Stoic Saturday – What is Stoicism?

This the first post in what I intend to be a series on Stoicism. I want to answer the question posed in the title:

“What is Stoicism?”

As part of my answer, though, I hope to answer what’s often a common follow-up question:

“Why should I care?”

Textbook answer first. Stoicism was a Greek, and later Roman, philosophical school. The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium (4th-3rd century BCE)*, but is most often spoken about in association with its more famous Roman proponents. Included among these are Seneca the Younger (1st century BCE – 1st century CE)*, Epictetus (1st-2nd century CE), and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (2nd century CE). The groundwork for what we now call Stoicism was laid in these centuries; perhaps particularly in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.

Alright, so why should you care? What’s the point? Stoicism was a philosophical school in an age when such things actually existed. Not every school had property it could call its own, so we’re not talking about schools in the modern sense. But for a citizen of their societies, it was very possible to attach yourself to a philosopher espousing their way of life, learning their lessons and dedicating your life to putting them into practice.

The phrase “way of life” is important when it comes to thinking about the schools of philosophy. For the ancient philosophers, philosophy wasn’t a subject like mathematics or dialectics: philosophy was a way of life, a set of principles grounded in a certain way of seeing the world. The philosophical school of Stoicism is no more, but Stoicism as a way of life is still very much alive. In fact, many people applying Stoic teachings today may be unaware of the fact: the meditative practice of mindfulness is a reflection of Stoic principles as much as it is of Buddhist traditions.

Stoicism is a way of thinking about the world; about what happens to you, about your actions and those of others. The goal of Stoicism is quite simply to help individuals and communities live a good life.

“What’s the good life?”

One answer creates more questions, but it’s a fair one. For the Stoics, the good life involved being happy and doing one’s duty – to one’s family, community and society. Living the good life means making the most of what you have and limiting pain caused by what you’ve lost, as well as what you never had to begin with.

It sounds simple. Honestly, it sounds obvious – too obvious. We all want to be happy, at least: the problem lies in the fact that we have wildly differing ideas about what happiness means, and how to go about achieving it. Materialism is a recurrent theme in many modern conceptions of happiness; but it’s not the answer for everyone, and the extent to which material possessions increase real happiness is doubtful to say the least.

Materialism, like many so-called ‘paths to happiness’, fails so often because it looks to things outside the self to make us happy. “Once I own my own place, I’ll be happy.” “If I can get that luxury car, I’ll be happy.” “If my partner buys me that thing I want, I’ll be happy.”

Unfortunately, you won’t. This isn’t because there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting to own a house, drive a fancy car or be bought something nice by a loved one. The problem lies in the mistaken belief that any material thing could provide real and lasting happiness, when our thoughts and emotions are infinitely more complex and difficult to control. A new car might make you happy in the moment, but without any examination of why you were unhappy to start with, your joy is bound to be temporary. The bigger issue isn’t transient happiness; it’s the total lack of control you invite into your life when you believe that you, by yourself, are incapable of making you happy.

Stoicism is a way of life. It’s a playbook of mental strategies and tactics which enable us to take back responsibility for our own wellbeing. Stoicism recognises how little control we have over most of what happens to us, down to the life-determining fact of when and where we are born. Stoicism tells us that we can’t control what happens to us; but we can control how we react. At the very least, like mindfulness, the application of Stoic techniques can help us downplay negative thoughts and emotions arising from hardship.

The word ‘stoic’ has taken on a meaning incidental to the practice of Stoicism: to be stoic is to be unemotional, to have a ‘stiff upper lip’ (as we Brits are supposed to have). Stoic individuals repress their emotions and deny themselves pleasure. The latter can be a (temporary) part of Stoicism, but as a philosophy Stoicism is absolutely not about repression. Quite the opposite: Stoic practice involves taking the time to truly understand and feel your feelings, so that when extreme or tragic events occur you’re more resilient than someone who hasn’t prepared.

Stoic practice is mental exercise. Hard physical exercise isn’t a punishment for the body, but about strengthening the body over time. Stoicism is hard exercise for the mind, and its techniques and strategies can strengthen anyone motivated to try them.

As I said, this is the first part in what I want to be a series on Stoicism. Forthcoming posts will include an introduction to the ancient Stoics with whom I’m most familiar, Stoic principles and techniques, modern Stoic thinkers, and a series of posts looking at modern phenomena (including anxiety and materialism) from a Stoic perspective. Stay turned for more Stoic Saturdays, check in during the week for blogs on writing and other topics, and don’t hesitate to get in touch.


* I use BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) in place of the more traditional Christianity-specific terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini). This isn’t ideological: I simply feel it’s more appropriate to subjects who weren’t Christian themselves. Feel free to mentally substitute as you see fit.

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