The following content is drawn from Greg Lopez’s “Stoicism: A Quick Primer” (accessed June 11, 2019)
A philosophy for life
Stoicism is a philosophy of life that comes from ancient Greece. It essentially lays out a way to live that it claims will lead to well-being. But why bother having a philosophy of life at all? First, it helps you think out how to flourish and whether what you already want will actually help or hinder your flourishing. Second, it allows you to understand what goals to set in order to help you lead the life you want to lead. As the Roman Stoic Seneca said: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” If you don’t know where you’d like to head in life, then how will you know if you’re making progress toward it or not?
Stoicism’s place in history
Stoicism is not the only ancient Greek philosophy whose aim was to guide people in living their lives. During the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece (around the time of death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE), philosophy was a mix of theory and practice; while some theory is needed, the goal of philosophy was to ultimately live a good life.
There were several Hellenistic philosophies, but they had a common goal called eudaimonia. This literally means “having a good daemon or spirit”, but pretty much means “human flourishing”. Each of the Hellenistic schools had different interpretations of eudaimonia. The Cyrenaics thought that eudaimonia consisted in bodily pleasure. The Epicureans thought that it consisted mainly of the avoidance of pain. The Pyrrhonian Skeptics thought that living a good life meant not clinging to beliefs. The Peripatetics (Aristotle’s school) thought virtue and luck were needed to flourish. Finally, the Stoics thought that virtue alone was sufficient for eudaimonia.
But why would the Stoics think that?
The motivation for Stoicism
The Stoics noticed that we can’t control everything that happens to us. Most of the philosophies mentioned above rely on some degree of luck in order to live a good life. After all, you can’t always avoid pain, get pleasure, or be lucky. Also, unlike the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, the Stoics thought that we could actually know things. This ruled out Pyrrhonian Skepticism for the Stoics. So what’s left? The Stoic answer is: virtue. The Greek word for virtue is arete, which means “excellence”.
They answered this for two reasons. The first is that virtue is a prerequisite to use the luck you get in life well. If you’re wealthy, you could use that to help others and yourself if you’re wise. But you could also use it to harm others or yourself if you’re not. Similarly for being healthy, and other “external” goods not relating to character. After all, would you rather have a healthy, wealthy, Hitler or a sickly, poor Hitler? This shows that that “external” goods are “indifferent”, meaning that they can sometimes be helpful and sometimes harmful. However, being an “excellent” person is always useful in every circumstance. So, arete is more important.
The second reason why the Stoics focused on virtue was because they believed it’s completely under our control. We can always change our conscious thoughts and work with our impulses to action in order to become a better person. Through repeated practice, we can become better and better people in any circumstance, whether or not luck’s going our way.
So, because being virtuous is ultimately always useful and under our complete control, it is sufficient to flourish in any circumstance, whether or not things outside of your control are going your way.
Stoicism in theory and practice
Stoics trained by first learning theory, then doing practice. The theory consisted of logic (how to reason well), physics (how the world works), and ethics (how to live well). They had a metaphor for how these worked together: logic is the fence of a garden, from which the crop of ethics sprouts from the soil of physics. Learning how to live (ethics) is what you ultimately your harvest, but how to live well depends on how the world works (physics) and is protected by good reasoning (logic).
Along with the theory, Stoics trained in three areas related to the theoretical areas listed above. The first area of practice is known as the Discipline of Desire, where one trains oneself to only want what’s under one’s control and to accept the things that are not. The second area is the Discipline of Action, where one trains how to act well. The final area is the Discipline of Assent, where one works with one’s thoughts to reason well.
Some major Stoics and their works
Very few documents that were written by Stoics survive today. Here is a list of some Stoics whose work survives to a decent extent:
- Seneca the Younger – A wealthy Roman Senator who wrote several essays and public letters about Stoicism which survive to this day
- Epictetus – A former slave turned Stoic teacher, some of whose teachings were recorded by his student, Arrian
- Marcus Aurelius – A well-respected Roman emperor whose main surviving Stoic work was a diary used as a Stoic exercise to remind himself of his Stoic principles
Several people are working to bring Stoic practice into the modern world and the philosophy is enjoying a modern Renaissance. Searching on social media sites or the internet in general will reveal several more sources which can help you learn how to apply Stoicism to your life. You can also keep coming to more meetups to learn more!