Understanding This Misconception Could Change How You Think About Stoicism

Stoicism as a philosophy of life often gets misunderstood due to specific misconceptions that have persisted through the ages.

Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Stoicism (upper case ‘S’) is the same thing as stoicism (lower case ‘s’).
  • The goal of a Stoic is to be passive and unemotional, not reacting to anything that occurs.
  • Stoicism was an elitist philosophy only intended for powerful Romans.
  • Stoicism is an individualistic philosophy focusing only on self-discipline.

These are all incorrect. Most have even been perpetuated by impressive individuals who should have known better.

Albert Ellis, for example, the psychotherapist who developed Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), accepted the incorrect notion that “Stoic” meant lacking in emotion.

Let’s correct these particular misconceptions:

  • Stoicism is not the same thing as stoicism.
  • The goal of a Stoic is to develop healthy and positive emotions, not suppress all emotions.
  • Stoicism was and still is, embraced by people from many different walks of life.
  • Stoicism focuses on the social responsibility of loving one’s neighbor, forming virtuous relationships, and helping others.

Surprisingly, these falsehoods remain in circulation today; this certainly isn’t the first time they’ve been addressed.

A Less-Discussed Misconception About Stoicism

There is, however, another misconception that I don’t often see talked about. It could perhaps be characterized as a “misinformed objection”.

Let me explain with a brief example.

  1. An individual experiencing anxious feelings is reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.
  2. In Book 9, they come across the following line:
    “Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
  3. Pausing to consider it, they feel frustration at its simplistic, almost dismissive, approach to anxious feelings.
  4. “Oh sure, I can just discard my anxiety. Simple as that!” they say, sarcastically.
  5. This experience leads them to dismiss the value of Stoicism as a philosophy of life.

I’ve seen this kind of reaction to other Stoic quotes and maxims, but this isn’t to criticize or shame those who do it.

It’s actually a very easy mistake to make when reading an isolated quote out of context or without much prior study of how Stoicism is applied.

To help with this misconception, I can think of three important counterpoints.

1. Shorter maxims stand for longer principles

In isolation, short Stoic maxims can seem too reductive to be of practical use. One might think that a particular line sounds good but can’t help them in the real world.

It’s vital to remember, however, that the Stoics used shorter summary sayings as a means of recalling more detailed concepts that they had previously spent time studying and practicing.

Donald Robertson addresses this habit in his book The Philosophy of CBT:

The Stoic love of condensing philosophical doctrines into short summative phrases employs the rhetorical technique known as aphorism…

…In this sense, paradoxically, the philosophical framework of Stoicism was both incredibly simple and incredibly complex. Its essence could be stated in a few words, but this simplicity was necessarily deceptive and required lifelong study to fully assimilate at a practical level into one’s daily life.

Using this technique, students of Stoicism can take time to learn powerful principles before turning them into short statements which can easily be committed to memory and made ready to hand during future adversities.

2. Stoicism is about both theory and practice

To further stress the point about the relationship between learning and application, we must always keep in mind that Stoicism is not just about theory or just about practice.

It is about both, one informing the other and vice versa.

There’s a dialectic between practice and study and reflection. The more practice you do, it helps you understand Stoic philosophy. And then the Stoic philosophy should be informing the practice, and they should be building off of each other. Doing practices just by themselves, just for the sake of doing practices, is not really Stoicism.

 Gregory Sadler, 10 Stumbling Blocks for Stoics

As Gregory Sadler says above, practice alone is not really Stoicism. It follows too, then, that theory alone (for example, only reading quotes and maxims) is not really Stoicism either.

3. With repetition, you can change your way of thinking

Despite being armed with the knowledge that combining theory and practice will facilitate progress in the quest to live a good life, it can still seem like an uphill battle.

It might feel like philosophy won’t help with issues like anger, anxiety, or fear. But it’s worth remembering that these are exactly the things that Stoics like Marcus Aurelius were dealing with all those years ago.

To them, the key was repetition.

These ancient philosophers would counteract their irrational beliefs by going over the same Stoicism-guided reasoning on a daily basis. This consistent cycle of learning, thinking, and acting was the proven pathway to long-term positive change.

In order to obtain this result, they had, on the one hand, to develop and teach their philosophical doctrines, but, on the other hand, they were perfectly conscious of the fact that the simple knowledge of a doctrine, beneficial as it was, did not guarantee its being put into practice. To have learned theoretically that death is not an evil does not suffice to no longer fear it. In order for this truth to be able to penetrate to the depths of one’s being, so that it is not believed only for a brief moment, but becomes an unshakable conviction, so that it is always “ready”, “at hand”, “present to mind”, so that it is a “habitus of the soul” as the Ancients said, one must exercise oneself constantly and without respite — “night and day”, as Cicero said.

— Ilsetraut Hadot, quoted in Hadot, 1995, pp. 22–23

If we return to our earlier example with the above three points in mind, we might be able to come up with a better response.

The reading of Marcus Aurelius’s line about discarding anxiety could perhaps prompt the reader to learn more about the spiritual exercises the Stoics practiced to deal with anxiety and therefore understand what enabled Marcus to write those particular words.

If you’ve ever had trouble digesting a specific Stoic quote or maxim, I hope these points encourage you to dive into the deeper meaning behind the isolated line and consider how it can be put into practice.

Revisiting old texts you may find a new appreciation for concepts you had previously dismissed!