How Does Stoicism Differ from Other Philosophies?

Some of the intricacies of Stoicism can’t be seen at the surface level.

Dec 15, 2023By Brian Daly, BA Philosophy, BA English
stoicism differ from philosophies cimerlino aviary
Detail from The Aviary of Death, by Giovanni Paolo Cimerlino, 1560. Source: The British Museum


Stoicism was one of the schools of thought that grew out of Socratic philosophy and spread through ancient Greece and Rome. While its most significant contributions to Western thought are in its practical philosophy, the Stoics relied on other philosophical arguments to legitimize their perspective. Looking at Stoicism as a comprehensive worldview reveals some of the larger questions in philosophy with which it grapples, and how its approaches distinguish it from other movements in the Western tradition.


The Origins of Stoicism

Restored perspective of the west end of the Stoa Poikile, ca. 400 B.C. Source: American School of Classical Studies at Athens


Looking at Stoicism in its entirety, it’s a much more unwieldy and all-encompassing school of thought than most people think. Stoicism dates to the 3rd century BC, starting with Zeno of Citium’s lectures at the Stoa Poikile or painted porch in Athens. His followers continued to philosophize after his death and dozens of Stoic scholars wrote and built upon the ideas of their predecessors well into the 3rd century CE. Most of this work only survives in fragments, so a complete picture of Stoicism is more like a mosaic of how its proponents described and responded to each other’s ideas.


Stoicism Is a Tripartite Structured Philosophy

Zeno of Citium (334 – c. 262 BC), the founder of Stoicism. Source: Wikimedia commons.


The Stoics understood philosophy as a discipline composed of three parts: physics, logic, and ethics. Still, these distinct parts were seen as inseparable from each other. One of the metaphors they used to describe this composite structure of philosophy was an egg; logic is the shell, ethics is the white, and physics is the yolk. This is much different from how the scope of philosophy is viewed today, but this tripartite structure was essential because all three elements were necessary for discovering eternal truth.


Living in Accord with Nature

A Shepherdess with Her Flock, by Jean-François Millet, 1852. Source: The Met Museum


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One of the most important concepts for understanding Stoic ethics is man’s relationship to nature. The Stoics viewed the natural world based on its constituent parts as well as these parts in aggregate. Their hierarchical organization natural beings—plants beneath animals, animals beneath humans, and humans beneath the cosmos—did not invalidate their conception of the cosmos as the supreme, self-contained sum of all nature. The Stoics noticed that the elements of the cosmos were consistent and rationally organized, and that the perfect reason evident in the cosmos trickled down to all other natural beings to varying degrees. Living in accord with nature then means living with the fullest appreciation and utilization of one’s inner reason.


The Existence of God

Photo by Greg Rakozy. Source: Unsplash.


Some Stoic texts will refer to the cosmos as the gods, but both terms are interchangeable insofar as they refer to a substance existing within us and all other beings. This is very different from the Christian understanding of God as separate from nature, which became the popular conception in Western thought after antiquity. Man’s reason, or inner divinity, was also seen as something that separates man from nature. Both Stoicism and Christianity, however, use their metaphysical perspectives to ground moral authority over human action.


There are some exceptions in the canon of Western philosophy to this idea, namely in Spinoza’s Ethics and Hegel’s theory of absolute idealism. But by the time Nietzsche’s work gains prominence for declaring the death of God and criticizing the tradition of Western morality, he dislodges mankind from their position above nature, also revealing the absence of an objective moral order.


Fate and the Importance of Action

The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, by Giorgio Ghisi, 1558. Source: The Met Museum


Most people will immediately associate Stoic philosophy with the precepts that one is only in control of their actions and reactions to their world, but this wasn’t always so clear-cut. Greek Stoics during the Early Stoa wrestled with an argument first stating that every past event was true and possible, and nothing impossible could follow from such. This prompted the question: can our actions manifest possibilities, or is every outcome that does not happen necessarily impossible?


Chrysippus offered an explanation to try and reconcile these two possibilities, using the metaphor of a cylinder to explain that even though it rolls because it was acted upon by an outside force, its assent or manner of rolling is self-possessed based on its cylindricalness. This, however, fails to resolve the dilemma because it fails to show that any qualities that influence the behavior of a being are self-determined.


The Intent to Live Virtuously

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1818. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany


As Stoicism made it over to the Roman Empire during the Late Stoa, its teachings put a greater emphasis on the importance of human action over the power of fate. This is written succinctly in Epictetus’s Discourses when he states that since people do not have foreknowledge of what will happen in the future, “…it is appropriate for us to cling to what is better suited for selection, since we are born for this.” Here we see the emphasis of living in pursuit of the highest good, i.e., virtue.


Besides being the good which we are naturally designed to seek, the Stoics saw that unlike pleasure, virtue is the only good that is righteous to pursue regardless of the outcome. It isn’t virtue itself, but rather the intent to live virtuously, which makes life meaningful. These ideas of virtuous action and nature seem to echo the problem of free will versus determinism, but the Stoics approach toward the problem is rather ambivalent.

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By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.