Stoicism is a philosophy and practice that helps its user enjoy a more peaceful and contented life. Although some think of it as being about being emotionless, what Stoicism actually teaches is how to avoid harmful feelings and enjoy feelings that are healthier.
Ancient Stoicism was a philosophy born in ancient Greece. It included an understanding of the universe which has, in many ways, since been scientifically shown to be incorrect. In other ways, perhaps in the more important ways, this understanding of the universe may still hold true.
Beyond just an understanding of the universe (what they called “physics”), Stoicism also included the categories of logic and ethics. Some ancient Stoic ideas may seem dated to us today, but many of them are still very applicable, and help us address many of the challenges all people have faced throughout history. This is why some people today either consider themselves Stoics, or consider much of their perspective to be influenced by Stoicism.
Rather than cover all of the details on ancient Stoicism here, this article will describe some of the core elements of Stoic ideals in a simple format that is compatible with, and applicable to, our modern world. Those who wish to learn more about ancient Stoicism, its history, its founding philosophers, its technical terms, and so on, are encouraged to read other works, many of which are listed at the end of this essay.
Realizations About Materialism
First, we begin with the understanding that people who view material gain as the ultimate good are doomed to dissatisfaction in life. Surprisingly, this is true no matter what level of material gain a person accomplishes!
There’s nothing wrong with material gain itself, and people who are materially prosperous can often be quite happy. But people who focus too much on materialism or wealth and think of it as a primary measure of their success, worth, or happiness will never be satisfied with what they have. Materialistic people are deluded by the belief that “if they just get that one thing” they will be happy. But human psychology doesn’t work that way. Once they get what they desire they’ll soon grow accustomed to it, and desire something else.
Not only that, but these sorts of people will always be concerned with what “everyone else” has. Materialistic people will tend to judge other people by their possessions as well, and others will pick up on this, usually finding it unappealing. This can make it more difficult to have deep or meaningful friendships. This focus will consume them and they will find themselves in an unpleasant cycle of hunger and jealousy.
The materialistic person may frequently enjoy the immediate thrill of a new item or more money, but often the immediate thrill doesn’t last in the long run. These experiences alone rarely add up to an overall life experience of true happiness. More often, when a person looks back over a life of materialism, he or she finds that the periods of jealousy, lack of deep or meaningful experiences, and unfulfilled desire for more goods outweigh the thrills. In conclusion, one can’t have a very happy life in this state.
More than Materialism
While some people live many years of their lives before understanding the pitfalls of materialism and looking back in regret, these warnings are nothing new. Religion, philosophy, and folk wisdom of many varieties have warned against materialism for ages.
But one of the interesting things about Stoicism, is an understanding that the danger doesn’t end with materialism alone. All of the dangers that apply to an unhealthy focus on material goods, also apply to an unhealthy focus on many other sorts of things.
Those things include an unhealthy over-attachment to social status, career, and even on the possession of respect, love, or the company of friends and family. As with material possessions, there is nothing wrong with enjoying these things, but an extreme focus on them as a measure of our worth or happiness is unhealthy. Like attachment to material goods, this perspective will also lead to dissatisfaction and frustration in life.
What We Can Control
What all of these things have in common (wealth, health, friends, family, social status, etc.), is that we ultimately cannot control them. It’s true that our actions can affect our chances of determining the state of these things to various degrees. However, the belief that we can have ultimate control over them is a delusion. It is this delusion that leads to our dissatisfaction when our efforts do not result in the effects we desire. For that reason, it is important to recognize the distinction between what we can control (what we can really and totally control) and what we can’t.
When we really think about it, it seems the only things that we have true control over are our priorities, our attitudes, and our decisions. No matter what we undergo physically, no matter how we might be constrained by our circumstances, we still have the ability to decide what we care about, how we think about something, and what sort of choices we make. In fact, even if we try to do something and fail, and even if we couldn’t control that, we can still control the fact that we chose to try.
Understanding Good and Evil
The next thing to consider is how we think about good and evil. First, consider why it is that we make the distinction between good and evil in the first place. Why would we call this good and that evil? One reason for doing this is so that we can take appropriate action in response to that recognition.
Whether a storm destroys our home, or burglars steal our possessions, we often say that an “evil” has happened to us. When it’s a nice day or when someone gives us a gift, we often say that a “good” has happened to us.
But if we don’t really control anything but our own will, then what purpose can there be for considering anything outside our control to be truly good or evil? Why make such distinctions if we can’t use those distinctions to ultimately control what happens and what doesn’t?
Surely, since we have some influence (but not complete control) over things outside our will, it is best to at least try to avoid the negative things from happening, and try to promote the positive things happening. But remember that it is only the attempt to do good or evil that is within our complete control – not the actual outcome of our attempts.
