What Is Stoicism?

Definition of Stoicism

Far be it from me to attempt to answer the question “What is Stoicism?” in my own words when many more informed folks have done a great job of it already. As such, I’ll try to chop up the best bits from a few sources for a shorter definition and then link out to them for more in-depth reading!

“Stoicism is not so much an ethic as it is a paradoxical recipe for happiness.” – Paul Veyne, Historian

Foundation

Zeno of Citium (Cyprus) founded Stoicism around 301 BCE. The name comes from the Stoa Poikile, the colonnade in Athens where Zeno and his students gathered for discussion. While Zeno is credited with founding the philosophy, his successors, such as Chrysippus, were able to expand upon his ideas. Additionally, the early Stoics drew influence from other philosophies of the time, such as Cynicism and Skepticism.

Virtues

Rather than imagining an ideal society, the Stoic tries to deal with the world as it is, while pursuing self-improvement through four cardinal virtues –

  • Wisdom – navigating complex situations in a logical and calm manner
  • Temperance – exercising self-restraint and moderation
  • Justice – treating others with fairness, even when they have done wrong
  • Courage – facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity

Prominent Stoics

Three of the most high-profile Stoics, whose work endures to this day –

  • Marcus Aurelius – Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180, author of Meditations.
  • Seneca The Younger –  Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, author of Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius.
  • Epictetus – Greek Stoic philosopher, author of Discourses, Fragments, Handbook.

Modern Day Application

Stoic techniques which William B. Irvine describes particularly well in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy 

  • Negative Visualization – The Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value. That our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.
  • Trichotomy of Control – distinguishing between the things over which we have complete control, the things over which we have no control at all and the hings over which we have some but not complete control.
  • Internalize Goals – Stoics found a way to retain their tranquility despite their involvement with the world around them: They internalized their goals. Their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain changes. Even if their efforts proved to be ineffectual, they could nevertheless rest easy knowing that they had accomplished their goal: They had done what they could.
  • Fatalism towards the Past & Present – The Stoics advocated for fatalism towards the past and present, there are things you can change and act on in the future. The past has already happened, it can’t be changed. You don’t have complete control over the present in this very moment.
  • Self-Denial – As an extension of negative visualization, “Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened.”
  • Stoic Meditation – regularly assessing your own progress in your practice of Stoicism.

What Is Stoicism?

For further reading on the definition of Stoicism, check out the below as well as the Stoicism Resources page on this site –

Stoicism 101 from How to Be a Stoic – a brief introduction to Stoicism, both as an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, and as modern practice.

A Definition & 3 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started from Daily Stoic – a brief synopsis and definition on this particular school of Hellenistic philosophy