How to Be a Stoic
Stoicism, stoic philosophy, Greek philosophy, Roman philosophy...
How to Be a Stoic an evolving guide to practical Stoicism for the 21st century SKIP TO CONTENT HOME BY MASSIMO COLLECTIONS MEDITATIONS BOOKS STOICISM 101 THE STOICS STOIC CAMP STOICON Search for: Search …
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Seneca to Lucilius: how to live like a philosopher Seneca to Lucilius: how to live like a philosopher Seneca to Lucilius: on the terrors o f death Seneca to Lucilius: on the terrors of death Stoicism 101 Stoicism 101
Books Books Seneca to Lucilius: on saving time Seneca to L ucilius: on saving time Stoicism 101 Stoic FireHere is a very brief intro duction to Stoicism, both as an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, and as modern practice. Please make sure to check several of the other sources listed on this site for a more in-depth look.
If you are interested, take a look at this booklet I generated using Wikipedia, with an introduction to Stoicism, a chapter on virtue ethics, one on the Logos, and a number of entries covering the major figures of the early, middle and late Stoa. Here is another Wikipedia booklet o n the history of ancient Greece and Rome, in case you need some broader background to study Stoicism. Also, this is a handy spreadsheet with basic Stoic terminology.
If you are into infographics, you may want to check out these quick summaries of basic Stoic ideas:
A diagram of the entire Stoic system of philosophy (very simplified…), with a focus on the three
disciplines Positive vs negative passions in Stoicism The Stoic decision-making algorithm for practical living Minimum tenets of modern Stoicism (“Stoic minimalism”), a work in progress Ancient to Modern Stoicism, a work in progress History Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Cilium (modern Cyprus) around 301 BCE, and it takes its name from the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), a public market in Athens when the Stoics met and engaged in philosophical discussions with anyone who was interested. A second major figure of the so-called “early Stoa” was Chrysippus, who is actually credited with elaborating most of the doctrines that are still associated with Stoicism. The early Stoics were of course influenced by previous philosophical schools and thinkers, in particular by Socrates and the Cynics, but also the Academics (followers of Plato) and the Skeptics.
The second period of Stoic history, referred to as the “middle Stoa,” saw the philosophy introduced to Rome. Cicero (not himself a Stoic, but sympathetic to the idea) is one of our major sources for both the early and the middle Stoa, since otherwise we have only fragments of the writings of the Stoics up to that point. The third and last period is referred to as the “late Stoa,” and it too k place
during Imperial Rome; it included the famous Stoics whose writings have been preserved in sizable parts: Gaius Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Once Christianity became the official Roman religion Stoicism declined, together with a number of other schools of thought (e.g., Epicureanism). The idea, however, survived in a number of historical figures who were influenced by it (even though they were sometimes critical of it), including some of the early Church Fathers, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, Erasmus, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Montesquieu, and Spinoza. Modern Existentialism and neoorthodox Protestant theology have also been influenced by Stoicism. The philosophy is currently seeing a rebirth, and has deeply influenced modern practices such as logo-therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. It also has a number of similarities and overlaps with modern philosophical approaches such as Buddhism and secular humanism.
The Stoic Egg The Stoics thought that (practical) ethics was the most important component of their philosophy: it was about how to live one’s life in the best poss ible way. However, they also believed
that it is hard to develop a viable ethics without two other components: understanding how the world works, and appreciating the power and limits of human reasoning.
Stoicism, therefore, was made of three areas of st udy: ethics (more on this below), “physics,” and “logic.” By physics the Stoics meant something that by today’s meanings would encompass natural
science and metaphysics, or what was once called natural philosophy. Of course, many o f the original Stoic notions about the wor ld have been superseded by modern science, which would not have surprised the ancient philosophers (they were very conscious of the limits of human knowledge, and very open to revise their specific beliefs).
Briefly, however, Stoic physics included the idea that the universe began in a cosmic fire (and will end the same way, only to begin anew). [The Stoic fire is represented in the symbol in the image at the top of this page.] They also believed that the world is made of matter, and that causation is a universal phenomenon, i.e., everything that happens has a cause. Finally, the universe is organized according to rational principles, the Logos. This can be interpreted as God (for instance in Epictetus), but also simply as the idea that Nature is understandable by way of rationality (which is why we can scientifically investigate it).
A crucial idea that the Stoics derived from their physics is that life ought to be lived “acco rding to Nature,” which can then in turn be interpreted as “in a greement with what Zeus (God) has ordained,” or simply lived according to reason, developing to its best that most specific attribute of
the human animal. Being a secular person, I obviously go for the latter interpretation.
In terms of Stoic logic, the word encompassed the study of logic as we narrowly understanding it today, plus rhetoric, epistemology (i.e., a theory of knowledge), as well as what we would call psychology and related social sciences. The Stoics invented a system of logic alternative to that of Aristotle, which was largely ignored throughout the middle ages and beyond, until it began to be appreciated again with the modern advent of propositional logic (of which the Stoic variety is a type).
The Stoics distinguished between the existence of corporeal and abstract things, like a number of modern philosophers do (say, respectively, physical objects and mathematical concepts). They thought that knowledge can be attained by reason, which is in principle capable of separating true from false (they were certainly more optimistic about this than their contemporary and critics, the Skeptics). Importantly, the Stoics also adopted a very modern belief that knowledge can be achieved only by peer expertise subject to collective judgment (the way modern science works, for i nstance).
Ethics and practical philosophy I assume the main reason people are reading this is not because of their interest in Stoic physics or lo gic – as fascinating as they are in their own regard – but because they want to learn about Stoic ethics, which is more immediately linked to their practical philosophy. So here we go, then.
