What is Stoicism? Explained in 3 Beliefs

Stoicism is a philosophy that began in Ancient Greece and still has followers today. It is a way of life that has moral excellence as its ultimate goal.

May 9, 2023By John Garrett, MA Philosophy

zeno of citium socrates what is stoicism


Stoicism is often portrayed as harsh and pitiless. Yet its devotees insist that Stoicism is a liberating, joyous way of life. Founded by Zeno of Citium (Athens, 344–262 BC), Stoicism is a philosophy that has many adherents even today. The stoics of ancient Greece considered themselves to be the heirs of Socratic moral philosophy and the natural philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Stoicism has had a lasting impact on the history of thought. It influenced the development of Christian morality and theology, and also modern philosophy. Stoicism can be epitomized by three essential beliefs: (1) that virtue is sufficient for happiness, (2) that other so-called goods should be regarded with indifference, and (3) that the world is providentially ordered by God.


Moral Excellence in Stoicism: Virtue and Eudaimonia

Zeno of Citium, photo by Paolo Monti, 1969, via Wikimedia Commons;


The Stoics’ greatest legacy is their ethics. Like most other schools of Ancient Philosophy, the Stoics think that the goal of ethics is eudaimonia. This Greek word has no direct English translation. It is often rendered as ‘happiness’, but eudaimonia doesn’t just describe a pleasant mood; it has a much more robust sense to it. Eudaimonia may be better translated as “human flourishing.” A life is eudaimonic when it has exhausted its potential for excellence and measured up to the dignity appropriate to a human being.


The Stoics were in agreement with Aristotle’s moral philosophy to a certain degree. Aristotle defined eudaimonia as “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a17). It is important to note here that for Aristotle, eudaimonia and virtue are linked. The Greek word for virtue is arete. This word is not narrowly moral, but denotes any kind of excellence; for Aristotle, it is a quality that makes something good at doing what it does or being what it is. For instance, a good knife is a sharp knife. Therefore, one of the “virtues” of a knife is its sharpness.


Aristotele Filosofo by Giuseppe Bortignoni, ca. 1793-1860, via The British Museum


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For humans, virtue or arete is a state of character that makes humans good at being humans. Aristotle says that humans are rational and social animals (NE 1097b10, 1098a1-5). Thus, our virtues are qualities that allow us to succeed in acting rationally and cooperating socially. The list of virtues often varied from school to school and philosopher to philosopher, but most schools of ancient thought agreed on four cardinal virtues. These were prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. These states of character are what allow us to act as rational and social beings.


Stoic Philosophy & Aristotelian Ethics

Zeno, 1739, via The British Museum


Stoic ethics distinguishes itself from Aristotelian ethics with one significant difference. The Stoic Philosophy believes that virtue is sufficient for eudaimonia. In other words, virtue is all that is needed for it. Aristotle thought that virtue was necessary for eudaimonia, but not sufficient, or not merely enough on its own — more was still needed. For Aristotle, a eudaimonic life requires, apart from virtue, some good luck. To live well, one needs essential goods like shelter, good health, friendship, and wisdom. A virtuous person could be the victim of a tragedy that leaves him ill, homeless, or alone, and so despite his good character, his life would not have gone well; he had failed to attain eudaimonia.


The Stoics disagree here. Looking back to Socrates and the Socratic school of Cynicism, ancient Stoicism claims that all that is necessary to live a good life is being virtuous. All other so-called goods should be regarded with indifference. Even if the virtuous sage suffers multiple tragedies, or even endures intense physical torture, he still has a chance at eudaimonia because these external things need not corrupt his virtuous character. Once you have become virtuous, nothing can ruin your life. In Stoic logic, virtue is the limit of happiness.


The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In several of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says many things to this effect. For instance, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates says to his jury, “I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disenfranchise me, which he [Meletus] and maybe others think to be a great harm, but I do not think so”.


Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius by Marco Dente, 1515-27, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Socrates’ words have been drawn upon by many Stoics. Rome’s Stoic Epictetus liked to paraphrase it as “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but not harm me.” Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, asks, “How can that which does not make a man worse, make the life of a man worse?” The obvious Stoic answer: it can’t. Only virtue is good, and vice is bad, and everything else is indifferent.


The Attitude of the Stoics: Indifference

Chrysippus, ca. 3rd century BC, via The British Museum


It is the doctrine of indifference that is probably responsible for Stoicism’s reputation as harsh and pitiless. If only virtue is good, that means that health, pleasure, and even the welfare of our loved ones should be regarded with indifference. Yet Stoic indifference to external things is more complex than it seems. Although the ancient Cynics influenced the Stoic doctrine of virtue — Zeno even studied under Crates the Cynic before founding his own school — the Stoic doctrine is distinct from the Cynic doctrine.


The Cynics thought that only virtue was good, and all other so-called goods ought to be scorned and actively avoided. The best life was a rigidly austere life of poverty and extreme asceticism. Stoicism, on the other hand, says that we should not scorn externals, but regard them with indifference. The demands of virtue still require that we take care of ourselves and others, and the Stoics believe that such things can be choice-worthy without also being taken as ultimate ends.


