Is Stoicism Good or Bad? 23 Answers

Updated July 7, 2023

The philosophy of Stoicism has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years. If you've heard people singing its praises, you might be skeptical-- will it really help you live a better life? Is Stoicism good or bad?

Of course, only you can decide whether you want to incorporate Stoicism into your life. There are certainly many compelling arguments for and against the philosophy. However, it's also important to distinguish between ancient Stoicism and modern Stoicism, which aren't identical phenomena.

Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons people advocate for Stoicism as well as some of the most common criticisms to help you decide for yourself.

Is Stoicism Good or Bad? How About Indifferent?

Before we look into some of the arguments in favor of Stoicism as well as criticisms of the philosophy, it's worth talking about the Stoic notions of good and bad.

Here is a general breakdown of the Stoic view on the topic:

  • Virtue alone is good
  • Vice alone is bad
  • Everything else is "indifferent"

The Stoics did express that some indifferents were preferred while others were dispreferred. Here are examples of how indifferents are divided:

  • Preferred indifferents: Health, wealth, life, strength, pleasure, good reputation, noble birth
  • Dispreferred indifferents: Disease, poverty, death, weakness, pain, low repute, ignoble birth

Indifferents are things that are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather, they can be used virtuously or viciously by individuals.

Within this reading, one could say that Stoicism isn't necessarily good or bad. Instead, it's something that can be used for good or bad. Whether it is incorporated into one's life virtuously or viciously is based on how an individual uses it.

Ancient Vs. Modern Stoicism: A Quick Comparison

When looking at arguments for and against Stoicism, it's worth making a quick comparison between ancient and modern Stoicism.

Stoicism has experienced a renaissance in recent years. However, the contemporary version of the philosophy isn't necessarily identical to the ancient school.

  • Modern Stoicism is influenced by ideas from other philosophical and psychological theories. It typically incorporates insights from positive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness practices.
  • Ancient Stoicism incorporated a complex understanding of the concept of "nature," which is often lost in modern Stoicism.
  • Some modern Stoic texts can simplify the notion of managing one's emotions, which can end up looking a lot like emotional suppression.
  • To help it be more accessible, modern Stoicism reframes ancient concepts in modern language. However, some of the deeper, more complex notions can potentially be lost along the way.
  • Modern Stoicism is disseminated through books, podcasts, social media, forums, and other modern media. Ancient Stoicism involved meetings at the Stoa and dense texts.

Arguments in Favor of Stoicism

So, is Stoicism good? Let's look at some of the ways that Stoicism could potentially help you live a better life.

1. Stoicism Can Help You Make Better Use of Your Time

It's easy in this day and age to waste a lot of our time. You could spend your whole life waking up, going to work, coming home, watching TV (or whatever you fancy,) going to bed, and repeating ad infinitum.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

- Seneca the Younger

Stoic practices like memento mori can help you realize that your time is limited. It can help you tap into what your larger purposes are and find the discipline to pursue them.

2. It Can Help You Care Less What People Think

Many of us spend too much time concerned with what other people think about us.

marcus aurelius quote is stoicism good or bad

“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people–unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful.”

- Marcus Aurelius

We make decisions based on our assumptions about the opinions of others. We follow a path that isn't of our choosing in order to gain approval.

Stoicism emphasizes the importance of seeking the truth rather than what's popular. It encourages us to align our lives with those truths. It also helps us remember that we don't control the opinions of others, so worrying about them is essentially a waste of time.

3. Stoic Philosophy Helps You Recognize What's In Your Control

The dichotomy of control is one of the central concepts of Stoicism. Basically, it states that there are some things in your control and some things that aren't.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

- Epictetus

According to Stoic philosophy, we can improve our lives by only focusing on what's in our control. This can help you actually achieve what you're capable of achieving in life. It can help you work through and move beyond the negative associations that come with the external events of life.

4. It Can Help You Become More Emotionally Resilient

Stoicism emphasizes the importance of developing inner strength and emotional resilience.

One practice that Stoics use to cultivate this strength is called premediatio malorum. In the modern world, it's more commonly called "negative visualization."

