What is Stoicism?

Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve wellbeing or happiness. Here are four central ideas:

  • Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although there is nothing wrong with these things and they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, often the pursuit of these things actually damages the only thing that can bring us happiness: an excellent, rational mental state.
  • Emotions – our emotions are the project of our judgements, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place. This isn’t as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.
  • Nature – the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.
  • Control – in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.

The three Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of practical advice aimed at helping people incorporate these ideas into their daily lives.

John Sellars

36 thoughts on “What is Stoicism?”

  1. “…the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place.”

    I’d really love to meet this human being who “simply doesn’t have them [emotions] in the first place.”

    Where is he or she? Please show me where this human animal is to be found.

    1. As I see it, stoicism is similar to meditation in that you must first recognize that you cannot clear all thoughts from your mind. Instead, you let the stray thoughts come and go as they will, but you don’t hang onto them. In this way the mind gradually quiets itself. It takes practice. Similarly, the stoic allows the emotions to come and go as well, without becoming preoccupied with them or allowing them to gain control of his mind and upset his life. While he recognizes that he cannot completely eliminate all negative emotion, he knows he does have the power to keep from becoming bogged down by it. He learns to move away from the negative and to quietly and gently embrace the positives. For most of us, this too takes practice.

  2. Many people read about Stoicism and think that they have logically grasped it. Then they come across statements such as “Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place.”

    Logic, reason and wisdom all rebel.

    A big issue is that with many readers of Stoicism the use of the word ‘emotion’ is problematic. In modern common usage the word ‘emotions’ covers the whole range of ‘inner stirrings’, which is reflective of the root of the word ‘emotions’ – inner movement.

    The ancient Stoics recognised that there were different classifications of such, and they separated out one type and called it ‘pathos’ – again a word in common usage in their time but that they used in a limiting technical manner when putting over their views.

    Basically they were talking of any inner stirring that swamped the ability to think and act in a reasoned manner. I believe it was Cicero who chose to translate the Stoic intent regards the use of the word ‘pathos’ as being a ‘perturbation’ while keeping the word ‘emotion’ for those feelings and instincts that are the result of how Nature evolved us and that can be kept within reasoned conscious control.

    Many modern day professors of philosophers choose to stick to the term ‘emotions’ and ignore Cicero’s guidance. This is despite Cicero being around at the time when Stoicism was accessible first hand through people who had not only read the words in the now long lost books but were also people who were immersed in the culture and the idiom of the time.

    There is much comment these days as to the limitations put on us in understanding the Stoic teachings due to the loss of many of the books written by the various Stoic historic figures, so ought we not listen to someone who ‘was there’ and accept his suggested translations of word and intent?

    The Stoic teachings on ‘pathos’ would be so much clearer if all Stoics today chose to translate ‘pathos’ as, and to talk of, ‘perturbations’ instead of ‘emotions’. As Cicero says, the sound of the word ‘perturbation’ offers a far better feeling as to what is intended.

    ‘Perturbations’ then become the ‘out of control’ inner stirrings that are to be avoided and that can be avoided by correct mind training and habituation in accord with the Stoic system. ‘Perturbations’ are the ‘emotions’ that have had the addition of incorrect ‘opinion’ that has taken them beyond the immediate control of the reasoned ‘will’ and wisdom of the individual.

    The modern common use of the word ‘emotions’ then remains to cover all the aspects of inner feelings or stirrings whereby such may be variously recognised as ‘good’ emotions, appropriate emotions, natural instincts and drives, etcetera – all of which can be subject to the reasoned ‘will’ and wisdom of the individual provided they have learnt to be in control of their thinking and their opinions.

    As a consequence, emotions are ‘indifferents’ within the Stoic teachings in that they are neither good nor bad. They are what they are. Only when we add poor judgements to the mix do they become that which Stoicism guides us against – that is ‘pathos’ or ‘perturbations’.

    It is to be remembered, even the ‘sage’ does not ‘simply not have’ emotions once they have become a sage as a result of only making good judgements. As Seneca reminds us, unlike the sage of the Cynics, the Stoic view of the sage is that they will continue to feel, they will just not be perturbed by such.

    As such the Stoic state of sagehood is theoretically an achievable state. However, for most, it will more likely be a question of recognising that just like peace may be described as the time between wars, so the state of contentment that a Stoic seeks is in all likelihood just the time between perturbations.

