Monday, July 18

An Introduction to stoicism


Stoicism arose as ancient philosophy to influence the Greco - Roman world, whose essential elements nevertheless remain relevant to us today. The Stoics provide a recipe for living the right way by seeking wisdom and its application to live a virtuous life embracing justice, courage and temperance. Christianity was to adopt aspects in the first few centuries arising principally from the many journeys of the apostle St Paul and his subsequent followers.  

St Paul as a scholar (being part of a wealthy influential Roman family and taught by eminent scholars) was also a Roman citizen. So he was very well versed in philosophy and engaged in discussions with the stoic philosophers of Athens and their followers as is evidenced in references in the Acts of the Apostles as is contained in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 17, written circa 50 AD. 

Many became followers of St. Paul’s, whilst others found the idea of the merging of Greek rationally with Hebrew mysticism in respect to Paul’s oft repeated phrase of ‘being in Christ’ a source of constant confusion.  

St. Paul found common ground with the stoics was in relation to the idea of freedom from the passions. 

But stoicism also continued to influence western philosophy throughout the Ages where aspects were refined or rejected such as Hegel’s idea they placed too much emphasis on rational inward thinking to isolate one from the reality of social life. In modernity it has provided food for thought in lessons for coping with the pressures of daily living. 

For instance there is the public face of face book stoic philosophical groups (members numbering in the hundreds of thousands )talking about how to employ those practices to enhance daily living.   

It is also claimed that elements of the processes adopted by AA have their roots in stoic philosophy incorporating ideas of "knowing "derived from the external world. 

An admirer and a critic was Frederick Nietzsche who embraced the idea of love of fate even further but was critical of their dissent in the role of the emotions.

The idea in stoicism of a GOD, imminent throughout the universe, influenced Spinoza’s philosophy and his pantheism (God is in everything) which was immensely inspirational to Einstein. 

In modernity stoicism is experiencing a minor renaissance in numerous articles demonstrating its application to daily living. 

Note stoicism is not the same as the general dictionary interpretations associated purely with resilience. 


Early stoic philosophy 

Zeno of Citium (305 BC) who resided in what is present day Cyprus, was influenced by the teaching of Socrates and employed the same dialectic method. Broadly, in attempting to sum up its earliest ideas it can be described as having some similarities to eastern religions in respect to the acknowledgment of a unified rational cosmic force to accept one’s fate and embrace a calm mind so that one can be in harmony with it and overcome adversity. 

The work has been transmitted down the ages, principally through the works of Cicero and that of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Its appeal stems from the fact it purports to underpin a way of life - following on from the idea of living the good life by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. 

There are different schools of thought in stoicism but the  underlying thematic is the aim to distinguish between what they considered as ethically binding values and those that are neutral which in turn informs you as to how to take responsibility for living the good life. In other words, what you can change and therefore to concentrate your efforts and not worry about things outside of your control.



Epicitus’s was a slave and treated as a non-human tool which left him lame and in ill health, unable to physically enjoy his eventual freedom from slavery. He talked about overcoming pain and suffering by accepting life and realizing serenity. In other words, to gain control of your emotions so they don’t overwhelm you. He believed in a rational GOD presiding over a deterministic universe whose rationally was shared with humanity who can live in the world according to GOD'S will as that will was similarly echoed in the will of nature.


Notes from: John Anthony Crook, Professor of Ancient History, University of Notes from Cambridge, 1979–84. Author of Law and Life of Rome. From notes by G. Eraclides- Darabin U3A Inc 


Marcus Aurelius

Roman Emperor (AD 161–180), best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. A more intimate contact with the thoughts pursued by Marcus, can be acquired by reading the Meditations. To what extent he intended them for eyes other than his own is uncertain; they are fragmentary notes, discursive and epigrammatic by turn, of his reflections in the midst of campaigning and

administration. In a way, it seems, he wrote them to nerve himself for his daunting responsibilities. Strikingly, though they comprise the innermost thoughts of a Roman, the Meditations were written in Greek—to such an extent had the union of these cultures become a reality. Marcus was forever proposing to himself unattainable goals of conduct, forever contemplating the triviality, brutishness, and transience of the physical world and of man in general and himself in particular; otherworldly, yet believing in no other world, he was therefore tied to duty and service with no hope, even of everlasting fame, to sustain him.


