An Introduction to Stoicism

I was first introduced to stoicism back in college.  My medieval history professor made reference to a teacher of Marcus Aurelius who was tortured.  During this torture he was placed on the Roman equivalent of the Rack when he calmly announced to his torturers that his arm was about to break.  This almost super-heroic ability to ignore pain intrigued me.  As with many things from history, though, it seemed as though this was a kind of magic that was as unknowable as it was unattainable.

Years later I met my first Stoic.  My first swordplay instructor once shared stoicism with the class.  A few was us were seriously interested.  For myself I had no idea that Stoics still existed.  He directed us to De Officiis by Marcus Tullius Cicero, which I promptly tracked down and read.  Now I also do my best to be a Stoic myself.  Most people today are confused as to what that means, so I’m going to try for a simple explanation.

I think it’s important to say that I’m not Superman.  I doubt very much that I could ignore the pain of my arm breaking.  As with all things, Stoicism is a journey and a constant effort.  It’s hard and it will never become easy.  Some classical scholars made claims that a person who represented the true Stoic Sage has never existed,  but in my mind that doesn’t make striving towards that ideal any less a worthy goal.

If I were to tell people that I were a Zen Buddhist, then hardly anyone would think that is odd.  Tell them I am a stoic and I might as well be a robot.  It would seem that the two traditions are not at all dissimilar, though.  In Zen doctrine there is the concept of the bodhisattva ideal.  Here, according to wikipedia, are the precepts of this ideal:

  1. Dāna (generosity)
  2. Śīla (morality)
  3. Kṣānti (endurance)
  4. Vīrya (diligence)
  5. Dhyāna (tranquility)
  6. Prajñā (wisdom)

In Stoicism there are four cardinal virtues.  These are:

  1. Prudence
  2. Temperance
  3. Fortitude
  4. Justice

Not so different, are they?  Stoicism teaches us to consider our decisions so as to make wise and prudent choices.  It teaches us to remain calm so as to temper our emotions rationally and take all things in moderation.  Stoicism shows how to persevere and be strong in the face of adversity.  And it tells us to treat others right and do what is just.

Stoicism is about virtue, but it is also about freedom.  A Stoic views true freedom as being about freedom of the mind.  What this means, essentially,  is that ultimately we decide how we process situations.  If something unfortunate happens we can either choose to be upset by it, or we can choose to overcome it.  Invariably we overcome obstacles with a combination of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice.

As with most philosophies, stoicism attempts to teach how to live well.  According to the classical Stoics, a virtuous man is a happy man.  A true Stoic Sage will never be unhappy because the Stoic Virtues are all you ever need.  I once heard someone say that they didn’t think it was actually possible for someone to live as a Stoic, but I must respectfully disagree.  It may not be easy and it most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I personally find it to be a very worthwhile philosophy.

Here’s another perspective:

4 thoughts on “An Introduction to Stoicism

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Simon. I knew very little about the history and beliefs of stoicism. As you mention at the beginning, there are many similarities to buddhism. An apparent major difference is that I was taught to not allow myself to get captured by my thoughts anymore than my feelings. I found this very freeing. I find the idea that I don’t have to believe everything that I feel or think very freeing. Stoicism seems to put much emphasis on “reason”. I have been led down the garden path by “reason” too many times…

  2. I agree with Roselyne that even though some Zen (or more broadly Mahyana) practises resemble those stoic virtues, the guiding principles of intent are different. Stoic philosophers would sigh and shake their heads at Zen’s long tradition of irreverence, absurdist koans, lunatic teachers and drunken holy men.
    Simon is really surfing on a neat tsunami of thought here… Maybe a better roommate for Stoicism would be the monastic tradition of the Theravada.
    I dunno… There is still that difference of basic motivations for virtue in both schools of thought.
    You know, I think Epicureanism might actually have more in common with buddhism. They jive on a live of key foundational concepts.
    I smell a sitcom.
    Big love.

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