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What Is Stoicism?

mental strength philosophy stoicism May 06, 2024
What Is Stoicism?

Imagine you're bankrupt all of a sudden due to an unexpected emergency that you can't possibly control. Perhaps it could be that one of your family members is suffering from chronic health issues and requires your help with additional medical expenses, or it could be that there's catastrophic damage to your house that needs you to instantly make a huge financial sacrifice to renovate the property. If in just a few days, you could lose most of the money and assets to which you have dedicated most of your life and time, how would you feel? You would probably experience various negative emotions from depression and rage to grief and despair. Maybe you’d also blame the world for the misfortune, finding pain in how helpless you feel, since what’s happening appears to be something that you have no power to control, no matter how desperately you wish that things could have turned out differently. 

A similar thing happened to Zeno of Citium, a philosopher from Athens, long ago in around 330 BC. For most of his life, Zeno was a wealthy merchant, a successful businessman who knew how to make good money. But one day, during a trip for another great deal, he unfortunately encountered the most destructive storm that resulted in an unexpected shipwreck. All of his efforts, dedication, wealth, and efforts sank into the ocean in just a few seconds. Zeno could have easily blamed the world, or God, after fate had taken everything from him – but instead, the incident deepened his interest in philosophy. He devoted himself to his studies, and with his newly acquired knowledge, he founded his own school of philosophy: the Stoic School of Philosophy. This way of thinking and living offered people a way to remain calm and emotionally stable during difficult times. In fact, it could even help someone thrive in times of uncertainty or upheaval, by teaching them how to see life’s challenges as opportunities for growth. 

Zeno later became known as the father of Stoicism, and his school of philosophy continues to influence and help many individuals today, teaching them how to cope with stressful life events by understanding the distinction between what we can and can't control. 

How do you usually react when things don’t go your way? Do you tend to get trapped by the disappointment of the unexpected, or do you deal with these events with an open and accepting attitude? By incorporating Stoicism into your life, you can learn to maintain calmness and develop the resilience to persevere, undaunted, even when life throws a curveball your way. Read on to learn more about Stoicism, its central ideas, and how to live like a Stoic that views challenges as opportunities to let yourself flourish. 

The Philosophy of Stoicism

Stoicism has been a major school of philosophy for centuries in Greece and Rome, wherein it involves the teachings of virtue, tolerance, and self-control. The term Stoicism derives from the Greek word “stoa poikilê”, which literally translates to “painted porch” in English, so named after the place where the first school of stoicism was founded. 

This philosophical idea posits that although we might not have control over every situation we encounter in life, we still always possess the capacity to decide how we react to it, and approach the consequences surrounding that event. Stoicism puts forth the idea that negative emotions are likely not caused by the event itself, nor the results of an undesired situation – but rather, it is because of how we feel about it, and how we choose to react to it. In other words: If the event in question has transpired in an unexpected way that leads us to interpret the situation negatively, then it is our interpretation of the event, rather than the event itself, that ultimately causes the way we feel afterwards. 

While the modern definition of stoicism is known as “the quality of undergoing painful and difficult situations without showing complaints,” the original stoic philosophy 一 let’s refer to it as “Stoicism” with a capitalized “S” 一 postulates that there is a web of cause and effect called “logos” guiding the universe. With this belief comes the sense that everything that happens tends to have a reason behind it. To live a stoic way of life, one should view the world without expectations. This lifestyle is also tied to the belief that everything undesired 一 including a worst-case scenario 一 could happen, and can happen. 

After all, Stoicism suggests the idea that it is the expectations most people have for their everyday lives that are the likely cause of disappointment and sadness. Therefore when an individual has finally come to the realization that everything that happens is the result of “logos” (which we cannot control), one can become better at calming their inner emotional storm when what happens is not really to our liking. It is a form of mental resilience that provides an essential way for people to maintain their equanimity and persevere despite any challenges, failures, and criticisms that may come their way. 

To learn practical ways to apply stoic philosophy to modern times, join the Wisdom of Stoic Living online short course. 

