Stoicism vs Existentialism: Comparing the Differences and Similarities

Updated August 7, 2023

Last week, we analyzed the similarities and differences between Stoicism and nihilism. In this week's post, we're going to compare Stoicism vs Existentialism to find where these schools of thought overlap and diverge.

These two distinct philosophies have, at first glance, a lot more points of contrast than points of overlap. They reach practically opposite conclusions about the nature of the universe and meaning in life, for example.

On the other hand, they have a number of notable similarities that shouldn't be overlooked.

Let's take a closer look at exactly what both of these philosophies are about, along with how they're similar and different.

What Is Stoicism?

One of the dominant philosophical schools during the Hellenistic period in ancient Greece, Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. The first generation of Stoic philosophers congregated and lectured at the porch in the Aroga at Athens (the stoa poikilê, from which the school of thought received its name,) and the philosophy continued to be popular during the Roman period and beyond.

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“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?”

- Marcus Aurelius

Though it began more than two thousand years ago, Stoicism has been a deeply influential philosophy throughout history and has been experiencing a resurgence in the modern day. The words and wisdom of figures such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Musonius Rufus are being incorporated into contemporary philosophy of how best to live one's life.

Stoicism: The Core Ideas

Stoicism is a rich and complex philosophy, and not every Stoic philosopher shared precisely the same views on all topics. That being said, there are some core ideas that are shared by those that have integrated the philosophy into their lives, which we'll take a look at now.

Living in Accordance With Nature

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, believed that "living in agreement with nature" was the path to achieving a "smooth flow of life." The Stoics believed that the universe is orderly and purposeful, not a random and meaningless plane in which we all find ourselves.

Living in accordance with nature doesn't mean you have to sell your stuff and go live off the land. "Nature" here is a much more complex concept than our typical modern usage of the word. The basic idea is that we can flourish in life if we align our actions and decisions with reason and virtue rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by our momentary desires and emotions.

Virtue Is the Highest Good

Virtue, to the Stoics, is the highest good. On the other side of the coin, the qualities or behaviors that are contrary to virtue are vices.

The Stoic virtues are wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. The corresponding vices with each of these virtues are foolishness, injustice, intemperance, and cowardice.

Stoic philosophy proposes that living virtuously is both necessary and sufficient to lead a good life.

The Dichotomy of Control

Perhaps one of the most influential concepts in modern Stoicism is the dichotomy of control. The idea here is that we must distinguish between the things we have control over in life and the things we don't have control over.

To the Stoics, the only things we have control over are internal events like our thoughts, beliefs, reactions, speech, and actions. Everything else-- all external events-- is ultimately out of our control.

Once we have obtained this knowledge, the Stoics propose that we can achieve peace of mind and personal progress by focusing on the things we can control and learning to accept those things that fall outside the scope of our control.

Amor Fati

Latin for "love of one's fate," amor fati is a term that is most often associated with Nietzsche. Though the Stoics never used this particular phrase, they certainly embraced this idea.

When you love your own fate, it means that you accept all of the events in your life-- both the good and the bad-- as necessary or even good. Rather than wallowing in a mindset where the universe is against you, you recognize that even the most difficult experiences you've had have been essential occurrences within your life and have allowed you opportunities to learn and grow.

Memento Mori

Another important Stoic concept is that of memento mori. When you practice memento mori, you regularly remind yourself of your own mortality and impending death.

Confronting the reality of one's own death can help highlight just how grateful we are for what we have in life. It can help us remember that everything is impermanent and that we should appreciate the fleeting joys of life while we have the chance. It can help us hone in on the things we want to accomplish in life and realize that we don't actually have as much time to waste as we might have thought.

The Stoics also discuss the notion of overcoming the fear of death at great length. Death itself, say the Stoics, is not evil. It is a natural occurrence, a regular part of the order of the universe, and therefore cannot be evil.

We cannot escape death, as Epictetus says, but we can escape the fear of death.

Strength and Growth Through Adversity

The Stoics recognized that it is often the most difficult experiences in our lives that shape us into who we are. When we are faced with adversity, we are presented with a challenge to overcome. During these times, the Stoics teach us that if we are able to look inward we will be able to find strengths and resources we didn't know were there.

