In the previous posts I looked at my favorite Stoic Philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, it is now time to get into the history of the Stoic Philosophy!
For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism. It’s a philosophy designed to make us more resilient, happier, more virtuous and more wise–and as a result, better people, better parents and better professionals.
To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness”. Given the fact that the mere mention of philosophy makes most nervous or bored, “Stoic philosophy” on the surface sounds like the last thing anyone would want to learn about, let alone urgently need in the course of daily life.
It would be hard to find a word that dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic”. In its rightful place, Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry. Certainly, many of history’s great minds not only understood Stoicism for what it truly is, they sought it out: George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each read, studied, quoted, or admired the Stoics.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens (circa 334 – circa 262 BC) in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
The name “Stoicism” derives from the Stoa Poikile or “painted porch“, a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens. Erected in the 5th century BC—the ruins of it are visible still, some 2,500 years later—the painted porch is where Zeno and his disciples gathered for discussion. While his followers were originally called Zenonians, it is the ultimate credit to Zeno’s humility that the philosophical school he founded, unlike nearly every school and religion before or since, didn’t ultimately carry his name.
Zeno’s introduction to philosophy
According to one ancient source, Zeno was travelling on a business trip for his merchant father when the boat he was on was shipwrecked. According to the story, Zeno was washed up on the coast near Athens and as he made his way into the city he stopped to browse at a bookstall. There he started reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates and was so impressed by the figure of Socrates that he asked the bookseller if men like him could still be found in Athens. At that moment the Cynic philosopher Crates walked by and the bookseller said ‘follow that man’. So began Zeno’s introduction to philosophy.
Zeno decided against becoming a Cynic himself and looked to other philosophers in
Athens for further instruction. Zeno next studied with Stilpo of Megara, perhaps for as long as ten years. Stilpo was, like Zeno, inclined towards Cynic ethics but, as a
member of the Megarian school, also had strong interests in logic, something that would later become an important part of Stoic philosophy.
The ancient biography of Stilpo records numerous arguments with Zeno’s previous teacher Crates, and one passage describes Crates trying forcibly to remove Zeno from Stilpo in an attempt to return him to the Cynics. We are also told that Zeno spent time in the Academy, listening to the lectures of both Xenocrates and Polemo (on whom more later). It has been suggested that Zeno’s own pantheistic conception of Nature was influenced by Polemo and in particular by his interpretation of Plato’s
Timaeus. It was out of this mix of influences—Cynic ethics, Megarian logic, and Platonic physics—that Zeno slowly forged his own distinctive philosophical position.
The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and those external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves (adiaphora), but have value as “material for virtue to act upon.”
Alongside Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition forms one of the major founding approaches to virtue ethics. The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is “in accordance with nature.”
Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they thought everything was rooted in nature.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos).
Stoicism’s primary aspect involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature“. This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature“.
Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that because “virtue is sufficient for happiness“, a sage (is someone who has attained wisdom and is a ‘good person‘) would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase “stoic calm“, though the phrase does not include the “radical ethical” Stoic views that only a sage can be considered truly free and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.
Seneca’s stoic consolations
Seneca was charged with adultery with Julia Livilla, sister of Emperor Caligula in 41 AD. He was shortly after exiled to Corsica where he wrote three “consolations”.
De Consolatione ad Marciam is a work by Seneca written around 40 AD. Seneca was most likely motivated to write this letter of consolation to Marcia in order to gain her favor; Marcia was the daughter of a prominent historian, Aulus Cremutius Cordus, and her family’s enormous wealth and influence most likely inspired Seneca to write this letter of consolation. Through the essay he sticks to philosophical abstractions concerning Stoic precepts of life and death. For a letter offering solace, he notably lacks empathy toward Marcia’s individual grief and loss.
Marcia actively mourned the death of her son Metilius for over three years. In De Consolatione ad Marciam, Seneca attempts to convince her that the fate of her son, while tragic, should not have been a surprise. She knew many other mothers who had lost their sons; why should she expect her own son to survive her?
The acknowledgement, even expectation, of the worst of all possible outcomes is a tenet of Seneca’s Stoic philosophy. While Seneca sympathised with Marcia, he reminded her that “we are born into a world of things which are all destined to die“, and that if she could accept that no one is guaranteed a just life (that is, one in which sons always outlive their mothers), she could finally end her mourning and live the rest of her life in peace.
In the De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrim (dated roughly 42/43 AD) Seneca consoles his mother: he does not feel grief, therefore she should not mourn his absence. He refers to his exile merely as a ‘change of place’ and reassures her his exile did not bring him feelings of disgrace. Seneca comments on his mother’s strong character as a virtue that will allow her to bear his absence.
Seneca’s seemingly positive outlook on his own exile follows his Stoic philosophy teachings that one should not be upset by uncontrollable events. This quote from De Consolatione ad Helviam, shows Seneca’s presentation of his life as tolerable, and even spiritually enjoyable.
“I am joyous and cheerful, as if under the best of circumstances. And indeed, now they are the best, since my spirit, devoid of all other preoccupations, has room for its own activities, and either delights in easier studies or rises up eager for the truth, to the consideration of its own nature as well as that of the universe…“
Seneca wrote De Consolatione ad Polybium approximately 43/44 AD. This Consolatio addresses Polybius, Emperor Claudius’ Literary Secretary, to console him on the death of his brother. The essay contains Seneca’s Stoic philosophy, with particular attention to the inescapable reality of death.
