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Great Stoics from our Greek and Roman History

The Stoics were students of a school of philosophy that believed in living in harmony with the universe. They believed in accepting what is unfavorable and making the most of what is favorable. The Stoics believed in using reason and logic to make decisions. They believed in self-control, living under nature, and making reasonable decisions. The core principles of stoicism are

  • Accepting what is unfavorable and making the most of what is favorable
  • Using reason and logic to make decisions
  • Self-control
  • Living by nature and virtue
  • Making reasonable decisions

The Stoics were a school of thought that flourished during the Hellenistic period. The name comes from the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch,” in Athens, where the founding Stoic philosophers Zeno of Citium and Cleanthes of Assos taught their philosophy.   While there are many interpretations of Stoicism, the core tenets of the philosophy are that one should live following nature and reason, maintain a sense of detachment from the external world, and exercise self-control and fortitude.

“Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power” – James Allen

The Stoics believed adhering to these principles could attain eudaimonia, or “human flourishing.” The Stoics significantly impacted the development of Western thought, and many notable figures throughout history have invoked their ideas. Virtue is the driving force of Stoicism, consisting of 4 cardinal ideals: courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. Stoics believed that evil was not inherent to human beings but simply came from ignorance of the diving Logos and our essential nature. Stoic philosophers didn’t advocate expunging emotion altogether. But by striving for inner peace, they believed we could avoid evil, ignorance, and unhappiness, allowing us to lead a virtuous life (Hodsdon, 2021) [1].

Six of the Greatest Stoics

The Stoic philosophy became popular because it offered a practical way to deal with life’s challenges. Many great stoics throughout history have inspired and motivated others with their words and actions. Here are just a few of the most notable ones:

Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy in Athens around 300 BCE. His teachings were very influential in the development of Stoicism. Stoicism began when Zeno was shipwrecked during a trading voyage. After his misfortune, he became grateful for the life he had been given and sought to find the best way to live. Zeno studied under Crates, who was a cynic. Still, Zeno was unsatisfied with the cynic studies and sought to combine the cynic teachings with a more modest and civilized way of living which led to the school of stoicism. Zeno provided the following themes as the essential framework of Stoic philosophy: logic as an instrument and not as an end in itself; human happiness as a product of life according to nature; physical theory as providing the means by which right actions are to be determined; perception as the basis of certain knowledge; the wise person as the model of human excellence; Platonic forms – the abstract entities in which things of the same genus “participate” – as being unreal; true knowledge as always accompanied by assent; the fundamental substance of all existing things as being a divine fire, the universal principles of which are (1) passive (matter) and (2) active (reason inherent in matter); belief in a world conflagration and renewal; belief in the corporeality of all things; belief in the fated causality that necessarily binds all things; cosmopolitanism, or cultural outlook transcending narrower loyalties; and the obligation, or duty, to choose only those acts that are in accord with nature, all other acts being a matter of indifference (Saunders, 2019) [2].

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor and philosopher considered one of the most important stoics in history, so much so that he is also known as The Emperor of Stoicism. He was known for his wisdom and ability to maintain calm in the face of adversity. The book ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius is considered one of the prime texts of stoicism. In his book, Marcus states that repeating the stoic mantras kept him grounded in times of turmoil, and there were many such instances during his reign. Marcus advocated for removing all emotions as he considered them an irrational response to a crisis. Aurelius greatly valued rational thinking and inner calm, which he believed could only be obtained by controlling one’s emotions.

“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” -Marcus Aurelius

He tried to rule according to the core principles of Stoicism which is why he is considered the last of Rome’s “Five Good Emperors”.

Epictetus

Epictetus was a stoic philosopher who lived during the first and second centuries AD. He was born into slavery but later freed, and he taught Stoicism in Rome and Greece. His ideas were very influential. He is one of the most quoted stoics, and his teachings have inspired many people over the years.

“The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness.” -Epictetus

Epictetus is considered a role model for all Stoics. He taught Stoicism in a practical way, teaching his students how to act and react in their life. He reasoned that due to our rational faculties, it was our responsibility to live a life of virtue under nature. He firmly believed in the Stoic theory of the origin of evil which states that evilness is not an inherent human trait; rather, it is brought about due to ignorance and irrational behavior. He believed that the drive to live virtuously should be passed on to those around us.

Seneca

Seneca was a Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist. Seneca is considered one of the most controversial Stoic philosophers in history. While Seneca was said to espouse and follow the teachings of Stoicism, he taught one of the most notorious Roman emperors, Nero, who was infamous for his cruelty, as a child and managed to accumulate a vast amount of wealth.

