Stoicism on the Web

Welcome to this Stoic site


The Stoic philosophy emphasises a resigned attitude to the difficulties of life and the need to maintain personal standards of conduct in an imperfect world.

Background of Stoicism

Stoic biographies

Stoic texts

Stoic links

How to be a Stoic

The future of Stoicism

Some famous Stoics...
Marcus Aurelius
(AD 121 - 180)
Epictetus
(1st century AD)
Seneca the Younger
(c.4 BC - c.65 AD)
Chrysippus
(c.280 - c.206 BC)
Zeno of Citium
(c.334 - c.265 BC)

Background of Stoicism

Stoicism advocates a resigned attitude to the difficulties of life and the need to maintain personal standards of conduct in an imperfect world.

This philosophy of life was developed in Athens 2300 years ago by Zeno of Citium. He set up his school in a part of Athens known as the Stoa poikile or 'painted colonnade', and it is from this that Stoicism takes its name. After Zeno's death, the subsequent leaders of the Stoic school continued to develop its teachings and spread its influence. Stoicism subsequently became popular in the Roman empire, although for a long time it was thought of as potentially subversive and dangerous to Roman values.

In its early beginnings, Stoic philosophy seems to have been concerned with an overall view of life and the universe. The Stoic thinkers concerned themselves with traditional philosophical issues such as logical problems, the nature and structure of matter, and the origins and eventual fate of the cosmos. Over the centuries, however, Stoic teachings became more concerned with personal morality and behaviour, rather than with speculation and logic-chopping. Stoicism became almost like a religion with its emphasis on practical ethics. Stoics believe in God, i.e. a single supreme being, but they do not spend much time speculating on the nature of God or attributing to God any particular myths or motives.

For many people, Stoicism is associated with the idea of indifference to suffering. This can make Stoicism seem to be a very tough philosophy, one that is hard and heartless. However, another way to look at it is this. Stoics cannot save people from misfortunes, which are a fact of life. What the Stoics can and do do is teach people how to accept inevitable misfortune, put it in perspective, and not allow it to ruin their lives. In this way, Stoicism is really a source of comfort for those who are exposed to mental or physical pain. James Stockdale, a US naval officer who spent 9 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has written a book about how he used Stoic principles to cope with this experience. By passing on Stoic teaching to his fellow captives, he was able to improve their morale at the same time.

Stoic biographies

Credits to Chambers Biographical Dictionary 1997

Marcus Aurelius
(AD 121 - 180)
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to his death in 180. He was the adopted son of the previous emperor, Antoninus Pius, under whom he served as consul in a notably conscientious manner. Though peaceful by temperament, Marcus was plagued by wars and rebellions throughout his reign, and spent much of his time fighting the barbarians in Germany. Marcus Aurelius wrote 12 books of Meditations, which express his innermost thoughts and Stoic ideals. He seems to have been a humane, decent, compassionate and honourable person, but also somewhat lonely and disheartened by the many troubles he had to deal with. After his death, he was remembered as the perfect emperor, in marked contrast to many that went before and came after him.
Epictetus
(1st century AD)
Epictetus served as a slave in Rome. After he was freed he taught philosophy there until banished by the emperor Domitian along with other philosophers in AD 90 when he settled in north-west Greece. His pupil Arrian collected his sayings into a manual and eight volumes of Discourses, of which four survive. He taught a gospel of inner freedom through self-abnegation, submission to providence and the love of one's enemies.
Seneca
(c.4 BC - c.65 AD)
Seneca was born in Spain. He began a career in politics and law in Rome in AD 31. He was banished to Corsica (41-49) by Emperor Claudius on a charge of adultery and there wrote his Consolationes. Recalled to Rome in 49, he became tutor to the future emperor Nero, and was also a prominent playwright. He enjoyed considerable political influence for a while and was made consul by Nero in 57, but he later withdrew from public life and devoted himself to writing and philosophy. In 65 he was implicated in a plot against Nero's life and was ordered to commit suicide. His Stoic writings include a collection of essays and a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius.
Chrysippus
(c.280 - c.206 BC)
Chrysippus was born in Asia Minor but moved to Athens as a youth and studied under the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes to become the third and greatest head of the Stoic school. Only fragments remain of his very extensive writings, in which he developed the Stoic system into what became its definitive and orthodox form.
Zeno of Citium
(c.334 - c.265 BC)
Zeno was born in Cyprus and moved to Athens as a young man, where he attended Plato's Academy and other schools. He then set up his own school in the Stoa poikile. He established Stoicism as a distinct and coherent philosophy, although little is known of his writings, none of which survive. His main interest seems to have been in the area of ethics, which was always central to Stoicism. He is supposed to have committed suicide.

