“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”- Marcus Aurelius
In this article, we will explore what being a stoic actually means, the principles it is guided by, the history of the philosophy, and the core figures that molded it. Using this information, we’ll distill down some fundamental lessons you can take away from the philosophy and apply them to your own life.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a philosophy from both ancient Greece and Rome that started in the early 3rd century B.C. by Zeno. In basic, the belief system focuses on reaching a fulfilled life through honing your character and finding happiness through virtue. They believe a life without virtue breeds suffering and evil, causing ignorance to spread. However, stoicism is more than these ideas and is more of a way of life governed by core tenants. In the below sections, we will go into more detail as to what beliefs governed the stoic lifestyle and what exactly is meant by virtue.
Stoicism’s Core Beliefs
There is a multitude of beliefs brought about by stoic philosophers, but the core principles revolve around discipline, self-control, unity, and reason. The four core stoic tenets are broken down here:
Live in agreement with nature: When a stoic says to live at one with nature, it means to accept it as is and try to understand it without biases of our experiences. We are not separate from the world, but a part of a greater whole. So, one should use reason to understand how ourselves and the world works to be more in tune with its processes, resulting in a happier life.
Only focus on what you can control: The core belief is that in the face of hardship and unfairness in the world, you should endure and focus on what you can control. For the stoic, much of our own lives are out of our realm of influence. However, our own thoughts, actions, and goals are things we can manage. So, if we can focus on improving things within our personal influence we can avoid unnecessary heartache and get closer to our ideal selves.
No man is an island: There is only so much you can accomplish by yourself and to accomplish anything greater than yourself you need friends and supporters. Your personal interests are intertwined with the people you are around and since we are social animals by nature, it is proper to work together to achieve our goals. While we all may not have the same destination in mind, it is important to have community and help others reach their potential.
We are responsible for ourselves: This means our inner struggles are our own and so you cannot blame outside forces for problems that have nothing to do with you. While some things logically can be blamed as causes for strife, it is what you do in response to it that matters most. So regardless of what life throws at you, you have a duty to tend to your own life and must have the discipline as well as self-control to move forward while denying unproductive distractions and harmful behaviors.
Stoicism and Fate
A stoic would say they believe that the causes and effects of actions are predetermined and cannot be changed by human actions. However, our reactions to causes are our choice and each choice we make has a corresponding effect, good or bad. Cryssipus, known for the systematizing of the stoic philosophy, used an example of a cone and a cylinder to explain this concept. While pushing and knocking over objects is an inevitable thing, the cylinder and cone fall in different ways and never in the same place. So, therefore, the movement in the process of falling is our reaction and thus our choices can affect where we end up.
Stoicism on Death: Memento Mori
An underpinning of most stoic beliefs is the idea of memento mori, which means “remember that you must die”. While this seems like a dark idea, it is meant to be a motivation for discipline and to emulate the lifestyle Stoicism prescribes for people. We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth so it is better spent doing something with our lives and pursuing happiness rather than giving into the instinct of fearing failure, loss, or death.
Stoicism defines its virtues as four separate traits of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Each is needed alongside practicing the core beliefs or else they are empty and do not provide satisfaction. Below we have broken down what defines each of these virtues:
Wisdom: You must see things for how they are rather than how you want them to be. Separate your own perceptions from your reason to find the truth. Broken into other qualities of good sense, calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness.
Courage: Regardless of fear or reservations you must do what is right. Even if there may be negative consequences, it is best to make a moral and just decision. Courage is also broken up into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness.
Justice: Act fairly in decision-making and towards others. Discrimination should only be made in terms of what is fact and fiction, not what it is perceived to be. Divided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing.
Temperance: Acting with self-discipline and control is always best. Resist urges of passion and greed and create habits to become a good and moral person. Further described as good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control.
A Brief History of Stoicism
The foundational framework of Stoicism was formed in the Hellenistic Age. It was initially influenced by contemporary Greek thought, but differed in that it focused on the individual’s capacity and forging misfortune into opportunity. It proved to be an attractive philosophy in the time of disorder created by the collapse of Ancient Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire. During the Roman Empire, Stoic doctrine turned toward moral philosophy and natural science, contributing to the practicality of the philosophy. Because of its fluid history, the tenets of Stoicism have survived to be incorporated into many contemporary philosophies and modern thought.
Early Stoa (300 – 100 BC)
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium. Zeno was a typical merchant of the time until he was shipwrecked in Athens, which he later referred to as “a prosperous voyage” as his life lacked meaning at the time. There he met Xenophon, a student of Socrates, who exposed Zeno to the ideas of his mentor through the book Memorabilia. Zeno was captivated by the philosophical arguments in the work and dedicated himself to becoming a philosopher. His dedication was reinforced by his opposition to epicurism, the dominant philosophical school of the time.