“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.”

– Seneca the Younger

Stoicism also posits that we have control over our own thoughts, attitudes, and reactions. This means that we can learn to manage our negative reactions and, instead, focus our energy in ways that are more useful.

5. Stoicism Can Help You Reduce Your Anxiety

According to the National Institutes of Health, anxiety disorders are experienced by about 31.1% of American adults "at some time in their lives."

marcus aurelius quote is stoicism good or bad

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism can help you move beyond your anxious fixation on the future or your constant fretting about the past. It can help you tap into the moment and become more aware of your emotional and psychological states. It can help you realize that the best way to live is to take action on what's in your control and learn to accept the rest.

6. Stoicism Can Help You Focus

We live in a society of distractions. Buzzing phones, clickbait headlines, and endless content make it possible to never focus on one thing for long.

“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.”

– Epictetus

Though consuming things mindlessly might stave off boredom for now, it also keeps us from becoming our best selves. Personal growth is something that happens over time, with consistency, discipline, and focus. If we don't deliberately work on ourselves and focus our attention, we probably won't live a very meaningful life.

7. Stoic Philosophy Can Help You Recognize the Impermanence of Life

We're going to die and so is everyone we know. Everything ends. Nothing is permanent.

This can be a hard pill to swallow for modern people. So much about our lives gives us a false sense of continuity. Then, when something changes, we are totally floored.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism can help encourage you to accept the inevitability of change. It can help you embrace the transience inherent in life. The more you are able to acknowledge this reality, the greater appreciation you can have for the present moment. Furthermore, it can help you find peace amidst the endless and constant flux of your life.

8. It Can Help You Feel More Grateful

One of the common criticisms of Stoicism (which we'll talk about more later on) is that it's too self-focused. The truth is, though, both ancient and modern Stoicism discusses the importance of gratitude at length.

seneca the younger quote is stoicism good or bad

"Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart."

- Seneca the Younger

Look no further than Meditations by Marcus Aurelius to see evidence of this. The journal starts with him listing the people that had an impact on him and what he learned from them. Throughout the book, he expresses gratitude for challenges and setbacks as learning opportunities.

9. Stoicism Can Help You Make the Most of Your Life

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that life is meaningless. Don't get sucked into nihilism and the idea that there's no point in doing anything with your life. It won't get you very far!

"Stop drifting…Sprint to the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can."

- Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism can help you take charge of your life. It can help you make changes to the things you can change. Beyond that, it can allow you to stop fixating on issues that are far beyond your control.

“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what the world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Through the works of ancient and modern Stoics alike, you can gain the motivation and inspiration to really make use of your time. It can help you be more disciplined and goal-oriented.

10. It Can Help You Focus on Living Virtuously

Of course, one of the central ideas of Stoicism is that virtue is the only good.

marcus aurelius quote is stoicism good or bad

“Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Most of us want to be "good," but what that means can be vague, culturally specific, and subjective. Embracing Stoicism helps you focus on the cardinal virtues-- wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. As you go through your daily life, you can work to live in a virtuous way that will help you achieve a "smooth flow of life."

11. The Philosophy Prepares You For Hard Times

You might not need any guiding philosophy when everything's going your way. When times get tough, though, you'll find that you don't have any ground to land on.

marcus aurelius quote is stoicism good or bad

"A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it."

- Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism proposes that adversity makes us stronger. Challenges help us develop as people. Obstacles give us an opportunity to find the inner resources hidden inside ourselves.

When you practice Stoicism, it can prepare you for the things to come. Beyond that, since you already know about the impermanence of things and have practiced preparing for the worst, the hard times don't shake you nearly as much as they could.

"I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you."

– Seneca the Younger

A Stoic can have the awareness that there are lessons to be learned from a situation even when it feels like everything is falling apart. They can see the larger web of fate that they are a part of, and they are ready and willing to take on what life throws at them.

12. It Can Help You Want Less

In our culture of consumption, Stoicism can help you embrace a less materialistic existence.

