Trends may come and go but the core of human nature and needs never changes. The ancient and powerful philosophy of Stoicism provides some simple principles that are timeless and can help you find true meaning, happiness, success, peace of mind and your place in the world.
In the first of this two-part series, we’ll introduce you to Stoicism and its core principles to inform your thinking and outlook on life.
The origins of Stoicism date back more than 2000 years ago, in the early 3rd century BC, to the ancient Greek city of Athens. Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium. The beginnings of Stoic philosophy were largely drawn from the teachings of the philosopher Heraclitus, but also strongly influenced by specific teachings of Socrates.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
– Marcus Aurelius
As a philosophy, Stoicism is predominantly based upon personal ethics that are informed by a system of logic and views on the natural world.
Stoics believe that humans are social beings, and as such, the best path for happiness is found when one accepts the moment as it presents itself. In living in the moment, a Stoic doesn’t allow themselves to be motivated or controlled by the desire for pleasure or a fear of pain. Instead, Stoic strive to understand the world around them and do their part in the overall plan of nature. They believe humans should aim to maintain a strong will (called prohairesis) that is “in accord with nature.” Thus, how we behave is what’s important, not what we say.
“A man who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.”
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Stoics teach that “virtue is the only good” for human beings. They believe in humans working cooperatively while treating one another fair and justly.
Stoics believe that things that are external to us – such as health, wealth or pleasure – in themselves, are not good or bad, but their only value comes by way of “material for virtue to act upon.” They believe that destructive emotions come from errors in judgment, largely driven by reckless, overindulgent and wanton desires, that ultimately lead to suffering when left unchecked.
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.”
The Stoics followed what they called the three topoi: Logic, physics and ethics.
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”
Logic is the tool that allows a human to engage in philosophy and contemplate life’s important questions. It is the foundation upon which all understanding is built. Logic is to be free of emotion and bias in order for an accurate perception of truth. The more someone improve the purity of their logic, the better they can find answers and truth.
“Physics” for the Stoics is not how we think of them today, especially given that much of our present knowledge in the field didn’t exist yet. For the Stoics, physics was a broader term. It did include mathematical principles and astronomy, but it also included biology and sociology. Essentially, physics to the Stoic sought to understand the mechanical aspects of life and all questions of existence.
This was focused on human behavior, and looked at the role of emotions and desires. This was broken down into two main components: The meaning of life and the meaning of self. One first uses the topos of logic to find the right tools to seek answers through physics and ethics. Next, you use physics to understand how the world works and make sense of life. Then, you apply these two to establish the proper behavior considering the truth of logic and physics.
“Human behavior flows from three main sources: Desire, emotion, and knowledge.”
The Stoics believed in three core disciplines: Desire, action and assent (or acceptance).
“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.”
Stoics believe that nature operates upon a higher set of laws that allows it to create a state of balance and level of harmony, one that humanity frequently falls short of. They believe that undisciplined desire is the factor that keeps human beings from achieving the same balance. Understanding the balance and harmony of nature, humans can control their desires in order to shape them to follow the natural model.
Ethics were employed to determine how a person should behave in order to keep in balance and harmony with one’s natural environment. Stoics defined which actions were proper and which were not. There were four key virtues: Wisdom, justice, temperance and courage. Following these ideals, a person’s actions should always be in harmony with their surroundings or environment, not just natural, but social as well.
This is equivalent to acceptance, by way of logic. In short, Stoics use this discipline to recognize what was within their control and what was beyond it. They recognize that suffering was often brought about by trying to control what one cannot, while also ignoring what one could control. This understanding allows one to act on logic instead of emotions or greed. The individual can then make decisions that prompt actions that are reasonable and beneficial. By mastering this discipline, a person could make the right choice every time.
In part two, will look at the four cardinal virtues that makeup the core Stoic mindset and practices, as well as, how the Stoic version of apathy can help you control your emotions and behaviors to make the right decisions each and every time that are beneficial to your life.