Stoicism has been on the rise in recent years, but its popularity truly boomed when the pandemic began in the spring of 2020. What is Stoicism, exactly? Is it just another self-help fad, or is it something that could really help you improve your life?
The increasing popularity of Stoicism has led to the creation of countless books, events, and articles surrounding the topic. The central appeal of modern Stoicism seems to be that it offers people a way to deal with a world that seems increasingly out of control. This comes in the form of the realization that you can’t control external events, while also working to find meaning and happiness through the things you can control– your own beliefs and actions.
If you’re looking for a primer on Stoic philosophy, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive in and explore this ancient school of thought, including examples to help you figure out how to apply its principles to your daily life.
Stoicism with a capital “S” refers to the ancient school of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism with a lowercase “s,” however, is a also noun that is related to but not synonymous with the beliefs of the ancient Stoics. The word stoic with a lower-case "s' can also be used as an adjective.
Stoicism is a philosophy that was founded in the early 3rd century BC in Athens by Zeno of Citium. It is a school of Hellenistic philosophy, which was a period that spans from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the rise of the Roman Empire, as signified by both the 31 BC Battle of Actium and the 32 BC conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt.
Informed by its system of logic and interpretation of the natural world, Stoicism is a philosophy that asserts that the practice of virtue allows an individual to flourish. The achievement of eudaimonia (translated as happiness, welfare, or good spirit), according to the Stoics, was possible through living in accordance with nature and the practice of the cardinal virtues.
In this philosophy, being virtuous in one’s life is both essential and sufficient to living a good, happy life. One of the core beliefs of the Stoics was that “virtue is the only good.”
The philosophy of Stoicism taught that living in accordance with Nature was the ultimate goal of life and also advocated that individuals overcome destructive emotions through self-control and fortitude.
Though Stoicism has its roots in the ancient world, it has yet to fade into obscurity after more than two thousand years. This philosophy has influenced countless thinkers over the course of history and is currently experiencing a renaissance in the modern world.
It’s important to understand the distinction between Stoicism and stoicism. Merriam-Webster defines Stoicism with a capital “S” as “the philosophy of the Stoics.” The non-capitalized version of the word, though, is defined as “indifference to pleasure or pain.” Another dictionary definition reads, “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.”
The reason it’s worth noting the difference between these two terms is that they are often confused in the modern-day. While there is some obvious overlap between the words because of the Stoic discussion regarding controlling your emotions, practicing Stoic philosophy doesn’t mean that you must be an emotionless person.
“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 for ever.” – Seneca the Younger
In this Seneca quote, he brings up the primary reason why one should be wary of simply choosing to be emotionless. In reality, you’re setting yourself on the fast track to all of the weird consequences of repression if you decide to deny your natural emotions and tell yourself you feel nothing. Seneca is advocating for conquering your emotions with reason, not tricking yourself into thinking that you are as emotionless as a stone.
Stoicism was originally named “Zenonism” after the founder of the philosophical school, Zeno of Citium. In an effort to avoid the potential of the philosophy becoming a cult of personality, though, the name was quickly changed.
When Zeno and his followers gathered to discuss the ideas of this school of thought, they met on the north side of the Agora in Athens in a colonnade called the Stoa Poikile, which translates to “painted porch.” After dropping the name Zenonism, the followers of Zeno’s philosophy were known as “Stoics” in reference to their meeting space. The name “Stoic” had previously been given to poets who gathered in the same location in Athens.
Before starting the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno had been a wealthy merchant. He survived a shipwreck on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus and then made his way to Athens. There, through a fateful encounter, he became a student of Crate of Thebes and the Cynic school of philosophy. He also studied under philosophers of the Megarian school and it’s believed that he studied Platonist philosophy as well.
As you explore the world of Stoic philosophy, one of the things that become apparent quickly is how the prominent figures of this school of thought had incredibly diverse backgrounds. Zeno began as a wealthy merchant, Cleanthes was a water carrier, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome. While each man brought his own ideas and life experience to the world of Stoicism, they are all tied together by their efforts to live a virtuous life in accordance with Nature and the contributions they made to the philosophical school.
The founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno of Citium, was born in Citium in Cyprus around 334 B.C.
