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"You are a little soul, carrying a corpse [...]" --Epictetus

"Life in agreement with nature"

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that "virtue is the only good" for human beings, and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves (adiaphora), but have value as "material for virtue to act upon." Alongside Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition forms one of the major founding approaches to virtue ethics. The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is "in accordance with nature." Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they thought everything was rooted in nature.

Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that because "virtue is sufficient for happiness," a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase "stoic calm," though the phrase does not include the "radical ethical" Stoic views that only a sage can be considered truly free, and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.

Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (modern Stoicism).


Ethics and virtues

The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word "stoic" has come to mean "unemotional" or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from "passion" by following "reason". The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute "askēsis" that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline.

Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of "passion" was "anguish" or "suffering", that is, "passively" reacting to external events, which is somewhat different from the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as passion, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g., turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings that result from correct judgment in the same way as passions result from incorrect judgment.

The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, "without passion") or peace of mind, where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having "clear judgment" and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature—the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.

The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato:

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one's own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.

The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life. Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato's self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices. Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one's social duty.

The doctrine of "things indifferent"

In philosophical terms, things that are indifferent are outside the application of moral law, that is without tendency to either promote or obstruct moral ends. Actions neither required nor forbidden by the moral law, or that do not affect morality, are called morally indifferent. The doctrine of things indifferent (ἀδιάφορα, adiaphora) arose in the Stoic school as a corollary of its diametric opposition of virtue and vice (καθήκοντα kathekon and ἁμαρτήματα hamartemata, respectively "convenient actions," or actions in accordance with nature, and mistakes). As a result of this dichotomy, a large class of objects were left unassigned and thus regarded as indifferent.

Eventually three sub-classes of "things indifferent" developed: things to prefer because they assist life according to nature; things to avoid because they hinder it; and things indifferent in the narrower sense. The principle of adiaphora was also common to the Cynics and Sceptics. The doctrine of things indifferent was revived during the Renaissance by Philipp Melanchthon.

Spiritual exercise

[[File:Marcus Aurelius Metropolitan Museum.png|right|thumb|Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor]] Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis, see asceticism). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together...

Prior to Aurelius, Epictetus in his Discourses, distinguished between three types of act: judgment, desire, and inclination. According to French philosopher Pierre Hadot, Epictetus identifies these three acts with logic, physics, and ethics respectively. Hadot writes that in the Meditations, "Each maxim develops either one of these very characteristic topoi [i.e., acts], or two of them or three of them."

The practices of spiritual exercises have been described as influencing those of reflective practice by Seamus Mac Suibhne. Parallels between Stoic spiritual exercises and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy have been detailed at length in Robertson's The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.


A school of philosophy during the Roman Empire that emphasized reason as a means of understanding the natural state of things, or logos, and as a means of freeing oneself from emotional distress.
A real or pretended indifference to pleasure or pain; insensibility; impassiveness. --Wiktionary


See also

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