What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a tough philosophical label to pin down, not the least of which because Stoicism as the original school of Zeno more than two thousand years ago is not typically the same brand of Stoicism practiced today. The original school Zeno of Citium founded around the transition into the 3rd century BCE in Athens started as he mounted the Painted Porch – Stoa Poikile in Greek, from which we get "Stoicism" – in the middle of a public square and began arguing with passersby over his own perspective on the good life. This would ultimately set the stage for a new school of philosophy and come to recruit some of the most well-known teachers and dominate along with the Peripatetics (Aristotle's followers), Academics (Plato's followers), and Epicureans Mediterranean intellectual culture.

It's useful to understand the context in which he founded the school. Zeno was a wealthy merchant sailing to Athens when he shipwrecked and found himself destitute. He came upon a bookstore and read some of Xenophon's plays on Socrates. In need of meaningful direction, he famously asked the store owner where he could find such a man, at which point the owner pointed over to the Cynic Crates of Thebes and henceforth began Zeno's Cynic education. But Zeno would come to different conclusions from the same Cynics who found it amusing to mock social norms and publicly shame people for following them. He would still borrow many of the principles the Cynics espoused, which almost makes Stoicism part of a lineage descendent from Cynicism, and he was naturally also influenced by other schools like the Academics. However, because he departed from the Cynics, especially in regard to their almost complete rejection of societal participation and almost complete lack of regard for their material well-being, Zeno decided it was time the people heard a different voice.

Zeno begat a school of philosophy which, though not directly hereditary, to an extent persists to this day as a dominant value-based school of thought and way of life. He was followed by other early and middle yet lesser-known Stoics such as Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Panaetius, and Posidonius. The bulk of our knowledge of the Stoics however can be traced to the writings of the four major Stoics of the Roman imperial era: imperial advisor to Nero Seneca the Younger, the Greek slave Epictetus, Epictetus' teacher and twice-exiled "Roman Socrates" Gaius Musonius Rufus, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, among other non-Stoic philosophers who documented extensively on the ancient philosophies, including Diogenes Laërtius, Cicero, and even some Christian theologians, who ultimately helped to embed some Stoic elements in Christianity.

There are still some of those today who try, to the best of their circumstances, to live according to the traditional Stoics, but Berlin Stoics is among the growing number of local chapters around the world committed to studying and living Stoicism in a modern context.

You'll have a chance to learn more about the history and other details of Stoicism elsewhere, but before concluding this introduction, let's introduce some of the common myths many today hold of Stoics and what Stoic principles actually look like.

  • Myth #1: "Stoics are unfeeling." This is perhaps one of, if not the most, pervasive and well-known stereotype regarding Stoics: that they're unfeeling, and have no regard for emotion or empathy, who ceremoniously purge all emotion. On the contrary, Stoics do not purge emotion and would advise against doing so. They meticuously divided the emotional spectrum into various emotional states, some of which they considered "passions", unwanted emotions which drive us against all rational thought. A popular and widely credited example is anger, about which Seneca wrote extensively. They didn't tell us to disregard why we become angry, because perhaps the reasons for our anger are truly something on which we should act. But they warned us that if we continued to act angrily, we would end up making regrettable decisions. So they devised psychological exercises to help us recognize when we get into a fit of anger and to ward anger off to clearly judge the situation at hand. From this they made a distinction between our initial impressions and rational assessment of events, advising us to hold off on the former in order to make the latter. Not so we can be passive, but to act prudently.

  • Myth #2: "Stoics are passive." This couldn't be more wrong. As I'm writing this, I cannot precisely determine from where this comes, but perhaps part of the confusion comes from mistaking some Epicurean principles for Stoic ones. Epicureans thought that to lead a good life one had to, at all costs, avoid pain and remove oneself from society, famously calling this space of private refuge and solitary meditation the garden. The Stoic Cato, a Roman Senator and contemporary and friend of Cicero, stood with his legions against Julius Caesar at Utica in the Roman Civil War in order to preserve what was left of a Republic descending into permanent dictatorship. He would ultimately fail, committing suicide before Caesar could capture him, but nonetheless having shown true courage standing up for the classic Roman (political) virtues against the impending institution of the Imperium.

But what about non-myths? The affirmations Stoics made in pursuing virtue and leading a good life? If those are what Stoicism is not, then what exactly is Stoicism? The Stoics are well-known and perhaps most infamous for their system of ethics. However, they grounded their ethics on frameworks of logic (which encompassed what we would today call epistemology in addition to logic) and physics (which today we've broken into theology, natural science, and metaphysics). The examples of Stoic principles below largely pull from their ethics and in part on their physics.