Alexander the Great Meeting Diogenes, ca. 1580-1650, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


I think that this is best illustrated by the “archer metaphor.” This was a favorite metaphor of many Stoics. A good archer does all that he can to hit his target. But once he lets go of the bowstring, it is no longer in his power to ensure that the arrow hits the target. A sudden gust of wind could blow the arrow off its course, or something could intercept the arrow before it hits the target. Nevertheless, the archer is a good archer, because he did everything in his power to hit the target. If being a good archer is defined by one’s success at hitting the target, then whoever is good or bad is left up to chance. External factors which the archer has no control over can thwart his goal.


The Stoics think that one should not be blamed for things outside one’s control. Therefore, although a good archer aims at the target, the target is not his goal. It is not hitting the target that makes an archer a good archer, but merely doing all that he can to be a good archer. And this means he must try his best to hit the target while regarding hitting the target as indifferent to his ultimate goal. The Stoics suggest that we should have the same attitude towards our aims in life. Only our own actions and attitudes are within our power. And if you regard externals that are outside of your control as essential to happiness, you surrender responsibility for your own happiness to chance. The Stoics think this would be gravely mistaken. They think it is preposterous for our ultimate good not to be up to us.


Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man, by Giovanni Benedetto, ca. 1645-1647, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


But why not just accept the grim possibility that the world is not set up with our welfare in mind? It seems plausible, as Aristotle thinks, that the good life requires some good luck. The Stoics refuse to accept this, because they believe that the world is providentially ordered by God to be as good as possible.


God, Fate, and Freedom: The Stoics on Providence

Marcus Aurelius, ca. 160-170, via The British Museum


The ancient Stoics are pantheists. They believe that the cosmos is identical with God. Therefore, everything in the universe such as stones, trees, animals, humans, etc. are all parts of God. But one might ask, if God is just identical to Nature, how is this position any different from atheism? Why not instead just call Nature Nature, and leave God out of it?


In the modern era, Baruch Spinoza also identified God with Nature, and his contemporaries accused him of atheism. Stoics would insist that the cosmos can rightly be called God because, according to them, the cosmos is intelligent. To be more precise, the Stoics identify God as a universal mind or reason present in all things, and the physical cosmos is God’s body. Yet the Stoics claim to be materialists. Even the soul and the universal mind is present in all things made of matter, although of a rarified and nobler kind of matter.


The Stoics believe that the laws of nature are good evidence that the world was designed with purpose, and claim that humans’ ability to reason suggests that we are created by something that also possesses reason. Cicero, in his work On the Nature of the Gods, attributes the following argument to Zeno. “Nothing without a share in mind and reason can give birth to one who is animate and rational. But the world gives birth to those who are animate and rational. Therefore the world is animate and rational” (2.22).


Heraclitus, 1692, via The British Museum


The Stoics follow the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus in claiming that the world is organized by reason, or logos in Greek. Heraclitus said, “all things come to pass in accordance with this Word [logos]” (Fragment 2). Logos has many meanings; it can mean “reason,” “argument,” even “speech” or “word.” Classicist G.M.A. Grube (1983) claims that the Stoic conception of logos likely influenced the author of the Gospel of John, which begins, “In the beginning there was the Word [logos], and the logos was with God, and the logos was God” (John 1:1).


Yet, unlike the God of the Abrahamic traditions, the Stoic God is not omnipotent. His power is limited by natural and logical possibility. These limitations, at least in part, explain why there is evil in the world. The Stoic Chrysippus, one of Zeno’s immediate successors, taught that the existence of good and evil were interdependent. It is logically impossible for good to exist without evil, so God designed a world that makes the best of this situation. Thus, evil may exist at the local level, but it is exploited by God to perfect the whole (Copleston 1993).


Chrysippus, ca. 1st century A.D., via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Once again, following Heraclitus, the Stoics believe that reality is in flux. Everything is constantly changing. Heraclitus most often likened this state of flux to fire, saying, “[the world] was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out” (Fragment 20). And to the Stoics, this all unfolds according to the rational plan of God. Thus, the Stoics are strict determinists. Time unfolds exactly according to God’s plan, and the history of the cosmos repeats eternally. Everything began in a conglomeration of fire, everything will collapse back into it, and then the cosmos will begin again unfolding exactly as it always has. There is no reason for future world cycles to change because God’s plan for the cosmos is as good as it could possibly be. Despite believing in a deterministic universe, the Stoics did not deny human freedom.


According to O’Keefe, they are compatibilists, believing that fate and free-will are compatible. The Stoics claim that your decisions and attitudes are up to you because they are your choices. It is with your intellect and self-discipline, that you decide to do what you do. You are not constrained from doing anything against your will, which is consistent with causal determinism. And because everything unfolds according to God’s plan, you should love your fate.


The Legacy of Stoicism

Seneca, ca. 1592-1640, by Peter Paul Rubens, via The British Museum


Stoicism has had an immense impact on the history of thought. Their ethics and theology influenced the development of Christianity, while the Stoic’s legacy extends to the modern era as well, setting precedents for certain elements in the philosophy of Kant and Spinoza.


Today, there has been a surge of popular interest in younger, future Stoic Philosophers. Much recent self-help literature looks to the Stoics for inspiration, and organizations like Modern Stoicism host international events like Stoicon and Live Like a Stoic Week to promote Stoicism as an attractive way of life. We can reasonably expect Stoicism’s legacy to survive long into the future.

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By John GarrettMA PhilosophyJohn is an MA student in Philosophy at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. His primary research interest is in ancient philosophy, with secondary interests in modern philosophy and the philosophy of religion. He also enjoys writing, reading the classics, and film.