introduction to Stoicism

this is a quick introduction to Stoicism, with the hope of convincing the reader that it’s worth looking deeper. here I give a few core tenants of Stoicism, suggest an approach for learning more, and urge the reader to carry on the project themselves.

modern philosophy tends to be esoteric, jargon-filled, and abstracted from the decisions made day in and day out by most people, but Stoicism is a practical philosophy that can be understood and implemented by anyone. all it takes is presence of mind and practice.

what is Stoicism?

there are much more detailed answers that can be given which include the origins of Stoicism, it’s various adherents, and interpreters throughout history. for today, outlining a few of the core beliefs will suffice.

1. the dichotomy of control

there are aspects of the world which an individual has control over, one’s internal states, decisions, opinions, and one’s actions. and there are aspects of the the world which one does not have control over: externals. the weather, other people, the laws of physics, the economy, etc. worrying about those things that are outside of one’s control is pointless. we should concern ourselves only with those things we can control, and do so to the best of our abilities.

a simple example will illustrate the point. getting stuck in traffic is a common occurrence for most. in the moment of waiting, before you can make it to the next exit, before the traffic starts moving again, there is nothing you can do. getting angry, honking the horn, feeling anxiety about the meeting you’re late for, worrying about how much gas is in the tank, all of these emotions are natural to have, and should exist, but the one thing we do control in this situation, ourselves, should be the point of order we set out from.

2. the pursuit of virtue

Stoicism demands the pursuit of virtue, the highest good. the ancient Stoics put forth a list of virtues that summarized the good:

  1. wisdom - right actions/decisions
  2. courage - maintaining right action in the face of uncertainty
  3. temperance - self-discipline, not being ruled by emotions
  4. justice - fairness, righteousness

there are entire books and philosophies around understanding these axiomatic “goods”. it is enough for now to know that these descriptions are indeed not complete, and somewhat circular. this is a feature, not a bug. none of the virtues can be received from an outside source, they must all come from an individual’s voluntary confrontation of the difficulties in the world. unearned wisdom is hearsay.

not every action is virtuous or vicious (vice being the opposite of virtue), these are referred to as indifferents. wealth is a good example. Stoicism does not suggest that wealth in itself is a vice or a virtue. an individual could prefer to have wealth, and work to obtain it, so long as in that process they did not take actions that are vicious in themselves, or fail to strive for virtue. the same is true for dispreferred indifferents, like pain. pain in and of itself is neither a vice nor a virtue. humans will avoid pain, and this is perfectly moral, so long as in doing so one doesn’t act viciously or fail to act virtuously.

how to learn more about Stoicism?

Stoicism has been picking up momentum over the last ten years. analyses of the original works, along with extensions and integrations of newer ideas have all come forward recently. while these works may be worth reading at some point, they are a distraction at first. read the original works for yourself, there are very understandable translations available.

a quick survey of the most popular original works would include:

Meditations is the personal journal of Marcus Aurelius and reads as a collection of aphorisms. it is poetic, but very terse. Letters is a collection of writings from Seneca to others, and tends to be much more approachable than the other works, simply because it has a recognizable structure and is addressed as advice to another person. Epictitus’ works were all written down by attendees of his lectures, and read much more like a well structured series of arguments. depending on one’s disposition, any of these is a good starting point.

Stoicism is just another noun in our pattern language. this particular noun happens to have survived across the centuries, relatively intact. reading the original works puts you in contact with this continuous line of thought. obviously, the age of a philosophy is not a valid argument for its correctness, but merely an indicator of its continued relevance to humanity, that the idea would be carried forward into the future without it dropping between the cracks of civilization, in competition with many other ideas. read deeply, but with skepticism.

what does it mean to be skeptical of a philosophy?

a personal philosophy

reality is a story relayed by the first-person narrator. no one else will ever be more able to understand your experience of reality than you. use your subjectivity to evaluate the philosophies you read about, and collect those that speak to you. there’s no authority to turn to that can relate ideas to your experience of reality any better than you can. skepticism of philosophical ideas in this context means mapping those ideas to predictions about decisions you need to make and running the experiment, either actually or imagined, and see if you like the person that idea turns you into or not.


the quickest way to make a tangible change to your life based on Stoicism is to start a philosophic journal. try this exercise in the evening: set aside 10 minutes to reflect on your day. what did you do well? what would you change about your behavior on that day? how should you strive to be different tomorrow. you will not always succeed, but the act of reflecting on your time, your actions, your values, and putting them to the test, that is the crucible of reality.

if this is the beginning of your project, be patient. you may not find those ideas that change your approach to life right away. if there is something that studying the humanities is about for most people, it is relating their experience of subjectivity to that of others, and understanding them and yourself more. so read fiction, look at art, live philosophy – to be more human.