Stoic texts

If you want to understand the Stoic philosophy, the best place to start is with some original Stoic writings...

There are also numerous secondary works on Stoic philosophy and the Stoic philosophers. Here are four that you might like to consider...

Stoic links

Stoics discussion groupA forum for the discussion of Stoicism in general
Stoic commonsAnother forum, somewhat less formal than the above. More suitable for beginners.
Stoic FoundationYet another forum, designed for students taking Dr Keith Seddon's correspondence course in Stoic Philosophy, and for others interested in Stoic Philosophy as a practical philosophy to live by.
Classic Texts in EthicsThis site offers on-line copies of Epictetus's Discourses and Marcus Aurelius's Meditations
Numinist discussion groupThis is a forum for the discussion of Numinism, a Neo-Roman Pagan tradition, and the related topics of Roman religion, Roman history, Roman culture, Stoic philosophy, Roman language, etc. and their application in modern everyday life.
The Stoic Voice JournalThe Stoic Voice Journal is a free, monthly e-mail/online publication featuring contemporary and classic works on the history, theory, practical application, creative expression, and modern experience of Stoicism. The journal is in Word97 format and is e-mailed to you every month as a file attachment. As a list member, you also have access to back issues of the journal in the "Files" section.
Subscription for Stoic Voice JournalGo here if you would like to subscribe to this useful, free journal
ChrysippusA biography of this influential early Stoic thinker.
Philosophy 321Outline of a philosophy course, which includes some useful links to Stoic-related information.
Stoicism definedThis is the entry on Stoicism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It provides a succinct but comprehensive explanation of the origins and nature of Stoicism.
Stoicism on the webAn overview of Stoic philosophy along with links to other web resources on Stoicism.
Internet Ancient History SourcebookThis has a set of links to information about the Stoics.
Stoic Place Home Page.This website has been designed as a place where Stoics and persons interested in Stoic ideas, classical and contemporary, can find resources to pursue their self-education in the ideas of Stoicism and related philosophies.

How to be a Stoic

Bear and forbear

The Stoic motto (due to Epictetus)

Epictetus heavily criticised people who treat philosophy as an intellectual exercise. The primary purpose of studying philosophy, he said, is to become a better person.

The following points will help you put Stoicism into practice.


Above all else, a Stoic must understand the concept of the sphere of choice. Certain things lie inside the sphere of choice and other things lie outside. The things that lie inside the sphere of choice are your own attitudes and behaviour. These are the things that you have control over. The things that lie outside the sphere of choice are just about everything else, such as your possessions, your family, your reputation, even your own body. These are the things that you cannot control through your will alone. They belong to fate. For example, you cannot stop your body getting ill, or being taken prisoner, simply by deciding not to get ill or be taken prisoner.

The things that lie outside the sphere of choice are the things to which you must be indifferent. The reason that people become unhappy is that they mistakenly attach importance to things outside the sphere of choice. Then something bad happens to a thing that is outside their sphere of choice, and they are devastated and inconsolable because they cannot do anything about it. Do not be like them. Do not become attached to things that are not in your power.