But to consider these outside negative and positive things that happen to us as truly “good” and truly “evil” themselves is to place an extreme category on them that we can’t make full use of. This doesn’t match our new understanding that such things are ultimately not in our control.
So, according to Stoic thinking, it is only that which we can really control that we need consider “good” or “evil”. In other words, from our individual perspective, only our own personal priorities, attitudes, and decisions should be considered to be truly good or evil. We should think of everything else as merely positive and negative outside events – not truly good or evil. Doing this serves to constantly remind us of where our focus should lie. This way we remember that there is no sense in getting worked up over, or overly attached to, things we can’t control.
This does not mean, as is often misunderstood, that Stoics “don’t care” or that they think “whatever” when positive or negative things happen to them or others. Stoics can care about things external to their own will, and can try to act in a way that brings about more positive than negative things. But by understanding that the positive and negative things that happen in our lives are ultimately out of our control, and by not thinking of them as truly good or evil, the Stoic does not become overly attached to those things.
The Stoic does not place his or her self worth in these outside things and does not invest ultimate purpose, meaning, or contentment in them. This means that a Stoic is more capable of weathering the ups and downs of life with mature acceptance and without an overcoming desperation for better circumstances or fear of worse circumstances.
Contentment & the Universe
If a Stoic doesn’t place the sense of self worth or contentment in relationships, status, wealth, health, or possessions, then where does he or she place it? First, Stoics have a reverence and appreciation for the natural universe, or “Nature” for short. As part of Nature, we must also include a reverence for one another and ourselves.
Of course, ancients held certain ideas about the structure of the universe while modern Stoics’ ideas are informed by their own beliefs and modern discoveries. But in both cases, Stoics see a vast, amazingly complex structure of interacting parts and forces. These parts and forces are seen as interacting in rational and logical ways.
Some think of this rational element as God and others think of it in a more impersonal sense. However, when it comes to our world, society, and life itself, Stoics agree that this logical structure gives us a balance of creative and destructive, orderly and chaotic, tendencies. The universe, then, is seen as one interrelated whole.
This whole system brings about a Nature where we can never be certain of what the future will bring us. Even if we make our best efforts toward certain things happening, we must be prepared to accept that all of these complex events may not come together as we wish, but will instead come together according to the demands of Nature.
But we also must realize that it is Nature itself that allows all of the positive things in our lives, and even our very existence. By seeing that Nature is the root system that causes both the positive and the negative, Stoics understand that to curse one is to curse the other, for they both are necessary products of the same function. To curse unfortunate events is as nonsensical as trying to open a door by pulling the knob and pushing it with our foot at the same time. Therefore, while we should do our best in life, in the end we should have an acceptance of what Nature dictates. In doing so, we are said in one sense to be “living in accordance with Nature”.
This attitude about life doesn’t protect us from all harm or pain necessarily, but it does help us avoid overwhelming despair. When it comes to contentment, Stoics choose to focus on those things they can control (their own priorities, attitudes, and decisions).
How to Choose
If we say that we each should only consider true Good and Evil to be those choices we ourselves make, this begs the question of which of our choices are Good and which Evil? Classical Stoicism doesn’t seem to spend as much time on what we might call ‘ethical deliberation’ today.
Stoicism generally suggests that we are often deluded by our obsession with things outside of our ultimate control. This leads us to put value on things we shouldn’t. Stoics suggest that if we work on being unbiased and free of these delusions, then our minds will be clear. With clear unbiased minds, knowledge of what is good and what is evil will come naturally to us.
While modern Stoics don’t usually deny the need for careful deliberation in complex matters, Stoicism suggests that that human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong, even if it is often distorted by our unclear and biased thinking. Therefore, the first order of business for the Stoic is to try to see things without attachment to what we cannot control, and to simply do what is appropriate to his or her duties and obligations without bias.
For the Stoic, all matters are an important part of perfecting ‘life practice’ or ‘living well’ and there is no real distinction between what is an ethical matter and what isn’t. To a Stoic, virtue is part of our very nature, and should ideally be the primary the measure for all of our choices.
This has been a very brief and simplistic explanation of Stoicism. Throughout, I have tried to phrase everything in very intuitive, common language. Therefore, none of Stoicism’s common technical terms and phrases have been used here.
If you would like a more subtle and deep understanding of Stoicism, it is important to learn about these terms and phrases. These include English phrases like “preferred indifferents” and “passions” that have very specific meanings so taking them as you may naturally understand them would lead you to misunderstand what’s being said. Other terms include Greek words like “apatheia” and “eudaimonia”.
Excellent introductions on both the history and the content of Stoicism, as well as a large collection of material for further study, can be found at these sites (see their links pages for even more)…
Roots of Spiritual Naturalism, Part 11: Were the Cynics and Stoics Naturalistic?
The New Stoa
The Stoic Foundation
The Stoic Place
Stoicism on Wikipedia
International Stoic Forum