In our chaotic modern times, people have been increasingly turning to Stoicism to find peace and stability in their lives. What are the core Stoic beliefs, and are they still applicable in today’s world?
The answer appears to be a resounding yes.
Understanding the beliefs that shape Stoic thought can help you actually use the concepts presented by Stoicism in order to live a good life. So without further ado, let's dive in.
The Stoic school of philosophy was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium all the way back in the early 3rd century BC. One of the central ideas in Stoicism is that the practice of virtue allows people to flourish and thrive.
If you’re new to the world of Stoicism, it’s worth checking out our introductory guide to Stoicism for a more in-depth overview.
Stoicism is, at its core, a eudaimonistic theory. The word eudaimonia is often translated to mean “happiness,” but some argue that better translations include “good life,” “well-being,” or “human flourishing.” In its most literal sense, the term means “having a good guardian spirit."
Eudaimonistic theories are moral philosophies that propose that well-being has essential value because it is achieved through the right action. In fact, right action is defined as actions that lead to individual well-being.
The Stoics believed that the way to achieve eudaimonia was by living in agreement with nature.
How do we live according to nature? What did the Stoics even mean when they used the term nature?
When we think of nature, we probably think generally of the natural environment. We think of rivers, mountains, trees, birds, deer, and insects. Maybe it leads us to think about the weather and the climate more broadly.
To the Stoics, though, “nature” is an incredibly complex concept that can have many meanings.
When the Stoics talk about living in accordance with nature, they are, on the one hand, talking about living in agreement with the entire cosmos. An important belief of the Stoics was that the universe is a well-ordered system that is organized rationally. This idea is very much tied in with the Stoic's concept of fate, as their rationally ordered system doesn’t leave any room for chance.
If one is to live in accordance with nature in this sense, it means conforming to one’s own will with what is fated to happen.
Nature is also understood by the Stoics to refer to the specific constitution and character of each thing in the universe.
For example, the nature of animals is quite different from the nature of plants, and the nature of plants is quite different from the nature of rocks. This use of the word "nature" has to do with the way that things in existence come to be, change, and perish.
If a plant is to live in agreement with its nature, it would successfully perform the necessary tasks for flourishing. A thriving plant will receive the nutrients it needs, reproduce, grow, and get rid of any waste in its system.
Animals have additional characteristics such as locomotion, sense-perception, and desire. Their behaviors are typically more complex when living in agreement with nature than a plant.
For example, many types of animals have an inborn instinct to take care of their young. It would, therefore, be contrary to an animal's nature to neglect its offspring.
To the Stoics, the most notable, unique, and distinct capacity held by humans in comparison to other animals is reason.
Within this Stoic definition of nature, to live in accordance with nature means to live in agreement with the ability to reason.
Another essential Stoic belief is the understanding that virtue is necessary and sufficient for a happy life. Basically, the best way for us to travel through our lives is by aligning our beliefs, thoughts, and actions with the four cardinal virtues.
The four Stoic virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. In the taxonomy of Stoic ethics, each of these virtues are further broken down into a number of subcategories.
To the Stoics, to be virtuous one must possess all of the virtues. They represent a unity and are therefore inseparable from one another.
In many ways, the dominant American culture is all messed up with regard to how to find happiness. It is all too common for people to believe that possessions, wealth, status, affirmation, and other external things are what will make us happy.
If you want to approach life as the ancient Stoics did, you’ll have to transform this mindset.
The reality is that living virtuously is how happiness is achieved, not through external things. When we prioritize the stuff outside of us over our desire to be virtuous, we are not living in accordance with nature and will likely experience outcomes like isolation, anxiety, and plenty of negative and toxic emotions.
The Stoics believed that virtue is the only necessary and sufficient condition for the emergence of happiness. Of course, to know how to act virtuously requires that you can identify what is good and what is bad.
The Stoics had simple definitions for each of these terms, but they also had a third category that is worth understanding. These are the indifferents.
To the Stoics, virtue is the only true good in life. Many of the things that we would typically describe as “good” actually fall into the category of “indifferent” in the world of Stoic philosophy.
