/ Stoicism

What is Stoicism? - Part 1

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. His disciples were initially called Zenonians, but eventually they came to be known as Stoics, named after the place where they discussed philosophy and congregated in public, the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade in the Agora of Athens.

Eudaimonia and Arête

Like many other Greek philosophies at the time, Stoicism is considered to be a Eudaimonistic philosophy. Eudaimonia is an ancient Greek word that means something close to happiness, flourishing, fulfillment, well being, the ultimate good, or the final end goal. It can be literally translated as having a "good inner spirit" or a "good guardian daemon/demon" (without the modern negative connotation we associate with the word demon, in this case it literally just means 'spirit'). I find it easier to envision eudaimonia as something like "the best life possible". The focus of these ancient Greek philosophies was to determine what eudaimonia, the good life, actually consisted of, and how it could be attained.

Stoicism's main claim, which differentiated it from many other eudaimonistic philosophies of the time, was that arête alone was necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. The word arête is often translated as 'virtue', but means something more like 'excellence'.

This excellence was a kind of excellence very specific to the creature it was describing. For example, the arête of a horse would be its ability to run quickly. For humans this excellence was related to the proper use of reason (since humans have the highest capacity for reason compared to other animals), and engaging in pro social behavior (since humans are social creatures that are highly dependent on each other for survival).

Essentially, what all this means is that inorder to achieve eudaimonia, the best life possible life, one must fulfill their excellence. Achieving eudaimonia is equivalent to achieving this internal state of excellence, of arête.

All of this might seem like a somewhat obvious conclusion to make based purely on the definitions provided, but it is important to take a closer look here. The Stoics said that being arête was necessary AND sufficient for eudaimonia. This means that inorder to have the best life possible, you did not actually need externals such as wealth, fame, good looks, luck, etc... which is what we typically think of when we consider what the best life possible would entail.

This idea is partially exemplified in Plato's dialogue Euthydemus. In this dialog, Socrates explores what the chief goods in life could possibly be, with the implicit assumption that these things would be required in-order to live a good life, a life of eudaimonia. At first Socrates considers wealth to be a good, but as the conversation continues, he comes to realize that this cannot be the case. This is because simply having wealth does not benefit you at all, but rather, only the proper use of wealth can truly benefit you. The same idea can then be applied to any other external such as, health, good looks, fame, and so on.

The Stoics made another very keen observation, they noticed that those who already did have wealth, health, fame, and good looks, in spite of having all these things, could still be totally miserable. One need not look far from modern day Hollywood celebrity drama to see that this certainly can be the case. This would mean that merely having all of these externals is, at the very least, not sufficient for having a good life.

From this it would appear that it is not things themselves that are good or bad (in relation to achieving eudaimonia), but rather how we make use of them. The ability to make proper use of everything is known as wisdom, and it is always beneficial to us, no matter what.

Wisdom is tied up with our own character, and was thought of as a form of knowledge, or skill, to be developed and enhanced. This means that if we are able to sufficiently develop this skill, to use it constantly, then we will be able to make proper use of everything that life throws our way, no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in. This would be us achieving our excellence.

Cardinal Virtues

This idea of excellence, virtue, and wisdom as a whole, lead the Stoics to build upon and develop their own take on what is known as the four cardinal virtues. These virtues are dikaiosunê, sôphrosunê, andreia, and phronêsis.

Dikaiosunê is typically translated as 'justice', but it is actually much broader than what we typically think of today when we use that term. Instead of narrowly focusing on the law, dikaiosunê focuses on how we behave in our relationships with other people, at the individual, familial or communal level. It is knowing how to act generously with good will, kindness, friendship, fairness, and affection towards others.

Sôphrosunê can be thought of as temperance or moderation. It guides whether we act on certain desires, so it can also be thought of as self-discipline or self control. A core component of this is the ability to view events in a detached and objective manner.

Andreia is often thought of as courage, but also encompasses fortitude and endurance. It is related to the moderation of our fears, knowing what is truly terrible and what is not, and allows us to face what is often seen as fearful, such as death and disasters.

Phronêsis is often translated as 'prudence', or 'practical wisdom', but those terms are somewhat misleading in my opinion. It is essentially the knowledge of what is truly good or bad, by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done. It is a firm knowledge and understanding of how to appropriately value everything, in terms of whether it will be beneficial, detrimental, or indifferent to eudaimonia.

An important note here on the virtues is that they were not considered to be truly separate from one another. They are seen as unitary, which means you cannot have one virtue without all the others. You cannot be truly courageous without also being temperate, just, and prudent. These four cardinal virtues as a whole were considered to constitute wisdom, and can be though of as applying wisdom to specific domains of living.


