In my experience as moderator of a large discussion forum on the topic of Stoic philosophy, some of the most common misconceptions are due simply to people confusing stoicism (lower case s) with Stoicism (upper case S). When I’ve posted the question “What’s the difference between stoicism and Stoicism?” the most common response is some variation of: One is capitalized and the other isn’t.
This isn’t a trivial distinction, though, because the two words have come to mean quite different things. As Socrates pointed out, we have to agree on the correct definition of key terms to have a rational conversation about most subjects. Likewise, when people conflate stoicism with Stoicism, from what I’ve seen over the years, they inevitably end up confusing themselves and other people.
For example, like most dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes between two separate definitions:
1 The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
2 An ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
Definition 1 is lower-case stoicism. It’s the modern-day concept of personality trait, which people typically equate with having a “stiff upper lip” or the advice to “suck it up”, and so on.
Definition 2 is upper-case Stoicism, an entire school of Greek philosophy that subsequently flourished throughout the Roman empire, and lasted for about five centuries. It’s this form of Stoicism, Stoic philosophy, that we’re talking about when we talk about Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and the use of Stoicism for modern-day personal development, etc.
NB: I’ve noticed several people remark that stoic is an adjective and Stoic a noun. That’s incorrect. According to the OED and most other English dictionaries both words can serve either as an adjective or noun.
Of course, the notion of a stoic personality trait is historically derived from the impression people have of ancient Stoic philosophy. However, it’s only very loosely related and in some important ways actually runs quite contrary to what Stoicism teaches, as we’ll see. They’re definitely not the same thing, nor is stoicism necessarily a part of Stoicism. Failing to distinguish between them has therefore caused a lot of confusion about Stoic philosophy to spread on the Internet.
This mix up between stoicism and Stoicism isn’t unusual. Many Greek philosophical terms have been caricatured over the centuries and so we normally distinguish between the modern term and original meaning by capitalizing the latter, because it’s a proper noun. For example,
- epicurean is not the same as Epicurean
The former usually implies a gourmand or someone who enjoys fine eating whereas the latter is a whole school of philosophy named after its founder Epicurus, who actually recommended fairly austere habits of eating and drinking
- a cynic is not the same as a Cynic
The former usually implies someone who is distrustful of others and assumes the worst of them whereas the latter is a school of Greek philosophy that teaches us, among other things, to be indifferent to the opinions and actions of other people
- a skeptic is not the same as a Skeptic
The former often denotes someone who doubts the truth of accepted opinions whereas the latter was an ancient philosophical movement that advised its followers to suspend judgement one way or the other
- an academic is not the same as an Academic
The former usually means someone who is engaged in scholarly pursuits whereas the latter denotes the school of philosophy founded at Athens by Plato
- A sophist is different from a Sophist
The former means someone who reasons fallaciously or manipulatively whereas the latter was a professional teacher of rhetoric and philosophy.
- And so on…
Some of these words have come to mean a vague trait that can at times be used in ways that relate accurately to at least some aspect the philosophy from which they’re derived. For instance, the ancient Academics were typically known for being quite academic, in the modern sense, or scholarly, but there’s much more to the philosophy than that. Likewise, often the Sophists were accused by philosophers of specious reasoning or what we now call sophistry but a few were held in high regard such as Prodicus, a good friend of Socrates. Some of these other terms, particularly epicurean are very misleading caricatures of what the philosophy actually taught, and often be used in ways that have the potential to become very misleading if we’re trying to talk about the philosophy. So it’s actually extremely important to capitalize and distinguish between the common noun, epicureanism, and the proper noun Epicureanism. But people also have to understand the distinction.
When it comes to mixing up the words Stoicism and stoicism, there are several problems. Firstly, people often just equate it with mental toughness and so it’s not unusual for them to argue that people they revere as tough or self-disciplined are Stoic role models. The UFC fighter Conor McGregor is a typical example people choose but there are many similar conversations on the Internet. Now, it’s fair to say he may be someone tough and self-disciplined but he’s obviously very far removed from figures like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, who were held up as examples of Stoicism in the ancient world. He’s probably a better embodiment of stoicism than Stoicism. He arguably doesn’t embody the Stoic virtues of wisdom and justice, or natural affection toward others and ethical cosmopolitanism, in quite the way that Marcus Aurelius does. But there are nevertheless a surprising number of people on the Internet who confuse the two things in this way: tough guys as Stoics – something the ancient Stoics would have been completely puzzled by as they viewed competitive sports as vanity and a distraction from the lifelong pursuit of moral excellence and philosophical wisdom. (The Stoics believed in moderate exercise, engaged in for the health of the body and the development of character, but it shouldn’t normally be our main pursuit in life and the competitive aspect would appear petty and absurd to them.)
