A number of surveys have been conducted in recent years asking people if they believe their lives to have meaning, with the results typically indicating that most people believe life to be meaningful. The question of whether there is any inherent meaning to life becomes central when you compare Stoicism vs nihilism-- two contrasting yet prevalent philosophies in the modern age.
While Stoicism has been receiving a lot of increased attention recently, the mindset associated with nihilism is no stranger to our society.
Are there any similarities between Stoicism and nihilism? How are these two philosophies different? Would it be possible to be a "Stoic nihilist?"
In this article, we'll take a closer look at both of these philosophies, including where they overlap and how they differ.
Founded in the early 3rd century BC in Athens, Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that has been experiencing a modern renaissance in recent years.
This school of thought proposes that the individual can flourish through the practice of virtue. One can achieve eudaimonia (variously translated as good spirit, welfare, or happiness) by living in accordance with nature and adhering to the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
"All things are parts of one single system, which is called nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with nature."
- Zeno of Citium
The Stoics suggested that virtue is the only good and vice is the only evil. Everything else is indifferent, though these "indifferents" can be divided into "preferred" and "dispreferred."
Some of the core concepts of Stoicism include:
Stoicism is a rich philosophy-- if you start going down the rabbit hole, you'll be hard-pressed to run out of fascinating books to read, concepts to explore, and ways to apply the school of thought to your actual life. If you want to dive deeper into the fascinating world of Stoic philosophy, check out some of our guides for beginners:
Nihilism is an umbrella term that covers a family of values. All of these values orbit around the shared notion that there is no inherent meaning, value, or order to life. That is, other than the meaning or value; we create ourselves.
"Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question "why" is lacking. What does nihilism mean?--that the supreme values devaluate themselves."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
It isn't uncommon to hear someone or something described as "nihilistic" these days. This is typically used to imply the concept that "everything is meaningless." While there is some truth to this statement, it's worth noting that this is something of an oversimplification of nihilism as a philosophy.
When people talk about nihilism, they're usually referring to one of the two leading theories in philosophy:
There have actually been a number of different theories within the realm of nihilism over time.
Some have categorized nihilism as having five primary forms:
Existential nihilists believe that human life is without purpose and insignificant. Essentially, this is a philosophical position that holds that there is no intrinsic meaning or value to life.
According to this philosophy, it is up to individuals to use their freedom of choice to create meaning in their lives.
As you might imagine, existential nihilism is frequently associated with impulsive behavior, destructive attitudes and actions, and even suicide.
It's important to note that existential nihilism and existentialism are two separate branches of philosophical thought. That being said, there are certainly some overlaps between them.
Also known as cosmic pessimism, this is the other form of nihilism that is the most commonly referenced discourse when nihilism comes up. Rather than stating that there is no intrinsic meaning to life, it posits that nature is indifferent to the basic concerns of humanity or is, perhaps, even completely unintelligible. Another offering is the idea that the universe is only "knowable" in so far as we can explain and describe things scientifically.
Basically, this is a philosophy that argues that the cosmos does not offer any aid or support in our human lives, values, or aims. Actually, some see the universe as actively hostile to the goals, drives, and values of humans.
Cosmic nihilists will sometimes suggest that any meaning that humans create is simply a coping mechanism we use in the face of our inevitable deaths. That's right-- everything from family, joy, love, and freedom is just a cope. Grim stuff!
Epistemology is a philosophical branch that is primarily focused on the theory of knowledge. We can therefore understand epistemological nihilism as a school of thought that posits that knowledge itself doesn't exist.
If knowledge did exist, according to this theory, human beings would be unable to obtain it. Therefore, the existence of knowledge is redundant and useless. Because of this extreme take, you'll often find epistemological nihilism associated with extreme skepticism.
Political nihilism focuses on the fact that our current institutions-- political, social, and religious-- are corrupt and beyond the point of possible reform. From this standpoint, the only way to make improvements in the future is to destroy these systems.
The major thread of this philosophy is that the objective notions of right and wrong do not exist. You'll also hear people call this "moral nihilism."
There are three main takes within this philosophy:
Now that we've taken a closer look at both Stoicism and Nihilism, you've probably noticed that these are pretty different philosophies. Though these schools of thought are contrasting, they do have a few things in common.
One of the primary similarities between Stoicism and Nihilism is that they both take a closer look at the nature of life and the notion of meaning.
"Man's ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy-that he live in accordance with his own nature."
- Seneca the Younger
Of course, what they find when they look at these concepts is quite different:
Though the understanding of the nature of life and meaning is quite different in these two philosophies, the point stands that they are similar in their exploration of the topics.
