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Stoicism is a moral philosophy that emphasizes the discipline and mastery of the emotions in order to reach a wiser, rational, and peaceful mindset.
However, in popular usage, “stoic” usually refers to a grim-faced, emotionless person — someone who shows neither joy nor pain, is capable of suffering much in silence, and is not very social. But this stereotype partially reflects the original philosophy of stoicism, but it’s much more than that. Stoicism is a way of life first defined in Greece in the 3rd century B.C.E. by the famous philosopher Zeno, although its ideas were hardly new. In fact, some people think it might have been influenced by Greek contact with Indian culture. Stoic philosophers didn’t argue that people should be emotionally flat, rather, they argued that we could train ourselves, through discipline, to have an emotional life that furthered our goals rather than hindering them.
Think of the emotions as wind, and Stoic discipline as a set of strong sails. Without discipline, we will be blown off course and probably wrecked; we will have no way of dealing with the emotional storms that blow in. But with good strong sails, we can harness the wind and make it useful.
The Stoics believed that emotional life could be harnessed for rational, moral ends. We shouldn’t try to kill our emotions, but we shouldn’t be completely at their mercy either.
The Stoics also believed in pantheism, or the view that divinity is everywhere and everything in nature. Rather than believing in a personal God like that of the Jews or Christians, the Stoics believed that the words God, nature, the universe, and everything were synonyms for one glorious whole. The Stoics believed that by mastering our emotions, we gradually bring ourselves more and more into harmony with this whole, and become more and more happy and at peace. These same ideas are also part of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
II. Stoicism vs. Buddhism
In many ways, Stoicism is similar to Buddhism, especially the Mahayana school. They share:
- Emphasis on Discipline. Buddhists and Stoics both believe in disciplining the mind to make themselves wiser, more compassionate, and more emotionally strong. Stoics and Buddhists share practices like meditation, reflecting on nature, and conversation with friends and elders.
- Lack of supernatural powers. Like Stoics, Mahayana Buddhists generally believe in the sacredness of nature and not in supernatural beings like gods and demons. Although there are a lot of images and stories of various gods in Buddhism, they represent psychological forces. In both philosophies, spirituality is about each human being’s relationship to the universe as a whole.
- Controlling, not eliminating, emotion. Buddha taught that extreme pleasure and extreme avoidance of pleasure were both spiritually unhelpful. Instead, he said, we should take pleasure in moderation without becoming controlled by it. He called this philosophy the Middle Way, and its parallels with Stoicism are pretty striking.
- Living simply. Stoics and Buddhists both take a dismissive attitude toward riches and material comforts. They believe that human beings are strongest when their needs are few, and that as we learn to live with less we become more spiritually alive.
All this similarity is no accident. Stoicism originated in Greece after Alexander the Great. It was one of several schools of thought (such as Skepticism and Cynicism, which had meanings different from today) that took inspiration from the writings of Pyrrho, a companion of Alexander the Great during the conqueror’s wars in Persia and India. There, Pyrrho met Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, and was fascinated by them. In particular, he was amazed by the way the Indian mystics seemed to have complete control of their bodies and emotions, and could endure extreme hardship without complaint. Pyrrho brought these ideas and practices back to Greece, where they sparked a new flourishing of philosophical creativity.
III. Quotes About Stoicism
“It is like a bonfire mastering a heap of rubbish, which would have quenched a feeble glow; but the fiery blaze quickly assimilates the load, consumes it, and flames the higher for it.” (Marcus Aurelius)
The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s greatest thinkers, was a dedicated Stoic (see next section). In this passage, he describes the way that Stoics think about adversity. An undisciplined soul may be crushed under the weight of obstacles and pain. But the Stoic’s soul is a powerful fire that overcomes such adversities and turns them into fuel for its own use.
“It is not the man who has little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” (Seneca)
These are the words of a Roman Stoic philosopher, but they could have come straight from the Buddha himself. This short line combines two key aspects of Stoicism and Buddhism: first, that we should master emotions, particularly the emotion of desire, which is the most destructive of all. Second, that there is nothing wrong with a life of simplicity; a wise man with no money is happier and stronger than a rich man with no wisdom.
IV. The History and Importance of Stoicism
As the dominant philosophy of the Roman Empire, Stoicism attracted many historical figures. One was Cato, a Roman Senator and rival of Julius Caesar. During Caesar’s rise to power, Cato argued that the young general was selfish, undisciplined, and wanted to seize all power in Rome for himself, destroying the old representative institutions like the Senate. He also opposed Caesar’s plan to give grain to the poor, a move that Cato saw as a cynical ploy to win the support of the common people. Cato finally lost his political battle and Caesar became Emperor of Rome, but Cato’s strong opposition is admired by many modern historians, even those who think that Caesar’s reforms were ultimately for the best.
Centuries after his death, Cato became the moral hero for another great leader: George Washington. Washington admired Cato’s Stoicism deeply and it became one pillar of his own philosophical and political outlook. When Washington’s troops were camped at Valley Forge (winter 1778), bloody, beaten, fighting off disease and foul weather, Washington staged a play for them, much the way we might show a movie under similar conditions today. The play he chose was Cato: A Tragedy, which dramatized Cato’s life and his conflict with Caesar. For Washington and his troops, Cato’s stand against the rising Emperor paralleled their own struggle against monarchy.
As important as Cato was however, another Roman epitomized Stoic morality even more perfectly–the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the most respected rulers of the ancient world. Marcus Aurelius ruled Rome at the height of its power, but had no interest in riches or fame. He valued knowledge above all else, and spent all his free time studying philosophy in an effort to become a wiser ruler and a better man. He never wrote any great philosophical books, but while at war he kept a diary of his thoughts and reflections. That book, called The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has brought wisdom and inner peace to millions over the years; it expresses the ideas of Stoicism in simple, accessible language.
V. Stoicism in Popular Culture
Tim Duncan, power forward for the San Antonio Spurs, is considered one of the greatest of all time at his position. He’s also famous for never showing emotions on the court: when he’s winning, he doesn’t show excitement; when he’s losing, he doesn’t show frustration. He says this gives him an edge in games since it makes him harder to predict. But Duncan is not emotionless; he simply understands his emotions, allowing him to keep a level head rather than getting swept away by them. He was a psychology major at Wake Forest and Michigan, graduating with honors and even having one of his papers published. This education probably helped him master his emotions.