So first of all who were the Stoics? Well there were lots of them. We know the names of roughly seventy ancient Stoics. And throughout history many other people have been influenced by Stoicism or followed its teachings from the early Christians all the way down to Shakespeare and the founders of cognitive therapy. Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy. It was around for nearly 500 years, from the day it was founded, in 301 BC, until the death of the last famous Stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 180 AD. The most famous Stoics today are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus and it’s mainly through their surviving works that we know about the philosophy. They didn’t invent Stoicism, though…
The legend of how it all began goes something like this… One day a wealthy Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium was transporting a precious cargo of purple dye across the mediterranean when his ship was caught in a storm. He was washed ashore, narrowly escaping with his life. Zeno then watched from the beach, distraught, as his ship sank beneath the waves and his entire fortune literally dissolved back into the ocean. Tyrian purple dye was an extremely valuable commodity extracted from a mucous gland of the murex sea snail. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be painstakingly dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this precious substance. It was also called royal or imperial purple because it was used to dye the robes of kings and emperors.
At least according to one version of events, Zeno lost everything in this shipwreck. His fortune came from and had returned to the sea. We’re told he trudged for miles to the Oracle of Delphi seeking guidance. The priestess said he should take on the colour not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. I would imagine he was pretty bemused by this advice. It’s cryptic. He made his way back to Athens, feeling completely at a loss, and just collapsed in a heap at a bookseller’s stall. He picked up a book at random and started reading. It turned out to be a series of anecdotes about Socrates, written by Xenophon one of his favourite students. Perhaps it was while reading that Zeno suddenly realized what the Oracle meant: He was to “take on the colour of dead men” by studying the teachings of wise men from previous generations, such as those in the Memorabilia of Socrates.
Zeno suddenly leapt to his feet, grabbed the bookseller and asked him “Where can I find a man like this?” By chance, the famous Cynic philosopher, Crates of Thebes was strolling past just at that moment. So the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno. Zeno became Crates’ follower for over a decade, training in the Cynic philosophy founded by Diogenes of Sinope. Cynicism focused on cultivating virtue and strength of character through rigorous training that consisted of enduring various hardships. Cynicism was an austere and self-disciplined way of life. Some Stoics even called it a shortcut to virtue. Nevertheless, Zeno also went on to study in the Academic and Megarian schools of philosophy, which placed greater emphasis on logic, metaphysics, and philosophical theory. He later established a curriculum for Stoicism consisting of three topics: Ethics, Physics, and Logic. However, the Stoics still retained traces of the Cynics’ negative attitude toward academic philosophy. I suspect Zeno saw his position as a compromise between the Cynics and the Academy and perhaps said that studying logic and cosmology is good insofar as it makes us more virtuous and improves our character but can also be a bad thing if it becomes so pedantic or overly “academic” – if it diverts us from virtue. (So arguing with people on Facebook about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin would be a no-no.)
We’re told Zeno also studied the writings of two other dead men: Homer and Pythagoras. Later Stoics like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius also greatly admired the philosophers Heraclitus and Diogenes the Cynic. Zeno was a Cynic so he must have admired Diogenes and perhaps he also wrote about Heraclitus – his students certainly did later. Anyway, the dead man Zeno appears to have most admired was Socrates and the Stoics were described as part of the Socratic tradition in philosophy.
After studying philosophy in Athens for a decade or more, Zeno founded his own school on the Stoa Poikile or painted porch. He said: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.” He had come to value wisdom more than money. The Cynics reputedly taught him that wealth and other external things were completely indifferent and that virtue was the goal of life. Zeno’s philosophy combined elements from Cynicism and the other schools of Athenian philosophy that he’d studied. The result was something more moderate than Cynicism. As we’ll see, the Stoics still believed that virtue was the only true good but they modified that by arguing that virtue, and practical wisdom, consist precisely in our ability to judge the value of other things.
His students were originally called Zenonians but later they called themselves Stoics. That’s significant because unlike other philosophical sects the founders of Stoicism didn’t claim to be perfectly wise – there were no gurus. I sometimes wonder if Zeno’s attitude to his students may have been the one later described by Seneca who says he’s not like an expert such as a physician but like a patient describing the progress of his treatment to fellow patients in the hospital beds beside him. The Stoic school had a series of leaders or scholarchs and a set of characteristic core doctrines but students were also encouraged to think for themselves. After Zeno died, Cleanthes became head of the Stoic school, followed by Chrysippus. These three combined are sometimes considered the founders of the Stoic tradition because Chrysippus was a very prolific writer and developed many sophisticated arguments to defend the central teachings of Zeno and Cleanthes against critics.
