People 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.