Embracing the Present

One of the reasons that Stoicism has become so popular in recent years is that many people find it an effective method of overcoming anxiety. It can help us learn from the past rather than fixate on it while also planning for the future rather than anxiously obsessing about what is to come.

“For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose something he does not already possess.”

- Marcus Aurelius

This quote from Marcus Aurelius so beautiful describes a Stoic attitude about what it means to be alive. He builds off of the idea that the only thing in our possession at any given time is the present moment. What that means is that the present moment is actually the only thing we can really lose.

Inner Resources

The modern discussion about Stoicism often focuses on very pragmatic tips and tricks for reducing anxiety, increasing productivity, and generally experiencing personal growth.

While that's all well and good, some things that are often missed are the less tangible but still very real elements of the philosophy-- ones that really do propose a beautiful, joyful, and positive worldview.

One such idea is the notion that we have all of the resources we need inside ourselves to thrive. Life is a journey, and we are secretly packing everything we need inside the toolbox of our souls.

Identifying and Taming Toxic Emotions

Practicing Stoicism isn't about pretending like you are an emotionless robot. The idea, however, is to tame toxic emotions and prioritize the experience of good emotions.

The Stoics viewed emotions such as hope, fear, and anger as toxic. These emotions can control us without us even realizing what's happening, influencing everything from the tiniest decisions to life-altering ones.

On the other hand, positive emotions in the eyes of the Stoics include:

  • Rational wishing
  • Rational caution
  • Gratitude
  • Love for others
  • Joy

Self-Responsibility

Finally, the Stoic understands that it is his or her own responsibility to take control of what they can in life. They don't blame others when something doesn't go right for them and they don't expect the world to hand them a good life on a plate.

We have the responsibility to ourselves, the people in our lives, and the universe as a whole to strive to live virtuously. We must regularly examine ourselves, work to improve ourselves, exercise discipline, and strive to be reasonable rather than emotional.

What Is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophical school of thought that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The primary questions that existentialist philosophers explore surround the topics of:

  • Purpose
  • Meaning
  • The value of human existence

"We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are - that is the fact."

- Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism: The Core Ideas

Existentialism is, ultimately, a highly diverse philosophical tradition. However, there are some key themes that turn up again and again, that help to provide a sense of unity between the works of existentialist thinkers.

Philosophy Should Be Fully Integrated With Life

When we think about philosophy and philosophers, we often picture aged academics sitting pensively in a dark room filled with dusty old books. The existentialists, however, did not think that philosophy should just be the special occupation of a few members of society. Instead, they believed that philosophy should be a way of life fully integrated with one's daily experience.

"Man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them."

- Albert Camus

The existentialists identified the ancient Greeks as one of the two historical antecedents of this idea, including:

The other major influence of this aspect of philosophy comes from German Idealism after Immanuel Kant. Figures like Hegel and Schelling believed that philosophy was an integral part of life rather than something that exists outside of life.

Anxiety

Another notion that is frequently stressed by existentialists is that of anxiety or anguish. Anxiety, as understood by existentialists, has two important implications:

  • Emotions and feelings were emphasized as significant in that they were a more direct relationship between a person and the rest of existence
  • Human existence is "on its own," which has several different meanings depending on the philosopher you're referencing

Authenticity

The concept of authenticity in existentialism has to do with living in accordance with nature (sound familiar?) One could argue this is the existentialists' own spin on the old Greek idea proposed by the Stoics.

"The most common form of despair is not being who you are."

- Soren Kierkegaard

Someone who is authentic is able to recognize and affirm the nature of existence. Authenticity is often discussed as particularly difficult in the modern world.

Freedom

Another important key theme in existential philosophy is freedom.

"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

- Jean-Paul Sartre

Each individual's decisions are isolated from the determination of greater power or deity, a concept that is also linked to the idea of anguish.

Situatedness

The concept of 'situatedness' has to do with the idea that our existence takes place in a specific context even though we have absolute freedom.

"Man's existence precedes his essence."