Although the essay is about a very personal matter, the essay itself doesn’t seem particularly empathetic to Polybius’ unique case, but rather a broader essay on grief and bereavement. In fact, the reader doesn’t ever find out the name of Polybius’ deceased brother. Seneca encourages Polybius to distract himself from grief with his busy work schedule. The tonal switch from consoling Polybius to flattery of Emperor Claudius occurs in chapter 12. Some say this tonal switch indicates the involvement of an other author; however, it is most widely accepted that this tonal switch was nothing more than Seneca’s desperate attempt to escape exile and return from Corsica.
“the inhabited world… in huge conflagration it will burn and scorch and burn all mortal things… stars will clash with stars and all the fiery matter of the world… will blaze up in a common conflagration. Then the souls of the Blessed, who have partaken of immortality, when it will seem best for god to create the universe anew… will be changed again into our former elements. Happy, Marcia, is your son who knows these mysteries!“
Seneca contrasted two models of maternal grieving: that of Octavia Minor, sister of Augustus, who, on losing her only son Marcellus in his twenties, “set no bounds to her tears and moans“; with that of Livia, wife of Augustus, who on losing her son Drusus “as soon as she had placed him in the tomb, along with her son she laid away her sorrow, and grieved no more than was respectful to Caesar or fair Tiberius, seeing that they were alive“.
Ancient stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts than today. The word “stoic” has since come to mean “unemotional” or indifferent to pain because Stoic ethics taught freedom from “passion” by following “reason“. The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute “askēsis” (is “exercise, training”; a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm). Logic, reflection, and focus were the methods of such self-discipline, temperance is split into self-control, discipline, and modesty.
Free from suffering
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, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of “passion” was “anguish” or “suffering“, that is, “passively” reacting to external events, which is somewhat different from the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as passion, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g., turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings that result from the correct judgment in the same way that passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (literally, “without passion“) or peace of mind, where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.
For the Stoics, reason meant using logic and understanding the processes of nature—the logos or universal reason, inherent in all things. According to reason and virtue, living according to reason and virtue 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 (aretai) of Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato (Republic IV. 426–435):
They are the most essential values in Stoic philosophy. “If, at some point in your life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.” That was almost twenty centuries ago. We have discovered a lot of things since then—automobiles, the internet, cures for diseases that were previously a death sentence—but have we found anything better?
- …than being brave
- …than moderation and sobriety
- …than doing what’s right
- …than truth and understanding?
No, we have not. It’s unlikely we ever will. Everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four traits:
About Courage Seneca said that he actually pitied people who have never experienced misfortune. “You have passed through life without an opponent,” he said, “No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
The world wants to know what category to put you in, which is why it will occasionally send difficult situations your way. Think of these not as inconveniences or even tragedies but as opportunities, as questions to answers. Am I brave? Am I going to face this problem or run away from it? Will I stand up or be rolled over?
Let your actions etch a response into the record—and let them remind you of why courage is the most important thing.
Of course, life is not so simple as to say that courage is all the counts. While everyone would admit that courage is essential, we are also all well aware of people whose bravery turns to recklessness and becomes a fault when they begin to endanger themselves and others.
This is where Aristotle comes in. Aristotle actually used courage as the main example in his famous metaphor of a “Golden Mean”. On one end of the spectrum, he said, there was cowardice—that’s a deficiency of courage. On the other, there was recklessness—too much courage. What was called for, what we required then, was a golden mean. The right amount.
That’s what Temperance or moderation is about: doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way. Because “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle also said, “therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit”.
As Epictetus would later say, “capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.” So if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue.
This is great news. Because it means that impressive results or enormous changes are possible without herculean effort or magic formulas. Small adjustments, good systems, the right processes—that’s what it takes.
Being brave. Finding the right balance. These are core Stoic virtues, but in their seriousness, they pale in comparison to what the Stoics worshipped most highly: Doing the right thing.
There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.
- Cato gave his life trying to restore the Roman Republic.
- And Thrasea and Agrippinus gave theirs resisting the tyranny of Nero.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson formed a new nation—one which would seek, however imperfectly, to fight for democracy and justice—largely inspired by the philosophy of Cato and those other Stoics.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a translator of Epictetus, led a black regiment of troops in the US Civil War.
- Beatrice Webb, who helped to found the London School of Economics and who first conceptualized the idea of collective bargaining, regularly re-read Marcus Aurelius.
Countless other activists and politicians have turned to Stoicism to gird them against the difficulty of fighting for ideals that mattered, to guide them towards what was right in a world of so much wrong. A Stoic must deeply believe that an individual can make a difference. Successful activism and political maneuvering require understanding and strategy, as well as realism… and hope. It requires wisdom, acceptance and also a refusal to accept the statue quo.
It was James Baldwin who most brilliantly captured this tension in Notes of a Native Son:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in light of this idea it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but one must fight them with all one’s strength.
A Stoic sees the world clearly…but also sees clearly what the world can be. And then they are brave, and strategic enough to help bring it into reality.
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 “askēsis“). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, mortality salience, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to mindfulness and some forms of Buddhist meditation), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions e.g. with journaling. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the 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…“
Stoics were also known for consolatory orations, which were part of the consolatio literary tradition. Three such consolations by Seneca have survived.
Stoics commonly employ ‘The View from Above’, reflecting on society and otherness in guided visualization, aiming to gain a “bigger picture“, to see ourselves in context relevant to others, to see others in the context of the world, to see ourselves in the context of the world to help determine our role and the importance of happenings.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, in Book 7.48 writes:
“A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.”
Rise, decline and revival
Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (modern Stoicism).