How Are Stoicism and Existentialism Related?

Both Stoicism and Existentialism have been extremely influential in the history of thought. How are these two philosophies of life interconnected?

Aug 12, 2022By Bojan George, MA Law w/ major in Philosophy
stoicism and existentialism explained

 

Stoicism and Existentialism are becoming increasingly popular in the modern-day and age. Times are more stressful than ever, and people are looking to embrace the teachings of famous philosophers like Aristotle, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or Jean-Paul Sartre. This article focuses on these two philosophies of life, how they overlap, and where they differ.

 

Stoicism and Existentialism: A Shared Idea of Meaninglessness

Arendt Beauvoir Sartre Heidegger
Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger, via the Boston Review.

 

Stoicism is an older philosophy that has been relevant since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Existentialism is far more recent and was a significant cultural movement in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

Stoics and Existentialists agree that meaning in life does not come from the outside; you construct it as a moral agent. Stoicism encourages people to use reason as a tool for a better life, while existentialism encourages individuals to be in charge and make their own decisions in life.

 

Both philosophies are growing in popularity due to current events because they are applicable in the modern era. People realize the importance of making decisions based on their values while trying to make sense of their emotions. Both philosophies offer a way to live instead of just a way to think about the world.

 

Stop Complaining – Change your Perception and Attitude

Jean paul sartre photo
Photograph of Jean Paul Sartre, via Treccani.

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Stoics are known to firmly believe that it is not that things are good or bad, but that thinking makes it so.

 

One of the most famous existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre, writes about overcoming externals in a way that sounds a lot like the Stoic reminder that there’s another perspective we can take when we’re upset:

 

“It is senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are…What happens to me happens through me.”

 

It’s not outside forces that are the real problem, then. It’s our outlook on them that needs to shift.

 

Stoicism reminds us that we shouldn’t stress over things we can’t control while encouraging one to reflect on the four stoic virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) and work towards living one’s life by them.

 

Existentialism encourages one to face life head-on and let go of the notion that there are any predetermined values around which one’s life ought to be led: how we lead our lives is entirely up to us.

 

Both, therefore, are alike in that they have a stated belief that most of life is outside of our control (in existentialist thinking, this is best captured by Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness”) but that we do have a say in how we react to those situations that are outside of our control.

 

The Meaning of Life

Paul Gauguin where do we come
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin, 1897–98, via the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

 

Both Stoics and Existentialists agree that wealth, fame, career, power, and other ‘externals’ have no value. However, they disagree with the reasons for externals’ non-value. And the reason for this is because they fundamentally interpret questions about the meaning of life differently.

 

For existentialists, the question is, what makes life significant? Creating value and meaning. Life contains no ready-made meanings or values. But human beings can create meaning and value through deliberate choice and action.

 

The meaning of life and everything in it is the meaning you construct for it—the meaning you choose. And so, the answer to the meaning of life is for everyone to introspect and create through choice and action. Meaning and value are inherently subjective. Hence, externals have no value unless we choose to impart it upon them in how we structure them into our life projects.

 

The Stoics concerned themselves more with how we can live well. Their answer: By joyfully accepting the world as it is. Unlike existentialism, both the goal and path—virtuous living—are objective: they apply to everyone.

 

The Stoics observed that the world is full of unhappy people with wealth, successful careers, or fame.

 

Worse still, since the causes of externals’ presence or absence ultimately lie outside of the causal power of our will, incorporating them into our life projects risks not only failure but necessarily undermines joyful living: If you insist on pursuing externals “of necessity, you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things and plot against those who have that which is valued by you.”

 

The Problem of Evil

monkeys evil see speak hear
New Year’s Card: Three Monkeys: See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, by Takahashi Haruka, 1931, via the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

 

Another significant difference between these two philosophies is how they react to the problem of evil. Stoicism deals with the problem of evil by claiming that most problems aren’t worth worrying about because they are probably outside our control.

 

Existentialists believe in “radical acceptance,” which deals with the problem of pain by a person accepting a reality that is outside of their control. Existentialists will usually respond that they believe suffering is unavoidable, which is true of any living organism. However, they do not believe suffering is meaningful.

 

Fundamental Truths

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Sartre, De Beauvoir and director Claude Lanzmann dining in Paris, 1964. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis, via the Guardian.

