Not to merely know, but to live philosophically
PDF version of this intro can be find here:
“It isn’t the events themselves that disturb people, only their judgements about them”Epictetus
“If it is not right don’t do it, if it is not true don’t say it”Marcus Aurelius
“Through my efforts, I gain the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”Secular serenity preyer
What is Stoicism?
In today’s English, we refer to stoicism as: the ability or the predisposition of a person to endure pain or hardship without the displaying of feelings.
However, that is not Stoicism!
Stoicism is a philosophy, a school of thought founded in Athens about 2300 years ago by a man named Zeno of Citium. Zeno started his school by standing on a porch in the market and talking to anyone who happened by. The word for porch in Greek is stoa, and the followers of Zeno were known as Stoics.
Stoicism became the preeminent philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome; it penetrated all sectors and classes of the society such that two of the most important Stoic authors are the slave Epictetus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism flourished for nearly 500 years, until the fall of the empire. It re-emerged occasionally in many philosophers and thinkers during the Renaissance when people returned to reason to find answers about how to live.
However, only recently has it been rediscovered as a philosophy to live by!
What it aims at?
Let’s take a step back from Stoics to introduce another important philosopher of antiquity: Socrates!
Ancient western philosophy can be divided between pre-Socratic and post-Socratic.
Before Socrates, the philosophers of the time tried to answer the most basic questions about life:
Who am I? Why am alive?
What is that which surrounds me?
Most philosopher answered the first question revolves around a single element such as the universe comes from fire, from water, from the gods, etc. With the second, we have got what is now considered ancient physics and proto-science.
Socrates added another important question:
How to live a life worth of living?
Socrates introduced a paradigm shift in philosophy, focusing not on the pure research of the why and the what but on how to live.
Therefore, Stoicism derives from this Socratic tradition and its philosophy focuses on teaching us how to excel in life, how to become better ourselves, and how to live a good life.
The core principles
It turns out that it is not easy to give a cut and dry summary of Stoicism.
During the course of its development Stoicism has collected a number of concepts and thoughts that form a rich and coherent school of thinking, all inherently “Stoic”, but hard to pin-point, especially in a A4 sheet.
However, the writer J. Salzgeber gave a nice overview of the core principles in what he calls the Stoic Happiness Triangle
Eudaimonia: At the core of the triangle is eudaimonia. This is the ultimate goal of life and the main purpose of Stoicism.
The most common translation of eudaimonia is happiness but too much is lost in translation not to dig a bit more on it.
A broader translation would be:
To live in serenity with your highest self.
Imagine the best version of yourself, the one who acts right in all situations, the one who makes no mistakes and seems unbeatable.
Well, in Greek, this best version would be the inner daimon, an inner spirit or divine spark. For the Stoics, the ultimate goal of life was eudaimonia, to become good (eu) with your inner daimon. (Not to be confused with demon, which is a bad spirit.)
How to reach this serenity?
Live with Areté: The central doctrine of Stoicism is the goal of life is virtue, and that virtue is the only true good. “Virtue” is the conventional translation of the Greek arete, which actually means “excellence of character”.
Express your highest self in every moment. If we want to be on good terms with our highest self, we need to close the gap between what we’re capable of and what we’re actually doing.
This is really about being your best version in the here and now. It’s about using reason in our actions and living in harmony with deep values.
Focus on What You Control: This is the most prominent principle in Stoicism. At all times, we need to focus on the things we control, and take the rest as it happens.
This concept is also expressed with the motto: “To live in agreement with nature”:
Take Responsibility: Good and bad come solely from yourself. You’re responsible for your life because every external event you don’t control offers an area you can control, namely how you choose to respond to this event.
This is crucial in Stoicism, it’s not events that make us happy or miserable, but our interpretation of those events. This is when a tower of strength can be the moment you decide to give outside events no more power over you.
Summarizing: By discerning what is in our control we can live in accordance with nature, by that, we can exercise arete, with that, we can reach eudemonia!
I hope this little introduction was clear and has captured your interest. We have only scratched the surface. Much has to be learnt!
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