- Jean-Paul Sartre

There are many factors that weigh upon freedom-- our bodies, our pasts, our historical context, and so on. It is our situatedness that actually makes freedom meaningful.

Existence

There is not one shared overarching view on existence among all of the philosophers associated with this school of thought.

"The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion."

- Albert Camus

Existentialists all agree that human existence is the existence in question, not just anything that exists.

Absurdity

If you've ever bumped into existentialism before, probably one of the things that was emphasized was the notion of absurdity.

"What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity."

- Albert Camus

The existentialists have discussed absurdity from a number of different angles, including:

  • The idea is that nature has no reason for existing and no design, and the achievements of science actually empty nature of its meaning and value.
  • Even our freedom is absurd when viewed from the standpoint of the absurdity of the fact that our freedom won't be determined by reason or knowledge.
  • Free actions stop being free when they are done and instead become a part of the world, and human existence is absurd because the act of becoming oneself requires being what one is not.

Social and Political Dimensions

Existentialist writings also often have a political or social dimension to them. The freedom of the authentic human being involves other people, particularly the authentic being of other people.

"Mankind must work continually to produce individual great human beings - this and nothing else is the task... for the question is this : How can your life, the individual life, retain the highest value, the deepest significance? Only by living for the good of the rarest and most valuable specimens."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

There is both a positive and negative side to the discussion surrounding other people in the realm of existentialism. On the sunnier side of things, philosophy contains fascinating explorations of the concept of friendship and the ability to be authentic with other people.

On the less positive side, there is also discussion and critique about most of humanity being de-individuated and simply accepting the values of other people thoughtlessly.

"It is not the ferocity of the beast of prey that requires a moral disguise but the herd animal with its profound mediocrity, timidity, and boredom with itself."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

You'll often find existentialists using the phrases "crowd," "masses," or "horde" to describe the larger collective group of people. Nietzsche notably, used the phrase "the herd" to describe the lion's share of humanity.

The Similarities Between Stoicism and Existentialism

Stoicism and Existentialism are by no means identical and, in fact, have notably distinct views on important topics. At the same time, there are points where both of these philosophical schools of thought overlap. Before we look at the differences, let's check in on how these two traditions are similar.

Philosophy as a Way of Life

One major similarity between Stoicism and Existentialism is that they posit that philosophy is a way of life rather than something to only be considered by intellectuals.

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“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

- Epictetus

Philosophy should not, in the eyes of Stoics and Existentialists alike, remain an abstract intellectual discussion between a few lucky beings. Instead, philosophy is something that directly informs the attitudes, choices, and actions one holds and makes throughout the day.

Ethical Behavior and Virtue

The notions of behaving ethically and virtuously are both significant in Stoicism and Existentialism.

marcus aurelius image and quote stoicism vs existentialism

"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature."

– Marcus Aurelius

While Stoicism focuses on the four cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation,) Existentialism posts that each person should strive to live authentically and make choices that align with their true beliefs and values.

Authenticity

Both Stoicism and Existentialism emphasize the importance of connecting with one's true self and not being swayed by the opinions of the crowd.

marcus aurelius image and quote stoicism vs existentialism

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane."

- Marcus Aurelius

Authenticity is a more prominent concept in Existentialism than it is in Stoicism. The relationship between the individual and the masses is also understood differently within the two separate historical contexts in which these philosophies emerged.

“Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: 'Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.'”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Individual Responsibility

These two philosophies are also similar in their focus on the need to be responsible for oneself.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

- Epictetus

In Stoicism, individuals are encouraged to take control of their thoughts, attitudes, reactions, and other internal events. Existentialists, on the other hand, highlight the importance of making meaningful choices with one's freedom.

"Freedom is not constituted primarily of privileges but of responsibilities."

- Albert Camus

Adversity and Hardship

Another point of overlap between Stoicism and Existentialism exists in their attitude toward adversity and hardship.

"Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal."

- Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics view hardship as an inherent part of life that can be approached with a rational and calm mindset. The way we react to adversity is something we have control over, even if we don't have control over the external events as they occur. They propose that we can cultivate inner strength and emotional resilience by experiencing adversity.

"In a word, man must create his own essence: it is in throwing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, that he gradually defines himself."