Epicurus believed in a materialistic world and an accidental nature, driven by pain and pleasure. To oppose these ideas, Zeno drew from the ideas of Parmenides of Elea regarding the power of thought, Heraclitus of Ephesus with the constancy of change, Socrates on human nature, and the Cynics for a reason-driven life. He started teaching logic, physics, and ethics in the Stoa Poikile (the Painted Porch) in the center of Athens. His ideas became popular for pushing the importance of finding contentment through simplicity and showing that all one really needs is self-awareness.
The philosophical ideas of Zeno continued after his death. Zeno was initially succeeded by Cleanthes of Assos. Cleanthes added little to the philosophy, with the biggest change to come out of his leadership being a greater emphasis being placed on acting in accordance with nature. Chrysippus of Soli, Cleanthes’s successor, further developed Zeno’s writing to solidify its foundations by creating a system of propositional logic. He created the first fully developed doctrines of stoicism and held that logic and theology are both needed to determine between right and wrong.
Middle Stoa (100 BC – 0)
Stoicism was brought to Rome by Panaetius and his pupil Posidonius. They pushed for a more fluid form of Stoicism as opposed to the rigid thought of their fellow philosophers. Panaetius was instrumental in the popularity of Stoicism as he facilitated the spread of the philosophy between Athens and Rome. In so doing, he simplified stoic ideas about physics and logic. This moved the stoic philosophy closer to Neoplatonism and made it more accessible, causing the school to fracture.
Cato the Younger was a famous politician, remembered as the man who nearly stopped Julius Caesar during the waning years of the Roman Republic. He contributed to the shift from the abstract conception of stoicism held by the Greeks toward the Roman stoics’ focus on preserving the Roman Republic. These inherently political motives make it difficult to separate Roman stoicism from political philosophy. Cato’s philosophy is grounded in the ideas that God wants happiness for humanity and that virtue is necessary to attain said happiness.
While Cato believed passion and desire were good, this was only if the nature and end of the passion were also good. Politically, he saw the passionate mobs of the time as dangerous and a road to dictatorship. From this, he gathered that it was the role of the elite to guide the passions of the populace toward the positive ends of happiness, knowledge, and the preservation of good government. This fed into Cato’s view that passion controlling intellect could only lead to corruption, decadence, and decline.
Late stoa (0 – 200 AD)
Seneca the Younger was a Roman philosopher that contributed to the practicality of Stoic thought. Seneca further pushed the idea that the purpose of philosophy should be to influence and improve on politics. He viewed philosophy as the universal world and politics as a local world, meaning philosophy provides the knowledge which politics applies. From this, he gathers that the highest way of life is that of the philosopher and that this gives philosophers the obligation to help those who can not attain such knowledge. This pushed him to believe that the highest form of knowledge was knowledge of the self as people cannot achieve happiness and virtue if they are ignorant of their own nature. This pushed him to establish the study of what is now considered anthropological knowledge, the study of humans and all things related to humans.
Known for his effective teaching methods, Epictetus was instrumental in the application of Stoic thought in daily life. He spent much of his life as a slave, which led him to stress learning from the wisdom of others and disregarding one’s own arrogance. His handbook, the Enchiridion serves as a practical guide on how to implement stoicism in daily life. He was good at how stoic thought improves one’s daily life and shifted the philosophy to be primarily focused on duty and obligation.
These teachings were followed by those of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome. He contended that virtue can be practiced in everything. He held that misfortune and obstacles in life are necessary and should be viewed as opportunities to improve yourself. His emphasis on virtue and the necessity of misfortune helped develop Stoicism into a fully comprehensive moral philosophy centered on overcoming hardships. This is seen in his book, Meditations, which is among the most-read stoic works and continues to serve as a source for personal improvement and growth today.
Attempts had been made to integrate stoicism into Christianity since the early church under St. Augustine, but this proved impossible due to inherent contradictions between the two. In the late 16th century, Justus Lipsius, a Flemish scholar and Latin humanist, was responsible for the first restatement of Stoicism as a defensible philosophy of human nature. To do this he had to present this pagan philosophy so that it would be reconcilable with Christianity. This forced him to grapple with the materialism and determinism inherent to stoicism. He did this by primarily focusing on the value of reason in overcoming emotions while openly criticizing its other ideas. His defense of stoic doctrine and physics served as the basis for the ancient philosophy’s influence on the Renaissance.
Guillaume Du Vair was a French statesman and admirer of Lipsius and produced his own treatise De la Constance (‘On Constancy’) in 1594. Du Vair drew his inspiration from Epictetus, translating the latter’s Handbook into French and considered his own work to be merely a simplified reconstruction of Epictetus’s. Du Vair treads carefully in his attempt to combine Christianity with his admiration for Epictetus. He suggests that, although the Stoics failed to achieve salvation through God, they managed to live the most virtuous lives possible without the true light of Christianity to guide them. For Du Vair, complete mastery of one’s passions, achieved via the application of Stoic principles, does not contradict Christian teaching but rather can form the basis for a truly Christian way of life as only one who has overcome passions such as fear and anger can truly practice Christian forgiveness.
