What Is Stoicism? The Goals of Life and Philosophy Explained
Stoicism is a Hellenistic philosophy that's been around for over 2,300 years, and it has the potential to change your life.
Some liken Stoicism to an "operating system" for the mind. It's a philosophy that helps you make better decisions and stay calm, regardless of what happens in life.
And no, being Stoic does not make you emotionless; to the contrary! After reading this article you’ll know what Stoicism has to offer, and how adopting the Stoic worldview can benefit you.
But why should an ancient Greek philosophy interest you? Don’t we have enough philosophies and religions as it is?
Stoic philosophy is a unique approach to life. It contains wisdom that's been hidden for many Westerners, but that's still alive and kicking in Eastern philosophy.
Yes, Stoicism contains ideas found in other wisdom philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism. How’s that possible?
It's because ancient Stoic philosophers understood the human mind, and came to similar conclusions as other ancient philosophers around the world.
The birth of Stoicism
To take one possible confusion away: a Stoic and a stoic are two completely different people. The Stoic wants to become a wise person, the stoic doesn't want to show emotion. This article is about Stoicism - capital S.
If you're unfamiliar with Stoicism, here's the short backstory:
Zeno, the Stoic school's founder, was born in Citium (Cyprus) in 334 BCE. Like his father, he became a trader of expensive dye and got to travel around the Mediterranean.
When Zeno is in his early twenties, he shipwrecks and narrowly escapes death. With no way of getting home, Zeno ends up in Athens and wanders into a bookstore and reads part of Xenophon’s Memorabilia.
It’s this moment Zeno realizes he needs philosophy.
Zeno wants to know where he can find a person like Socrates, so he asks the shopkeeper. As it happens, the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes walks by. Cynicism is one of the schools that found inspiration in Socrates, so the shopkeeper points at Crates and tells Zeno to follow him. And so he does.
For years Zeno lives an ascetic and unconventional life on the streets of Athens. Cynicism was not so much a philosophical school as it was a way of life. Cynics got their name from the fact that they lived like dogs; on the street without any shame.
Over time, Zeno starts to show interest in a more theoretical side of philosophy. He starts to study physics (ancient natural science, metaphysics, and theology) and logic (structured thinking, rules, definitions, psychology, etc.). He also starts attending lectures of other philosophers, to the dismay of his teacher Crates. On one occasion Crates even physically drags Zeno away from another teacher’s lecture.
When Zeno hits his mid-30s, he sees other schools as too limiting. Around 300 BCE he pulls the trigger and becomes a teacher himself.
Stoicism’s first steps
In the beginning, Zeno’s philosophy is not called Stoicism. His early students were often called Zenonians, but as they always meet at the Stoa Poikile they soon become known as Stoics. (Stoa Poikile = painted porch; a public colonnade near the market of Athens.)
Because Zeno's classroom is a public space and promotes a way of living, people stop by and have discussions with him while students are listening.
Stoicism gains prominence quickly, as it offers an attractive package to its students. Zeno combines wisdom from different philosophies and keeps only what works to achieve a good flow in life.
By sending their kids to Zeno and his Stoic school, Athenian parents hope their children develop their character and discover effective ways to function in the real world. Not every philosophical school is up to this level, as many focus on theory alone.
The practical side of Stoic philosophy shows clearly its Socratic and Cynic roots.
The goal of Stoicism defined
From the start, Stoicism has aimed to help people achieve Happiness.
I capitalize the H in Happiness because it's not the same as the modern word happiness. Happiness (capital H) stands for eudaimonia.
After Socrates’ death, all major philosophical schools were concerned with one question: how to achieve eudaimonia, a good flowing life? I already touched on eudaimonia in my previous article, so I'll keep it brief.
Eu: good; daimon: spirit. Hellenistic Greeks were looking for a good spirit, they wanted to work on their soul. Daimon is the Greek version of the Latin word genius; the guiding spirit of every person. As Stoics, we refer to this as our "ruling faculty".
Ancient Stoics had reasons to believe we all possess a "divine spark", that we all share a piece of universal consciousness. However, we're troubled because we've lost sight of this. Stoicism positions itself as one way to lessen the influence of our ego and let wisdom shine through in our actions.
Eudaimonia stands for a good flowing life; a kind of well-being regardless of external factors. It's often translated as flourishing.
Happiness (eudaimonia) is the kind of good flow in life that's the aim of other philosophies, but also of some modern psychological systems like Positive Psychology.
The goal of life according to Stoicism
The goal of life is twofold according to Stoicism.
Since Zeno, the maxim for practicing Stoics has been to "live in agreement (harmony) with Nature". This is a very vague saying for those unfamiliar with Stoicism, so let me explain.
Since the inception of the Stoic school, one of the core teachings has been that everything in the universe is connected through the web of cause and effect. This is an idea that's prominent in modern physics, but also one that can be found in other philosophies (mostly Eastern).
As a consequence of everything being connected, all has its place. We're bound to focus on our own situation, but if we took a minute to contemplate the bigger picture we'd see we're cogs in a system.
Stoicism encourages us to become aware of our position in the universe and to get the most out of it. This is what the maxim to live in harmony with Nature comes from.
Nature refers here to the cosmos, universe, God, or as the ancient Stoics would say: Zeus. By working together with other parts of the universe we can benefit ourselves and others.
