed that one should be a master of their own desires and emotions and seek to control their reactions to anything life may throw at them. One famous member of this disciplined school of philosophy was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Apathy does not a Stoic make

When someone is described as a stoic today, it usually means they live unaffectedly; they do not exhibit great emotion or passion and may even be apathetic to the world and to people around them. However, the ancient Stoics were people who attempted to rid themselves of all negative emotion and cultivate an inner strength and joy that radiated from them.

Ancient Stoics attempted to live in a state of serenity and peace despite their current circumstances or any circumstances that life could present. As Seneca wrote, the true Stoic must *“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.”*

This intentional mentality has seen a resurgence in modern times and actually forms the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy.

The first Stoics

The Stoic school of philosophy was co-founded by **Zeno of Citium**, a philosopher who taught on a painted porch, the **Stoa Poikile**, which earned him the stoic moniker. Much of Zeno’s writings remain today after being preserved by Diogenes Laertius (not to be confused with Diogenes the Cynic), who wrote a biography of him centuries later.

Zeno believed there is an underlying divine reason that governs the universe. This guiding reason is part of a complex and harmonious structure that not only commands the universe but has laid a predetermined path for each of us to follow.

The path to happiness, according to Zeno, is living in accordance with this nature by conquering emotions and passions that ultimately lead us to chase the wrong things and suffer. Since we cannot change the path that the universe has sculpted for us, we can only control our own passions and reactions.

Chrysippus’ causes

**Chrysippus** co-founded the school of Stoicism with his friend and teacher, Zeno of Citium. Chrysippus is credited with more than 750 writings, and while Zeno was concerned with the ethics of reason in establishing this new system of philosophy, Chrysippus was focused on the logic of it.

Building on the Stoic teachings of the universality of reason and the predetermined state of the universe, Chrysippus believed that every event has a cause and that this cause necessitated the event.

Because of the close connection between cause and event, Chrysippus wrote that *“nothing exists or has come into being in the cosmos without a cause. The universe will be disrupted and disintegrate into pieces and cease to be a unity functioning as a single system if any uncaused movement is introduced into it.”*

The divine reality

It is important to note that Stoic philosophers refer to the divine, guiding principle of reason that underlies and pervades all reality by many names: the ‘mind,’ ‘universal reason,’ or even ‘God’ or ‘Zeus.’

Despite these various names, the Stoics agreed that this divine principle of reason was embodied in nature, and, in a sense, is nature itself. This principle could be understood through the causes and effects in which it manifests itself. Stoics believed that in many ways the universe, and ourselves in it, are a part of one great unified being or one great nature.

This is similar to early philosophical views such as those espoused by Parmenides, who believed that all of reality was a part of a unified ‘Oneness.’ To describe this theory, Seneca wrote, *“All that you see – which comprises both god and man – is one; we are parts of one great body.”*

Unity with divinity

The ultimate divine reason that the Stoics defined as elemental and ubiquitous in the universe was composed of three aspects – logic, natural philosophy, and ethics. Zeno of Citium fervently believed that anyone willing to conform to this divine reason and to conquer their emotions would find true happiness.

Zeno also believed that philosophy was useful only if it was put into practice. While he expounded on his theories of the fundamental divine reason and the process of unifying oneself with it, he also understood that the world is innately imperfect. Because the world is imperfect, and because so many people are unable to understand or even see this divine reason, it was important for anyone calling themselves a Stoic to live according to their values in a very public way.

To Zeno, it was vital to show that one does not have to chase after wealth and riches to be happy. All that is necessary for happiness is to change our perceptions of the world.

The god within

According to the Stoics, our minds are a direct extension of the divine principle or reason that dictates the fate of the universe through cause and effect. The unifying reason that pervades all things is also what penetrates our minds; however, our bodies are merely physical and mortal.

The Stoics called the mind ‘the god within’ and believed that most people are misled by the lower material body into chasing desires and appetites that are only momentarily fulfilling. By cultivating this god within, who is untouched by predetermined events, we will be able to react to events freely and consciously and appreciate the effect that events or circumstances have on our happiness.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and Stoic, went so far as to say that we should love whatever hand fate deals us. This ability to find contentment and pleasure, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves, is the root of true freedom and happiness.