Virtue, or arête, was considered to be the sole good for the Stoics, as it was both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia, and nothing else was. On the flip side, this meant that vice, the opposite of the virtues, was the only thing that was truly bad, and prevented one from attaining eudaimonia. Because of this, everything outside of virtue and vice were considered indifferent. Since virtue and vice are essentially internal characters states, this means that everything outside this state is indifferent. An example of a few indifferents would be health, wealth, and reputation.

Being healthy and being sick are both indifferents, being wealthy and being poor are both indifferents. They are indifferent because, in spite of having or not having them, you can still be virtuous and act with excellence, you can still live a good life.

That being said, the Stoics did split indifferents up into preferred and dispreferred. What are preferred indifferents? These are externals that, on the whole, we are naturally inclined to choose, such as wealth, health, and reputation. Dispreferred indifferents on the other hand, we are inclined to avoid, such as poverty, illness, and ill repute. The catch here is, if you find yourself acting unvirtously in-order to attain or avoid an indifferent, you have made a grave mistake, and taken one step further away from eudaimonia.

Sometimes to maintain your virtue, the Stoics thought, you must give up wealth, health, reputation, or even your life, as virtue is the more important thing to hold on to. The indifferents themselves cannot be either good or bad, only virtue and vice are good or bad, and only they lead towards or away from eudaimonia.

Preferred and dispreferred indifferents may even swap places with each other depending on certain situations. It is easy to imagine times where having or seeking money can get in the way of being virtuous, or a time where seeking discomfort may assist in becoming more virtuous.

Interestingly enough, there are also things that are totally indifferent, or as I like to call them, indifferent indifferents, such as whether the number of stars in the sky is even or odd, as this sort of thing has no real affect on you whatsoever.

A final important point to make here is that, even though everything outside of your character is considered to be an indifferent for the Stoics, how we make use of them is not indifferent. How we make use of indifferents is the most important part, as making proper use of everything is essentially wisdom, arête, excellence.

Following Nature

One of the slogans of the ancient stoics, in addition to "virtue is the sole good" was to "Follow Nature" or to "Live according to Nature". This is a very tricky and often confusing concept, and I am not going to do it much justice here, but I will attempt to clarify the idea a little.

When you first hear the phrase "Live according to Nature" you might think of a person who abandons modern civilization to go live a self sufficient life out in the forest, living in harmony with all the plants and animals. This is decidedly not what the Stoics meant when they said to "Live according to Nature". What also comes to mind for many people when they hear this phrase is that we should live according to our base nature, to totally give in to our primitive desires and urges. This is not what the Stoics meant by Nature either.

The word that we translate as Nature from the Greek is phusis. This term means something more like a 'process of growth' which heads towards an ultimate goal or form. So instead of embracing your base nature, the Stoics would say to pursue your best or ultimate nature. That you should be the ultimate version of yourself in a sense.

Living according to Nature can also be perceived as living according to:

  1. The Nature of the Universe
  2. Human Nature
  3. Your individual Nature

Living according to the Nature of the universe can be thought of as having an accurate understanding of reality, accepting it as it is, as well as understanding what is and is not possible. If you desire what is impossible, you will necessarily suffer because of the desire. This is very much related to the oft repeated Latin phrase "amor fati" or "love your fate", which was actually popularized by Nietzsche, not the Stoics.

Living according to human nature for the Stoics meant making use of your faculty of reason, since our capacity for reason is what separates us from other animals. It also meant behaving in a pro social manner, since humans are pro social creatures, and cannot live without the help of one another.

Living according to your individual Nature meant determining what skills, talents, and duties you have that are specifically unique to you, and to fulfill those as best you can.

If any of these natures came into conflict with one another, the nature higher on the list would supersede the nature lower on the list. For example, if you as an individual are predisposed to anger, which causes you to hurt others, that is directly in conflict with your pro social human nature, and should be stopped. Similarly if your human nature causes you to desire something that is impossible, such as living forever, that is in direct conflict with the nature of the universe, and should be corrected as well.

Dichotomy of Control

Related to understanding the nature of the universe is another concept that the Stoics had, which we now label the dichotomy of control.

So what exactly is in our control? Simply put we control our intentions and choices. What do we not control? Literally everything else, our bodies, our relationships, our reputation, outside events, everything.

But wait you say, I at least mostly control my body, and I have a huge influence over my relationships with others, among other things, so what gives? Well when the Stoics talk about control, they are talking about complete control. Think back to a time where you were getting used to a new sport, and you were learning how to execute some new move or technique. You knew in theory how the move worked, but your body probably did not cooperate exactly as intended. At that point you did not have the right amount of dexterity, strength, or agility to execute the move in the way that you wanted. That is one way in which your body is not under your control. You also don't really control how tall you are or what your natural eye color is, those are decided by genetics and the environment when you are born. Those are just some quick examples, but the list goes on.