  • "Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions." – Epictetus, Enchiridion. This is perhaps the most well-known dictum of Stoic philosophy – the dichotomy of control – that in order to determine how one should think and act, one should first distinguish between internal events (those within our control) and external events (those outside our control). (William B. Irvine interprets this as a trichotomy of control, adding that there are composite things with elements we can influence and other elements beyond our control.) What is firmly and always within our control is our mind: how do we think, how do we feel, what do we want, and how do we act. And what is completely out of our control includes other people's thoughts, and actions, outcomes of events, and ultimately death. To be sure, modern cognitive science has made advances in research showing more and more of what we say and do comes from an unconscious, and arguably irrational or habitual, end of our brain. If we get into the habit of something, the brain stores it in the amygdala to better prepare us to act quickly when a situation in line with our experience occurs so we can act with efficiency rather than treat the situation as brand new. Nevertheless, Stoicism asks us to train ourselves at the least to habitually always take a passing moment and rationally determine whether or not the situation over which we would like to act is really worth acting on, whether it is something we can truly influence and if so, how and to what extent.

  • "If you discover in human life something better than justice, truth, self-control, courage – in short, something better than the self-sufficiency of your own mind which keeps you acting in accord with true reason and accepts your inheritance of fate in all outside your choice: if, as I say, you can see something better than this, then turn to it with all your heart and enjoy this prime good you have found." – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. But the Stoics never did find something better than these: they dubbed these four values by which to live – justice, widsom, self-control, courage (otherwise translated as justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude) – the four cardinal virtues. They did agree with the Epicureans that eudaimonia (Greek for "flourishing life") is something to be achieved, but the Stoics thought that virtue (the Greek word for which means "excellence of character") is both necessary and sufficient to reach it. By just, they meant being dutiful to your community and fair to your fellow human; by wise, they meant prudent decision-making and action; by self-controlled, they meant remaining temperate in your disposition so emotions, while in some ways valuable, do not get the better of you without your assent; by courageous, they meant taking action or speaking your mind in accordance with your values. And they emphasized these virtues not be practiced in a vacuum but rather in tandem.

  • "Thus, when you behave comformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason" – Epictetus, Enchiridion. Or more succinctly: "live in accordance with nature". The Stoics since Zeno were cosmopolitans, literally thinking of themselves and every other human in the world as citizens of the cosmos first and foremost before any national or other affiliation, effectively treating each other as equals, that we may be unique, but each morally and naturally on par with each other. But living according to nature? The ancient Stoics were pantheists, meaning they thought Nature was God. Today we don't necessarily prescribe to this worldview (although that's entirely up to you), since we can ground our theology on the modern scientific knowledge to which we have access. However, we do ascribe to an ulterior interpretation of this principle: to live justly with your community, to live in accordance with your natural, inner self or your natural, inner values, and to live in assent with those externals which are out of your control.

Of course some of these terms can be ambiguous, vague, or not well-defined. Analytical philosophy – as opposed to the ancient and more modern continental traditions – has taught us the virtue of examining more closely the language we use to better nail down what we mean. To be sure, we need to do this with the Stoic virtues as well, perhaps using the familiar recommended Stoic exercises to train ourselves in these regards. Some of these exercises include regular journaling, using a compendium of meditations like negative visualization, reflecting on your impressions and actions, contemplating the sage, contemplating death, feeling gratitude, and periodically experiencing discomforts or abstaining from pleasures. But value-oriented philosophy and more rigorous philosophical analysis need not be mutually exclusive.

The modern Stoicism movement (check out https://modernstoicism.com and https://stoicfellowship.com) is growing not just because we have found refuge in an ancient philosophical doctrine, but because not only have we found modern applications of Stoicism, psychological research has granted some merit and efficacy to certain principles of the philosophy, which is not to say that ancient Stoicism doesn't have its shortcomings. We are modern Stoics. For example, while the Stoics touted social connection to the end of contributing to your community, they still didn't think that social connection was necessary for well-being. We know differently today and any psychologist will tell you that stable, healthy social connections are necessary for robust well-being (although that isn't to ignore the value inherent in self-sufficiency). But like any platform, doctrine, set of principles or anything of the like, none of these can ever be either exhaustive or forever accurate and new research and inquiry can and will reveal new truths to us. This doesn't mean we should discard ancient philosophies based on a few misgivings, which is why we advocate Stoicism in a modern light.

Many of us, if not all of us, here at Berlin Stoics are more eclectics than pure Stoics. Indeed what may distinguish the wise from the unwise is pulling advice from various philosophies and voices which help us to better ourselves and help us serve our communities and society at large. We've just noticed that Stoicism has provided us a wide repetoire of psychological strategies and value-based dicta to lead good, resilient, eudaimonistic lives, and we can't and shan't dismiss that.

Check out our "Resources" page if you'd like to dig deeper in Stoicism. Or go wild in your search engine. You can also attend one of our upcoming events or participate in our curriculum and train like a Stoic.