Understanding Stoicism: Beliefs and Principles

Humans devote much of their time and energy to finding and maintaining happiness. 

Just as many people today reach for self-help books or go to therapy to feel better, the Stoics of ancient Greece used philosophy as a means of “healing the soul” and achieving eudaimonia – the principle of living according to one’s true nature.

But Stoicism did not simply appear one day as a static set of beliefs and guidelines. Its history encompasses several centuries of great thinkers who all brought a few of their unique perspectives to the philosophical practice.

Let’s take a look at what Stoicism is, what the Stoics believed, and how this ancient philosophy still manages to remain relevant today.

Zeno, Roman copy of a Greek original, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism originated in Athens during the 3rd century BC.

A group of thinkers started meeting by the painted porch (or Stoa) of the Athenian open market. This was during the Hellenistic Period, a time when philosophers used their intellect to tackle what they viewed as the most important issues faced by humans.

To the Stoics, philosophy was far from an esoteric discipline. It was a way to confront political, social, and personal issues that affected the lives of every individual.

Fate was one crucial part of the Stoic beliefs. The Stoics saw the universe as being imbued with what they called “divine logos.” This was the divine will of God, which dictated the fate of everything in the universe.

To them, God and the universe were inseparable because God inhabited every living and non-living thing. This gave them their particular destiny or divine fate.

But even though they believed in fate, the Stoics did not deny the existence of free will. Instead, they believed that free will and fate interacted in such a way that a person could still influence the events in their lives.

Principle of Divine Logos

Divine logos remained a pervasive force that shaped the lives of every individual. This meant that the best thing a person could do was to embrace their true nature as rational animals and learn to temper their emotions.

This exercise of control over one’s emotions was typical of Stoic philosophy because above all, Stoicism was about using philosophical principles to improve one’s life. The Stoics saw their philosophy as a tool for achieving individual well-being.

They believed that if a person could adhere to all of the tenets of Stoicism, they could achieve the status of a sage. In other words, a state of ethical perfection.

To help reach that level of Stoic perfection, the Stoic philosophers developed four interrelated cardinal virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. By cultivating these virtues, a person could approach sage-like perfection and become an example to others.

These are the basic ideas that all Stoic philosophers adhered to. But to get a better understanding of what Stoicism was in practice, let’s take a look at some of the greatest Stoic philosophers and how they applied Stoicism to their own lives.

Zeno of Citium and the Origins of Stoicism

The birth of Stoicism can be attributed to Zeno of Citium, who is said to have founded the philosophical school in Athens in 300 BC.

Before founding Stoicism, Zeno was a wealthy merchant until a shipwreck changed the course of his life. After surviving the ordeal, Zeno decided to travel to Athens where he abandoned his former life of material gain and set out to discover the best way to live one’s life.

He began by reading Socrates, but he soon craved more. One day, standing in a bookstore, he asked the shopkeeper if he knew of any philosophers that were similar to Socrates.

At that very moment, an old hermit named Crates the Cynic was passing by. The shopkeeper pointed in his direction. Like Zeno, Crates had been a wealthy merchant until one day he decided to give up his life of material luxury to live an ascetic life on the street.

Zeno studied with Crates until something happened that made him realize Cynicism wasn’t for him. The life of a Cynic was very public, something that Zeno wasn’t used to.

Crates gave Zeno an exercise that was supposed to teach him how to be less self-conscious. He told Zeno to carry a pot of lentil stew around town with the idea being that the pot would draw attention to Zeno and force him to get over his reservations.

Instead, Zeno ended up trying to hide the pot from view, at which point Crates smashed the pot with his cane, causing its contents to spill everywhere.

If the story is true, the exercise backfired, because Zeno eventually turned away from Cynicism and formed his own school. This was based on the pursuit of a kind of “enlightened apathy.” In this, reason, not pleasure, dictated one’s actions.

Only by following reason, Zeno believed, could one truly live a good life.

Cleanthes of Assos and the Second Generation of Stoic Philosophers

Taking over from Zeno after his death was Cleanthe of Assos. He was a former boxer who ended up leading the Stoics for 32 years.

Cleanthes subscribed to many of his mentor’s ideas about divine fate and the importance of reason. But he also added to the foundation that Zeno had already established.

For example, he came to regard pleasure as being anathema to a virtuous life. Cleanthes was even more adamant than Zenos that only reason could guide one toward a good life.

He also came up with the idea that the sun was imbued with a divine fire, called pneuma. The Stoics believed that this same divine fire was what the soul was composed of.

The Stoics were essentially materialists. This means they believed that the soul was a physical entity that, like everything else, adhered to the laws of physics.

This physical soul was believed to inhabit each person and to dictate everything from cognition to senses to desire.

Chrysippus – The Second Founder of Stoicism?

There is a famous Stoic catchphrase that goes, “If Chrysippus had not existed, neither would the Stoa.”

While this is an exaggeration, there is a grain of truth to it. That’s because Chrysippus developed Stoicism as no other Stoic philosopher had done before.

The former long-distance runner became head of the Stoic school after succeeding Cleanthes around the year 230 BC. He was known as an avid writer who took pleasure in working out complex philosophical proofs.

During his lifetime, he used his talent to develop the Stoic tenets that he learned from his mentors. He formed them into a new basis of Stoicism.

One of his most fundamental beliefs was that fate and free will interact in a complex relationship. Like earlier Stoics, he subscribed to the idea that every object, both living and nonliving, possessed a preordained fate that was determined by the divine logic of the universe.

He also believed that free will could play a role in influencing the outcome of certain inevitable events. Thus, he made a distinction between simple and complex fates.