The first thing to get out of the way is the misconception that Stoicism is about suppressing one’s
emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. No, Mr. Spock was not a Stoic (despite the fact that, apparently, Gene Roddenberry imagined the character according to his own, simplistic, view of what a Stoic would be like).
Rather, Stoics taught to transform emotions in order to achieve inner calm. Emotions – of fear, or anger, or love, say – are instinctive human reactions to certain situations, and cannot be avoided. But the reflective mind can distance itself from the raw emotion and contemplate whether the emotion in question should (or should not) be given “assent,” i.e., should be appropriated and cultivated.
To be a little more specific, the Stoics distinguished between propathos (instinctive reaction) and eupathos (feelings resulting from correct judgment), and their goal was to achieve apatheia, or peace of mind, resulting from clear judgment and maintenance of equanimity in life.
The Stoics thought that the good life (eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing”) consisted in cultivating one’s moral virtues in order to become a good per son. The four cardinal virtues
recognized by the Stoics were: Wisdom (sophia), Courage (andreia), Justice (dikaiosyne), and Temperance (sophrosyne).
Another crucial Stoic idea, and a corollary of the centrality of virtue in one’s life, is the distinction between preferred and dispreferred “indifferents”: wealth, health, and other goods are indifferent in the sense that they do not affect one’s moral worth (i.e., one can be a moral person regardless of
whether one is sick or healthy, poor or rich). But some are helpful in pursuing our goals, and are therefore preferred, while others are an hindrance, and are therefore dispreferred. This makes Stoic doctrine a little less stern than it is usually thought to be (though certainly more so than Epicureanism, or Aristotelian virtue ethics).
Stoics made a sharp (perhaps too sharp) distinction between things that are under our control and things that lay outside of it. The first category included mostly our own thoughts and attitudes, while the second category included pretty much everything else. (For a funny rendition of this distinction, see this short bit by comedian Michael Connell.) The idea was that peace of mind comes from focusing on what we can actually control, r ather than wasting emotional energy on what we cannot control. However, do not take this as a counsel for despair about affecting human affairs; remember, many prominent Stoics were politicians, generals, or emperors, and they certainly spent a significant amount of energy and resources attempting to change things for the better. But they also accepted that when things didn’t go their way that was it, and there was no sense in dwelling on it.
Indeed, Stoics thought of their philosophy as a philosophy of love, and they actively cultivated a concern not just for themselves and their family and friends, but for humanity at large, and even for Nature itself (see below). Stoic philosophers were interested in improving humanity’s welfare, and
some were even vegetarian.
Stoic practice And we finally get to the crux of the matter: how, exactly, does o ne practice Stoicism nowadays? There are a number of modern Stoic practices, or “spiritual” exercises, inspired by the
writings of the ancients. Of course, different combinations will work for different people, but these are the ones I do regularly:
* Morning meditation: as soon as I get up I find a quiet, not brightly lit spot in my apartment, seat comfortably, and mentally go over the potential challenges awaiting me during the day ahead, reminding myself about which of the four cardinal vi rtues I may be called to exercise in response to those challenges.
* Also in the morning, I pick one of my favorite sayings from the ancients (a continuously updated collection can be found here), read it over a few times, and contemplate it as inspiration.
Hierocles concentric circles* Hierocles’ Circle: this is a visualization exercise, during which you begin
by thinking about your own self, then mentally expand your circle of concern (see figure) to your family, your friends, people living in your neighborhood and your city, and then gradually to all of humankind, and finally to nature itself. It is a way to remind you that the rest of the world is just as important as you are, and that you should make it a habit of being concerned about it.
* The View from Above: again mentally picture yourself, but then “zoom out” to see your polis from
above, then your country, then the planet, then the solar system, then the local group o f stars, then the Milky Way, then the local cluster of galaxies, and finally the whole of the cosmos. The idea is to remind yourself of the proper perspective: what happens to you on a speck of dust afloat in the universe is not, after all, that important…
* Premeditatio malorum: this exercise consists in visualizing (not just verbally describing) something bad happening to you, in order to overcome your fear of it and to better prepare yourself in case it actually happens. The specific visualization may be something as simple as anticipating your irritation at fellow riders in the subway (or drivers on the road), to the occurrence of your own death (I would recommend to reserve the latter for when you feel more confident in your Stoicism, and to do it only occasionally – it can be disturbing). This is similar to exercises in cognitive behavioral therapy designed to overcome one’s fears or anxieties.
* Mindfulness about (moral) choices: this is to be done throughout the day, and it is a distinctly Stoic type of mindfulness, as opposed to the Buddhist variety, for instance. The Stoics taught us to live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, i.e., paying attention to what we are doing, achieving what some modern psychologists call “flow” in our actions. But a crucial component of this mindfulness is
paying attention to the fact that y our choices, even the apparently trivial ones, very likely have an inextricable ethical component to them, and you should be aware of it and chose according to virtue.
* Evening meditation (philosophical diary): before going to bad, do the reverse of the morning meditation, going through the salient events of the day and asking yourself Epictetus’ three questions: What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What duty’s left undone? It helps to carry out
this exercise by writing a personal philosophical diary, in the style of Marcus Aurelius (not meant for publication!). The idea is to learn from what has happened during the day, clear your m ind, and go to sleep in peace.
The above, again, is a very brief and necessarily incomplete introduction. There are a number of very good web sites and books devoted to all aspects of Stoicism, so be sure to check out the other resources listed on the other pages of this blog.
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