A brief introduction to Stoicism

When you think of philosophy, do you think of stuffy academics and boring concepts that, for the most part, are of little relevance to your daily life? For a very long time, I was that person too. My eyes glazed over at the thought of philosophy, until, on a friend’s recommendation, I picked up a book called Sophie’s World by Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder — an outline of Western philosophy, set in a fictional story, that goes from pre-Socratic philosophy all the way to Sartre.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”

JOSTEIN GAARDER, SOPHIE’S WORLD

The faculty of wonder…and philosophy? But then, a lot of the ancient philosophers, from Socrates to Seneca were more interested in answering the big questions of life: what is the meaning of life, and what does it take to live a good life? Philosophy wasn’t reserved for the academia, it was a living, breathing thing that took place in the center of the square, on the streets, in the stoas (a covered walkway or portico). Philosophers like Socrates and Zeno of Citium would share their ideas and questions with anyone who would listen, no matter their background.

“[Socrates was] the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and set her in the cities of men and bring her also into their homes and compel her to ask questions about life and morality and things good and evil.”

CICERO

These ancient philosophers focused on the development and personality of the inner life, teaching their students what was worth pursuing and how best to pursue those things.

At the time, schools of philosophy were hugely popular in Greece. They all centered around the big questions: what is the meaning of life, and how should one live life well? Back then, philosophy wasn’t something reserved for academia as it often is these days: these schools literally taught people the art of living well, though they did have different perspectives and solutions.

The Cyrenaics, for example, focused on the experience of pleasure, and advocated taking advantage of every opportunity to experience it. The Cynics were focused on an ascetic lifestyle, saying that to live a good life meant that one must learn to want next to nothing. The Stoics fell between these two philosophies. They thought the meaning of life was to enjoy the good things that life has to offer, including friendship and wealth, but without clinging to them.

The core premise of stoicism is to live in agreement with Nature. And since they often referenced Zeus in their writing, we can safely assume that by Nature they meant God or the Universe. What this means is, at its core, stoicism teaches us that it’s best to align your life with the rhythms of the Universe — or of life — rather than to fight against it. This means accepting that life is chaotic and that bad things DO happen, but that what ultimately matters is how you handle everything that life throws at you.

Stoic philosophy teaches us about cultivating emotional resilience, which is why many of its teachings underpin cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people to identify and change destructive thought patterns that impair their behavior and emotions. By learning to discern what is within your control and what isn’t, stoicism helps you focus your attention and effort on what truly matters.

There are many different stoic practices, which according to William B. Irvine also have parallels in Zen philosophy, that can help you develop a sense of tranquility, moving through your days in a way that is balanced, grounded, peaceful, and joyful.

I will be writing about these practices and about practical philosophy in the coming weeks and months. If this is a subject that interests you, do follow my website or sign up for the Seeds of Wisdom newsletter below.

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