It’s not things that upset people, but their judgements about things.
Stoicism is a philosophy that originated in ancient Greece and was later popular in Rome. It was first developed by Zeno of Citium, c. 300 BC, who taught at a colonnade (Stoa) in the centre of Athens. In Rome, Stoic ideas were taken up by the statesman and writer Seneca, an ex-slave turned teacher, Epictetus, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Originally a complex system of ideas encompassing formal logic, grammar, physics, meteorology, and more, the three Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius wrote mainly about how to live as a Stoic, embracing Stoic ethical ideas as a guide to a good life.
The core ideas that these Stoics adopted included:
- It’s not things that upset us, but our judgements about things, said Epictetus. How we think about things is key. You are only frustrated or disappointed or angry about any given situation because you have judged that something terrible has happened. But is that judgement correct?
- Negative emotions such as fear, anger, or jealousy should be avoided because they are based on mistaken judgements, are unpleasant to experience, and can lead to bad actions. Anger is a temporary madness, Seneca said, and should be avoided at all costs, for all too often it can escalate to violence.
- It is a mistake to think that external circumstances and objects are inherently good. The only thing that is genuinely good is having a rational mind / virtuous character; this is the only thing the Stoics say we need in order to live a good life. While everything else – money, health, status – might be preferable (we’d all choose them over their opposites), none of these things are essential and it is possible to live a good life even without them.
- With this in mind, the Stoics argue that it is possible to live well in any and every situation, so long as one has the right frame of mind. Whatever bad luck or adversity someone might experience, these external shifts in fortune can never undermine their frame of mind, so long as they guard it well.
- Our focus, then, ought to be on cultivating this excellent state of mind. This means paying attention to the judgements we make and avoiding negative emotions. It also means developing positive character traits such as justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom. These virtues will enable us to act as ‘good citizens’, in line with our nature as social animals.
- The goal for the Stoics is to live consistently with Nature. This means a number of things – to be internally consistent in the beliefs and values we hold; to be in tune with our human nature as rational and social animals; and to live in harmony with Nature as a whole, acknowledging that our very survival depends on the wellbeing of Nature.
- The ideal Stoic will thus be clear headed and rational, but also unselfish and social, as well as ecological and global in outlook. They will value their own integrity higher than material success. They will appreciate what they have and, if they lose it, accept with good grace that nothing can be kept forever. They will behave the best they can, without getting frustrated when things don’t work out as hoped.
In recent years many people have turned to these Stoic ideas looking for guidance in how to live well. Over 25,000 people have signed up for our Stoic Week over the past few years and the results have consistently shown that embracing these Stoic ideas for just a few days can lead, on average, to a 14% reduction in negative emotions and a 13% increase in overall life satisfaction.
For a fuller introduction to Stoicism read our article ‘What is Stoicism?‘. You can also access the Introduction to Stoicism from the 2020 Stoic Week Handbook (PDF).
Further online reading:
- ‘Want to be Happy? Live like a Stoic for a Week‘ (The Conversation)
- ‘How to be a Stoic‘ (The New York Times)
- ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Stoics‘ (Antigone)
For an academic introduction to ancient Stoic philosophy, see the entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.