    The Stoic is guided to be constantly on their guard in that to neglect their principles and their training may lead to a loss of control by their reasoned ‘will’ and wisdom and so allow ‘perturbation’ back into their lives. And only when we keep ‘perturbations’ at bay that we are able to live a life in accord with Nature and so live the Stoic life of harmony, honour and virtue.


  3. I understood the concept of “controlling ones emotions” to be a matter of ascent or dissent to emotions that may be expressed in a manner that is not conducive to a positive social ideal…am I to understand that the above quote “simply not having them” (emotions) means what it says? Is it incorrect to assume that some emotions are unavoidable? It is the job of one to cultivate the ability to control our reaction, synthesize the thought (emotion) and to find the most natural reaction (expression) that most closely correspondences with nature to be the correct one?

  4. Unfortunately, there no longer exists a way for an ordinary person, or a sage for that matter, to transcend the alienations from self, others, and nature that human beings experience. As Baudrillard exposed the hyperreal, we’re all playing on that ball field now. I guess for some folks, believing that everything is fated is comforting, and to go along with that fate leads to some form of narcissistic enlightenment. I have known a sage, and he was a black hole of self absorption. My advice: break the mirror of stoicism, and look upon the horrible catastrophic hyperreality you’re living in. To paraphrase my favorite Terminator line, there is no fate but what you make.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I would suggest that it is not advisable to base all of your views and judgement on the writings of just one individual. (I have effectively been arguing this regards those who look to no one but Epictetus when it comes to trying to understand Stoicism.) As it is, not everyone thinks that Baudrillard is so all knowing.

      From looking up Baudrillard in Wikipedia we have:

      **Denis Dutton, founder of Philosophy & Literature’s “Bad Writing Contest”—which listed examples of the kind of willfully obscurantist prose for which Baudrillard was frequently criticised—had the following to say:
      “Some writers in their manner and stance intentionally provoke challenge and criticism from their readers. Others just invite you to think. Baudrillard’s hyperprose demands only that you grunt wide-eyed or bewildered assent. He yearns to have intellectual influence, but must fend off any serious analysis of his own writing, remaining free to leap from one bombastic assertion to the next, no matter how brazen. Your place is simply to buy his books, adopt his jargon, and drop his name wherever possible.”**

      However I also noticed the following from the same piece:

      The object value system
      He [Baudrillard] wrote that there are four ways of an object obtaining value. The four value-making processes are:
      1.The first is the functional value of an object; its instrumental purpose. A pen, for instance, writes; a refrigerator cools.
      2.The second is the exchange value of an object; its economic value. One pen may be worth three pencils; and one refrigerator may be worth the salary earned by three months of work.
      3.The third is the symbolic value of an object; a value that a subject assigns to an object in relation to another subject (i.e., between a giver and receiver). A pen might symbolize a student’s school graduation gift or a commencement speaker’s gift; or a diamond may be a symbol of publicly declared marital love.
      4.The last is the sign value of an object; its value within a system of objects. A particular pen may, while having no added functional benefit, signify prestige relative to another pen; a diamond ring may have no function at all, but may suggest particular social values, such as taste or class.

      In this we are looking at classifications that would sit very comfortably in the Stoic view of the world. The first two are functional and so natural. The last two have degrees of attachment associated with an object and Stoicism has always counselled for great care to be taken in understanding the nature of such attachment.

      I have not read anything else about Baudrillard, but I suspect that like many, there is a basis of truth in some of what he has to say, and that there will be much that will have common ground with Stoicism.

      From your last few lines I would suggest that your understanding of Stoicism is limited. I would also question as to if the person you claim to have met was a sage – such self-absorption as you describe lacks wisdom.

      As to transcending experience, the Stoic is encouraged to accept, not to transcend.

      And when it comes to things being fated, you offer the usual misunderstanding of Stoic ‘Fate’. Fate is the course that the Cosmos is taking us on, but as we are ‘sparks’ of that Cosmos we are also involved in the laying down of the ‘seeds’ that will influence the flow of change that is existence.

      Stoics do not believe that the future is preordained. For the Stoic the future does not exist. We all live in the present where we are involved in ‘ordaining’ moment by moment the next state of the present.

