Stoicism Simplified

Stoic Virtue Infographic by Rocio de TorresPeople often ask me for a very simplified description of Stoicism.  To help newcomers to the subject, I created a free Crash Course in Stoicism with a video, quiz, popular quotes, etc., that takes less than ten minutes to complete.

However, sometimes what’s called for is an “elevator pitch”, a one or two sentence description.  That’s tricky!  Stoicism is a big philosophy, with some subtle concepts, and aspects that are easily misunderstood.

It also depends what sort of explanation they’re looking for.  For example, if you just want to know where Stoicism comes from or who the Stoics were then I’d probably say…

Stoicism is a branch of Greek philosophy, founded in 301 BC by Zeno of Citium, that later became popular in Rome.  The most famous Stoics are Seneca, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

If you want a traditional description of what ancient Stoics believed in two sentences then I’d say:

Virtue is the only true good, and vice the only true evil; everything else is indifferent with regard to the goal of life.  However, virtue consists precisely in our ability to distinguish between external things on the basis of their value.

The famous Roman Stoic teacher Epictetus gave his students the following summary:

That of things some are good, and some are bad, and some are indifferent: the good then are virtues, and the things which participate in virtues; and the bad are the contrary; and the indifferent are wealth, health, reputation. (Discourses, 2.9)

If you wanted me to try to paraphrase that and put that in layman’s terms then I guess I’d say:

The goal of life is to strive for wisdom, by living rationally, in greater harmony with our own nature, the community of mankind, and the nature of the universe as a whole.  That requires taking greater responsibility for our character and actions and not placing so much value on external things, beyond our direct control, that we become perturbed when they don’t turn out as we might have wished .

That’s my best attempt to simplify 500 years of Stoic philosophy in a couple of sentences.  I hope it’s not oversimplified.  Let me know what you think in the comments.  Remember to check out my Crash Course in Stoicism if you’re looking for a bit more of an introduction.

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5 thoughts on “Stoicism Simplified”

  1. ‘Stoic practice aims at an incremental increase in wisdom’ (or some such reference to practice)
    I was struck recently by Marcus 4.3 ‘By tranquility I mean a kind of harmony’. For me there is wisdom/virtue in external relations and tranquility/harmony internally. No need to claim cause and effect.
    But if you take on everyone’s suggestions you’ll soon get much longer than a couple of sentences!

  2. Thanks Donald,

    That is a very succinct definition,
    reminds me of Seneca’s: “You will know you are wise when you are Calm, Happy Joyful, and unshaken; you will be on a plane with the gods”

  3. I’m loth to bring this up on the FB page since I think it would probably lead to all manner of frictions but I’m a bit lost as to why your obviously considerable knowledge of Stoicism leads you to a political conclusion of something like Socialism(?) I know that its my lack of detailed knowledge of the source material which prevents me from understanding this conclusion, but I can’t get past the impression that a virtue ethics is a deeply individualistic premise and that any political ideology could be reasonably concluded from that premise? It would be good to understand the source material which leads to this conclusion, by which I mean the material which details the rationale, rather than individual quotes which suggest something like collectivism, or cooperativism?

    1. Well, virtue isn’t insular. The Stoics argued that we’re fundamentally social creatures, as well as rational, and so they also defined virtue in social terms. Marcus Aurelius says that justice is the most important virtue, and the Stoics define it as consisting primarily of fairness and kindness toward others. That’s probably why Marcus built a temple to Beneficence and wanted his reign to be remembered for this virtue. So I would say that Stoic virtue ethics is definitely far from being individualistic. It’s quite the opposite. The Stoics were very much ethical cosmopolitans who saw the rest of mankind as their fellow citizens, brothers and sisters. That’s actually the dominant theme of The Meditations. Marcus mentions social virtues, concord, justice, and the brotherhood of mankind on virtually every other page, I think. I don’t think I can provide a full answer to your question in a comment because it sounds like you’re asking for a complete philosophical argument for Stoic socialism, which would be quite an undertaking, but when I have time I’ll try to write another article about Stoicism and politics.

What do you think?