Most of what is known about Zeno’s life comes from Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. In this text, it is recorded that the founding Stoic’s initial interest in philosophy started after visiting an oracle and asking how to attain the best life. The response from the gods was that he “should take on the complexion of the dead.”
Zeno took this to mean that he needed to study the ancient authors and proceeded to do just that.
He went on to become a wealthy merchant before surviving a shipwreck. He made his way to Athens and visited a bookseller, where he looked at Memorabilia by Xenophon. So taken with the description of Socrates, he asked the bookseller where he could find men like Socrates. At that precise moment, the most famous Cynic living in Greece walked by, a man by the name of Crates of Thebes. The bookseller pointed to him, and Zeno went on to study with the prominent Cynic.
His teaching in the colonnade in the Agora of Athens began in 301 BC. Among his many admirers was the King of Macedonia, Antigonus II Gonatas, who would visit Zeno whenever he was in Athens. His pupils included Cleanthes, Sphaerus, and Aristo of Chios.
Despite his wealth, Zeno was said to have lived a spare, ascetic life. He was appreciated for his teachings during his lifetime and received several prominent honors.
As far as his ideas go, Zeno divided philosophy into three parts:
The second head of the Stoic school, Cleanthes was Zeno’s successor in Athens. He was a student of Zeno after he arrived in Athens.
In order to spend his days pursuing wisdom and studying philosophy, Cleanthes worked as a water carrier at night. In fact, his name means “well water collector” in Greek.
Originally a boxer, Cleanthes of Assos was born around 330 BC. Showing up in Athens with only four drachmae to his name, he attended the lectures of the Cynic school before he became a student of Zeno.
Cleanthes held the title of the head of the Stoic school for thirty-two years, during which time he both preserved the ideas of Zeno and developed them. He taught Antigonus II Gonatas and his successor, Chrysippus, who became one of the most important thinkers in the history of Stoicism. Sadly, only a few fragments of his writings still remain despite the fact that he wrote around fifty works.
It is said that the materialism Cleanthes applied to Stoicism helped to give the entire system of thought unity.
Chrysippus was a student of Cleanthes and became the third head of the Stoic school after Cleanthes’ death. He is known as the “Second Founder of Stoicism” because of the way that he expanded the fundamental doctrines of Zeno.
This Greek philosopher is said to have been the figure that truly developed Stoicism into the philosophy that would captivate the Romans. Under Chrysippus, the Stoic idea of fate made huge strides. He believed that everything in the universe was determined by fate while still working to find a role for personal freedom in both thought and action.
Unfortunately, only fragments of his written works have survived, despite having written over seven hundred works. Segments of his works Logical Questions and On Providence were discovered in the Herculaneum papyri, which had been carbonized by the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
When the Roman Republic started challenging the Greek nations for Mediterranean dominance, the Greeks sent three philosophers to Rome in order to argue against the fines that were being imposed by the Romans. They sent one Skeptic, one Peripatetic, and one Stoic– Diogenes of Babylon.
Each of the philosophers made a speech, but the first two didn’t sit well with the Romans. The speech of Diogenes was praised for the calm and modest nature of its delivery, and Roman interest in Stoicism increased. The fines they were sent to argue against were dropped, and Diogenes returned to his position as the head of the Stoic school in Athens.
Though Diogenes wrote prolifically, he is best known for his delivery of Stoic ideas to Rome.
Panaetius moved to Athens in his youth after having been born in Rhodes around 185 BC. He is credited with having truly dispersed the ideas of Stoicism in Rome after Diogenes of Babylon had introduced them.
Thought to be something of a radical within the world of Stoicism, Panaetius of Rhodes developed many of his own theories and rejected many of the traditional ideas of the philosophy. He simplified the world of Stoic metaphysics and argued that some pleasures and emotions didn’t exist in opposition to the goal of living in accordance with the rational nature of man.
As a huge influence on Roman Stoics, Panaetius is perhaps ones of the most underrated Stoic philosophers.
Hardly anything is known about the life of Hecato of Rhodes. Born around 100 BC, he was a native of Rhodes that was an eminent Stoic of the time. Known to have been a disciple of Panaetius, nothing remains of his writing despite the knowledge that he was a voluminous writer.