Basically, the word “good” is only used in its distinctly moral sense.
The Stoics believed that the perfection of reason is virtue. For any rational being, the perfected nature is the perfection of reason.
The Stoics believed that the corruption of virtue is the only true bad (or evil) in life. Basically, vice is bad.
We listed the four virtues of Stoicism above, which are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Each of these has an opposite vice, leaving us with foolishness, injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.
When you look at the Stoic definitions of good and bad, you likely notice that there seems to be a lot left over. This is because everything else was neither judged to be good nor evil, but was instead considered to be indifferents.
Indifferents were things that don’t actually add to or take away from a happy life in themselves. They are, instead, things that can be used either well or badly depending on how an individual chooses to use them.
The Stoics did further break down the indifferents into subclasses, however.
Some indifferents are considered “preferred” while others are considered “dispreferred.” The former are indifferents that are “according to nature,” while the latter are “contrary to nature.”
In short, things that fall into the category of preferred indifferents are things that tend to be reasonable choices for individuals exactly because they typically promote a person’s natural condition. Preferred indifferents include:
On the other hand, the dispreferred indifferents include:
A person’s virtue or vice is not defined by their collection of indifferents. In fact, in some circumstances, it might be virtuous for a person to choose a dispreferred indifferent over a preferred indifferent. In most cases, though, it’s typically appropriate to aim toward the preferred indifferents.
How a person chooses or uses their indifferents is how their virtue or vice is determined, not by the mere possession of these indifferents. We are made happy by using indifferents virtuously, and, oppositely, made unhappy by using indifferents viciously.
One Stoic idea that can seriously revolutionize your life is that of the dichotomy of control.
This might sound like a heady philosophical theory, but it’s actually incredibly practical. Once you start embracing it in your own lived experience, there’s a good chance you’ll find that it benefits you.
The dichotomy of control is about dividing the things we experience into two categories: what we can control and what we can’t control.
According to Epictetus, the things in our control are:
You might feel like the shortness of this list is a reason for concern. Is there really so little that we’re in control of?
Once you chew on this for a while, though, you realize that it’s actually incredibly freeing and helps you recognize just how powerful you are. You have control over your thoughts and actions. You can set goals and reach them, you can do the hard work of researching a topic and forming an opinion about it, and you can choose how you can react to what happens to you in life.
Epictetus also outlines what isn’t in our control. These are:
Some might gawk at the notion that we’re not in control of our bodies. You might think to yourself, “I can move my arm when I want to, I can exercise and lose weight, and I can eat well and ward off disease.”
In reality, though, you aren’t in control of your body. You may even know someone personally who did everything “right” (eating well, getting exercise, sleeping well) and was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
You might also scoff at the idea that you aren’t in control of your property or reputation. You might feel that you are perfectly in control of your home, your wealth, and what others think of you. After all, you worked hard for your money, you take care of your house, and you carefully cultivated a persona that makes you quite admirable.
The important thing to understand is that just because your actions can impact these things doesn’t mean you are in total control of them. Someone could break into your house, your business could collapse, and you could be falsely accused of a heinous crime that makes you a pariah overnight.
What you do have control over, though, is how you react when things like this happen to you. That is where your power ultimately lies.
You might think that parsing out the things you can and can’t control is just a game for people who think philosophy is a fun thing to discuss at dinner parties.
That simply isn’t the case.
Understanding what you can and can’t control can change your life. Why? Because it can help you decide where to put your energy.
Everything we do has an opportunity cost.
If you spend your life worrying about things that are out of your control, it means that you aren’t putting your energy towards the things that you can actually change.
Have you ever spent hours, days, weeks, or even years worrying about something that never even came to fruition? Think about where else you could have been putting that energy, and what else you could have been thinking about and working on.
Using the dichotomy of control in your life can be a powerful antidote to anxiety.
If you struggle with social anxiety, for example, you can benefit greatly from realizing that you can’t control your reputation. You cannot control what other people think about you. So, why worry about it? What if you focused on being the best person you can be rather than putting your time into trying to imagine what other people think about you?