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. ”

Seneca the Younger

This doesn't mean you have to sell all your stuff and move into a tent by the river. It does mean, though, that you recognize that possessions aren't what really matters in life.

“For the wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit into his heart but into his home; and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”

Seneca the Younger

Seneca, in his letters to his friend Lucilius, encourages him to occasionally "practice poverty." This meant doing things like wearing uncomfortable clothes and eating bland food. You can practice this, too, and it will help you realize that the fear of poverty isn't something that should rule your life.

Criticisms of Stoicism

Now that we've looked at a bunch of the arguments in favor of practicing Stoicism, let's take a look at the other side of the coin. What are some common criticisms of this philosophy? Could it be more harmful than helpful?

13. Stoicism Encourages Emotional Suppression

One of the major criticisms of Stoicism is that it encourages us to bottle up our emotions. People think of Stoicism as a philosophy that requires that you have a stiff upper lip at all times.

“Both happiness and unhappiness depend on perception.”

– Marcus Aurelius

The truth is, the ancient Stoics weren't advocating for "faking it til we make it" when it comes to overcoming our emotions. They didn't suggest that you pretend you don't feel sad when you feel sad or pretend you don't feel angry when you feel angry.

Here's a quote from Seneca that helps to show the more nuanced understanding of emotions held by the ancient Stoics:

“It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed forever. I am not, therefore, going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.”

- Seneca the Younger

That being said, this is a legitimate danger of the philosophy if a person is only doing surface-level research. When you suppress your emotions, you're basically lying to yourself about how you feel. Marcus Aurelius would never say that was a good idea!

14. Practicing Stoicism Makes You Passive

Another argument you'll hear against Stoicism is that it makes people passive. Epictetus and the other Stoics placed so much of what happens in one's life outside of one's control, after all. Plus, they believed in the concept of fate-- doesn't that mean we don't have free will anyway?

“Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Despite this common interpretation of Stoicism, the Stoics would never advocate that someone just lazily play video games while the world burns. They were strong proponents of the concepts of duty and purpose and encouraged political participation. Just because Stoicism helps you recognize what isn't in your control doesn't mean that one must automatically be a pushover to subscribe to the philosophy.

15. It Makes You Less Socially and Politically Engaged

Some argue that Stoics focus too much on personal development and not enough socially and politically.

“Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands. Even dying is one of the important assignments of life and, in this as in all else, make the most of your resources to do well the duty at hand.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Perhaps this is true in modern times, but the ancient Stoics certainly encourage participating actively in society and the political sphere.

16. Stoicism Overemphasizes Reason

Reason and rationality are given a lot of emphasis in Stoicism. Some could say that this occurs at the expense of one's natural emotions and could lead to suppression.

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

- Marcus Aurelius

Beyond that, others might argue that wisdom can be gleaned from other sources, such as emotions, and focusing too much on reason can give an incomplete picture of the human experience.

17. Stoicism Makes People Cold and Unfeeling

Another argument is that Stoicism can make people cold and unempathetic to others.

One passage that is often referenced in relation to this criticism is the following from Epictetus:

If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being [a mortal] whom you are kissing, for thus when they die, you will not be disturbed.

- Epictetus

Some read this to be practically sociopathic, stating that one cannot be disturbed when a loved one dies.

However, it's important to understand that the Stoics believed in cosmic providence. Stoic metaphysics, unfortunately, isn't incorporated into much modern Stoicism. This means that the meaning behind them is commonly misunderstood.

Another Epictetus quote helps to show where the Stoics came from in terms of other people's emotions and pain:

“But my mother grieves when she does not see me.” So why has she not learnt these doctrines? I am not saying that it is wrong to take care that she should not lament; but that we are not to wish absolutely what is not in our own power. Now, the grief of another is not in my power; but my own grief is. I will, therefore, absolutely oppose my own grief, for that is in my power; and I will endeavour to prevent another’s grief as far as I am able: but not absolutely..."

- Epictetus

18. Practicing Stoicism Makes You Deny Your Own Vulnerability

Since Stoicism proposes that people should embrace adversity in order to continue to grow, some argue that the philosophy asks you to deny your own vulnerability.