His name comes up over and over again in the writing of Seneca, who frequently quotes him.
Born in 95 BC, Cato the Younger was a Roman senator who was also a noted orator and follower of Stoic philosophy. He gained a powerful political following thanks to his respect for tradition and scrupulous honesty.
Modern scholars debate, however, to what extent Cato believed in Stoicism. Some argue that his actions were more in line with traditional Roman values, while others point out that the Stoic positions and beliefs of Cato were explicitly noted by his contemporaries.
Seneca the Younger is undoubtedly one of the most famous ancient Stoic philosophers. Born in Spain around 4 AD, Seneca moved to Rome as a young boy to learn from the Stoic Attalus. He became a clerk and eventually a Senator.
On top of being one of the most famous Stoics, Seneca is also one of the most controversial. His life certainly had its fair share of drama, and the details of his life do make it difficult to reconcile some of his actions with the purported values of Stoic philosophy. Not only was he exiled after accusations of adultery, but he also served as the tutor of the infamously cruel emperor Nero.
That being said, Seneca made immense contributions to the world of Stoic philosophy and countless notable figures that came after him. Thinkers such as Erasmaus, Montaigne, Pascal, and Francis Bacon were all influenced by his writing.
His Letters From a Stoic is considered a timeless work that offers advice on power, wealth, grief, religion, and life. If you’re looking for a highly accessible place to begin when studying Stoic though, Seneca is a good place to begin.
Gaius Musonius Rufus was born around 30 AD in Etruria that taught philosophy in Rome during Nero’s reign. Exiled several times throughout the course of his life, you’ll often find discussion of how exile provides strength to live a more vigorous life for those that endure it in his quotes.
While it isn’t known whether he himself wrote anything for publication, two of his students wrote down his philosophical opinions.
Born in modern-day Turkey in 55 AD, Epictetus is another one of the most famous practitioners of Stoicism. Even though he was a slave, he was allowed to study philosophy and eventually taught Stoicism after he earned his freedom. Epictetus undoubtedly led a difficult life, marked by enslavement and exile. Despite this, he is considered one of the best examples of a life lived by the tenets of Stoicism.
Epictetus was known to have lived a simple life without much in the way of material possessions. He taught his students that philosophy wasn’t just a theoretical discipline but was also a way of life. Epictetus believed that we should accept what happens dispassionately and calmly and that all external events are outside the realm of our control. At the same time, people are responsible for their own thoughts and actions, which can be analyzed and controlled through self-discipline.
While there aren’t any known writings of Epictetus, his ideas were written down and compiled by his student Arrian.
One of the most famous text in all of philosophy is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Emperor wrote this book as a series of daily assertions. Born in 121 AD, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Five Good Emperors, as well as the last emperor of the Pax Romana.
In Meditations, you can find the Stoic mantras that Aurelius used to keep himself grounded. He often discusses working to evaluate his judgments to find his natural place, looking inwards, and living in line with nature.
Aurelius advocated that individuals resist the urges of passionate emotions and believed that one should approach problems with a sense of inner calm and rational thinking.
The Stoic philosophers believed that your thoughts, actions, and reactions are your own responsibility. What this means is that you are never forced to respond to the world in any given way– you, instead, always have a choice.
Obtaining a Stoic mindset isn’t going to happen permanently overnight. You might find that some days you feel more capable of controlling your own mindset more than others. Over time and with practice, though, you’ll likely see that you become increasingly resilient to external occurrences and are better able to maintain a calm and reasonable perspective, no matter what’s going on around you.
Some of the mind shifts you can start working on if you’re committed to integrating Stoicism into your life include:
According to the Stoics, you can live a good life if you live a virtuous life. The question then becomes: what does it mean to be virtuous?
There are four cardinal virtues in Stoicism that you can use as a compass in your daily life– wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. These virtues were each broken down into further subcategories, which we’ll outline in a moment.
In contrast to these four virtues, there are also four vices. These are foolishness, injustice, cowardice, and intemperance.
In the Stoic school of thought, these four virtues are intimately intertwined and constitute a unity.