The Four Virtues of Stoicism

Stoicism may seem like an abstract concept to grasp at first, but one way to reap the benefits of this philosophy is to implement some of its theories into our everyday lives. Stoicis believe that embracing four virtues can help one process the knowledge of stoicism and consider the world as it is, and in doing so, cultivate a stoic attitude. In his book, The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness, author and stoic Jonas Salzgeber explains how the virtues of Stoicism can not only help us achieve self-improvement and more true happiness in life, but they can also strengthen our relationships with others, while helping us understand more about ourselves. These virtues of Stoicism – also known as the cardinal virtues – are outlined below: 

  • Wisdom: This refers to navigating complicated situations with logic and calmness. Living with wisdom can mean choosing wisely for how you react to external situations – things we cannot control. For instance, when in the midst of an argument with your partner or your friend, use your wisdom to think before you speak, and to ensure that your reaction is logical and rational instead of emotionally-reactive and thoughtless. 
  • Temperance: This is also known as self-restraint and moderation. Stoicism suggests that temperance can mean “to do more with less,” and “to say more with fewer words.” For instance, when speaking to someone with different political views, expressing your thoughts needlessly can lead to tricky territory. If you’re already in an argument, adding unnecessary fuel to the fire can turn it into a fight. Understand that others’ opinions are often beyond your control, and that not every situation requires more input on your part – especially if it’s not going to serve you or the situation in any worthy way. In these instances, maintaining temperance can help to avoid unnecessary conflicts that can negatively affect your mental and emotional health
  • Justice: This virtue encourages people to treat all individuals fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are and what they do. Justice runs upon the understanding that “no one should do harm to one another” and that we should each treat everyone with kindness. Cultivating this virtue can help reduce inequalities and discrimination in society – such as those around gender, age, race, disability, or sexual orientation for instance – and aims to protect the rights of people of all backgrounds. 
  • Courage: This centers around coping with challenges with clarity and integrity. Rather than giving up easily when things get hard, choosing a Stoic way of life means it’s important to persist, resist, and view difficult situations as chances to grow with an abundance mindset. For example, it might not be easy to learn a new language from scratch, but once you overcome the challenge with courage –  persisting in learning the vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure, and practicing it as often as you can –  your skills can become automatic. This new language can then, in turn, open the door to new opportunities –  for example, making friends with people while traveling to a foreign country, being able to read books in the second language, or even opening up new career opportunities. The same applies to life’s more grievous hardships: experiencing loss, for example, can be devastating – but an experience with loss can also teach you to be more grateful for what you have, so that you may always appreciate things fully while you still have them.

The Stoic Happiness Triangle 

Another theory in the philosophy of Stoicism is The Stoic Happiness Triangle. According to this model, a trifecta called “eudaimonia” acts as a foundation of happiness. The word is of Greek origin, and translates to: “supreme happiness” in English. Within its etymology, “Eu” refers to “being in good terms”, and “daimon” carries the meaning of “the highest self”. 

The model consists of three elements, and they all intertwine. These elements include: 

  • Live with Arête: Arête is a Greek term meaning “virtue” and “excellence” in English. To live with Arête refers to the act of being able to express the highest self in every moment – an action that requires strong awareness and mindfulness. For instance, when you’re making an important life decision – such as pursuing a degree, getting married, or starting a new job – think twice before you make the decision, as a matter of habit. The intention behind this deep thought is to constantly self-evaluate your choices and actions, and make sure that your decisions align with your own values. 
  • Focus On What You Can Control: This is to develop a clear understanding of the dichotomy of control: the differentiation between “what you can control” versus “what you cannot control”. Rather than wasting energy on things you cannot control, such as your gene makeup or what others choose to think of you, you should instead redirect that energy towards focusing on things you can control, whether that’s your lifestyle, dietary habits, or how you choose to spend your free time for instance. But how do you know what you can and cannot control? In order to distinguish this, it is important to know the difference between internal and external events. When facing a complex situation that presents you with this dichotomy of control, you may ask yourself: Is there anything I can do about changing this situation, through my own actions and mindset, that is not reliant on another person or external factor? Focusing only on what you can control can, in turn, help you to feel better, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
  • Take Responsibility: Stoicism suggests that bad events are not necessarily what causes negative feelings. Rather, it’s the way we interpret these events that can generate these emotions. Taking responsibility for yourself means being aware of  and held accountable for your own responses and reactions to a situation. Consciously choosing to react in a way that is least harmful towards your mental and emotional health can help to create a path towards “eudaimonia”. 