The next time you find yourself worrying about something, angry about something, or just generally fixating on something, ask yourself: is this something that’s in my control?
If it’s not, then don’t worry about it. If it is, ask yourself: what can I do to change it?
There is a major misconception about Stoicism in popular conversation, largely because the word stoic (with a lowercase s) is often confused as being synonymous with Stoic (with an uppercase S.)
For a person to be stoic with a lowercase s, it means that they “can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” People that appear to be emotionless are often described as “stoic.”
To practice Stoicism doesn’t mean that you have to be free from emotion, though.
The ancient Stoics believed that certain emotions are toxic, including anger, anxiety, envy, and fear. Others, however, are good, including:
To be a Stoic doesn’t mean that you should let your emotions control you, nor does it mean that you suppress your emotions. The Stoics ultimately had an optimistic perspective on the human personality.
A number of Stoics discussed the fact that we are all born with everything that we need to thrive in life. Cleanthes wrote that we all have the seeds of virtue in us, while Panaetius said that nature gives everyone instincts toward virtue.
There is something so beautiful about the concept that we have all of the resources we need in order to flourish in life. It is easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that there are external things we need in order to be happy and thrive. Whether a person fixates on more money, a better place to live, meeting a partner, or moving across the country as the solution to their woes, they are inherently missing the point.
You have what you need to thrive right now.
Depending on how practiced you are in using your inner resources, it might take some time to figure out how to access them or what it would mean to use them. You might have to strengthen the muscles of these resources if you haven’t been prone to using them in the past.
The next time you’re in a difficult situation, no matter how big or how small, take the advice of Epictetus:
“Whenever a challenge arises, turn inward and ask what power you can exercise in the situation. If you meet temptation, use self-control; if you meet pain, use fortitude; if you meet revulsion, use patience. In this way, you will overcome life's challenges, rather than be overcome by them.”
One of the incredible things about life is that sometimes the worst situations we find ourselves in are actually what helps us realize what we are made of. In adversity, we learn what we are capable of and how we can grow.
Epictetus described the resources that he thought we were born with, which include:
It was his belief that the main purpose of education is to make it clear what these moral preconceptions are so that we can use them, hone them, and have them at the ready.
You have what you need to live a good life and be happy within you right now.
Do you ever feel like you have a ton of energy toward self-improvement?
You wake up one day and decide you’re going to change your whole life. You’re going to be better. You’re going to be a different person starting right now.
That’s all well and good, but assuming that you can go from zero to one hundred is also kind of setting yourself up for disappointment and a feeling of failure.
For example, let’s say that you wake up in the morning and you decide it’s time to lose weight. You make an ambitious plan to work out six days a week.
Everything is going great until one day you wake up feeling sick. You don’t work out that day and your shame over not sticking to your goal makes you bounce off the whole project completely.
The reality is, that if you enforce an attitude of perfection, you’ll always be let down. Obstacles will always crop up in life, no matter how well you plan for them. We will always make mistakes in life, no matter how hard we work to be meticulous, rational, and knowledgable.
The Stoics believed that living is an ongoing process of improvement. There is always work to be done on ourselves. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately,) we most likely won’t achieve absolute perfection at the age of 45 and never have to work to improve ourselves again.
Every time we face bumps in the road, we have the ability to better ourselves. We can:
We might not all ever reach the perfect versions of ourselves. When we work on this every day, though, in all of our endeavors, it is for the good of our own selves and all of the people around us.
When we don’t use the resources within us in life and maintain destructive and untrue beliefs, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to a long list of toxic emotions. There are many human states that are counterproductive and unpleasant, and the Stoics believed that we need to take control over these negative emotions.
If we let ourselves fall prey to these states, however, what we do in life will suffer and we will fall short in our duties to others.
It might not come as a surprise to you that fear is considered a negative emotion in the world of Stoic thoughts. What might not be as obvious, though, is that hope is also considered to be an emotion we should tame.
In fact, hope is simply the opposite of fear.