Stoicism as a philosophy has also stood the test of time in the modern era in the form of what is called “pop stoicism”. As part of the growing self-help movement around the globe, new proprietors of philosophy came into the works to fill in the gap with stoicism, particularly in the western world. The most notable of these is Ryan Holiday who wrote a translation of key Stoic works in his book “The Daily Stoic” which was written in 2016. Since then, his book became incredibly popular and he has turned it into a huge brand creating content on a website named after the book to spread the wisdom of ancient stoicism. Similar to Ryan’s story, Donald Robertson has become a strong voice within the modern movement as well but takes more of an analytical approach when he is speaking about the philosophy.
Generally speaking, stoicism has grown especially from 2019 to the present day and many believe this is due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic due to its jarring effect on the world. So, the philosophy theoretically was used to provide stability during this time. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation became especially popular and sales jumped by 28% in from 2019-2020. Other works by stoics or those examining stoic philosophy have also grown in popularity, but not to this degree.
However, this current movement has many critics who believe that the current spin on the stoic philosophy misses the point of stoic teachings and instead makes it commodified. While it is true that many brands have popped up to make products for symbols of stoicism like Memento Mori, it is hard to confirm this theory. There is a heavy focus on the most simple aspects of stoicism such as the concept of negative visualization to apply to your own life, but many articles on their teachings delve into their complexities. However, as this is part of the modern age and how we consume information, it is easy for the core ideas to be diluted. So, for now, it can at least be said that the works of the stoics have become popular again, and how people understand their beliefs is up in the air.
Stoicism’s Effect on The World
The stoic philosophy as one of the more popular non-religious belief systems has had a major impact on the world at large. Much of western philosophy has been influenced by stoicism either through online media, the world self-help community, or historical books written by ancient stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Furthermore, the social media community, especially when it comes to men, often has content showcasing quotes from these ancient philosophers to serve as motivation and wisdom. The entire idea of being a stoic has even become an industry in it itself. Many people such as Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson have become influencers and give life advice and daily practices based on philosophical belief as almost a commodity.
However, it must be noted that it's not all sunshine and roses. Modern stoicism, also known as pop stoicism, has in some ways due to how we consume information, distorted the principles and values of the philosophy. Technology and the growing need for bite-sized information run the risk of not understanding the complexities of philosophy and in this case, tends to boil down stoic principles to self-help practices. Much of western culture typically focuses on individualistic aspects of things which can cause in part a much more self-focused lifestyle. This is not the core of stoicism and in fact, it was meant to be a social and community-based system in the first place, not an individual self-help agenda. Many of the ideals of the ancients of having conversations in the community and getting closer to the truth are not seen in modern society to the same degree as was done in the past. So as a result, some of the wisdom of the ancients is bound to have been lost in translation.
So while it is good that stoicism is very popular, it was not meant to be distilled down to quick fixes. Many of the virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance are often ignored for the simple quote, general truism, or self-help practice. However, this is what makes the stoic beliefs potent and since it is not often applied, it loses their purpose. Even so, it is generally a good sign that more people are growing interested in learning about philosophies, but it is yet to be seen if most will look deeper past the surface.
Stoicism: Key Takways
Stoicism has plenty of practical and prudent wisdom to draw from to apply in your own life. Below we will go into detail about stoic practices that will allow you to use their beliefs and turn them into tangible values, habits, and a lifestyle:
Practice negative visualization: It might sound counterintuitive but try imagining the worst possible thing that could happen in a situation. Then try asking yourself: “how you would cope with it?”, “how would you prepare for the worst?”, and “how would you ensure it won’t happen?” This thought process puts you in a frame of action instead of passivity. It is also quite unlikely that this worst thing will happen as well, so there is not too much cause for concern or anxiety.
Be conscious and resist behaviors of ego and vanity: We all are arrogant at times and understand through the conscious realization that we don’t know everything. So, it is best to make a habit of listening carefully, of being aware of when we behave arrogantly, and of taking note of our own knowledge accurately. Always pursue knowledge not only through endeavors alone but also by learning from others who have more knowledge than you.
Put your thoughts into writing: Daily self-reflection through writing is a great way to understand your emotions, how you think, and why you behave the way you do. Journaling and asking your questions about what you accomplished, what you haven’t done, what you want to do, or even lingering doubts or anxieties can help put a path forward into focus. This practice helps you take accountability and if you are consistent, it will allow you to look back on yourself and help you notice patterns of thought or action that you can improve upon.
Don’t depend on others for happiness: You have probably heard this many times, but it is hard to put into practice. Understanding your limits and setting boundaries, respecting your own time, and building habits that push you toward your goals can all help you find inner happiness. It is also important to know and convince yourself that you have control of yourself, what you believe in, and your actions. This less passive approach towards creating an identity of virtue will help you develop confidence and not only make you happy but help others respect you as well.
Stoicism: Additional Resources
If you are interested in learning more, we have provided some recommended resources for you to learn more about stoicism and what it stands for.
Here are some recommended books if you are looking to understand more about the stoic philosophy:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Letters From a Stoic by Seneca
Letters on Ethics to Lucilius by Seneca
The Discourses of Epictetus by Epictetus