The word stoic also implies to many people some kind of suppression or concealment of unpleasant feelings: the stiff upper-lip notion. Boys don’t cry, etc. That’s particularly problematic, though, because it’s well-known from large volumes of modern research in the field of psychotherapy that the suppression of negative feelings can be quite harmful. I don’t have space here to elaborate in great detail on the reasons for that, unfortunately, but it’s taken for granted by most modern evidence-based psychotherapists that emotional suppression is typically unhealthy. To touch on just one small aspect: the more strongly people judge unpleasant thoughts and feelings to be bad, harmful, or undesirable the more attention they will automatically allocate to them.
In extreme cases, people can end up torturing themselves with doomed attempts to suppress distressing automatic thoughts, as in some forms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Likewise, people who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder typically view symptoms of their nerves or anxiety as embarrassing and humiliating and strongly desire to conceal shaking hands or suppress their negative thoughts and anxious feelings while speaking to others. However, that usually backfires by increasing their self-consciousness, making their behaviour feel more stilted and awkward, and amplifying their anxious feelings. By contrast, as the Stoics knew, people who don’t care if they look or feel anxious, and accept their own nervous sensations with indifference, are likely to fare much better.
People often think that being stoic means trying to suppress natural feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety, and to hide the fact they’re feeling tearful or shaking, etc. That typically means they’re judging these things as “bad” or harmful in some sense – judging the feelings negatively. The ancient Stoics, by contrast, make a clear distinction between automatic feelings (proto-passions, propatheiai) and full-blown unhealthy passions, which are under voluntary control. The Stoics advise us to accept our initial automatic feelings with total indifference, as being natural and inevitable, and to be indifferent toward other people seeing evidence of them. The clearest illustration of this comes from a famous anecdote in Aulus Gellius where he describes a Stoic’s anxiety during a dangerous storm at sea. Stoics do cry, and shake, and grow pale. They don’t view this negatively or care much about it. What they do care about is what happens next: how they voluntarily respond to these feelings.
When people talk about being stoic they often mean trying to suppress automatic emotional reactions, therefore, which they view as negative. A Stoic philosopher would view the same feelings with detached indifference, though, as neither good nor bad – he would accept them as natural and inevitable, and beyond his direct control. The word stoic is often just used as a synonym for unemotional and that’s definitely not what Stoicism teaches –the ancient Stoics repeatedly emphasized that their ideal was not to be like statues or men with hearts of stone. Rather than trying to suppress feelings or sensations, which would entail judging an indifferent to be bad or harmful, the Stoics tried to modify the underlying value judgement. That approach happens to be more in accord with the way modern cognitive therapists approach emotional change and it’s very different from what people mean by “keeping a stiff upper lip”.
Another observation that seems to help is this… When people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they’re typically ignoring the entire social dimension of Stoic Ethics. When they say that someone is a stoic they don’t usually have in mind that they believe justice, fairness, and kindness are cardinal virtues in life, that we should cultivate the bond of natural affection that exists between us and other human beings, and treat them as equals, as part of a brotherhood of man, viewing all people as our fellow-citizens in a single cosmic city. (The word cosmopolitan is another whose meaning has been corrupted over the centuries – it means a citizen of the whole cosmos who treats others as her fellow-citizens.) I’ve found that framing the question like this often serves to highlight the difference: “What’s the difference between being stoic about the welfare of others and being Stoic about the welfare of others?”
There’s also the matter of healthy emotions in Stoicism. For many people stoicism seems to have some connotation of being unemotional or at least it sounds a little odd to their ears to say that stoics could be particularly cheerful and affectionate. However, the Stoic philosophers had a whole system of classification for healthy emotions: their goal was not simply to be emotionally empty but rather to experience healthy feelings of joy, cheerfulness, affection, and so on, which naturally supervene upon virtue. I notice that when people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they find this baffling and sometimes even joke about how Stoics having feelings is a sort of contradiction in terms, something inconceivable to them. However, healthy emotions play a central role in Stoicism and, for instance, Marcus Aurelius refers very frequently to feelings of joy or cheerfulness and affection toward others.
People sometimes continue to equate stoicism and Stoicism even after reading popular Stoic texts like The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. That’s actually quite puzzling and can only come from a very superficial reading. Marcus actually talks about the social virtues on virtually every page of The Meditations, it’s his main preoccupation, unsurprisingly, as emperor of Rome. Nevertheless, people sometimes still manage to come away with the total misconception that being a Stoic meant being tough-minded and totally uncaring about others. I find that when that’s pointed out and they go back and take a second look at the text, though, the depth of their misunderstanding usually becomes very apparent to them. It should be clear as crystal that Marcus believes that to be a Stoic we must aim to live in harmony with others. To turn our back on them or rage against them is viewed by him as a cancerous form of alienation, completely at odds with Stoic Ethics. The Stoic wise man is kind to others and wants to help them. We know Marcus wanted his reign to be remembered above all as exemplifying the virtue of Beneficence toward others. People seldom have that aspiration in mind when they talk about being Stoic, and confuse it with being stoic, though.
Here’s another guy who thinks it doesn’t matter…
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