In short: Stoicism is a philosophy based on the idea that virtue (excellence of character) is the only “good” and leads to happiness.
As such, virtue and happiness do not depend on your success in obtaining anything in the external world (wealth, health, beauty, fame, etc.), but on how you conduct yourself.
Stoicism is an Ancient Greek philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century B.C.
Although Stoicism was prominent in Ancient Greece, it reached its peak in Roman times, popularized by such figures as Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD), and has remained popular until the present day.
Stoic Ethics: Key Ideas
Stoicism focuses on three areas: ethics (how we should live life), logic (how to think rationally), and physics (the nature of the world).
However, Stoic ethics is considered the most important because it helps us face the difficulties of life, and that is what we’ll discuss here. The central ideas of Stoic ethics are:
- Virtue (moral excellence) is the only good; immorality (wickedness) is the only bad
- The four central virtues are justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation
- Being virtuous leads to happiness
- External things, such as wealth/poverty, beauty/ugliness, and health/sickness, are neither good nor bad because we don’t need them to achieve virtue/happiness
- To live virtuously, we should live according to nature. For humans, that nature is to be reasonable, social beings who support others
- It’s not things themselves that disturb us, but our judgments of them
- All human beings are brothers and sisters because we all share a piece of the divine reason (what stoics called Logos)
Stoicism teaches us to better our character, use our capacity for reason to live a virtuous life, and accept the things outside of our control. It stresses moral excellence, self-reliance, acceptance, and self-control.
One excellent Stoic metaphor is to think of ourselves as a dog tied to a cart that’s forced to go wherever the cart goes. The dog has two choices: try to resist and suffer in the process, or accept its fate and make the most of what happens.
Similarly, we have no control over what happens to us. If you really think about it, your daily life is full of things not going your way, from something as simple as being stuck in traffic to not having your affections returned by a person you’re romantically interested in.
You can react to this by being angry and upset, but as the metaphor suggests, this leads nowhere except suffering.
The only rational choice is to accept those things that we can’t control — which means everything outside of our personal choices. This is the far better option for our physical and mental well-being.
It’s not hard to see why Stoicism was so popular in the Ancient Greek and Roman world and remains popular today. It’s a philosophy for life that helps us deal with the hardships we face every day instead of being an academic philosophy concerned with abstract concepts.
Stoicism helps us find happiness and meaning internally rather than externally. This means it doesn’t matter what life throws at you, as it is entirely up to you to be happy by having the right attitude to everything that happens.
Stoicism was taught continuously by notable philosophers of the Ancient world. These philosophers can roughly be divided into three time periods: the early, middle, and late Stoa.
The “early Stoa” period lasted from about 300 B.C to 200 B.C. This period includes Stoicism’s founder Zeno, his student Cleanthes who took over the reins of the Stoic school, who was then followed by Chrysippus, notable for expanding and explaining the ideas of Stoicism through his prolific writings.
They were in turn followed by Greek philosophers of the “middle Stoa” (200-50 B.C.) period: Diogenes, Antipater, Panaetius, and Posidonius.
The third and last period (late Stoa, 0-175 AD) includes Roman philosophers and statesmen: Seneca the Younger, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most well-known practitioner of Stoicism.
These philosophers highlight the immense popularity of Stoicism in the Roman Empire, which effectively succeeded Greece as the cultural and political center of Western civilization.
Famous Individuals Who Practiced Stoic Beliefs
History is full of notable individuals who subscribed to at least some of Stoicism’s ideas to great effect.