If you want something good, get it from yourself.”

- Epictetus

The truth is, though, this argument goes out the window quickly if you actually read the works of the ancient Stoics. That being said, it's fair to say that the Stoics put a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and inner strength. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate.

19. It's an Elitist Philosophy

Stoic philosophy is also sometimes characterized as elitist. Some like to put down the concepts of Stoicism by saying that the philosophy's focus on self-mastery and personal virtue is only suitable for people who have the luxury to focus on themselves.

When you look into it, though, this argument falls apart fast.

Epictetus, after all, lived the first part of his life as a slave. Cleanthes carried water during the day and continued to do so even once he was well-known for his philosophical ideas. Musonius Rufus was exiled not once, not twice, but three times.

“Thus it appears that exile helps, rather than hinders body and spirit, by treating them better than they treat themselves.”

- Musonius Rufus

Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by his former student, Nero. Even Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman emperor, was no stranger to suffering. It is said that only five of his thirteen children outlived him.

The reality is, the tenets of Stoicism aren't just for the privileged. Proponents of the philosophy would say that every single person can benefit from practicing the main Stoic ideas in daily life.

20. Stoicism Only Applies When Times Are Hard

This criticism really doesn't hold water. When a person carefully applies Stoicism to their life-- during the good times and the bad-- there are tremendous potential benefits.

“For as wood is the material of the carpenter, bronze that of the statuary, just so each man’s own life is the subject matter of the art of living.”

– Epictetus

Stoicism helps you appreciate the good moments as you recognize that they're fleeting. It helps you make the most of the present moment. At the same time, it can help you remember that "this too shall pass." The ideas of Stoicism can help you grow and become your best possible self, no matter what the world is throwing at you.

21. Modern Stoicism Is Just Self-Help Nonsense

You can definitely find some websites and sources out there that make Stoicism sound like a series of life hacks.

Beyond that, there are definitely individuals that are working to make a personal brand off of Stoicism. This can mean that they are more focused on creating content that generates clicks rather than emphasizing the most important parts of the philosophy.

"All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else. For things are interdependent, and they combine to form this universal order. There is only one universe made up of all things, and one creator who pervades them; there is one substance and one law, namely, common reason in all thinking creatures, and all truth is one-if, as we believe, there is only one path of perfection for all beings who share the same mind."

- Marcus Aurelius

The reality is that Stoicism has been around for more than two thousand years. Over millennia, the ideas of ancient men are bound to branch off in many different ways. Dismissing Stoicism as self-help garbage is likely short-sighted-- it's hard to deny that there is a lot of depth to the philosophy if you know where to look.

22. Stoicism Is Self-Centered

It is, to some extent, fair to say that Stoicism is a solitary pursuit. At the same time, a big part of ancient Stoicism was participating in public life.

"Everything - a horse, a vine - is created for some duty... For what task, then, were you yourself created?"

- Marcus Aurelius

After all, it was the Epicureans, Aristotelians, and Platonists that discussed their philosophy privately among themselves. The Stoics, on the other hand, met in the public market to engage in philosophical conversation and debate.

23. Stoic Philosophy Is Contradictory

Finally, another criticism of Stoicism is that it's incoherent. On the one hand, it tells us that we should take control of our lives. On the other hand, it tells us that we are part of an ordered universe and that we must accept our fate.

The devil here is in the details.

"Remember: Matter: how tiny your share of it. Time: how brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate: how small a role you play in it."

- Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism doesn't propose that we are just puppets being danced around by fate. We are integral elements of nature-- we are active participants. Essentially, fate is something that operates through us, not just something that happens to us.

Is Stoicism Right For You?

At the end of the day, you're the one that has to decide whether Stoicism is a tool that you can use to live a good life. Many modern people, however, have found it to be a powerful antidote to some of the more negative aspects of contemporary existence.

If you want to learn more about Stoicism, you might be interested to check out some of the best books to learn Stoic philosophy. For more articles and quotes, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog!

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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