Stoicism FAQ

Stoic Zeus MemeHere are some short and sweet answers to frequently asked questions about Stoicism, from my Stoicism Facebook group and elsewhere:

Q: Where can I find more information about Stoicism?

The Wikipedia page on Stoicism is actually very helpful.  I’ve written a Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism article with my advice on which books to begin reading, specifically for people who ask “What should I read next?”  The Stoicism Subreddit also has an excellent FAQ.

Q: Can you sum up Stoicism in one sentence?

Not easily.  The ancient Stoics did sum up their philosophy in a single phrase: “living in agreement with nature”, which they took to be synonymous with “living in accord with virtue”.  They used other Laconic phrases as well, but Epictetus warns his students that although these are easy to memorise, people are bound to ask questions like “what’s nature?” or “what’s virtue?” and then the explanation inevitably becomes more long-winded.  Stoicism was also traditionally summed up as the philosophy that believes “virtue is the only true good” – that’s its central and most characteristic doctrine.

If someone is really struggling with these ideas you could just say that in the opening sentence of Epictetus’ Stoic Handbook he explains that Stoicism involves making a clear distinction between what is completely “up to us” and what is not, in any given situation.  Stoic Ethics and the therapy of the passions ultimately derives from that basic concept.

Q: Is [insert name] a Stoic?

Stoicism is a philosophy.  So someone is a Stoic if they agree with its central doctrines, and live accordingly.  Someone is a Stoic, basically, if they believe that virtue is the only true good, and if they don’t then they’re not a Stoic, because that’s what the central tenet of the philosophy.

There are many a great many people who are stoical (personality trait) without being Stoics.  They may be admirable and can provide role-models or exemplars of virtue.  However, the ancient Stoics also warned their students that many people who are self-disciplined or courageous are not virtuous, in the Stoic sense.  Vain and greedy people very often appear to show great endurance or courage in life, in pursuit of wealth, fame, or other externals.  Likewise, cowardly people may show great self-discipline in avoidance of their fears, but that is not really a virtue.  So being self-disciplined and having endurance, or being stoical (small s), doesn’t necessarily make someone a Stoic in the sense of living in accord with wisdom, and the virtues as defined by Stoic philosophy.

Q: Shouldn’t Stoic forums accept Internet trolling?

No.  This should probably be obvious to most people, but to spell out the reasons…  Most of the members of Internet forums are not perfectly enlightened Sages with complete self-mastery.  At best, they’re learners studying Stoicism.  Many of them, are not Stoics at all.  So it’s not appropriate to allow trolling on Stoic forums.  It’s also totally against Stoic Ethics to try to provoke people maliciously or to disrupt a forum: trolling is definitely not prudent, kind and fair to others, and self-controlled – it’s the opposite.  The fact is that it also spoils philosophical debate and causes people to leave the forum so we have a zero-tolerance policy and it’s banned in the Ground Rules / terms of use.  Trolling, to state the obvious again, is not enlightened or virtuous.  Ancient philosophers like Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, and Epictetus often said or did controversial or shocking things.  That’s not the same as trolling, though, because it was done to provoke philosophical insight or debate, not just to upset people for amusement or to disrupt a group maliciously.  See the definition of Internet troll on Wikipedia for example.

Q: Are Stoic unemotional?

No.  The ancient Stoics had a specific classification system for healthy passions (eupatheiai), which they oppose to the excessive, unhealthy and irrational passions.  They also recognise the place of natural and involuntary passions (propatheiai).  Stoic Ethics is actually based on the concept of natural affection or love (philostorgia) for the rest of mankind.  The surviving Stoic texts mention a wide variety of healthy emotions, very frequently indeed.  The Stoics also explicitly repudiate the claim that they are “men of iron” or have “hearts of iron”, which they associate more with the Cynic school of philosophy.  So this is definitely a misconception.

Q: Are Stoics passive?

No.  Stoics teach that we should accept fate (discipline of fear and desire) while simultaneously acting wisely and with justice (discipline of action), subtly reconciling acceptance with action is the core of their ethical philosophy.  People often misinterpret this to mean Stoics merely accept their fate in a passive way, though.

However, the Stoic school were famous for advising their students to engage with politics or public life insofar as they were able, whereas the Epicurean school advised the opposite.  Throughout history, Stoics were famous for their strident opposition to social injustice.  Cato of Utica became a hero of the Roman civil war for his relentless opposition to the tyrant and war criminal Julius Caesar.  Marcus Aurelius, despite having no military training or experience and suffering chronic illness, took command of the Roman legions, led them to the northern frontier, and fought a long and arduous military campaign triggered by the Marcomanni invasions of provincial Roman towns.  One of the cardinal virtues of Stoicism is justice, which is wisdom applied to our social relationships.  Stoicism requires living with justice and treating others kindly and with fairness or meeting opposition with bravery – that’s what we mean by “virtue”.  The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, advised the powerful Macedonian King Antigonus II Gonatas and sent his leading student Persaeus to act as counsellor at his court.  Persaeus was subsequently appointed archon (ruler) of the city of Corinth and died in battle leading its defence against a siege.