On Stoicism

Modern applications

If a man does not know to what port he is sailing, no wind is favorable  –Seneca

The goal of a good life, according to most Hellenistic philosophies was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a good soul, a flourishing life, or well-being. The ancient philosopher Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, defined it as a good flow of life, a life lived in according with Nature. 

The Stoics believed that an act is good or bad depending on whether it contributes to or deters one from a proper human end—the telos or final goal at which all human actions aim. 

The central idea in Stoic philosophy, but also an essential characteristic of ancient Greek culture, was Areté. The English word “Virtue” does not offer an exact equivalent for Areté, which is a combination of excellence, moral character and integrity. This notion of excellence was ultimately bound to the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential. Areté was the most valuable possession, the guiding-compass to a good life. The Stoics believed that one could only control their reactions to things and that an aim toward excellence was the best way to pursue a good life.


Logic, physics, and ethics are the three pillars of Stoic philosophy.

The Stoics compared philosophy to an orchard; Logic the fence, the trees and ground Physics, and Ethics the fruit - the most important part. Although studied separately, they work as a in symphony.

From Physics one learns how Nature works, which helps us face reality with courage and acceptance of the Natural order. Amor Fati. The Discipline of Desire, or desiring that things happen as they must, accepting the laws of Nature with fortitude is a virtue.

Thought is the fountain of speech -Chrysippus (280 BC – 207 BC)

All knowledge enters the mind through the senses, and is constantly bombarded with impressions (phantasiai). It is up to us to ascend or not to allow those impressions to influence us, we should not give credit to everything that is perceived or appears in our mind. The aim of Logic is to help us assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgment when it is not possible to assent nor dissent. Therefore, Logic has to do with our ability to process the impressions, and translate them into sentences that are accurate and connected to reality. One should study Logic in order to develop the ability to use reason and make decisions (Prohairesis).  

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. - Marcus Aurelius. Meditations

The Stoics defined the goal in life as living in agreement with Nature. But their maxim “live according to Nature” meant living according to the facts, to adjust inner Logos (reason) to the cosmic Logos.

The Stoic system of physics was a dynamic materialism. They followed the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, who propounded that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic material of the world.  They held that only matter existed, but immanent in the material universe was the Logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things, which acted through matter like and organizing principle. The Logos was described also as a Creative Fire, the origin and the end of the universe, which they believed was a dynamic, cyclical and eternal living entity. 

The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul - Chrysippus.

They were what we today call “pantheist”; God, the Cosmos and Nature, were the same thing. The study of Physics included natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology and it was meant to teach the student his place in the Cosmos, understanding the facts of life, such as the changing and impermanent nature of existence.


Ethics comes from Ethos “habit”, “custom”,”character”, and it was the final and most important part of Stoic philosophy. The goal of the previous studies of Logic and Physics were to prepare the student for the formation of his character. 

The Stoics believed that there is only one good; Virtue, which was based on knowledge, and one evil; Vice, which was based on ignorance. All the rest, wealth, health, reputation, external objects, were regarded as neutral or, as they said “indifferent”, they had no value in themselves. That radical view attracted criticism from the very beginning. How to be indifferent to such things as love, health or family?

Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent. - Epictetus. Discourses II, 5.1


Only Areté, they declared, is a true possession, and would be good to have under any circumstances.

Although Areté was one, it was traditionally separated into four parts: Practical Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Courage or Fortitude. Practiced separately, they are in reality totally interwoven, and the manifestation of  human Knowledge facing different challenges:

  • Practical WISDOM (Phronêsis) also described as prudence, the ability to judge and discern when and how to act. Wisdom was subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, cunning, discretion, and resourcefulness.

  • JUSTICE (Dikaiosyne) Wisdom in the face of injustice. The habit of rendering the other’s rights. Justice is subdivided into piety, honesty, equity, and fair dealing.

  • COURAGE (Andreia)  Also called Fortitude, Wisdom in the face of danger or pain, fear or moderation of rash behavior in the face of danger, pain or difficulty. Courage was subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness.

  • TEMPERANCE (Sophrosyne) Wisdom in the face of excess, also moderation.  Sophrosyne comes from the adjective saos “safe” and phron “mind”. It describes a mind which is well centered and thoughtful, balanced and poised for intelligent judgments. Temperance was subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control.

We cannot have Areté if we don’t have the other four virtues. 


The theoretical study of the threefold division of philosophy, Logic, Physics and Ethics, had an outward expression in a threefold practice or set of disciplines:

The Discipline of Assent, making a proper use of impressions and judgements.

The Discipline of Desire, harmonizing our will and desires with the course of Nature.

The Discipline of Action, the right actions seeking the common good.

The discipline of ASSENT  (Sunkatathesis).

  • The ability to assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgment (epoché) toward uncertain ones. Concerned with how we should judge our impressions so as not to be carried away by them into anxiety or disturbing emotions.

Epictetus calls eph’ hêmin, up to us, what is in our power, the correct use of impressions.

Make it your study then to confront every harsh impression with the words, ‘You are but an impression, and not at all what you seem to be’. Then test it by those rules that you possess; and first by this–the chief test of all–’Is it concerned with what is in our power or with what is not in our power?’ And if it is concerned with what is not in our power, be ready with the answer that it is nothing to you. (Handbook 1.5, trans. Matheson)

The discipline of Assent was the base of Prohairesis or willpower, reasoned choice, giving or withholding assent to impressions.