Stoicism and Neoplatonism resource notes by G. Eraclides

The Meditations, the thoughts of a philosopher-king, have been considered by many generations one of the great books of all times. Though they were Marcus' own thoughts, they were not original. They are basically the moral tenets of Stoicism, learned from Epictetus: the cosmos is a unity governed by an intelligence, and the human soul is a part of that divine intelligence and can therefore stand, if naked and alone, at least pure and undefiled, amidst chaos and futility. One or two of Marcus' ideas, diverged from Stoic philosophy and approached the Platonism that was itself then turning into the Neoplatonism, into which

all pagan philosophies, except Epicureanism, were destined to merge. But he did not deviate so far as to accept the comfort of any kind of survival after death. Marcus was a statesman, perhaps, but one of no great calibre; nor was he really a sage. In general, he is a historically overrated figure, presiding in a bewildered way over an empire beneath the gilt of which there already lay many a decaying patch. But his personal nobility and dedication survive the most remorseless scrutiny;

He counted the cost obsessively, but he did not shrink from paying it. Selected Quotes from Marcus Aurelius: "You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself "I'll do it tomorrow," and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe that you are born of Nature itself and to know that a limit has been set to your time. Use every moment wisely, to perceive your inner refulgence, or 'twill be gone and nevermore within your reach." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts." ~ Marcus Aurelius


Stoic philosophy - what was believed - with my responses? 


Question: The rational universe is a unity which imbues a (Logos) which are intelligible ideas on how to live. 

My Response 

From the Christian perspective I believe one can separate the universe from a creator GOD, so that whilst observing a largely deterministic outcome of the Universe with possibly divine laws, it’s not a given one can easily glean intelligible ideas.

Rather, one can exercise introspection and adopt a philosophy that supports a meaningful calm way of life without necessarily holding true to the idea of a rational universe as in GOD. The gift of life and our relative freedom to transcend nature means we live in a kind of mystery that engenders a sense of wonderment and reverence rather than be tied to the idea of a duty from a cosmic universe. 

2. Question: Knowing how this reality functions as a whole, will help us understand how individual things, people, ought to act.

My Response

As previously stated I am wary of holding true to a rational universe but I do believe studying the stoic ideals can help one think about differentiating between things one can change versus those beyond our powers.  

3. Question

Human beings must thus abide and live, by the rational will (Logos) of reality, conform to the divine laws of nature/reality. 

My Response

As above

 4. Question

Each human being must accept (or learn to accept or master) their rightful place in the overall scheme of things and carry out their ordained (necessary) purpose.

My Response 

I think there is merit in ascertaining what you believe to be your purpose or commitment in life. However I do think one has to be careful not to adopt a slave mentality as was rallied against by Frederick Nietzche and risk adopting abstract values implicit in the idea ascertaining a so called ordained (necessary) purpose. Herein I also believe lies the dangers of Calvinism and the perils of holding views on predestination. The so-called elect which was fervently rejected by the existentialists.  


Doing your duty is critical and thus the most rational thing to do; it means carrying out the responsibility necessitated for you by the cosmic intelligence, (or world soul, God, providence).

My Response 

As above.  

6. Question

Virtue is knowledge. You cannot be virtuous in ignorance.

My Response 

Knowledge and virtue are two different things. Certainly the idea of studying the virtues can assist one in leading an ethical life but that doesn’t mean those armed with such information will then decide to lead a virtuous life.     

7. Question

Living virtuously is the ultimate objective of life, the ultimate good; the cardinal virtues thus ends  in themselves (reason, courage, justice, self-discipline or self-control).

My Response

Living the good life as they say has many connotations but ultimately I think it can be argued it involves the virtues. However, the question of morals and how to live is also a moving feast. Our ideas of what is moral has changed as we gain more knowledge and the application of ethics as a moral compass I believe has some merit. It is not nearly as clear cut as the stoic philosophers proposed although many aspects as in normative ethics are straightforward as to be a matter of common sense. 

8. Question

Philosophy undertaken properly will lead you to the virtuous life.

My Response 

Not necessarily but it is bound to help. There are offshoots to apply in every field of endeavour involving the expanded narrative associated with philosophy.    

9. Question

If you can attain the virtuous life for yourself, then you will (or can) achieve a tranquil state of body and mind, free from the anxieties that buffet human existence; you ought to aim for this detached state of being, free of the pull of extreme emotions such as joy or grief, pain or pleasure etc... which psychologically can destroy you or lead you astray from the rational path.

My Response 

More a question of balance not to be overly consumed with the emotions which tell us the truth about how we feel but not always the truth.

10. Question

Consistent with the virtuous life is the aim to be self-sufficient, independent of others for your physical and mental needs.

11. Question Each person possesses a part of the eternal divine reason (Logos).

12. Question.  All human beings are part of (or should see themselves as) a cooperating, rational community carrying out the obligation to fulfil the grand design of reality, the rational Logos.

My Responses – Herein stoicism takes on a pragmatic leap of faith whereas I see our life mystery and a sense of wonder with the ability at times to transcend nature.    

13. Question -Ethical action (part of living virtuously) transcends race, gender, age, class or other particular human, tribal characteristics. It is a transcending, rational system.

My Response 

Ethics as in the nature of a moral compass is subjective and has the potential to achieve such outcomes which are nevertheless at times subjective.

14. Question Everything is preordained (predestined, fated).

My Response 

Mostly but there is a degree of freedom since I believe we can transcend nature.  

15. Question Everything recurs, comes around again and again, eternally.


My Response 

As above. 


You  are invited to provide feedback or answer any of the questions from your perspective.