A Flummox of Philosophers: #5 The Stoics

Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus: it sounds like the legendary forward line of Best, Law, Charlton from the 1960s Manchester United team, or if you are American …. Montana, Rice, Craig! These sporting trios inspired, excited, and set standards that others could aspire to, and it’s the same with these three Stoic philosophers. To this day they have inspired business people, sportsmen and women, artists, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and ordinary people like you and me. Their philosophy was a reaction to the previous thinking of the Cynics as typified by Diogenes.

“Diogenes had an uncompromising philosophy requiring one to abandon all property, possessions, family ties and social values in order to minimise the distraction of ‘illusory’ emotional and psychological attachments. But to avoid such distractions was not enough. One must aggressively attack society to help liberate others, and purposefully open oneself up to ridicule and abuse in order to remain emotionally detached.”

Is it any wonder that Plato branded Diogenes and his Cynic philosophy as “Socrates gone mad”!

So, Stoicism was an antidote to the Cynics, a school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. Its name is derived from the Greek stoa, meaning porch, because that’s where Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, first taught his students. The philosophy asserts that virtue (meaning, the four cardinal virtues of self-control, courage, justice, and wisdom) is happiness, and it is our perceptions of things—rather than the things themselves—that cause most of our trouble. Stoicism teaches that we can’t control or rely on anything outside what Epictetus called our “reasoned choice”—our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorise, respond, and reorient ourselves to external events.

 Epictetus and Seneca focused on a series of questions not unlike the ones we continue to ask ourselves today: “What is the best way to live?” “What do I do about my anger?” “What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?” “I’m afraid to die; why is that?” “How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?” “How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

In more general terms the Stoics raised questions about and discussed the issues of virtue, mortality, emotions, self-awareness, fortitude, right action, problem solving, acceptance, mental clarity, pragmatism, unbiased thought, and duty. They were pioneers of the morning and nightly rituals: preparation in the morning, reflection in the evening.

From these questions the critical disciplines of Stoicism were born: The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us) The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end) The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

The adjective, “stoic,” was derived from the practices of a Stoic, and it has grown to refer to a person who is balanced and measured in his or her response. Any understanding of a person who is stoic that includes this characterisation of being obtuse, void of empathy and lacking in compassion, is false and severely misguided.

Stoics are more positive than negative in their thinking, just like Oddball in the movie Kelly’s Heroes. You might like to watch this, it’s very funny as Oddball (the tank commander) constantly wrestles with the pessimism of his sidekick Moriarty.

Negative thinking even leads people to be abusive, as many users of Twitter have discovered when expressing a particular view that can lead to a torrent of abuse from people with searing negative thoughts on what you have written! These people are not Stoics. But Oddball is!

Finally, I encourage you to read this article on How To Be a Stoic describing one particular successful business woman, Susan Fowler. It’s an article from a fantastic website about Stoicism and a great resource if you are interested in this particular philosophy.


Categories: Philosophy

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7 replies

  1. I often wonder about being afraid to die, its not as if we are going to know anything about it! I worry about family left behind and whether they are properly provided for. What about you?

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    • The Buddhist in me doesn’t fear death, the Stoic in me tries not to be concerned about things I can’t control. To be extremely personal, the memory of watching my 22 years old son deal with it 20 years ago shames any hints of fear in me. My family are exceptionally well provided for, so no worries there, though my daughter is already well set career wise and property wise.


  2. Stoicism is the best! Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

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