What is Stoicism?

Zeno Gem
Gem depicting Zeno of Citium, from British Museum.

Stoicism is an ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy. It was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. The name comes from the painted porch (stoa poikilê) where he lectured his students.  Stoicism later became very popular in ancient Rome, where it continued to flourish after the disappearance of the original Greek school.  Less than one percent of the original literature of Stoicism now survives, though.  The most significant ancient sources we have available today are:

  • The many Letters and Dialogues of the Roman statesman Seneca, who was a practising Stoic, and advisor to the Emperor Nero.
  • Four lengthy collections of Discourses and one concise Handbook of sayings compiled from the lectures of the Roman slave Epictetus by his student Arrian – Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in any significant quantity.
  • The private Stoic journal, the Meditations, of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic we know about, who followed the teachings of Epictetus.

The Stoic Goal of Life

Stoicism is a complex philosophy in some respects and its beyond the scope of this training to go into it in much detail. However, the central teaching was summed up fairly concisely. Stoicism teaches that the goal of life is “living in agreement with Nature”. The Stoics took that to mean, not retreating to a quiet life in the countryside, but rather living “in accord with virtue” or excelling as a human being.  Living in agreement with our own nature means flourishing and fulfilling our potential, by cultivating reason and thereby achieving strength of character and practical wisdom.  The outcome of our actions, whether we achieve external “success” or “failure”, is therefore less important than the nature of our own character.

The Stoic Concept of Virtue

The concept of “virtue” (aretê) is absolutely central to Stoicism but it’s important to realise this means something quite different from what many people today might take the word to imply.  Virtue in the Stoic sense denotes something more like “excelling” and flourishing as a human being, by fulfilling one’s true potential.  It implies having what we sometimes today call “positive qualities” or “strengths” of character.  The classic “cardinal virtues” of Stoicism were wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.  Wisdom, particularly practical wisdom, was the most important.  Indeed, the word philosophy means “love of wisdom” and the Stoics took that quite literally.  People today don’t generally assume that virtue is synonymous with wisdom. So when reading about Stoicism, to avoid confusion, it’s worth bearing in mind that wisdom and virtue were more or less synonymous to ancient Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

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