Both of these states occur when we fixate on the future and project outcomes, whether positive or negative, onto a time that hasn’t yet come. When you do this, you are focusing on something that is out of your control.
Instead of hoping for better days down the road, or lying awake at night fretting about what will happen in the future, a better strategy is to focus on what’s happening right now.
The Stoics also discussed the emotion of anger at great length. They believed that anger typically makes more trouble than whatever happened that brought up the anger in the first place. As Marcus Aurelius eloquently put it:
“Anger and the sorrow it produces are far more harmful than the things which make us angry.”
To be a Stoic doesn’t mean that you need to pretend like you don’t have emotions. All this means is that you’ll be deceiving yourself. Being honest with yourself about how you feel is the first step to taming negative emotions that don’t do you any good.
It’s ok if you feel fear, hope, anxiety, or anger. The important thing is to recognize this and work to focus on the present moment. The goal is to be able to have a clear head so that you can determine the best option you have at hand and proceed accordingly.
Many of the Stoics also promoted the idea of cosmopolitanism.
This word might make you think of a fruity cocktail or a women’s magazine, but obviously, this isn’t what the ancient philosophers were talking about.
The cosmopolitanism that the Stoics touched upon is “the idea that all human beings are members of a single community.”
The idea is that all people are intricately connected and are all governed by the same universal nature. It is our purpose to live together, work together, and help each other in order to produce a harmonious outcome.
However, when someone isn’t aware of their nature and isn’t capable of reason or logic, this brotherhood is broken.
All people are equal in the eyes of the Stoics. It doesn’t matter whether a person is wealthy or not, powerful or not, in good standing with the community or not. At our core, we are all the same.
At the same time, our own self-interest can’t be separated from the interests of others. This means that it’s in our best interest to be cooperative and to be actively socially engaged.
Marcus Aurelius wrote:
“We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
In a culture that seems increasingly combative, this type of attitude might seem overly optimistic. However, there is also something so instinctively true about it that it’s hard to push to the side without a second thought.
To use the United States as an example, how could the country change if everyone were to all of a sudden adopt this attitude? What if everyone around you, your neighbors, your coworkers, and your family, all started looking for ways that they could be useful to others and considered how they were connected to the greater community?
Of course, this isn’t the type of thing that happens overnight. But as a thought experiment, you likely imagine that day-to-day life would feel very different.
Not only would it be more pleasant to walk around your neighborhood, but things would start working better. When you went to a store, the people that work there would feel motivated out of a sense of duty to others to help them, and the people that shop there would do the same.
While it’s nice to dream about waving a magic wand and changing the world in an instant, we don’t have control over how others act or what they think.
However, we do have control over how we act and how we think.
Marcus Aurelius offered some beautiful advice on motivating yourself to get up in the morning in his Meditations, saying:
“Whenever you have trouble getting up in the morning, remind yourself that you’ve been made by nature for the purpose of working with others.”
If you’re looking to embrace this core Stoic belief, consider trying a meditation described by Aurelius:
“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. All things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”
A lot of writing on Stoicism these days seems to like to leave the concept of God out of things, promoting the self-help aspects of Stoicism while leaving the more spiritual parts out of the discussion.
To really learn about Stoicism, though, it’s important to understand that the ancient Stoics believed that everything in the universe is a part of God. While some might argue that this definition of God is basically synonymous with the word nature, this isn’t really what they meant.
In the words of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism:
“Nothing without a share in mind and reason can give birth to one who is animate and rational. But the world gives birth to those who are animate and rational. Therefore, the world is animate and rational.”
The Stoics believed that the world is organized by logos or reason. However, the notion of God to the Stoics wasn’t omnipotent, as the power of God or the gods is limited by logical and natural possibility.
Due to the increased popularity of Stoicism, you can find tons of articles, books, and podcasts about Stoicism. Many of these, however, tend to take a more self-help approach to the philosophy and focus on certain concepts over others.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it can be useful to dive into the beliefs of the ancient Stoics in order to ground your practice and work towards greater depth as an individual.
To learn more about the Stoics and how their philosophy can help you improve your life, check out our ever-growing library of resources about Stoicism.