Why does this distinction matter? Lets think about it for a minute. Recall the last time you desired something and did not get it. You were probably kind of upset about that weren't you? What about when you didn't want something to happen, but it occurred anyways? Same story right?

The promise of the dichotomy of control then, is if you desire only what is in your control, and are averse only to what is in your control, you will never get upset and will never be thwarted. This is a kind of ultimate freedom. But if you place your desires and aversions in things that you do not control, you will necessarily be upset at some point.

At first it might seem that a lot of this is about merely avoiding suffering, and that is perhaps part of the idea (does anyone really want to suffer?), but not the whole story. Remember how for the Stoics, virtue is the only good, and vice the only bad? Being virtuous or vicious is something completely under our control according to them, since it is an extension of our intentions and our choices, this is where the true good and bad lie, and is where we should focus all of our efforts. It doesn't not make any sense to place our well being in the hands of something that we have very little if any control over. However this does not mean that Stoics are sitting around all day, not actively participating in the world.

The best way to visualize the dichotomy of control I think is the archer metaphor. An archer can nock their arrow, draw the bow back to the best of their ability, take aim, and decide when to release the arrow, but after the arrow is released, the end result of whether the arrow hits the target is not under their control. A sudden gust of wind could blow the arrow off course, or something could jump in the way, causing the arrow to miss the target. Hitting the target is chosen, and it is preferred, but it is not desired.

The distinction between desire and preference here is important, as desire implies an incorrect level of value or attachment to something. Again, you still do everything you can to make the shot as well as you can, but after your part is over, there is nothing else to do or worry about, you did the best you could. The dichotomy of control is an important way to remind us of where we should be focusing our efforts, and what is truly important.

A related concept that attempts to practically employ this idea is acting with a 'reserve clause'. If I planned to go and have fun at the beach with my friends tomorrow I would say to myself, "Tomorrow I will go to the beach with my friends, fate permitting". The reserve clause is that "fate permitting" part. Alternatively you could just say "if possible" or "if nothing prevents me". It can be a helpful mental reminder that things often don't go the way we want them to, allows us to more quickly adjust when things don't go the way we want, and emphasises that what is truly important is our intentions and our choices, not necessarily the final outcome.

Impressions and Assent

Another important concept in Stoic philosophy is the idea of an impression, which is a translation of the Greek word phantasia. When the Stoics mentioned phantasia, they were typically talking about sense impressions which we receive from the outside world, and are filtered through our mind. An impression could be as simple as "there is a dog over there", a value judgment such as "dogs are scary", or the recalling of a memory like "When I was a kid, I rode my bike around the neighborhood and was chased by a dog". There is a bit more to phantasia than that, but those examples should give you a rough idea of what we are talking about here.

When a phantasia is presented to our minds we then have a choice to make. We can give assent, withhold assent, or suspend the decision of whether to give or hold assent until later. The technical term that the Greeks used for this event was sunkatathesis, which was essentially the act/event of you giving, withholding, or suspending assent.

When you give assent to an impression, you are agreeing that it is the case. Giving assent to impressions is typically something we do without thinking too much, and is often automatic. When I have an impression that "there is a dog over there" unless something about the impression seems peculiar, I would be pretty quick to give assent to that impression.

The issue here, the Stoics thought, was that often the impressions we have get bundled together with value judgments as they are presented to us. Instead of just having the impression "there is a dog over there" I might have the impression "there is a dog over there, and dogs are scary". If we are not careful, we can be too quick to give assent to these sorts of impressions without examining them closely enough.

Remember that for Stoics, things and events themselves cannot be good or bad, it is how you deal with them that matters. So if you have an impression like "There is a dog over there, I do not like dogs, dogs are bad, mean, and scary" you are incorrectly adding a negative value judgment to the impression which should simple just be "there is a dog over there". In this case, you would want to withhold assent from the impression. When you withhold assent, you are saying you do not agree that this is the case. It might be easier to imagine impressions themselves as automatic unreflective thoughts that pop into our minds, which we can agree with, or disagree with.

The same idea would apply to an impression such as "There is a chocolate cake over there, I love chocolate cake, it is so good!" Bundled with the simpler impression "There is a chocolate cake over there" is the value judgment "cake is good", which is an incorrect value to place on something like cake, as good and bad are reserved for virtue and vice only. There is nothing wrong with saying "There is cake over there and I like cake", as this is indicating a preference, and not ascribing incorrect value to the cake. Remember the difference between a preference and desire is in the degree of value and attachment placed on it. This may seem somewhat trivial, but it can be an important distinction to make.

From this, the Stoics would say the reason we often get upset is because we give assent to false impressions. "I am late for work and that is bad" would be giving assent to a false impression. Giving assent to this impression would then cause us to become angry or frustrated at the situation we find ourselves in. If we remove the incorrect value judgment from the impression, then we find there is no reason for us to be upset.