 

Existentialism is fiercely individual. It is up to the individual to decide meaning/value in life. The Stoics believed that there were fundamental truths to the universe (both secular and not) and were concerned about finding them. So, they would debate and try to build consensus when possible.

 

Stoicism and the philosophy of that era were also trying to figure out the science of the universe and, as such, trying to discover the fundamental principles of human nature. As such, one considerable value they held was a duty to society, as they assumed that humans were inherently social creatures (which science has shown to be overwhelmingly true).

 

They tried their best, like modern evolutionary psychologists, to try and understand human nature and do their best to maximize it and work around its shortcomings.

 

Existentialists tend to put more faith in their minds and free will, as they can self-determine what they will about the universe. They tend to think of society in more nihilistic terms. Stoics would think there is an order to how the world turns out.

 

Death and Absurdity

Simone de Beauvoir photo
Simone de Beauvoir at home in 1957. Photograph: Jack Nisberg/Sipa Press/Rex Features, via the Guardian.

 

These philosophies have very different attitudes towards death. The Stoics are very accepting that death is inevitable. Keeping death at the forefront of our minds helps us live better and happier lives. Awareness of our mortality can help us appreciate all the good life has to offer and help us remember to use every moment (Memento mori).

 

Alternatively, Sartre, an existentialist, says we can’t prepare for death and doesn’t see death as a positive event in any light. Death means that we’re no longer free to develop ourselves.

 

Existentialism is based on the absurd and the nature of the human condition. Life is meaningless, and the individual must put meaning into their existence as a free and responsible person. Existence precedes essence.

 

Stoicism does not refer to absurdity; instead, it seeks a form of personal objectivity, a distancing from life’s vicissitudes to maintain psychic balance in the face of all that life can offer while acting a role in society. Such terms as patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, or endurance also come to mind when reflecting on stoicism.

 

Psychotherapy in Stoicism and Existentialism

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Vienna (Freud’s Hat and Cane) by Irene Shwachman, 1971, via the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

 

Stoicism can be recognized in CBT and REBT, which all start with the premise that when we’re upset, it’s because of our perception of things, not the things themselves. Through reality testing and viewing the situation detached, we can be less emotionally affected by our anxiety around events.

 

Existential psychoanalysis takes a different path: Instead of looking at individual daily triggers, existentialists look at that big one: We search for meaning and purpose in life, but the reality must be faced – that there isn’t any. We’ve been thrown here randomly, and it’s up to us to make the best of things.

 

When we recognize the truth of the futility of life yet choose it anyway, and when we see the contradiction between looking for meaning in a world that has none, we have reached the absurd. And that can be a surprisingly delightful place to wander about.

 

Stoicism and Existentialism: Which One Will You Choose?

seneca drawing
A drawing of Seneca, via the Guardian.

 

Whether Stoicism or Existentialism draws you in, there is no right or wrong way to adopt philosophy into your everyday life.

 

Stoicism is rooted in logic and reason and advances the idea that there is a need for non-attachment in life events. They argue that everything is perception; you can choose your reality based on your reactions.

 

Similarly, there is a narrative of non-attachment in existentialism. However, they believe in genuine autonomy and argue that people should be able to react to events in their life however they choose.

 

Stoics believed you should participate in society and be active in your community. There is a greater good, and they argue that putting that greater good first is more important. On the other hand, Existentialists take the view that personal freedom is more important. Your identity and authenticity are within your control, so you should cater to them.

 

Stoicism isn’t about not caring or being numb to what’s happening around you, but it’s about accepting the things – even negative things – that come your way and rationally processing them.

 

Stoicism has the perk of being a lot more accessible. Thousands of years’ worth of literature tells us what Stoicism is and the philosophy behind it. And while existentialism borrows some ideas from Stoicism, it’s more intricate. It has transformed over the years, and people define it differently, so it’s challenging to determine what it truly advocates.

 

It’s up to you to decide which one suits you better.



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By Bojan GeorgeMA Law w/ major in PhilosophyBojan is a writer and researcher based in Skopje, Macedonia. He enjoys reading and is often found hunched over a desk writing. During his bachelor years, he devoured the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Lately, he’s been obsessed with everything related to Stoicism and Moral Philosophy. In his spare time, Bojan loves to practice Brasilian Jiu-Jitsu and read some good sci-fi.