What is Stoicism?

In my previous post, I talked about how the only thing completely within your control is your own mind. It being one of the central tenets of Stoic thinking. But what is Stoicism and why study it and follow its teachings?

First, we need to address the elephant in the room - and that’s the word “stoic” and its definition in English:

The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.

which most people translate as emotionless. Naturally, when we hear of Stoic philosophy we assume that this definition must also apply. Until recently I was a member of that camp. Yet it couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Painted Porch

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s dive into a little tour of history by way of where the word actually comes from. It reaches us via Latin from the Greek word stōïkos, from stoa which references the Stoa Poikilē or Painted Porch, in Athens.

What’s significant about that? It’s where Zeno of Citium, the founder of this school of thought, sat and explained his philosophy to his students back in the 3rd century BCE.

As a brief aside, I suspect that one of the reasons the word gets a bad rap is because many of the words used in stoic writing were often mistranslated or misconstrued. The terms had different meanings when they were originally written. As is often the case with chinese whispers through the ages the words retain only the merest essence of the truth after being twisted.

From Greece to Rome to today

The earlier Greek practitioners in the few hundred years before the start of the Common Era taught the philosophy based on the ethical ideas of the Cynics. The school taught that the goal of life was to live in accordance with Nature. It advocated the development of self-control and fortitude as a way to overcome destructive emotions. You may be somewhat familiar with the names Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Panaetius and Hecato. Along with the founder, Zeno, they were the more well-known thinkers of this period.

As the philosophy made its way from Greece to Rome, it began focusing more on logic, ethics and its practical application in everyday life. Most likely this was due to the more industrious nature of the Romans. The “big three” of this era are Seneca (the younger), Epictetus and none other than the Roman Emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius.

The popularity of Stoicism faded when the Emperor Justinian closed all the pagan philosophy schools in 529 AD. In the Renaissance there was a revival of sorts with Neostoicism. Founded by Justus Lipsius, it was an attempt to combine Stoicism and Christianity. It was never as popular as the classical Stoicism. But it did influence such writers as Francis Bacon and Joseph Hall.

One day is as all days

Which leads us to today, and here, where we’re seeing another revival of sorts. Loosely termed Modern Stoicism it is an attempt to bring many of the teachings of the later Stoics into the modern world. Presidents such as George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, NATO Commanders, sports stars and musical artists have each found solace in the words of the Stoics. But it’s in the last decade where its popularity is once again starting to soar. This is due to the influence of people like Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, and Tim Ferriss.

At present there is no commonly accepted reinterpretation of the Stoic teachings. Each author on the subject has their own view. So why is it becoming more popular? One possible explanation – the recent explosion in smartphones and other technology are causing our lives to be always on and we’re looking for ways to cope. Whether we’re stressed, overworked or dealing with the daily chaos of young children and family life the wisdom of the Stoics can be applied. Whilst times may change, most aspects of human life stay the same. People still deal with addictions, still experience success and hardship and still ponder the meaning of life. In the words of the ancient Stoics themselves, “One day is as all days”.

As I’m reading and researching more of the Stoics I like what I’m seeing. It makes sense to me, at least where I am in my life right now. I will take those elements and incorporate them into my life. I’m sure more erudite people will tell me that it isn’t Stoicism as taught and practiced by the ancients. Truth be told, I don’t care. I’m just trying to understand myself better as I journey through life. I want to construct a more coherent view of the world and define a set of principles to follow which I can pass on to my children. For now, I’m calling that Stoicism and that’s why I’m studying it.


Got any questions or comments? Drop me a message on Twitter (@elaptics).