      So while it is irrational to say that we make our own fate (due to the involvement of the will of the Cosmos and all of our fellow creatures on this planet) we can say that we are involved in creating our own fate both through our attitudes and through our actions.


  5. Just read the book “The Antidote”. Very interesting after reading a load of Buddhism and CBT. Nice summary on here too

  6. Here’s my understanding of stoic philosophy in seven key points:

    1. Happiness is freedom from unhelpful emotions.
    2. Reduce unhelpful emotions by living with virtue.
    3. Virtue arises by being in harmony with nature.
    4. Nature is accepting we are small parts of a bigger, ever changing whole, created by events outside of our control.
    5. Happiness and virtue arise from personal choice and continuous attention to our thoughts.
    6. The things called good by most people, such as health, possessions, reputation, and the like, are often aligned with our nature.
    7. But they are not always aligned with our nature. Sometimes you may obtain or maintain them at the expense of a person’s integrity.

    I wonder what I’ve left out?

    1. Rob offers point 4. “Nature is accepting we are small parts of a bigger, ever changing whole, created by events outside of our control.”

      This reduces Nature to being a single thought and so denudes the Stoic view of Nature as a living conscious state of being. While elsewhere there has been a debate on Stoicism being common sense and simple to comprehend, to try to reduce it to such short pithy statements is to do it a disservice.

      Rob askes what has been left out – nearly everything is missing for what is on offer is some hints as to the Stoic practices while not offering any real idea as to the need for the practices and the belief system behind such.


  7. People often forget that even “joy” can become a negative emotion when it is not “controlled.” (See what I did there?) People suffering from Manic Depressive Disorder, or Bipolar Disorder, experience both extreme elation and extreme upset, being unable to rationally think or act on either side of the spectrum. Being too happy can be a problem, and is referred to as mania by psychologists and psychiatrists. Think binge drinking, wild parties, risky stunts that one has not trained for, irrational confidence, complete lack of fear of consequences, undisciplined drug consumption, unsafe sex practices, all of these could be caused by a lack of practical thought when a person is too happy and excited.

    I think that what the article is trying to get at is learning to keep your emotions in check, and that “not having them” is more of a metaphor. Some people may think you don’t have emotions, but that is not true. It’s impossible to not have emotions (save for another psychological disorder), but it IS possible to learn how to manage them properly. Emotions become problematic when they disrupt your daily life or the lives of others, but they can also be pointed to bring necessary change or solution to a bad situation. Hence, emotion “management” is more the focus.

    1. There is a difference between fleshy emotions and holy good feelings. A different Judgment!.. The Stoics were Saints.. Wise in Spiritual Wisdom… Compassion for example is not an emotion. It is the love of an eternal and blessed Holy Saint..

  8. I’ve been an ideal Stoic since I was a small child, though I didn’t know it by name until recently. At times my life seems so different from those of others, almost too reasonable! I’m pleased that this belief system is enjoying a renaissance, albeit this small one.

  9. When we talk about our school, we have to answer four basic questions:
    1.Why do I invest my time in discussing Stoa?
    2.What is Stoa?
    3.Why is the real essence of the system reduced to profane bonmots?
    4.What should I do if I want to become a real Stoic?

    1.Why do I invest my time in discussing Stoa?
    The result of almost all human activity is dependent on the original motivation of the agent. The result of every mental effort will differ if the basic motivation is a sort of intellectual exhibitionism and desire for appearing smart or a genuine striving for profound understanding about: why do we exist, what is the coordinate system of our existence and what does this mean for our life-forming. The latter motivation needs a very strong impulse, mostly initiated by feeling pain.
    It is pretty shallow and amateurish to assume after reading a little bit of Epictetus, a little bit of Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus to possess at least some decent knowledge about the doctrine. This is the same as assuming being a physicist by reading a couple of articles about quantum physics in a popular journal.

