How Stoicism Works

Introduction to How Stoicism Works
Leonard Nimoy portrays the original Mr. Spock in the 'Star Trek' TV episode 'The Cloud Minder.' Contrary to popular opinion, a Stoic is not someone who acts like Mr. Spock. CBS via Getty Images

If your idea of philosophical debate is limited to trees toppling in forests with no one around to hear them, the entire concept of Stoicism may seem a tad ... complicated.

We're not talking "stoicism" as we know it today. Nowadays, a stoic — with a lowercase "s" — is someone who has an indifference to emotions and pain. Think Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Think someone with a stiff upper lip. Think "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Stoicism — the philosophy, with a capital "S" — is much more complicated. And much older. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy, debated and practiced by Stoics in Greece and Rome thousands of years ago and taught to generations of followers. It's not dried-up ideas on parchment, either. Today, Stoicism is enjoying a renaissance all over the world.

Modern-day Stoics — again, capital "S" — write books ("How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness") and blog (How to be a Stoic, Daily Stoic, and the dueling sites Modern Stoicism and Traditional Stoicism). They form local chapters to discuss Stoicism's value. They even get together in a big soul-searching convention called a Stoicon. It's like Comic-Con, only with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus instead of Batman and the Avengers. The slogan of the 2016 convention, held in New York City? "Get Your Stoicon"

The entire civilized world once was ruled by a Stoic: the aforementioned Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161-180 C.E., who was often referred to as the philosopher king [source: De Imperatoribus Romanis].

Stoicism is not a religion, but it has informed some, including Buddhism (for mindfulness) and Christianity (monotheistic belief, self-examination and acceptance of God's will) [source: Logos Talk, Philosophy for Life]. Of course, there are many differences between these religions and Stoicism and many modern Stoics are atheists. Links to Stoicism can also be found in cognitive behavioral therapy, with its emphasis on logic and controlling one's thoughts and beliefs.

Above all, perhaps, Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches the value of emotional control in living one's life fully. Moral goodness and happiness can be achieved by being perfectly rational. The tricky part? One of Stoicism's main precepts is that man (sorry, philosophers used to talk in the masculine all the time) must recognize that some things are beyond his control [source: Traditional Stoicism].

How? Ah, yes. As a great writer once penned, there's the rub. It's not easy, and all the misconceptions floating around can make the entire idea of Stoicism confusing. Let's see how it started.

The History of Stoicism

The History of Stoicism
This painting shows the death of Stoic philosopher Seneca. Seneca was a tutor for the emperor Nero who forced him to commit suicide by slitting his wrists. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Stoicism was born in ancient Greece in the time of great philosophers. The term Stoic is culled from the Greek word Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch, a public space in Athens where teachers and students regularly met and chewed the philosophical fat. The Stoa was, in many ways, the center of Greek life. In the midst of this intellectual carnival, sometime around 300 B.C.E., the man now considered the father of Stoicism first opened minds [source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].

Zeno of Citium, the son of Greek merchants, was wandering around Athens after being shipwrecked on a trip from Cyprus. Zeno at first accepted the teaching of others, including the Cynics. (Yep, there was such a thing, and they practiced the philosophy Cynicism, with a capital C.) Gradually, Zeno came around to contemplating and then spreading his own ideas, incorporating elements of Cynicism and other ancient teachings, into a philosophy later to be named after the steps from which he lectured. None of Zeno's works survive, but many sayings and anecdotes were recorded by his followers.

Zeno's philosophy can be described in several ways — philosophy, remember, is nothing if not eminently debatable — but Daily Stoic puts it simply enough: Stoicism is a pursuit of happiness achieved through a "eace of mind that comes from living a life of virtue in accordance with reason and nature."

Among the other philosophers who molded early Stoic thinking were Cleanthes, Cato, Seneca, Epictetus and — notably after the center of Stoic thinking swung from Athens to Rome, where it became a dominant philosophy — Marcus Aurelius [source: The Basics of Philosophy].

Epictetus was an interesting fellow. A former slave, he was permitted to listen to Stoic philosophers while still in servitude, and when he later earned his freedom he began to hold forth with his own lectures. He is credited with the wisdom behind "The Enchiridion," a handbook of thoughts on Stoicism. The first line of it, attributed to Epictetus (though the manual was written by someone else), is this: "Some things are in our control and others not." Accepting that truth launches you on the way to being a Stoic.

All of the early Stoics expounded on Zeno's teachings with thoughts of their own, while debating, clarifying and arguing among themselves. That philosophical wrestling match — much like, we suppose, the back-and-forth concerning that tree in the woods — has raged for thousands of years. Proponents and followers of Stoicism are still pushing and pulling over the finer points today, still trying to figure out just what Stoicism is and how it might fit into our lives.

Just What the Heck Is Stoicism?

Just What the Heck Is Stoicism?
This statue in Rome shows Stoic emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius on horseback. Hans Georg Roth/Getty Images

We know Stoicism is not simply that lack-of-emotions, stiff-upper-lip thing. Though with a lot of talk about reason and controlling your emotions, it's easy to see where that somewhat modern-day twist originated.