Another thing that these two philosophies have in common is that they both ask the individual to examine their own interpretation of life and existence.
"I cannot comprehend how any man can want anything but the truth."
- Marcus Aurelius
Both Stoicism and Nihilism encourage people to critically examine the beliefs they have about existence and engage in introspection.
Finally, both Stoicism and nihilism touch upon the concept of personal responsibility. That being said, they don't reach the same conclusions and don't utilize the same underlying assumptions in order to reach those conclusions.
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”
Stoicism, on the one hand, stresses that each individual can control their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions. By being self-aware and exerting control over internal events, Stoics can aim to live virtuously and reach a state of inner peace.
“If you want something good, get it from yourself.”
Nihilism, on the other hand, argues that individuals should take responsibility for creating meaning in their own lives since there is no inherent, objective meaning to life.
Stoicism and nihilism are philosophies that ask some of the same questions but come to very different answers.
Let's take a look at the stark contrast between these schools of thought in terms of their proposed philosophical framework.
The central idea that guides the philosophy of Stoicism is that living in accordance with nature leads to a good flow of life. Virtue is the only good, and living virtuously is necessary and sufficient to live a good life.
"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart."
- Marcus Aurelius
In Stoicism, the universe is governed by a rational, purposeful, and ordered principle. Fate exists, and we are all a part of it. We can either flow with fate, or we can fight against it. We can't control external events, but we do have control over internal experiences.
"Submit to the fate of your own free will."
- Marcus Aurelius
Nihilism doesn't share the view of the Stoics that the universe is rational and ordered. They completely reject the idea that there is any purpose or meaning inherently built into the structure of the universe.
The Stoics put forward the idea that humans can lead meaningful lives by living in harmony with the rational and ordered nature of the universe. By focusing on the pursuit of virtue and personal growth, individuals are able to lead truly meaningful lives.
"A man's true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examinations, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not that which he thinks and says and does."
- Marcus Aurelius
In sharp contrast, nihilism posits that there is no inherent meaning to life. Individuals can either accept the fundamental meaninglessness of life, or they can use their freedom of choice to create their own subjective meaning.
As you might imagine, the nihilistic view can lead to some pretty rough outcomes from a worldview standpoint. Though you don't have to be a nihilist to experience existential dread, for example, it is often linked to nihilism because it occurs as a consequence of asking questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life.
Living a virtuous life is one of the most central teachings of Stoicism. The four virtues of Stoicism are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. It is the Stoic belief that virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. Everything else is indifferent-- essentially, tools that can be used either virtuously or viciously.
"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
If you want to live a good life, according to the Stoics, aiming to be virtuous even in the smallest endeavors is essential.
To the nihilists, there are no objective virtues, values, or moral truths. There can be some differences in what this really means depending on the type of nihilism a person practices. In some instances, it can lead to the proposal of individualistic or subjective moral frameworks. In others, it could mean completely rejecting the traditional sense of morality as we understand it.
While there are some general similarities between Stoicism and nihilism, these philosophies are relatively contradictory. However, a person could theoretically pick and choose elements from each philosophy in order to create a somewhat cohesive worldview.
For example, a nihilist would have to drop the greater sense of order in the universe proposed by the Stoics. They could potentially view life as inherently meaningless while still using some of the practices of Stoicism in their daily life.
For example, they might practice:
If a person were to focus only on the personal development aspects of Stoicism and stay away from cosmology, it is conceivably possible to be a Stoic nihilist. At the same time, they would most likely run into some complex and difficult-to-solve questions along the way if they were to continuously engage with both Stoic and nihilist texts.
Existential nihilism is one of the more pervasive forms of nihilism in the modern era.
The philosophy of existential nihilism posits that life and the universe lack any inherent purpose or meaning. Human existence is not the result of any type of grand design. The only way to find any meaning in life is subjectively through our own personal interpretations.
Here are some of the predominant differences between Stoicism and existential nihilism:
It's hard to say precisely whether Stoicism or nihilism is the more popular philosophy in the current age. The truth is Stoicism has been experiencing a resurgence in interest in the last ten or so years. You'll find books, podcasts, YouTube channels, blogs, and even conferences that center around the modern application of this ancient philosophy.
On the other hand, nihilism doesn't seem to have nearly as much of a following. Discussion about the actual philosophy of nihilism is something that might occur most often within the walls of academia these days.
As one way to compare the numbers, we can look at the subscribers over at the r/Stoicism and r/Nihilism subreddits:
Even though you might not come across nearly as many self-help-style books telling you to become a nihilist, that doesn't mean that the attitude of nihilism isn't pervasive in our culture.
