Stoicism is a school of philosophy and spirituality founded (308 BC) in Athens by Zeno of Citium (Cyprus). It teaches that altruism is the primary good in life and is all that is required for happiness. Virtuous people can remain independent of society but they must help others. They can only become more enlightened by putting their virtue into practice in their actions with others. By mastering their passions and emotions, they can overcome the outside world and find peace within themselves. Greek philosophers such as Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and later Roman thinkers such as Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are associated with Stoicism. This philosophy is usually contrasted with Epicureanism.
Table of contents
The first Stoics derived their ethical teachings from Diogenes and his fellow Cynics. Diogenes, like Socrates, favored simple living, without luxuries and tried to reduce life to its bare necessities. He lived in a clay tub, ate raw meat and masturbated in public to demonstrate his self-independence.
Stoicism first appeared in Athens about 301 BC introduced by Zeno of Citium. He taught in the famous stoa poikile (the painted porch) from which his philosophy got its name. Central to his teachings was the law of morality being the same as nature. During its intial phase it was generally seen as a back-to-nature movement critical of superstitions and taboos. Their philosophical detachment also encompassed pain and sickness, good or ill fortune, as well as life or death. Zeno often challenged prohibitions, traditions and customs. Another tenet was the emphasis placed on love for all other beings.
His ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founder, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno's most important follower was Chrysippus, who in fact was responsible for much of what we now call Stoicism. The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, materialistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were to be of more interest for many later philosophers. Later Roman Stoics focussed more on the development of recommendations for living in harmony with the universe, over which one has no direct control.
Stoic ethics and virtues
The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used meant different things in the past than they do today. The word stoic has come to mean unemotional, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason and cultivating apatheia (apathy, or detachment). But the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgement.
Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." One must therefore strive to be free of the passions (hate, fear, pain, pleasure, distress, appetite, etc.), bearing in mind the ancient meaning of passion: "anguish" or "suffering", which is different than the modern use of the word.
The idea was to be free of passion (suffering) through apatheia (απαθεια) (Greek) or apathy, where apathy was understood in the ancient sense—objectivity or "clear judgement"—rather than "lack of concern," as apathy means today. The Stoic concepts of passion and apatheia are analogous to the Buddhist noble truths; All life has suffering (Dukkha), suffering is rooted in passion and desire (Samudaya), meditation and virtue can free one from suffering (Nirodha and Marga).
Stoic reason not only meant using logic, but was also associated with the processes of nature—the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people. The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance. If someone is unkind, it's because they're unaware of their own universal reason, and if you are unhappy, it is because you've forgotten how nature actually works. The solution to evil and unhappiness, then, is the practice of philosophy—to examine one's own judgements and behaviour and determine where they have diverged from the universal reason of nature.
Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis, from which the term ascetic derives). Stoic philosophical / spiritual practices included Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), daily reflection on everyday problems & possible solutions, and so on.
- "Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together..."
Aurelius is not just stating a fact here, but giving the reader a practical technique: Say to yourself in the early morning... In other words, remind yourself every day, again and again, of the problems you can expect and how to solve them.
Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.
The Stoics held Logos to be the animating or 'active principle' of all reality. The Logos was conceived as a conduit for divine power that, in essence, orders and directs the universe. Human reason and the human soul were both considered adjuncts of the Logos, and therefore immortal via the continual recycling of the universe.
A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics recognized and advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Graeco–Roman world, and produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger and Cato the Elder.
Collection of various Stoic quotes:
- “Wherever I go, it will be well with me.”
- "When I see a man in a state of anxiety, I say, What can this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he still be anxious?"
- "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one's desires, but by the removal of desire."
- "Nothing outside the will can hinder or harm the will; it can only harm itself. If then we accept this, and, when things go amiss, are inclined to blame ourselves, remembering that judgment alone can disturb our peace and constancy, I swear to you by all the gods that we have made progress."
- "If you would not fail of what you seek, or incur what you shun, desire nothing that belongs to others; shun nothing that lies beyond your own control; otherwise you must necessarily be disappointed in what you seek, and incur what you shun."
- "In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind, is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our opinions and the decisions of our will."
- "Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will."
- "Who then is the invincible? It is he whom none of the things disturb which are independent of the will."
- "No man is free who is not master of himself."
- "Wherever I go it will be well with me, for it was well with me here, not on account of the place, but of my judgments which I shall carry away with me, for no one can deprive me of these; on the contrary, they alone are my property, and cannot be taken away, and to possess them suffices me wherever I am or whatever I do."
- "I am formed by nature for my own good: I am not formed for my own evil."
- "If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone."
- "Every person must deal with each thing according to the opinion that he holds about it."
- "Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away."
- "He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."
- "The universe is change, life is opinion."
- "Get rid of the judgement ... get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself."
- "The mind in itself wants nothing, unless it creates a want for itself; therefore it is both free from perturbation and unimpeded, if it does not perturb and impede itself."
- "Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return."
- "Let there be freedom from perturbation with respect to the things which come from external causes, and in actions whose cause lies in yourself, be just; that is, let impulse and action terminate in social acts, for this is according to your nature."
- "If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now."
- "Nothing happens to any man which he is not framed by nature to bear."
- "It is in our power to refrain from any opinion about things and not to be disturbed in our souls; for things in themselves have no natural power to force our judgments."
- "If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this."
- "Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined."
- "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!"
- "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone."
- "The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live."
- "That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away."
- "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes."
- "The soul should know whither it is going and whence it came, what is good for it and what is evil, what it seeks and what it avoids, and what is that Reason which distinguishes between the desirable and the undesirable, and thereby tames the madness of our desires and calms the violence of our fears."
- "Virtue is nothing else than right reason."
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations translated by Maxwell Stainforth; ISBN 0140441409, or translated by Gregory Hays; ISBN 0679642609.
- Moses Hadas (ed.), Essential Works of Stoicism (1961: Bantam)
- Lawrence Becker, A New Stoicism (1999) ISBN 0691009643
- Steven Strange (ed.), Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (2004) ISBN 0521827094
- Seneca the Younger (transl. Robin Campbell), Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (2004) ISBN 0140442103
- Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Blackwell, 2995