What is Stoicism?

pink flowers

In the About section I said that on the Will to Freedom blog you can expect to read material drawing on Stoic philosophy. But what is that? What is Stoicism?

The short answer is that Stoicism is a philosophy of life devised in Ancient Greece around 300 BCE. The ancient Stoics thought of philosophy as something quite practical. Yes, they were interested in logic and physics, and were highly adept theoreticians, but philosophy was at root the art of living.

The ancient Stoics were not ‘armchair philosophers’. Rather, they were at the forefront of living, right in the thick of it, tackling the demands which confront us every single day. No practical detail was beneath them.

One Chance to Live

Every human will die, so in the remaining time how should I live? How should you live? The Stoics developed an answer to this question:

  1. Live deliberately and seize the day.
  2. Winnow out what really matters in life from what doesn’t.
  3. Realise that we are small parts of a much vaster cosmos.
  4. Carefully identify what we can control and what we cannot.
  5. Note that everything that exists is in a state of change.
  6. Observe our thoughts and understand them calmly and logically.
  7. Don’t attach our happiness to external things.
  8. Appreciate what we have.
  9. Understand that we are all part of a universal family and act accordingly.
  10. Develop our character every day, specifically our wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control.
  11. Know that earnestly pursuing excellent character is enough for a flourishing life.

The Stoics didn’t just advocate an examined life but a trained life. Although book learning is important, we don’t become people who are wiser, more just, more courageous, and more self-disciplined, merely by such examination. We can’t transform our lives once and for all by, as it were, looking into a microscope and viewing the essence of a good life, or reading about it in a book or on a blog and shouting ‘EUREKA!’. In order to improve ourselves, to live more fully, we must practice living a better way each day.

The Stoics designed several techniques to this end, such as reflecting upon the day before sleeping, viewing yourself in the context of the whole universe to get perspective, denying yourself certain pleasures in order not to be ruled by cravings, remembering wise sayings to stay motivated, imagining yourself looking back on your life from your death bed, meditating to expand your circle of concern, mentally preparing for adverse events, reminding yourself that your thoughts and feelings are just ‘impressions’ and you can decide whether you agree with them.

A Living Philosophy

Stoicism was once a very influential and famous philosophy. The heyday of Stoicism ended around the 2nd century CE in Rome, but the ideas lived on in various forms. The philosophy underwent a resurgence in the 20th century which has only increased into the 21st, in fact exponentially so. That is because regardless of its its ancient origins, Stoicism remains a compelling vision of a good life and means to create it.

Because we only have access to about 1% of what the Stoics wrote (the rest is lost) and because almost 2000 years have elapsed since Stoicism was prominent and thriving, modern Stoics have both to piece together an understanding of the philosophy and to modernise it in the light of scientific discoveries and other insights in the interim. I see Stoicism as a living philosophy, not a relic to be observed in a glass case. That means it is subject to change, just as it was to the ancients.

One thing cannot change, however. Stoicism is a philosophy of life, a spiritual path, albeit a secular one, deeply committed to goodness in the fullest sense, very importantly including a dedication to helping others. Some people have tried to treat it as a bag of tricks to endure suffering or even to corrupt it entirely by adopting ‘Stoicism’ as a shortcut to stunning business success, as the modus operandi of the millionaire and billionaire elite. The former is understandable, though misguided, as Stoicism is indeed a powerful means to remain tranquil in a difficult world (in fact, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was inspired by Stoicism). But the latter erases, or even inverts, Stoic core values and turns a wise philosophy into a cheap money-making gimmick.

The Human in Bloom

Many of us have encountered the phrase ‘to be stoic’ or ‘to be stoical’ about something. In common speech, this means either to show no emotion or to endure without feeling emotion. That is a caricature which has passed through the ages. Certainly Stoicism is a philosophy of perseverance. Stoics train to be robust so as to cope with the caprice of life. But not only do Stoics not aspire to extirpate all emotion, we do not merely aspire to survive. We train to live full, meaningful, lives, which we will be proud of at the moment of death.

Stoicism aims at the human in bloom, achieving a good flow of life, as said by Zeno of Citium the Stoic founder. We aim to get into this flow by cultivating virtue, the excellence of character referred to above. This is not a miserable, gruelling, existence, put a path of peace and hearty appreciation for life. A Stoic will be content even as chaos abounds outside of them, like a snowdrop rising above its frigid canopy, a living, breathing, eye of the hurricane.

Rather than banishing emotion, Stoics attempt foremost to make correct value judgments and stave off baneful negative feelings like jealousy, hatred, rage, sorrow, guilt, and terror. This opens up space for uplifting emotions based on correct value judgments, like joy, cheerfulness, humour, love, and tranquility.

Overall, Stoicism is a practical, meaningful, humane, and deeply beautiful philosophy which aims to bring us in harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with the cosmos in its entirety.

This is only a brief introduction to Stoicism. You can learn more by checking out the Links to Liberation and by reading other Will to Freedom articles about Stoicism including reading A Stoic Journal and the Spiritual and Philosophical Exercises.