In Stoic thought, wisdom can be broken down into these categories:
In short, wisdom is your ability to separate what is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent. When you perform good actions, you are informed by wisdom and other virtues. When you perform bad actions, such as taking advantage of someone else or lying to avoid responsibility, you’re informed by foolishness and other vices.
The Stoics divided courage into:
Courage is your ability to be brave and resilient in the face of life’s challenges. It means holding your own when pressure is building around you and doing what’s right even if the world will punish you for it. Being courageous doesn’t mean you don’t have fear or anxiety, but it does mean you’re able to conquer these emotions to pursue what is right and good.
The virtue of justice is subdivided in Stoic thought into the following groups:
Marcus Aurelius believed that justice was the source of all other virtues. Our modern definition of justice that relates to the legal system doesn’t do, well, justice to what the Stoics meant when they used this term.
Justice is about our duty to our society and our fellow man. Being just means acting with morality in relation to the people around us and the community they make up.
“What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius
In Stoic thought, temperance is broken down into these categories;
Temperance is a virtue that relates to self-discipline, self-control, and self-restraint. You can also use the word moderation for this virtue. When you act with temperance, you are acting with long-term wellbeing in mind rather than short-term gratification.
Studying and contemplating the ideas of the ancient Stoics could easily occupy someone for the rest of their life. Sometimes, though, it can be useful to create a map in your mind using a basic cliff notes run-down. Here are some of the core beliefs of Stoicism to help you get a handle on the landscape of ideas encapsulated in this philosophy:
Stoicism is a philosophy that is meant to be applied to your everyday life. While some philosophies are so abstract that they are practically just mind games, that isn’t the case with Stoic thought. Instead, this is something that you can increasingly incorporate into your days as you live them.
For many modern people, one of the most useful lessons that can be learned from Stoicism is gaining the ability to differentiate between what you can and can’t control.
“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
Epictetus has a lot of useful advice when it comes to understanding what’s in your control and what isn’t. According to him, the things that are in our control include “opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions.” The things that are not in our control are “body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”
So, what might this look like in your daily life?
Let’s say that you heard through the grapevine that a coworker doesn’t like you. Maybe they think you’re annoying, maybe they think you’re dull, maybe they think you’re stupid. Whatever it is, hearing this type of news can put you on a fast track to bummer-town.
If you step back, though, you can realize that what someone else thinks of you is not in your control. What is in your control? What you think of yourself and what you think about the fact that this coworker was badmouthing you.
You might be tempted to try and win over this person, talk behind their back about them, or simply ball up in a corner and cry. But if you can understand that you can’t control what they think of you, you also realize that they can’t control what you think of yourself.
When you practice Stoicism, you aren’t trying to eliminate your emotions. What you are trying to do, though, is conquer them. The beautiful thing is that the more you go through in life and the more you practice Stoicism in the face of difficulty, the more prepared you’ll be to deal with negative emotions that crop up down the road.
It’s scary to think how easy it would be to spend your entire life in a slump. We’ve all been there– your dog died, your job sucks, you feel generally unsatisfied, and there’s a vague vibe that the entire universe is acting against you. You get out of bed when you need to, but otherwise you lay there, oscillating between despair and numbness.
The reality is, though, that one of the things in your control is your mindset. You should, of course, grieve when your dog dies, but you could also step back and appreciate that you had the time that you did and that your dog led a good life. Your job sucks? Sure, you can bitch about it for the next thirty years, or you can use it as motivation to dive into yourself, figure out what you really want to do, and create the life that you want.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” ― Marcus Aurelius
Take a tip from Marcus Aurelius the next time life has got you down. Your strength lies in your ability to control your mindset rather than being at the whim of it.
There’s really no getting around it: we live in a materialistic, consumerism-focused society. This basically just sets us up to be continuously disappointed, though, because we’re putting all of our eggs in the basket of external things.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius
Next time you absolutely need to get that new iPhone, or a certain car, or a certain job, or validation from your dad, step back and realize that you’re expecting outcomes from external things that you don’t control. If you don’t, you’ll probably spend a good chunk of your life on a rollercoaster of highs and lows rather than consciously choosing which direction you want to head in.