The Stoic school at Athens survived for roughly two centuries before apparently fragmenting – into three different branches according to one author. However, by that time the Romans had started to embrace Greek philosophy, and they particularly liked Stoicism. The famous Roman statesman and orator Cicero, although an Academic and not a Stoic, is nevertheless one of our most important sources for understanding Stoicism. He knew a great deal about it and wrote extensively on the subject. His friend and political rival Cato the Younger was a “complete Stoic”, as Cicero puts it, and after his death, opposing Julius Caesar in the Roman civil war, Cato became a hero and an inspiration to later generations of Stoics.
After Caesar’s assassination, his great nephew, Octavian became Augustus, the founder of the Roman empire. Augustus had Stoic tutors, which perhaps set a precedent for later Roman emperors to dabble in Stoicism. A few generations on, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was speechwriter and political advisor to the Emperor Nero. At the same time, a Stoic opposition faction, led by Thrasea, was attempting to take a stand against Nero and subsequent emperors whom they considered to be behaving like tyrants. Nero’s secretary owned a slave called Epictetus who later gained his freedom and became perhaps the most famous philosophical teacher in Roman history. Epictetus wrote nothing but his discussions with students were recorded in several books of Discourses by his student Arrian and a short Handbook summarizing his main teachings.
Copies of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, undoubtedly The Discourses and maybe other notes, were given to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was educated in his youth by several eminent Stoic teachers. During a lengthy war with the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes along Rome’s northern frontier, Marcus wrote a book of personal reflections, which is known today as The Meditations. It’s one of the most widely read self-help or spiritual classics of all time. And Marcus is basically the last famous Stoic we know about. Believe it or not, nearly five centuries after Zeno the dye merchant founded the school, Marcus Aurelius was still banging on about dying things purple. He warned himself not to become dyed with the royal purple, in his character, and turned into a Caesar, but to remain true to his philosophical principles. He (twice) reminds himself that his purple imperial robes are merely sheep’s wool dyed in fermented shellfish mucous. He tells himself instead to dye his mind with the wisdom of philosophical precepts, handed down from his Stoic teachers. The Stoics like the Cynics before them traditionally wore philosophers’ cloaks that were grey or undyed. I think Zeno concluded that we should colour our minds with wisdom rather than worrying about what colour our clothes are.
The Stoics were prolific writers but maybe less than 1% of their output survives today. The main writings that we have are from the three famous Roman Stoics. We have many letters and essays from Seneca, The Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus, and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. We also have some excellent writings about Stoicism by Cicero, although he wasn’t a Stoic himself, and about a book’s worth of fragments from the early Greek Stoics, as well as various other bits and bobs. So that’s woefully incomplete but nevertheless it does provide a fairly consistent picture of the Stoics’ core doctrines.
The schools of Hellenistic philosophy were often distinguished in terms of their contrasting definitions of the goal of life. For Stoics, the goal is defined as “living in agreement with Nature”, which we’re told was synonymous with living wisely or virtuously. Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost thinking creatures, capable of exercising reason. Although we share many instincts with other animals, it’s our ability to think rationally that makes us human. Reason governs our decisions, in a sense – it’s our ruling faculty. Reason allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and urges, and to decide if they’re good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. So for the Stoics, we have a duty to protect our ability to reason and to use it to its full potential. When we reason well about life, and live rationally, we exhibit the virtue of wisdom. Living in agreement with Nature, in part, means fulfilling our natural potential for wisdom. That’s how we flourish as human beings.
The other virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions in different areas of life. So the Stoics took the name of philosophy quite seriously. Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and the Stoics loved wisdom, or loved virtue, above everything else. If virtue sounds a bit pompous, it’s arguably better translated as excellence of character. They adopted the traditional Greek division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation or self-discipline, and that’s still a popular way of thinking today.