PROSOCHÉ

The practice of attention, also mindfulness. Observing our sensations, emotions and thoughts, focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, learning to maintain tranquility (Ataraxia) and peace of mind in any given situation. It is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. This presence of mind and vigilance is a very important part of the Stoic practice. If we are able to observe our anger growing inside us, we are one step closer to be able to put it in its right place, that in many cases is a misunderstanding of the real situation, or in any case, an impediment for taking a right decision and action.

The discipline of DESIRE (orexis) 

  • The first discipline concerns with desires and aversions. Most of human suffering and anxiety have to do with desiring things that lay outside our control, like wanting to change the past, or that are unnatural, like wanting to be young forever. 

  • The Discipline of Desire is the exercise of living in harmony with the laws of Nature. Practicing resilience and acceptance as exercises, or Askesis, and making use of the virtue of Courage when the situation requires it. This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward our destiny.

But how can this help us live better? For example, if you fall ill, or suffer an accident, you are in the domain of Physics. To overcome the ordeal you need Courage and Temperance. You can moan and cry or you can take it as a training or exercise (Askesis). Going through it with the proper attitude improves your character. According to the Stoics, spending some time ill in bed or breaking a bone, has much less value than the opportunity of building a strong character and practicing one of the Cardinal Virtues.

A wise person would seek to harmonize his inner Logos, with the greater cosmic Logos, just like a musician attune her instrument to the symphony orchestra. Hence, a Sage would consider the facts of life, such as aging and dying, without affliction nor attachment, just as naturally as one who goes to sleep after a hard day of work.

Of these [three areas of study], the principle, and most urgent, is that which has to do with the passions; for these are produced in no other way than by the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason. - Epictetus (Discourses 3.2.3, trans. Hard)

When I see a man anxious, I say, What does this man want? If he did not want some thing which is not in his power, how could he be anxious?’ (Discourses 2.13.1, trans. Long).

ASKESIS

  • Exercise, preparation for a test, disciplined training, designed to achieve virtue. A term coming from athletics, the Stoics used it in a philosophical context. A preparation for the hardships of life, a stoic student (prokopton) would practice voluntary discomfort and abstinence as training. It was common that young students would sleep on the ground, walk barefoot, eat frugally or fast, in order to train mind and body. Nevertheless, everyday life’s difficulties and hardships are also subjects of practice. Epictetus said difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced. Every obstacle can be transformed into a good subject of training.

The discipline of ACTION (hormê) 

  • It is the practice concerned with our ‘impulses to act and not to act’, that is, our motivations, and goals. The Appropriate Actions (Kathēkonta) and duties. The discipline has to develop the skill to do the right action (Kathekon), at the right time (Kairós), for the right reason (Orthos logos). 

  • Hormé was the Greek goddess personifying energetic activity, impulse or effort (to do a thing), eagerness, setting oneself in motion, and starting an action. But the outcome of our actions is not wholly in our power, only our inclination is in our power.

  • The Stoics use the analogy of sailor setting out a journey. The sailor wants to arrive to his homeland, that is his aim, but he has no control over the elements, the winds and the sea are not in his power, only his attitude and his skills to adjust the sails adapting to the changing conditions, keeping his course, remaining calm when a storm hits. It is the inner battle what is to be won, since the external battle is not up to us.

OIKEIOSIS

  • Appropriation, familiarization, affinity, affiliation, sense of belonging. The opposite of oikeiôsis is allotriôsis, which translates as “alienation.”

  • Stoics saw humanity as a single community, in which all humans were relatives, and citizens of the cosmos (Cosmopolis).

To understand that doctrine, picture a series of concentric circles, beginning with our Self, then our family, friends, community, country and eventually the entire human race. Then we should contract the circles, to reduce the distance between them as much as possible, so caring for our relatives as for ourselves, our friends as our relatives, our community as our friends, and so on, till we see all mankind as our countrymen. Stoics saw the world as a single community, in which all humans are relatives, and are here to work together (sunergia). We find more meaning in our lives when we overcome our small self, and let our actions be guided towards something higher, like the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the ignorance and alienation of infancy and adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, wisdom and human flourishing of maturity.

PROHAIRESIS 

  • Our faculty for judgment, volition, and choice, our ability  for giving or withholding assent to impressions. Essential for the formation if a ‘moral character’; the capacity that rational beings have for making choices and intending the outcomes of their actions. Epictetus used the term hêgemonikon ‘commanding faculty’ of the soul (psuchê) which in greek meant our very being, the centre of consciousness.

  • “That only what is beautiful is good” (Oti monon to kalon agathon) There are many things that are beautiful, but don’t necessarily have to be good. We don’t see anything good in, for example, a weapon, although it can be aesthetically beautiful. The key is in the word Kalon which meant both beautiful and noble.

  • LOGOS. Meaning, Reason. An artistic fire, the Cosmic active principle that creates as it expands pervading inert matter, the passive principle, and defining existence as an evolving, dynamic process.

  •  “That which is in opposition is in concert, from things that differ comes the most beautiful harmony.” “They do not understand how that which differs with itself is in agreement: harmony consists of opposing tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.” Heraclitus. 

  • Everything we create has four fundamental functions: Practical, Aesthetic, Symbolic, and Ethical.

Stoic writings are not arcane arguments for the overly disciplined or the intelligentsia—they are cognitive exercises proven to center practitioners. To humble them. To keep them sovereign.

One can be a Stoic and also play around and have a happy life surrounded by what’s valuable. In fact, that’s the ultimate goal. Ones aim to lead a happy life, a life filled with flourishing is guided by the daily discipline one practices. This is not intended to lead to a joyless life, rather it is intended to embolden one to be able to thrive no matter the external environment. In a world enslaved by abundance, one that is able to live according to ancient principles of discipline and prudence is in a position of power.