How Stoicism Works

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.