What Is Stoicism?
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that dates back over two thousand years. Unlike other forms of philosophy that usually prioritise lots of thinking and abstract concepts, the priority of Stoicism is firmly planted in the doing. Or perhaps more accurately: Being. It is one of the most practical philosophies that exist.
It is little surprise then that not only has the wisdom contained in Stoicism managed to survive over two thousand years, it has also risen to prominence in the modern-day as the ‘philosophy of choice’ in the West. With humans and society going through so much change, Stoicism offers not a fragile belief system to cling to for hope, but rather a practical guide on how to be a more resilient, courageous, knowledgeable and wise during testing times. In that sense, it becomes more of a way of life.
Embodying these qualities not only greatly empowers yourself, but it also empowers those around you and by extension, the entire world.
The Reputation of Stoicism
Stoicism or ‘being Stoic’ has one of the biggest misrepresentations in the English language. Somebody who is ‘Stoic’ often refers to someone who is emotionless or completely cut-off from feeling. Add on the fact that not a lot of people take interest in any sort of philosophy unless they are in times of trouble, and Stoicism has the perfect blend for being both ignored and misunderstood.
Fortunately, the true messages of Stoicism are not only starting to return, but they are also becoming popularised by some of the greatest minds and writers that the world has today. Influential leaders in their respective fields like Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss have brought Stoicism to the forefront of the lives of many.
However, Stoicism has played a vital role throughout human history too and some of history’s great minds that were heavily influenced by the philosophy include George Washington, Walt Whitman, Frederick the Great, Eugène Delacroix, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, Ambrose Bierce, Theodore Roosevelt, William Alexander Percy, Ralph Waldo Emerson to name just a few.
Who Are the Main Stoics?
There are a wide range of Stoics, but the three most popular and well-known include Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Not only do these three provide their own unique spin on the philosophy which people tend to resonate with one more than others, they also come from completely different backgrounds.
Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from the Year 161 to 180. Not only did Marcus Aurelius have to deal with the daily stresses of being the emperor of one of the most powerful empires in human history, but he also experienced wars with the Parthian Empire, barbarian tribes, the Rise of Christianity and a plague that left millions dead. It is fair to say that he had a fair bit of insight and experience of the trials and tribulations of life. He was also known for his journaling containing wisdom that is still being read over 2000 years later.
Epictetus was a former slave who eventually became an influential lecturer and friend of the emperor Hadrian. After experiencing a number of brutalities under his master including having his leg snapped, the idea of choice became a key part of Epictetus’s teachings. He walked with an impediment for the rest of his life, but in his words: “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.” He went on to teach in Rome for 25 years.
Seneca was a playwright and political advisor to the emperor Nero who was recalled to Rome after having being banished and exiled by emperor Claudius. After taking ill-health in his early 20s curbed a promising political career, Seneca spent a large portion of his life writing (particularly letters). Upon his return to Rome, he was elevated to the centre of life in the Roman imperial court and played an important part in the political realm. He eventually died by forced suicide under the deranged emperor Nero.
The 4 Virtues of Stoicism
Almost all of the teachings of Stoicism point towards the four main ‘virtues’ of the philosophy. These virtues include:
Courage involves tackling life head-on. It is facing challenges directly and seeing them as an opportunity for growth, rather than an obstacle in the path.
Temperance is about being balanced and doing nothing in excess. At the essence of most philosophies and religions is the wisdom that the centre is where peace, strength and power are to be found. Not enough of one thing or too much of it will knock you off balance. Stay centred.
Justice is often considered the most important Stoic value and can be whittled down to simply doing the right thing. Marcus Aurelius claimed that Justice is the source of all other virtues and that involves not just seeking justice in and for ourselves, but especially for others too.
Wisdom can only come through experience and is the virtue that binds and strengthens all of the others. How do you know when it is time to be courageous? Or how can you know what justice looks like for a particular situation? Wisdom. Wisdom from the experiences of others and perhaps most importantly, wisdom from your own experience.