So virtue and vice are good and bad, but everything else is indifferent. Virtue is the only true good, for Stoics. That resembles the doctrine of Cynics and other early philosophers. However, the Stoics modified it distinguishing between indifferent things that are “preferred”, “dispreferred”, or completely indifferent. Put crudely, external things do have some value but they’re not worth getting upset over. However, it’s a different kind of value. One way this was explained was by saying that if we could put virtue on one side of a set of scales it shouldn’t matter how many gold coins, or other indifferent things, we piled up on the other side – it should never tip the balance. Nevertheless, some external things are preferable to others and wisdom consists precisely in our ability to make these sort of value judgements.
In addition to believing that humans are essentially rational creatures the Stoics also believed that human nature is inherently social. We have a bond of natural affection toward our children and loved ones, those with whom we identify. The Stoics believed that as we mature in wisdom we increasingly identify with our own capacity for reasoning but then we also increasingly identify with others insofar as they’re capable of reason. In other words, the wise man extends moral consideration to all rational creatures and views them, in a sense, as his brothers and sisters. That’s why the Stoics were called cosmopolitans, or “citizens of the universe”. Stoic ethics involves cultivating this natural affection toward other people in accord with virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness.
A popular misconception is that Stoics are unemotional, like a robot or Mr. Spock from Star Trek. The ancient Stoics themselves consistently denied this by saying that their ideal was not to be like a man of stone or to have a heart of iron. In fact, the Stoics distinguished between three types of emotion: good, bad, and indifferent ones. They have names for many different types of good passion (eupatheiai) grouped under three headings: a sense of joy, a healthy aversion to vice, and a healthy desire to help ourselves and others. They also believed that we have many irrational desires and emotions like fear, anger, craving, and certain forms of pleasure, which are bad for us or unhealthy. But they also said that our initial automatic feelings are to be viewed as natural and indifferent. These are things like being startled, irritated, blushing, pallor, tensing, shaking, sweating, stammering, and so on. These are our natural reflex reactions before we indulge in them and escalate the into full-blown passions. They’re primitive emotional reactions or precursors of emotion, which we share with many animals.
I think a lot of confusion is caused by mixing up Stoicism with a capital S and stoicism with a lower-case s. Lower-case stoicism is just a personality trait, it’s mental toughness or the ability to endure pain or adversity without complaint. Upper-case Stoicism is a whole school of Greek philosophy, as we’ve seen. Being emotionally tough or resilient is just one small part of that philosophy. People on Facebook keep telling me that Conor McGregor is stoic but he’s probably not a Stoic – and sometimes I think they don’t know the difference. Also, when people talk about being stoic, or having a stiff upper lip, often they mean just suppressing or pushing down their feelings. Now that’s actually known to be quite unhealthy so it’s important to be crystal clear that’s not what Stoic philosophy teaches us to do. Stoic philosophy teaches us not to suppress our unhealthy emotions but to transform them into healthy ones by rationally challenging the value judgements and other beliefs on which they’re based, much like Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy.
I’m a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and that’s how I first became interested in Stoicism. As many of you may realize, cognitive therapy was originally inspired by Stoic philosophy and they share many ideas and techniques in common. That influence was mainly due to Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. They’re not the same thing, of course: one is a therapy and the other is philosophy. Although Stoicism contains a system of psychological therapy, it’s much more than that. What cognitive therapy inherited from Stoicism was the cognitive theory of emotion: the idea that it’s mainly our underlying beliefs that determine our emotions. Ellis and many subsequent cognitive therapists actually introduced this notion to their clients by teaching them a famous quotation from the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things.” In addition to that common foundation, Stoicism and cognitive therapy share several therapeutic strategies such as learning to separate our thoughts from external events, which psychologists today call “cognitive distancing”. Many people therefore feel that the huge volumes of research evidence supporting cognitive therapy can be seen as lending indirect support to certain aspects of Stoicism.
However, people identify with Stoicism at a deeper level. Not many people have Albert Ellis tattoos but quite a few people have Stoic tattoos, such as images of Marcus Aurelius or quotes from The Meditations. That’s because Stoicism resonates with people at a much deeper level and it offers something bigger than psychotherapy. Everyone knows prevention is better than cure. But cognitive therapy is time-limited; it’s normally more remedial than preventative. My belief is that Stoicism teaches us a set of core values which contribute to emotional resilience and help to prevent the harm caused by anxiety and depression over the long-term. It shows us the bigger picture. In short, Stoicism offers us not just a therapy but a whole philosophy of life.