    2.What is Stoa?
    Stoa is the science of living and dying well. Science is the ordered sum of cognitive impressions (systema ek katalepseon as the Greeks would say) serving a final end in life, in our case – the happy life. Stoa is NOT an original encapsulated system but the pinnacle of development of millennia old human thought in the form of an ordered and coherent doctrine explaining: a) the functioning of the Universe and its principles; b) the functioning of the human being; c) the resulting implications about human activity, both internal and external.
    The roots of our ‘systema’ are to be sought in pre-dynastic Egyptian times (the concept of Ma’at) and Sumeric Me with analogues in Aryan pre-philosophic beliefs which can be spotted for example in the Rigveda. This knowledge evolved throughout the millennia and by students of ancient wisdom like Linus and Orpheus reached Greece. It survived the Dark Ages and blossomed out in Ionia, Greece proper and the Greek colonies in Italy during the 7th to the 3rd centuries BCE and was shaped by men like Alkman, Pherecydes, Acusilaus, Hermotimus, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Hippasus, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Epicharmus, Parmenides, Melissus, Empedocles, Philolaus, Archytas, Ecphantus, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Democritus, Archelaus, Diogenes of Apolonia, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Antisthenes, Diogenes of Synope, Krates, Theletos, Kercides, Demonakt, Oenomaus. During the Hellenistic Period many schools tried to sum up the ancient knowledge in a system but only Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli succeeded in shaping a system which is comprehensive, coherent and free of contradictions. Yes, the Stoa is the crowning jewel of millennia old development of human thought.
    It is a highly sophisticated and complicated doctrine explaining on the basis of principles and definitions, how the Universe developed, what laws it abides, how it moves and to what end, in how far is the activity of entities within the Universe predetermined and to what degree. The doctrine explains the structure of the human soul, its attributes and functioning and defines the valuation basis for determining the essence of things in life.
    What is NOT Stoa:
    It is wrong to reduce our school to some practical advice. This profanization is insofar counterproductive as without the knowledge about the fundamental dogmata, advice is bound to fail at one moment or another. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca says: “Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. But it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles – that is, unless it is based upon knowledge of the actual dogmata of philosophy and its main headings. For precepts will be of no avail while the mind is clouded with error; only when the cloud is dispersed will it be clear what one’s duty is in each case.”
    And: the system is not closed. The men of ancient time left us plenty of stuff to dissect, analyze and explain. It is not for consumers but for true sportsmen and soldiers. In order to excel you need to apply the dogmata in your everyday life. But one is for sure: if you embrace with your whole heart this wisdom, you will never again encounter pain, fear, disappointment; you will be protected in all matters, against every spear of Fortune.

    3.Why is the real essence of the system reduced to profane bonmots?
    There are following main reasons:
    The doctrine in itself is complicated and demands outstanding intellectual abilities. The next difficulty: not a single work from the Old Stoa and from the Presocratic philosophers has survived. What remained are, at least concerning our Stoics, mostly quotations in works of mostly hostile commentators living many centuries later. These quotations were summed up by Hans von Arnim about a century ago in his Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. Unfortunately the quotations are in Greek and Latin, so only a very limited circle has an access to them. And these who have read them up to now either a) have no ‘right’ motivation and/or b) lack sufficient overview and abilities to reconstruct the teaching in its entirety and/or c) are so “polluted” by their environment that they strive in reality for things diametrically opposed to our dogmata.

    4.What should I do if I want to become a real Stoic?
    First and foremost: you must analyze honestly and in detail the person you are now. Then make acquaintance with the basic dogmata of our system. You should weigh up all influences in your life and decide whether you want to become a man like Zeno and Chrysippus or not. It does not mean that you are bad, stupid or a coward if you decide you are not born to be one of us. But if you decide that it is your destiny to be a Stoic, then you should show resolution and firmness of spirit and follow your dogmata even in the face of death. And what is the promise? You will gain a life of reason, a life of freedom, a life of eternal tranquility and a life of mastery – the mastery over your own self.

  10. Wow. Talk about a male-centric philosophy. Human beings have emotions. Men seem to be uncomfortable with emotions, so let’s develop an entire philosophy and way of life that will make a virtue out of the male inability to connect with their own feelings! Life does “feel” safer when one can disconnect from it and maintain a distance, but perhaps life is fully lived in this way.

    1. Thanks for your message Anne. I think that Stoicism can seem like that from a first glance, but actually the key claim is just that emotions come from our beliefs (whether conscious or subconscious). Someone who values money excessively for example, will get jealous when he sees someone else who is rich. But what about someone who values the good, and contributing to the welfare of others (which is the Stoic position) – what kind of emotions will they have? The emotions will be in accordance with their internalised beliefs, and thus they will for example experience joy when good things happen to others and they will wish others well. They will dash across the street to help someone who has tripped…. The point is not to suppress or avoid emotion, but to value the most important things in life so that the kind of emotions you experience help in leading a good life.