It is terrifyingly possible to spend most of your time ruminating on the past and feeling anxiety about the future. The reality is that life is in the present moment. All of the power you have to create the life you want to live is in the present and nowhere else.
Do you lie awake at night cringing about something stupid you said in high school? When you’re spending time with loved ones, are you worrying about work? One of the most actionable things you can do to start practicing Stoicism is to tap into the present moment, right now.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” – Seneca
Another important aspect of Stoicism is the belief that one should act in the service of others without the desire for praise, recognition, or personal gain. Our world is currently consumed with receiving praise from others through the form of social media attention, and it doesn’t take too long to see why that’s probably not good for individuals or the whole of society.
Doing something for someone else doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It can be as simple as holding a door open for someone, letting someone in line ahead of you, or picking up trash when you happen to walk by in the park.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The universe is always in motion around you, and sometimes, it bumps into you. Someone crashes into you when you had the right of way. A hurricane drops a tree on your roof. Your girlfriend cheats on you with your best friend.
In these moments, it’s tempting to shake your fists and curse the sky. It’s tempting to fly into a rage. It’s tempting to scream, cry, and go on a path of destruction.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Sure, you definitely need to deal with your emotions and not suppress them. Recognizing your emotions and letting yourself feel them is an important step in being able to conquer them.
At the same time, you can also zoom out and look at things from a broader perspective. Oddly enough, people who have dealt with adversity often experience positive growth after the fact. Sometimes, the worst thing that happens to you is the best thing that could ever happen to you.
This relates to the Stoic notion of amor fati, or the love of one’s fate. Life is strange, and the universe is mysterious, but maintaining love and appreciation for experience as it unfolds can radically change the way you deal with hardship.
We all want things. We want more money, we want a nicer house, we want to travel the world. There’s nothing wrong with having goals that we’re working towards, but it’s important to not let the things that we don’t have blind us from appreciating the things we do have.
No matter where you are, no matter what's going on in your life, there is something to be grateful for. Even if it’s as simple as being grateful for your breath and the experience of being alive in the moment.
Practicing gratitude for the good things in your life is one thing, but the true Stoic is also grateful for the bad stuff that happens, too. The reason for this is that in order to truly love one’s fate, and to embrace the place you have in the universe, you have to be able to accept and appreciate the fact that some of the worst things that happen help you grow, and develop, mature, and thrive.
Whatever the reason is that life has got you down, you can always zoom out to look at the bigger picture. Whether it’s something as small as spilling coffee on a white shirt or something as large as experiencing a devastating natural disaster, there is always room to expand your perspective and see things on the larger timeline of your life.
Looking for a good place to start when it comes to texts by the ancient Stoics? Check out these books:
If you’re searching for a modern perspective on Stoicism, the following are some of the most popular books about the philosophy:
If you’re struggling to determine how you can start practicing Stoicism in your daily life, there are a number of exercises you can experiment with.
The Stoic school may have been founded thousands of years ago, but its influence has stretched across millennia to have an impact on countless major figures, including:
It’s also worth noting that the popular psychological treatment known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) incorporates a number of the core ideas of Stoicism to help people overcome depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health problems.
There are also a number of places where Stoicism and Christianity overlap. Christianity, like Stoicism, emerged during a time of chaos. Getting into the similarities and differences between these two belief systems deserves an article of its own, but it’s a fascinating rabbit hole to go down if you feel so inclined.
Stoicism is a philosophy that can help you find a level of peace in your life without demanding that you disengage from the world. You don’t have to sell all your earthly possessions and build yourself a lean-to in the woods to apply these ideas to your life. Instead, Stoicism encourages you realize that you have control over your actions, and that your actions can impact your larger society.
In a world that seems, frankly, increasingly outrageous, there is something deeply soothing and enriching about reading the words of the ancient Stoics. Though they lived so long before our time, you realize that human circumstances haven’t really changed all that much in the last few thousand years.
When you’re constantly tied to the news and social media, it’s only natural to feel like the world is spinning out of control. The reality is, though, that external events have always been out of the control of humans. What we can control is our mindset and our actions.
Are you looking for more info on all things Stoicism? If so, check out our ever-growing library at StoicQuotes.com.