Another important note here is the Stoics mentioned that we should only be giving assent to impressions that are actually clear. For example "Those people over there are whispering to each other, they are probably making fun of me" would be giving assent to an impression that is not clear. The only thing you can know for sure at that moment, is that those two people over there are whispering to each other, there is no sound basis for the latter half of that impression.

If an impression in unclear, it is also possible to suspend judgment on the impression until a later point in time, when you have the ability to analyze it properly. Honestly I find that we often forget to do this, even though it makes quite a lot of sense. You do not have to give or withhold assent from an impression immediately, you can put the decision on hold until you are better able to deal with the impression properly.

All of this talk about impressions and assent ties into the idea that things in themselves cannot hurt us, but rather only our judgments about those things can hurt us and cause us distress. Things in themselves are neither good nor bad, but rather our perceptions of things can make them good or bad. The words good and bad need to be reserved for our character only, not outside things or events.

Impressions and Ignorance

A final point about impressions and assent, is that we cannot help but give assent to things that seem true to us, or withhold assent from what seems false to us.

Part of this is realizing that we will need to train ourselves to understand what we should truly be giving our assent to and withholding it from. Another part of this though is actually having compassion or pity for others when they make decisions, and give assent to incorrect impressions.

A common phrase we can repeat to ourselves when other's decisions and actions frustrate us is "it seemed so to them". The idea here is that nobody actually does wrong willingly, and any incorrect or bad decisions that people make is really just a form or ignorance. They have simply assented to incorrect impressions about what is truly good or bad. You should attempt to correct these people if you can, while remembering that ultimately their behavior in not under your control.

Stoicism and Emotions

It is interesting to note that many Ancient Greek Hellenistic schools of philosophy have become caricatures of their former selves when used as a descriptive term in modern English. We have the philosophical schools of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Skepticism, and likewise we may describe someone as being stoic, epicurean, cynical, or skeptical.

To ellicit the contrast between the descriptive term and philosophical school, when we call someone epicurean today we typically mean they are someone enjoys eating delicious foods, much like a modern foodie. This descriptor comes from the fact that the philosophy of Epicureanism promoted pleasure as the ultimate good, but it was actually pleasure in the form of the absence of pain. In practice this meant limiting ones desires and being content with very little food and drink, which is almost the opposite of what it means to be a modern foodie.

A popular caricature of what it means to be a Stoic is that it requires one to suppress or reject their emotions. There is a very slight hint of truth to this idea, much like the epicurean example, but only a small amount. Today when we say that someone is stoic, we are typically referring to the personality trait of an individual who stays calm in the face of adversity, but who may also not show much of any emotion at all. This is not quite how Stoic philosophy itself thought we should manage our emotions though.

It is important to note that the Stoics essentially had a cognitive theory of emotions. This means they thought that our emotions were largely the product of our own personal value judgments. For example, if I am stuck in traffic, and I think that being stuck in traffic is an awful, bad, terrible thing, I will without a doubt become upset and distressed that I am stuck in traffic, because I have made a value judgment that traffic is bad. This is very much related to our previous discussion on impressions and assent.

This sort of value judgment driven reaction was referred to the as a pathê, or passion, which we often translate as emotion, however the term meant something a bit more specific than what we typically consider to be an emotion, as our word emotion is much broader in it's general scope.

The pathê that the Stoics thought we should rid ourselves of were essentially emotions produced by incorrect value judgments. If I judge traffic to be bad, that would be an incorrect value judgment (since virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad), and thus it would produce an incorrect emotion. On the other hand however, if I noticed that I behaved virtuously in some situation, and felt joy in response, that would be based off a correct value judgment, and so the emotion produced by that value judgment would be correct as well. Similarly if I noticed that I have behaved viciously, and felt remorse or disappointment about engaging in that behavior, then that would of been a correct value judgment too. The Stoics then are essentially trying to rid themselves of specific emotions (pathê) that are based on incorrect value judgments, while cultivating ones that are based on correct value judgments.

The Stoics did not think that we could necessarily overcome all of our reactions though. They did have a concept of the proto-passions (propathêiai), which were essentially automatic involuntary reactions to event that occur without an actual value judgment taking place, usually in response to some sudden event. An example would be flinching when it appears you will be struck by something, jumping at a sudden loud noise, feeling an adrenaline rush in a exciting or stressful situation, etc... These reactions they thought, could perhaps be diminished with training to a certain extent, but probably not entierly.

The Stoics also were one of the first proponents of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we are all citizens of the cosmos, and that we should look after and care for each other regardless of what nation or state we happen to belong to. From this idea the Stoics developed an attitude of loving-kindness, that we should care for and be compassionate towards others, ideally considering the concerns of others as our own, and helping others whenever possible, rooted in the virtue of dikaiosunê (justice).