The freedom to feel

According to Stoics, the universe is predetermined, meaning that we cannot change our fate. Our life’s course has already been established, and the only thing we do have control over is ourselves. While this view of the universe may seem futile, the Stoics believed that we actually do have free will. However, this free will cannot alter the universe or the path of our lives, it can change only our reactions.

For example, consider a traffic jam, which can trigger fury that may even surprise us. According to the Stoics, there is nothing we can do to resolve that traffic jam; we were meant to be stuck in it. **The only thing we can change is our attitude.** We can choose peace and serenity and understand that no amount of anger will make the traffic move. We hurt only ourselves by wallowing in our anger.

Free will

Since the Stoics believed that we cannot change the world around us and can affect only our desires, emotions, and reactions, the Stoics believed that, too often, people choose desires that provide fleeting and superficial happiness. The fulfillment of these desires – such as for money, relationships, or success – may make us momentarily happy, but this only locks us into a cycle of constantly seeking more.

Fulfilling these desires cannot make us happy. In fact, it is only by learning to rid ourselves of these superficial desires that we can find true happiness.

Once we have conquered the hold that these desires have over us, we will no longer be influenced by base negative emotions such as greed, jealousy, or even anxiety or fear. Through discipline and the exertion of our own free will over ourselves, we will find peace and serenity in our own minds, no matter the situation or occasion.

What is up to us?

The stark contrast between a life predetermined by the universe and the inner freedom that comes from accepting this state and finding peace with fate is the very essence of Stoicism.

This philosophy doesn’t worry about the ‘meaning of words,’ as Seneca mourned. Instead, it provides practitioners with practical knowledge for attaining happiness. While other schools of philosophy, such as Cynicism, believe happiness comes from rejecting society and norms, the Stoics take a more balanced approach.

As Epictetus, a Roman Stoic who was born a slave, writes, *“Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”* The opinions and values of others, as well as our health or reputation, are not up to us. These can be influenced by our actions, but ultimately they are out of our control. What is up to us is our opinions, morals, beliefs, desires, and goals.

Misery according to the stoics

The ultimate cause of misery, according to the Stoics, is the fact that people base their happiness on factors beyond their control. This creates a self-imposed slavery in which we are bound to external forces to provide happiness that could be taken away from us at any moment.

Again, Epictetus has an insightful response: *“Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.”*

To free ourselves from this slavery, we must reject the mistake of basing our happiness on factors beyond our control; instead, we must turn inward to what we can control. This is the mark of the truly free man, the one who does not rely on people, status, or material possessions for happiness but who can be happy no matter his state or circumstance.

Practicing happiness

Inward happiness may seem simple on paper, but to break free from the desire for happiness attributed to external and temporary sources, Epictetus provides a set of practical ways of adjusting our thinking.

He writes:

*“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?”*

Only you have the power to hurt yourself

According to the philosopher Epictetus, *“It is not things that trouble us, but our judgments about things.”* Because the events of this world are a series of causes and effects determined by a guiding ultimate ‘reason,’ these events are not innately good or bad. The sickness or death of a loved one or the loss of a job or a reputation are not innately bad.

What makes events and circumstances bad and what causes the resulting suffering is that we’ve been conditioned to connect our happiness with these states or conditions. When we no longer base our state of mind on them, we realize they are bad only because we have determined them to be bad.

These losses or absences cause pain only because we allow them to hurt us. These troubles can soon become only mountains to climb instead of pits in which to fall once we recognize that **it is only ourselves who can give them the power to hurt.**

Finding peace and happiness

Society is, in fact, mistaken as it leads people to chase after desires and appetites that are fleeting and, ultimately, empty. But the Stoics also believe there is nothing we can do to change our world or the trajectory of our lives, and the simple rejection of societal norms is not enough for happiness.

For true happiness, we must reject negative emotions and find within us the discipline to seek contentment and joy no matter what situation we may find ourselves in.

Profound happiness is the freedom from the chains of happiness that is bound to fleeting material possessions or states. It allows us to be content with very little and to find the good in a bad situation. More importantly, when material wealth and success come our way, it helps us to enjoy them without fear of losing them.

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