      1. transcend emotion in order to understand what is really happening.

        its like a mystery. you find the ‘why’ for your emotion and analyze it.

        have the emotion. sure. you cannot avoid it. but immediately analyze the situation.

        emotion puts a filter on reason. by understanding the ‘why’ of the emotion you can take off the lens of that emotion to see the whole picture.

        emotions force people to create a distorted view of the world around them.

        not all joy is good for the universe. not all grief is bad.

        dont let emotion cloud judgment

        1. the explanation and information about Stoics is very detail Donald. The stoic approach is I am just beginning to explore. it’s about a male-centric philosophy. Human beings have emotions too

          1. Iklan.me: Watch your grammar. Your explanation is detailed, D. What S.is all about is something I’m beginning to explore more deeply. It appears male-centric but at that time only men were educated. Everyone has emotions (trite), but …..

  11. I think it’s really important to qualify the term ’emotion’ when espousing Stoic philosophy. To my mind, modern society interprets emotion as a subjective experience that has the power to enrich the experience of life, either through motivating behaviour or providing reference for meaningful events, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Ultimately it may be perceived as a characteristically human phenomenon and thus to some extent even sacrosanct.

    Explanation of the Stoic stance on emotion is often alienating, mostly on account of this interpretation of the term ’emotion’. Would it be useful to put greater emphasis on the pursuit of ‘tranquillity’ when portraying this particular aspect of the philosophy I wonder?

  12. Hmmm… Maybe you’ve misunderstood, though. The comment was explained as meaning that “we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.” That’s not really a very “cold” view, in fact it involves cultivating warmth and affectionate attitudes toward the rest of mankind, which is what the Stoics taught. What’s cold about that? The Stoics admit that perfection is virtually impossible and, in fact, say that the perfect man is “as rare as the Ethiopian phoenix”, which presumably means very rare indeed. Nevertheless, they think it’s worth trying to better ourselves in that direction, while accepting our imperfections. The Stoics accepted emotions as part of our natural psychological functioning.

    The “mindful” approach you describe is basically just what the ancient Stoics themselves recommended. Epictetus, for instance, tells his students repeatedly that they should pay continual attention to their own minds, in every situation. They should notice when irrational feelings or unhealthy desires arise and pause for thought, rather than acting rashly on them. Although the initial impressions, and automatic feelings, are not under our control, as the Stoics recognised, we do have a choice over what we do next in response to them. The first step is to accept the presence of our troubling impressions and see them as distinct from the things they claim to represent, though.

    1. Your explanation and further information about Stoics is very helpful Donald. The stoic approach is one I am just beginning to explore and I am looking forward to finding out more during Stoic week.

  13. I thought the comment about not having emotions was cold and an impossible aim. To be human is to have emotions, they are part and parcel of who we are. As you rightly suggest Tony, it would be more realistic to seek a situation where we do not fall prey to destructive emotions. If we take a mindful approach we can acknowledge such emotions for what they are and make a conscious decision about how to deal with them.

  14. I’m curious about the comment:

    “…the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place. This isn’t as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.”

    Since “joy” is obviously an emotion, it seems to me that it’s not a matter of a Stoic “not having emotions” but instead a situation of not falling prey to destructive emotions.

    In that regard, is a Stoic unique? It seems that’s a point on which most people would agree whether they describe themselves as a Stoic or not.


    1. In my experience, what I have perceived as ‘joy’ is an absolute absence of emotion. It’s effectively awareness of being totally and utterly immersed in the present moment. If you examine any emotion in yourself (happiness, sadness, rage, fear etc), they all involve referencing something that’s happened in the past, or projecting yourself into some future state.

      1. I agree completely, Graemeo joy can be a constant way of living if one comes to the realization that one is only a small part of a larger organic assembly with a limited scope of function, that operating within this scope is living a life of pure ecstasy because there are no struggles only living in awareness of natures grand plan, like butterflys. but living outside this scheme can only result to stress, this is so because one was not programed to run against the moving train of nature.we worry about the future when we are supposed to appreciate the present and savor every delicious moment. JOY is not an emotion, joy is not transient, one may be temporarily angry, happy,sad etc while still a joyous person. Because joy can be a constant in the equation of life.

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