Stoicism is a philosophical school founded in Hellenistic Greece and later embraced in Rome by prominent figures such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
Contrary to the dour and unfeeling modern connotation of the word “stoic,” its original meaning derives from the Greek stoa poikilē, or painted porch: a public place in which prominent Stoics lectured on philosophy for all passersby to enjoy.
One may think of the Stoics as the original self-help gurus. Contrary to the theoretical aims of speculative philosophy, Stoicism has a practical goal: apatheia, or a life free from disturbing passions.
To achieve apatheia, the Stoics bring three disciplines, or topoi, to bear: logic, physics, and ethics. The first two topoi ground the third.
Logic, for its part, distinguishes between correct sense impressions, or catalepsy, which correspond to real objects in the physical world, and incorrect sense impressions, or acatalepsy, which have no basis in external reality but rather stem from a misperception such as a hallucination, dream, or illusion. While the former crystallize understanding, the latter muddle it. Stoicism therefore instructs us to make sure an impression is correct before acting on it.
The role of physics is to understand nature so that we can live in accordance with it. The Stoics have a materialist conception of the universe in that an object must be physical in order to act or be acted upon. This applies both to the passive principle of the universe, matter (the inert “stuff” that is acted upon), and the active principle, logos (eternal reason), which encompasses both the universe itself (as cosmic body) and God (as cosmic animator or soul). The entire world is therefore conceived as a biological entity directing itself toward reason.
This directedness has implications for ethical living. The Stoics assert that since human beings are an extension of the cosmos, they too are directed toward reason. It is therefore a human’s purpose to act rationally in accordance with nature. For the Stoics, this entails 1) advancing our interests, 2) concerning ourselves with the interests of others, and 3) successfully navigating the vicissitudes of life.
The starting point of these endeavors is recognizing what the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus calls “the dichotomy of control.” Put simply, some things are up to us and other aren’t. Recognizing this allows us to calmly accept external events, which are out of our control, and take responsibility for our own actions, which are in our control.
Practicing both acceptance and responsibility requires what the Stoics call “practical wisdom,” or phronesis: the ability to respond appropriately to a given situation. Practical wisdom, along with courage, temperance, and justice constitute the four cardinal virtues, and are, to the Stoics, all that one needs to achieve apatheia (although they do identify “preferred indifferents,” such as health and wealth, as being helpful).
It is important to note that apatheia is freedom specifically from disturbing passions. Stoics recognize that there are both healthy and unhealthy passions. For instance, with regard to desire, there is craving: an unhealthy passion that causes one to irrationally desire that which is not good for them (i.e. vice), and there is willing: a healthy passion that causes one to rationally desire that which is good for them (i.e. virtue). A life of apatheia is therefore not a passionless life but rather a life of properly ordered passions.
Finally, the Stoics acknowledge that while we cannot help which passions arise in us, we can control whether or not we act on them. Marcus Aurelius called this ability “the ruling faculty.” With it, one can achieve self-mastery, apatheia, and ultimately, a prosperous life.