“Wealth is the slave of the wise, the master of the fool” -Seneca

Seneca’s main emphasis was on practical philosophy, therefore, ethics. He was more interested in the actual exercise of virtue and not just in theory. He had abandoned the idea of the sublime importance of theoretical knowledge. Seneca’s views on philosophy were mostly practical. Philosophy should show us how to conduct ourselves in real-life situations. Philosophy, in his opinion, is necessary, but it should be applied with a practical purpose in mind. Learning how to master your passions is the first goal of practical philosophy (Jankovic, 2020) [3]. It is said that even in his dying moments when he was ordered to commit suicide by emperor Nero, he embodied the principles of a true stoic by controlling his emotions and accepting his fate.

Chrysippus

Chrysippus was a Greek philosopher who was one of the main reasons Romans so easily adopted Stoicism. He came to Athens and was one of Cleanthes’ (Zeno’s successor) brightest pupils. He was the one who properly developed and made huge strides in the Stoic idea of fate. He created his revolutionary system of logical propositions in which he said that things can only be true or false and that nothing happens without a cause. His idea of fate brought up the argument that his system negates free will. Chrysippus disagreed and argued that there were simple and complex fates, and humans did have the power to affect the course of fate. He made significant contributions to philosophy, and his writings were very influential. Chrysippus also advocated for taking complete control of one’s emotions to reach a state of inner peace and that by using logic and reason, we could be prepared for situations where we would face extreme emotions.

“Living virtuously is living in accordance with one’s own Experience of the actual course of nature” -Chryssipus

Cleanthes

Cleanthes was the successor to Zeno, the founder of the school of stoicism. He came to Athens to study philosophy, and after attending lectures from Crates and Zeno, he gravitated more towards stoicism. Cleanthes is best known for his work ‘Hymn To Zeus,’ which expresses the Stoic’s reverence for cosmic order and the power of universal reason and law. He believed that the sun was made from ‘divine fire’ and that since it gave life to all things on earth, it must be an extension of the divine logos. Cleanthes was against his teacher’s belief regarding emotions. Where Zeno tried to guide stoics to a ‘happy’ life, Cleanthes stated that pleasure conflicted with nature and that emotions were a weakness which is why he advocated for a life of consistency ruled by logic and reason rather than a life of happiness. These are just a few of the great stoics from history. Their words and actions have inspired many people, and their teachings are still relevant today.

Benefits Of Stoicism

The benefits of stoicism are many and varied but can be broadly divided into two main categories: mental and physical. On the mental side, stoics believe that by learning to control their emotions and reactions, they can avoid being controlled by them. This allows them to live a more rational and peaceful life, unruffled by the vicissitudes of fortune. On the physical side, stoics believe that by developing self-discipline and fortitude, they can overcome adversity and hardship and emerge stronger from it. In addition to these general benefits, stoicism has several specific applications that can be particularly useful in modern life. For example, the Stoic philosophy can help us to deal with difficult people, handle setbacks and criticism, cope with change and uncertainty, and even find contentment in the face of adversity. These principles can be applied to our lives to help us live in harmony with the universe and make the most of every situation, both good and bad. Many political leaders, philosophers, statesmen, and even celebrities used their stoic beliefs to make a difference in the world. Some of the most notable names in history are Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Brady, Tom Hiddleston, Anna Kendrick, J.K Rowling, and Ralph Waldo Emmerson. All of these people have been noted to read, if not be inspired, by the teachings of Stoicism. The ancient Stoics themselves were no slouches. The names of the three best-known Stoics – Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca – belonged to, respectively, a Roman emperor, a former slave who triumphed to become an influential lecturer and friend of the emperor Hadrian, and a famous playwright and political adviser (daily stoic) [4]. The Stoic philosophy can still be useful today. In our fast-paced and ever-changing world, it can be easy to get caught up in our emotions and lose sight of what’s important. The Stoic principles of reason and self-control can help us to stay focused on what matters and make better decisions.

Conclusion

Stoicism’s goal has been to create a morally sound and virtuous society. They believed that one could achieve inner peace by controlling one’s emotions, whether through suppression or reason/logic. These teachings have been transmitted to later generations largely through the surviving books of Cicero and the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

“Waste no more time arguing about What a good man should be. Be one” -Marcus Aurelius

It is good to remember that “passion” did not mean what we now mean by that term, and indeed it did not even exactly overlap with the term “emotion” in the modern sense of the word. That is why it is grossly incorrect to say that the Stoics aimed at a passionless life or the suppression of emotions. Rather, the Stoics divided the “passions” into unhealthy and healthy ones (Pigliucci) [5].

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References

[1]: Edd Hodsdon, 4th September 2021, 8 Philosophers Of Stoicism You Should Know

[2]: Jason Lewis Saunders, 17th May 2019, Stoicism

[3]: Igor Jankovic, 27th July 2020, The Most Famous Stoics In History

[4]: Thedailystoic, The Definitive List Of Stoicism In History & Pop Culture

[5]: Massimo Pigliucci, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stoicism

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