After all, most of us have probably met some people that argue that life is meaningless, that the universe is cold and uncaring (or even hostile,) and that any belief in meaning in life is just a coping mechanism. Even if these people don't call themselves nihilists or even know what the word means, the central concept of philosophy is a guiding principle in their lives.
Who are the individuals that we have to thank for Stoicism as a philosophy? Let's look at some of the main characters.
Anyone who has found any value in the teachings of Stoicism can look back more than two thousand years to send some gratitude towards Zeno of Citium.
“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.”
– Zeno of Citium
The founder of Stoicism way back around 300 BC, he taught people about the potential to gain peace of mind and goodness when living a virtuous life in accordance with nature.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (often referred to simply as Seneca) was an ancient Roman philosopher as well as a dramatist and statesman.
"We suffer more often in imagination than in reality."
- Seneca the Younger
Leading a fascinating and controversial life that involved tutoring the infamous Nero, advising Nero, and being forced to kill himself after being (potentially falsely) accused of conspiring to assassinate Nero.
His beautifully written letters dealing with moral issues are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. Consider starting with Letters From a Stoic if you want to get into Seneca.
Born a slave in present-day Turkey, Epictetus is a great guy to turn to if you're interested in the practical application of Stoicism to your life. Beyond that, he's a tremendous example of managing to find tranquility in one's life despite adversity and external occurrences one has no control over.
"It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters."
Allowed by his master to study Stoicism under Musonius Rufus, Epictetus eventually gained his freedom and taught philosophy. Thanks to his pupil Arrian, we still have access to his teachings to this day.
Does this impressive character really even need any introduction? The great Marcus Aurelius was the last Roman emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative calm, stability, and peace in the empire.
“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
- Marcus Aurelius
He wrote regularly in a journal, which we are lucky to still have access to in the modern day. Published as Meditations, this is a classic Stoic text that can be read over and over again.
Though he has less name recognition than Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, don't skip over Musonius Rufus when studying Stoicism.
"If we were to measure what is good by how much pleasure it brings, nothing would be better than self-control if we were to measure what is to be avoided by its pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control."
- Musonius Rufus
The teacher of Epictetus, we still have access to some extracts from his lectures.
There are a number of famous writers, artists, and thinkers that have been associated with nihilism in the last two centuries. Let's take a look at some of the most notable figures that were influenced by or associated with this philosophy.
If you've ever looked into nihilism as a philosophy, you probably already know a bit about Nietzsche. Often cited as the most influential nihilist philosopher, the truth is that his views on nihilism were quite complex. It's, therefore, difficult to sum them up here in a few sentences.
"Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed."
- Friedrich Nietzsche
In short, though, it's worth noting that even though he proclaimed that "God is dead" and believed that the terrifying and freeing consequences of this led to a state of nihilism, he also saw this as a path to a new way of being. He argued that one must work through this stage in order to develop a meaningful worldview.
Technically an existential philosopher, Sartre argued that the world is absurd and each individual is responsible for creating their own worldview.
"What is life but an unpleasant interruption to a peaceful nonexistence."
- Jean-Paul Sartre
He is also known for questioning traditional moral values and ideas of meaning.
A Russian novelist and philosopher, themes of nihilism can be found in Dostoevsky's work. In his Crime and Punishment, you can find a powerful exploration of the consequences of being guided by nihilistic ideas.
Another existentialist and not strictly a nihilist, Camus was a French philosopher and writer that often explored the notion of absurdity.
"Life is meaningless, but worth living, provided you recognize it's meaningless."
- Albert Camus
Even though he isn't technically a nihilist, he makes our list because he addressed the difficulty of finding meaning in a universe that seems to be completely indifferent to us.
Comparing and contrasting different philosophical schools can be a useful way to gain a deeper understanding of your own beliefs as well as the universe as a whole. Regardless of whether you subscribe to either of these schools of thought, there's something truly fascinating about exploring the different ways individuals have tried to make sense of our lives here on Earth.
Stoicism and nihilism are ultimately very different philosophies. While the Stoics believed in a rational, ordered universe and argued for adherence to four core virtues, nihilists believe life and the universe are meaningless, and there is no objective morality.
At the same time, they are similar in that they ask individuals to think critically about their lives, their beliefs, and the world they live in. Even if you don't find the conclusions of each philosophy to be compelling, it's hard not to see the merit in asking people to take responsibility for their own worldview.
Whether you're a Stoic through and through or a nihilist that's beginning to experiment with other schools of thought, you'll want to check out our Stoic Quotes blog. This is where you can find tons of thought-provoking quotes, interesting articles, and philosophical musings that you can use as you forge forward in your life of learning and growth.