Essentially, Chrysippus made Stoicism into something more personal than it had been before.

According to Chrysippus, it was not just reason alone that should guide a person’s actions, but rather the conclusions that each person arrived at based on their observations.

The Complicated Case of Seneca

Seneca was a prolific writer whose proximity to one of Rome’s worst emperors makes him a controversial figure in the history of Stoicism.

Born in Spain in the year 4 BC, Seneca moved to Rome as a young man to study. He was later exiled to the island of Corsica when the emperor Claudius accused him of having an affair with his niece, Julia Livilla. Seneca spent eight years on the island, all the while consoling his mother through letters in which he reminded her of the transitory nature of fortune.

His exile ended when Agrippina, the mother of the future emperor Nero, hired Seneca to tutor her son. Seneca continued to advise Nero even after he became one of the cruelest emperors in the history of Rome.

He reaped the advantages of being so close to power. Seneca became one of the wealthiest citizens in all of Rome, which has led many scholars to label him as a hypocrite.

Still, at least in his writings, Seneca seems to adhere to the philosophy of Stoicism, as well as a variety of other schools of philosophy.

He was enamored by the idea of the Stoic sage and claimed that Cato the Younger, a man who committed suicide rather than give himself up to Julius Caesar, was perhaps the only true example of someone who achieved that status.

Interestingly, Seneca admired Cato for his act of suicide, because Seneca himself died by his hand, though it wasn’t his choice. After no doubt witnessing countless acts of cruelty by the paranoid Nero, Seneca eventually became a victim himself.

When Nero suspected Seneca of being part of a conspiratorial plot against him, he ordered Seneca to kill himself. Seneca obeyed, cutting his wrists and drinking poison.

Like a good Stoic, Seneca submitted to Nero’s orders while maintaining a calm composure. Whatever can be said of Seneca, at least in death he embodied the Stoic spirit of calmness.

Epictetus: The Great Stoic Teacher

Although Epictetus eventually became one of Stoicism’s most influential teachers, he began his life as a slave to a man named Epaphroditus. 

Fortunately for Epictetus, his master allowed him to pursue an education, and so Epictetus was able to learn Stoicism from the philosopher Musonius Rufus. When Epictetus eventually gained his freedom, he started sharing his knowledge of Stoicism with others. 

That is until Emperor Domitian expelled all Stoic philosophers from Rome in 90 AD. At that point, Epictetus moved to the Greek city of Nicopolis where he opened his own school and taught for many years until his death.

Epictetus was known as a great teacher, but he never actually wrote his lessons down. What we know of him comes from one of his students, Arrian of Nicomedia, who compiled his lessons in a work known as The Discourses of Epictetus

In The Discourses, Arrian outlines Epictetus’ main beliefs. These mostly fall in line with previous Stoic philosophers, but at times demonstrate his individual ideas.

One of his main contributions to Stoic philosophy is the three fields of study known as the topoi. The topoi constitute three types of exercises that a student of Stoicism can use to apply their theoretical knowledge. 

The Three Principles of Topoi

The first of these three fields of study has to do with desire.

According to Epictetus, what makes us unhappy is the search for happiness in things that are outside of our control. The discipline of desire thus involves focusing all of your efforts on the one thing that everyone has control over – one’s virtue.

The second field of study relates to the decision of whether or not to act in a given situation.

For Epictetus, one’s social position is the best guide when it comes to knowing how to act. Certain relationships – for example, between siblings, father, and son, etc. – are natural. To adhere to the logic of the universe, one must always be conscious of where one stands in relation to others.

The third field of study is what’s called the discipline of assent.

This branch of study involves examining one’s “impressions” before making any judgments. An impression is your evaluation of anything that happens. Whatever you may think about a particular event or piece of information, it only takes on weight if you agree to its veracity.

The discipline of assent involves carefully examining every impression that arises to determine if there is any truth to them.

As Epictetus’ exercises suggest, he was deeply interested in applying Stoicism to real-life situations. That’s because he believed that living a virtuous life was not only good for the individual, but for everyone else as well.

To Epictetus, Stoicism was a way to guide people away from evil and toward a better version of themselves. These ideas influenced many generations of future philosophers, but perhaps none more so than Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius: The “Good Emperor” of Stoicism

On the face of it, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus should have had nothing in common.

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, while Epictetus was born a slave. Yet, when Marcus Aurelius read The Discourses of Epictetus as a young man, he discovered a system of philosophy that would help him through a very challenging reign.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius (reign 161–180 CE)

It was not long after Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161 AD that Rome faced a series of catastrophes. 

In 165 AD a plague struck, killing as many as ten million inhabitants. Then, the Tiber River flooded, leading to a terrible famine. To make matters worse, a good 20 years of Marcus’ reign was marked by costly wars with both the Parthians and the Germanic tribes.

To cope with the stresses of his life, Marcus Aurelius wrote down Stoic lessons as a reminder to himself when he was faced with difficult choices. 

No matter what the situation, Marcus knew that by moderating his emotions and focusing on only what was within his control, he could remain calm and carry out his enormous responsibilities. 

Like a good Stoic, he used the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom to guide him. He recorded in a journal, which came to be known as his Meditations

As perhaps the most famous work of Stoic philosophy, Meditations is a distillation of centuries of Stoic thought. However, there’s no doubt that Marcus Aurelius was standing on the shoulders of giants when he wrote it. 

From the early days in the open-air market of Athens to the halls of the emperor’s palace, Stoicism found a receptive audience in a wide range of individuals by the time of Marcus Aurelius. 

As long as humans continue to struggle to achieve happiness and tranquility, Stoicism will no doubt continue to provide valuable guidance for centuries to come.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top