- Jean-Paul Sartre

The Existentialists, on the other hand, suggest that humans can confront adversity in an authentic way. The hardships of life are a fundamental part of the human condition and are an aspect of how individuals can define themselves.

Asking Questions About Meaning and Purpose

Both Stoicism and Existentialism ask individuals to consider the notions of meaning and purpose in one's life.

"There is only one thing for which God has sent me into the world, and that is to develop every kind of virtue or strength, and there is nothing in all the world that I cannot use for this purpose."

- Epictetus

At the same time, they come to different conclusions about exactly what the meaning and purpose is in life.

"Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is."

- Jean-Paul Sartre

To the Stoics, meaning is derived from cultivating virtue, fulfilling one's duty, and living in agreement with nature. To the Existentialists, the individual has to create their own meaning through authentic choices in an otherwise meaningless existence.

Significance of the Present Moment

Another similarity shows up in the realm of mindfulness.

“The true felicity of life is to be free from anxieties and pertubations; to understand and do our duties to God and man, and to enjoy the present without any serious dependence on the future.”

– Seneca the Younger

The Stoics advocate for accepting one's present situation and focusing on the moment at hand.

“Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

- Jean-Paul Sartre

The Existentialists argue that the individual must always be fully present in both their choices and their experience.

Criticism of Materialism

The Stoics constantly warn us about being attached to material things in life.

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"Wealth is able to buy the pleasures of eating, drinking and other sensual pursuits-yet can never afford a cheerful spirit or freedom from sorrow."

-Musonius Rufus

The Existentialists, responding to a consumeristic society, critique the conformity of materialism and instead encourage people to engage in authentic living and deeper introspection.

Indifference

The notion of indifference is also a similarity between these philosophies.

“But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor bad.”

- Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics believe that virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. Everything else is indifferent.

"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world."

- Albert Camus

The Existentialists discuss indifference in a different light, as in the indifference of the universe.

Questioning Death

Finally, both philosophies are also concerned with the reality of one's death.

"I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it."

- Epictetus

In Stoicism, the individual should never keep the idea of their own death far from their mind. The Existentialists, in short, believe that the individual has to grapple with the reality of mortality.

"If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself."

- Martin Heidegger

The Differences Between Stoicism and Existentialism

Though these two philosophies ask questions about similar aspects of the human experience, they come to some pretty different conclusions. Let's look at the differences between Stoicism and Existentialism.

The Historical Context

One obvious difference between Stoicism and Existentialism is the historical context in which they emerged. Stoicism was founded in ancient Greece around 300 BC during a time of relative chaos. Existentialism, on the other hand, emerged in the 1800s and 1900s as a response to the challenges posed by urbanization, industrialization, World Wars, and the crisis of modernity.

The Nature of Reality

Another major place where these belief systems diverge has to do with the nature of reality. The Stoics say the universe is rational and ordered, while the Existentialists see it as absurd, indifferent, and lacking inherent meaning.

Fate and Human Will

The Stoics posited that humans have control over their attitudes and responses toward events, though fate and determinism also exist. The Existentialists focus on the burden of responsibility that accompanies each individual's freedom of choice.

View on Emotions

The realm of emotions is another place we find these two schools of thought differing. As you likely know, the Stoics advocated for achieving a state of inner tranquility and emotional equilibrium. The Existentialists were much more likely to embrace the full spectrum of human emotions, viewing intense emotional experiences as an important part of becoming one's authentic self.

Are You a Stoic or an Existentialist?

Stoicism and Existentialism are two distinct philosophies that share some common themes and ideas, such as individual responsibility, meaning, death, and philosophy as a way of life. Though these schools of thought are concerned with many of the same issues, the conclusions they reach about them differ significantly. Perhaps most glaringly, the Stoics believed in a rational and ordered universe, while the Existentialists argued that the universe was indifferent and absurd.

Whether you find yourself leaning towards an Existentialist worldview or a Stoic one, the pursuit of knowledge is an aspect of life that major thinkers in both camps were certainly deeply engaged with. If you're on a journey to learn more about Stoicism, philosophy, and living the best possible life, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog for more articles, quotes, and inspiration.

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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