Broadly speaking, stoicism views “eudaimonia” as the ultimate goal of life – and that cultivating eudaimonia can help one flourish and achieve happiness. Stoics aim to view the world as it is, and believe that by maintaining the four virtues and the three elements of The Stoic Happiness Triangle, one can achieve this state, experiencing ultimate happiness and creating positive changes in their life. Stoic individuals tend to remain calm when they’re under stress, manage their emotions well, and demonstrate great self-control. As a result, implementing the philosophy of stoicism can not only help one cultivate more positive thinking, but also develop a more fulfilling and peaceful life. 

How to Live like a Stoic?

Cultivating stoicism by incorporating this philosophy into everyday life can lead to a greater sense of well-being, and enable someone to be more resistant to the chaos of the world. Below are some ways to incorporate more stoicism into your life: 

  • Establish A Gratitude Practice: While living in modern society, many of us strive to achieve as much as possible in the different areas of your life. For this reason, it can be easy to overlook the things we already have, or take them for granted. One stoicism-grounded exercise that may help to cultivate more gratitude is voluntary discomfort. This involves occasionally forcing oneself to participate in activities they may find uncomfortable, such as taking a cold shower when you prefer them hot, sleeping on the floor instead of your own bed, or eliminating a certain indulgent food for a few days. The aim of this voluntary discomfort is to help shift one’s perspective, so that they may be reminded (or taught) to be thankful for what they already have. This, in turn, can also help you cope more confidently with unexpected situations, by teaching you that although you may enjoy and prefer a life with certain comforts, you are still able to survive without them. 
  • Learn To Manage Your Expectations: Stoicism suggests that having unrealistic expectations can put you at risk of feeling disappointed when the outcome does not match those expectations. Instead, stoics try to expect less from situations that are out of their control, and focus on improving the self without being reliant on outside factors. For example, if your personal measure for whether you deem yourself good at your job or not is only based on your paycheck (and your ability to steadily increase that paycheck within a short span of time), you are more likely to wind up feeling invaluable, unworthy, and pessimistic about your future. After all, although we can strive to meet goals that would theoretically bring about a pay rise – and we may even have agreements put into place for these results – at the end of the day, the final decision does not rest in your hands. That’s not to say you should give up on that raise, if you feel you deserve it – nor is it to say that you shouldn’t ask that person for the reason for their decision, and if there is anything you can do to change it. But instead, it’s about how you measure your own self-worth based on that event. In this case, the only things you can control are your actions of asking how you might change their decision, and the way this situation makes you feel about yourself. A stoic who has managed their expectations will have another way of measuring their self-worth that isn’t tied to their boss’s decision of a raise – how well they get along with their colleagues, or how proud they are of their own work, for instance – and they will also take comfort in knowing that regardless of the outcome, at least they did everything they could, that was in their own power. And that is all they could do. The rest of it? It doesn’t reflect on their abilities, and it will thus not cause you undue pain. Setting goals is an important part of our growth, but it is in these nuances of how we define our success that we can protect our mental health, and our relationship with ourselves and the things around us. Learning how to manage your expectations is a simple way to reclaim your control over your own feelings and reactions in life. 
  • Accepting Things as They Are: When something terrible happens, before interpreting the event, ask yourself: Is the situation in my control? If yes, you might want to focus on what you can do to change the situation. Alas, many bad events tend to be out of our control. In these instances, rewiring how you think will help you stop letting things beyond your control hold you back. This could be anything from bad weather to other people’s opinions or social expectations of you. Stoicism teaches us to view the world as it is, and accept things as they are. Instead of wasting your time and energy, feeling regret or even irritation over such situations, remaining stoic can keep us calm through these challenges. 

Life and time are precious. When it comes to events that cause us great distress, more often than not, when we ask ourselves “Is it worth it?”, the answer may surprise us. By accepting not to fight the things that are out of our control, we can actually gain a greater sense of control over our own fates. And in this way, incorporating more stoicism into your life can help you understand that creating a path towards greater happiness can be in your own hands.

All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Zeno of Citium - World History Encyclopedia; Stoicism and Its Influence on Roman Life and Thought; Stoicism - Lexico; Stoicism - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008); The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis; Matthew Van Natta - Goodreads; The Beginner's Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity; On Taking Responsibility: The Stoics in Exile by Jonas Salzgeber; Eudaimonia - APA PsycNet; Arete: The Meaning of Life; Stoicism - Epictetus' The Dichotomy Of Control; How to Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable?

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