What Stoicism is, through all the varying interpretations, is a blueprint to live a better life. A path to what some call "happiness."

To get there, the ancient Stoics believed in introspection (it's a philosopher thing). They laid out three areas of study that a thoughtful, inward-gazing Stoic should embrace and practice to achieve that happiness or fulfillment.

1) Physics: By this, Stoics meant the study of both the natural universe and of metaphysics (that which is beyond the physical world). The word "nature" is used as all-encompassing; it not only includes nature as we know it, but God and the divine as well. Stoics saw it all as one [sources: How to Be a Stoic, Traditional Stoicism].

Here's how philosopher Massimo Pigliucci puts it in his blog How to Be a Stoic, while pointing out still-hot disagreements on the religious and spiritual notions of Stoicism: "A crucial idea that the Stoics derived from their physics is that life ought to be lived 'according to Nature,' which can then in turn be interpreted as 'in agreement with what Zeus (God) has ordained,' or simply lived according to reason, developing to its best that most specific attribute of the human animal. Being a secular person, I obviously go for the latter interpretation." Stoics believed the universe began in a cosmic fire and will end the same way, but begin again.

2) Logic: This includes the study of psychology and other social sciences (economics, sociology, history, etc.) and is often referred to as "reason," a treasured concept in Stoicism. It is through reason, Stoics believe, that we gain knowledge, and with knowledge we can better understand and flourish in the world around us [source: How to Be a Stoic].

3) Ethics: Stoics believe, above all else, in four great virtues: courage, justice, wisdom and temperance. A Stoic life involves trying to nourish these values, on a daily basis, in order to become a complete person and live a good life.

To live a Stoic life, believers must thoughtfully consider "good" emotions (love, joy) and "bad" ones (jealousy, anger) but not let any of them interfere with their pursuit of virtue. Stoics aim for a state of apatheia — not quite what we know as apathy, but a place without distracting emotions or excitement — in order to think clearly, reason correctly and work toward a virtuous life. Rather than suppressing emotions, these must be transformed to achieve inner calm [source: How to Be a Stoic].

Stoicism for Today

So how does Stoicism — born on a porch in ancient Athens, now all over the internet — fit into a world where reason, introspection and self-control seem as foreign to many as ... well, as Spock himself?

Some, it's important to note, say that it doesn't fit at all. Stoicism had its critics, even in its heyday. Cicero, who lived from 106-43 B.C.E., believed that Stoic philosophy was too harsh and threatened the passion and emotion that is part of being human.

"What? A Stoic rouse enthusiasm?" Cicero wrote. "He is much more likely to extinguish any enthusiasm the student may have had to begin with" [source: How to Be a Stoic].

It's a shot that still stings Stoics today.

Still, Stoicism remains popular with many who embrace the idea that God alone is in control of their lives, and that God and the universe are one, and that it's folly to let anything — love, wealth, poverty, hate, envy, jealousy, that bad haircut — get in the way of the pursuit of a virtuous, thoughtful life. It's better, modern Stoics reason, to strive to be the best, most virtuous person possible, to live a life honoring God and being kind to others, than to get caught up in all that doesn't matter.

So, how do you get there? Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci wrote in the New York Times about his daily Stoic practices. First, he starts his day with meditation. "Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how," he said. Pigliucci also meditates on the sayings of a famous Stoic. Another exercise he does consists of visualizing some kind of misfortune happening to him (like losing his job) and seeing it as "'dispreferred indifferent,' meaning that it would be better if it didn't happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one's worth and moral value."

Throughout the rest of the day, Pigliucci tries to be mindful and recognize that every decision he makes has a moral dimension, whether it's how he treats colleagues or how he shops for food. In the evening, he does another mediation where he writes in his diary about his challenges of the day.

Stoics may also practice their beliefs by joining others in a Meetup group. Here's a description from a Brooklyn Stoicism June 2017 meeting: "At this meetup, we will continue our year of Epictetus by continuing our reading of The Discourses, which are the most detailed surviving notes of Epictetus' teachings written by his student Arrian ... To prepare for this meetup, please read Discourses 3.21... While reading, note any comments or questions you may have for the group to bring up during the meetup." 

And if that piques your interest you may also wish to sign up for Stoic Camp.

Author's Note: How Stoicism Works

I've spent a lot of my career interviewing professional athletes, many of whom sound positively Stoic — capital S — when claiming they don't care about things they can't control. Coaches' decisions. Fans' wrath. The bounce of the ball. Injuries. Still, it's often just a line; they do care. They want acceptance. Validation. Adoration. Admiration. There, I think, is the ultimate challenge of Stoicism. It's easy to say that you won't let the world get to you, that a greater good lies beyond the mess of everyday living. But that mess, let's not forget, makes us human.

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More Great Links


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  • College of Stoic Philosophers. "Stoic Quotes Poster." (May 22, 2017)
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