Stoicism: Ancient Greek wisdom for today

The practical side of the philosophy in a nutshell

If the irrationality running wild in our culture is getting you down, let me suggest the philosophy of the ancient Stoics as an antidote. I’ve written a new book about it (The Practicing Stoic—available here), and Arianna has very kindly invited me to discuss the subject a bit here. This post will summarize the most practical claims that the Stoics made about ethics—that is, about how to live.

“Stoicism” in modern English means usually means “suffering without complaint.” That’s not what the word meant originally. Stoicism got its name because Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, did his teaching in a public colonnade or porch (“stoa”) overlooking the Agora of Athens. So if “Stoicism” sounds too forbidding because of the word’s popular meaning now, you could try telling your family that you are studying the philosophy of the porch. They might like that better.

The ancient Stoics were ingenious philosophers and psychologists, and they were highly practical. They offered ways to think about the problems of everyday life, and ideas about how to overcome our own mental traps, that are still very relevant and helpful today. The best advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller at the airport book shop, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy and wit two millennia ago.  You might find something appealing in learning these great ideas from the original teachers of them; the truth improves with age.

Here is a 1,000-word synopsis of the applied side of what the Stoics taught:

1. We seem to go through life reacting directly to events and all else in the world. That appearance is an illusion. We react to our judgments and opinions—to our thoughts about things, not to things themselves. We usually aren’t aware of this. Events come to us through lenses of judgment so familiar that we forget we have them on. Stoics seek to be conscious of those judgments, to find the irrationality in them, and to make them more accurately.

2. Stoics stake their well-being on what they can control and let go of attachment to what they cannot. We generally can’t control events, or opinions of others, or whatever else is outside ourselves. The Stoic thus considers money, fame, misfortunes and the like to be “externals” and regards them with detachment. A Stoic still has preferences about those things, and so would prefer to avoid adversity and would rather have wealth than not have it. But attachment to those results is a guarantee of anxiety. It’s against Stoic policy to get worked up about things that aren’t up to you.

These first two points call for a kind of reversal. We tend to waste energy on things that aren’t up to us, and to be barely conscious of the matters of mindset that are up to us. Stoicism tries to turn that pattern around, and to move one’s center of gravity to a more useful location.  

3. Stoics seek detachment from externals by looking at them from unexpected points of view—comparing things or events to the scale of the world, or seeing them as they would look from far away in space or time, or viewing your own actions through the eyes of an onlooker, or regarding what happens to yourself as you would if it happened to someone else. They likewise treat mortality as a source of inspiration: being mindful that existence has an end, and that it can come anytime, puts daily life into an ennobling light. In short, Stoics seek to move easily between perspectives that encourage humility and virtue and that dissolve the misjudgments we live by.

4. The Stoics analytically dissect the stuff of our inner lives—desires, fears, emotions, and the rest. The judgments behind them are usually found on inspection to be false or idiotic. We humans tend to desire whatever we don’t have, to be contemptuous of whatever we do have, and to judge our state and success by comparisons that are arbitrary and pointless. We chase money and pleasure in ways that can bring no real satisfaction; we pursue reputation in the eyes of others that can do us no real good. We torment ourselves with fears of things that are more easily endured than worried about. We overlook the present moment because we are preoccupied with future states that will in turn be overlooked when they arrive. Stoics also are close students of invisible costs and benefits: the wealth gained not by having money but by being indifferent to things it can buy, for example, and the destitution created by frittering away our time with less concern than we guard our property. There is much more, of course, but this suggests the flavor of the Stoic approach.

It might seem doubtful that observations of this kind could change the way one feels about anything; you might suppose that people can’t be talked out of feelings that they weren’t talked into. But sometimes they can. Besides, one point of Stoicism is that, without realizing it, we often were talked into our stupidities—by our culture, and by ourselves. (You will notice that some Stoic teachings resemble those found in other philosophical or spiritual traditions. Many readers will find the Stoic path to those conclusions more rational and congenial.)

5. Stoics take a different view of adversity than is conventional. They don’t seek pain or hardship, but they try for a mindset that isn’t thrown into disarray by those things and that is able to turn them to good. It is inevitable to meet with what we don’t want in life; but unwanted developments produce great achievements, strong characters, and other things we do want. Stoicism therefore means applying imagination to developments that seem unwelcome and using them as a kind of building material. The Stoic takes whatever happens and puts it to use.

6. Stoics advocate enjoyment of pleasures that are natural, as opposed to the kind we invent to keep ourselves going on the hamster wheel. The usual Stoic goal is to enjoy or react or do all else with moderation and a sense of detachment. The detachment doesn’t mean a lack of attention or interest. Think of it as moderation in one’s relationships to external things. Stoics avoid getting elated or crushed or otherwise worked up about them. A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.

7. Stoicism offers a strong affirmative vision of what life is for: the pursuit of virtue. That means living by reason, and thus with honesty, kindness, humility, devotion to the greater good, and involvement in public affairs. There is joy to be had in all this, though not the variety that comes from the acquisition of things or approval from others. The happiness the Stoic seeks is eudaimonia—which is roughly to say, living well. Virtue brings it about as a byproduct, and Stoics regard this as the only reliable path by which happiness can be secured.

8. Stoicism is meant to be a practice, not a set of claims to admire. It’s hard work, because many of our judgments, and the fears and desires that follow from them, are habitual and hard to change. Taming the mind through reason takes the same kind of commitment we associate with martial arts or other demanding physical disciplines. In return, though, Stoicism offers sanity, liberation, and the good life.

If you like the sound of those ideas, The Practicing Stoic explores them in the words of the ancient philosophers who expressed them best.  My thanks to Arianna for the invitation to share these ideas here!

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