Most moderns won't believe in Zeus or a concept of God. However, the Stoic God is very different from the Abrahamic God most are familiar with. The Stoic God consists of the whole universe. Yes, that means that you and I are parts of God.
We've grown out of the cosmos and are embedded in it.
Stoicism argues the universe as a whole is conscious. The reasoning here is that if conscious beings like humans are part of the universe, consciousness must be a quality of the whole universe.
In Stoicism, consciousness is seen as a "divine spark" that not even God could take away. We're free agents, but it would be better for us and the whole if we worked on cultivating our character and rationality.
This is how we would make a start at living in harmony with Nature.
How to live in harmony with Nature
But how does one live in harmony with Nature? What would that look like?
Let's first take a look at the Nature of another animal, a cat for example. What would the purpose of a cat be, day-to-day?
When a cat lives in harmony with her Nature, she will first take care of herself so she stays alive. That's why she hunts. But she's also concerned with getting offspring, so that part of her genes survives to the next generation. That's why she'll look out for a mate and has the drive to get pregnant. It's natural for her to do so, it's in her Nature.
What is natural for humans to do? The first priority for a human (and any animal for that matter) is to survive. For that, a person needs to eat and rest. A second priority is to get our genes into the next generation; that's why we look for a partner and get kids.
But that's not all. We humans also have thoughts and emotions, and are aware of them. How we act on our thoughts and emotions defines how well we live, and how well those around us live. We can live purely on drives like a cat, but we would then ignore our unique gift of consciousness.
To live in agreement with Nature as a human being, you need to work work with your consciousness. It's necessary to develop your rationality, as that's what makes you unique; rationality is your Nature.
You develop by asking yourself if the way you behave is the best you can do. You'll want to ask yourself if your way of acting benefits you, and if you make use of the talents you have. This is how you investigate if you live in harmony with your own Nature, and Stoicism is here to give you the tools to cultivate your character and achieve Happiness.
But the goal of life is twofold. Thinking about what benefits you is only one part of the story. How about the bigger picture?
As said, Stoics believe the universe as a whole is conscious. This is impossible to verify in this moment, but what we can verify is what effect our behavior has in the world.
We have to deal with other humans who look out for their benefit, and this may clash with our goals. Stoicism teaches us ways to effect positive change in the world, starting with our immediate surroundings. It also teaches us to stay calm when things don't turn out as we had pictured them.
This is the second part of life's goal: to live in harmony with Nature as a whole.
Stoicism does not require us to worship God. It does require us to take a long and hard look out ourselves and ask if we live up to our potential. If not, we need to find ways to change that. This is how we fulfill the goal of life and achieve Happiness in the process.
How to benefit from Stoicism
After thriving in Athens, Stoicism was well-received by the Romans.
Romans are introduced to Stoic philosophy by Greek diplomats in 155 BCE, and Stoicism's pearls of wisdom are recognized by the elite and common people alike. These were hectic times, and Stoic philosophy offered Romans a way to stay sane, and even flourish in dangerous situations.
Most of what we know about Stoicism is through the Roman Stoics. Their works are the ones to survive to our time - out of hundreds, and possibly thousands of Stoic books written in antiquity.
When Marcus Aurelius died in 181 CE, Stoicism went into decline. Neoplatonism won mindshare, and eventually, Christianity rose to popularity. Early Christian writers liked to adopt ideas from Neoplatonism and Stoicism, trying to fit them in a Christian mold. This is how Stoicism went on to influence thinkers throughout history, both religious and non-religious.
Stoic philosophy may have influenced many philosophers, but they didn't expand it. Therefore we mostly have to work with Roman Stoic sources.
In 2019 we have ancient Stoic texts written by Seneca (Roman statesman), Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor), transcribed words of Epictetus (former slave and a Stoic teacher), and fragments of sayings by Musonius Rufus (teacher of Epictetus).
Incredibly, ancient Stoic insights have survived. But what's even more amazing is that modern Stoic books outnumber the ancient writings. We have to thank academics on our bare knees for reconstructing Stoicism. By piecing back together texts and providing context and commentary, we have a complete philosophical system to work with.
Stoicism as we know it offers a way to structure our thinking and approach reality in a healthy and supportive manner.
Stoic ideas to think about
- Live in harmony with your own Nature.
You've been given a unique gift by Nature: consciousness. This is what makes you human, this is your Nature. Cultivate your reasoning skills so you can make wiser decisions.
- Live in harmony with Nature as a whole.
Being a social animal is another part of human nature. You need others to survive and thrive, so better live in harmony with those around you.
- Focus on your own actions; leave the rest up to fate.
The whole universe is a web of cause and effect, so don't bother worrying about things that you cannot change. You only directly control your own actions, so focus on that. Don't get overwhelmed by what others say or do, that's beyond your control.
After seeing why we need a philosophy for life, and Stoicism’s promise and goal in life, it’s time to find out how to achieve Happiness. What are the practical steps to be taken to live life to the fullest? How to become the best version you can be?
This will be discussed in the next article, which will focus on the three lived disciplines of Stoicism:
- The Discipline of Desire and Aversion (also called Stoic Acceptance);
- The Discipline of Action (also called Stoic Philanthropy);
- The Discipline of Assent (also called Stoic Mindfulness).
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