For example, suppose that your child becomes ill and dies. Stoics know that their children's lives are outside their sphere of choice. They also know that bad can come to things outside the sphere of choice and so they are not suprised when such events occur. They would therefore not allow such misfortunes, even including the death of their own child, to disturb their equilibrium. That may seem heartless, but what is the point of crying and feeling miserable? Will it bring the child back? Beware. Do not mistake self-indulgence and exhibitionism for compassion.

The things that lie inside the sphere of choice are what you should be concerned with. Have you done wrong? Have you nurtured inappropriate desires? These are matters you can control. They are what should upset you, and you should change your attitudes or behaviour so that you do better in future. The world is full of evil and suffering, and you cannot hope to change that. It is entirely outside your power. What is in your power, though, is to ensure that you do not add to the evil and suffering there already is. Let that be your aim.

Stoics say that it is not the thing itself that upsets you but your impressions of it. Impressions lie within your sphere of choice. While you cannot control some misfortune that occurs to your body or possessions or loved ones, you can control how you feel about this misfortune. If you are miserable, depressed, upset, angry, or have some other negative feeling, it is because you have formed a wrong impression, and it is up to you to correct it.

One of the best parts about being a Stoic is projecting your Stoic views on to the people you come into contact with. Epictetus spent a lot of time criticising other people's behaviour from a Stoic perspective--pointing out when they were upsetting themselves, for example, by being too attached to something outside their sphere of choice. Holding up a mirror to their character, he called it. Perhaps not surprisingly, many people did not take too kindly to Epictetus holding up a mirror to their character!

For applying Stoic principles in public, you need a set of questions and comments, like this...

If someone threatens you with harm to something that lies outside your sphere of choice, use this to indicate your indifference. I will hit you. Did I say that my body was like a ghost's and could not be touched? I will have you thrown in prison. Did I say that I alone among humans was incapable of being incarcerated? I will kill you. Did I say that I was immortal?
Use this question when someone is moaning and complaining about things that lie outside their sphere of choice, for which they ought to have expected misfortunes and setbacks. My children are a constant source of worry. Well, did you expect to be a parent and not have the problems of a parent? My car is playing up. Did you expect to have a car and not have the problems of a car-owner?
You can use this when someone is criticising other people's behaviour. My children disobey me. Well, would you have it that they were like slaves and did not have a mind of their own? The world is full of evil deeds and there are so many ignorant and selfish people. Would you have it then that the world was perfect and that everyone was a saint and a genius? What? Are you dreaming?!
When you run across someone who is obnoxious or foolish or deceitful, don't allow yourself to get angry and feel hatred towards them. Their personality is outside your sphere of choice. Just remind yourself that there are such people in the world, since having done so you may find yourself better disposed towards them. You may even come to feel sorry for them.
Human beings are born under sentence of death. Good and bad, weak and strong, we are all here for just a short time. No amount of beauty, brains or wealth can save us from this certain fate. I have been diagnosed with a dangerous illness? Will I live? No. You will not live. We are all of us destined to die. The only question is whether it comes sooner or later.
Do not imagine that you have a right to an easy life. Life is full of difficulties and requires your effort. You have been given the capacities that you need and only idleness prevents you from using them. Remember these thoughts of Marcus Aurelius on the difficulties of getting out of a warm bed to face the unpleasant tasks of a cold day. A bee must do the work of a bee. An ant must do the work of an ant. You are a human being, and you must do the work of a human being. Get out of bed, and go to it.
Why hanker after fame? Why seek the acclaim of others? Aren't these the very people you have been criticising? Aren't they the ones you despise, whose judgement you find so lamentable? What good does it do you to have the approval of mere mortals that will soon be dead and gone anyway, vain creatures, undiscerning, easily swayed by crude fashion? Surely, it is the approval of God that you should worry about. It is not fame that you should be pursuing but right behaviour.
On reading through the above, it is easy to feel that no one could possibly live up to Stoic ideals. Indeed, no one could, not even the Stoic masters. Seneca, especially, was renowned for not practising what he preached. However, it is wrong to think that it is all or nothing. The ideal is the thing that you move towards, even though you may never get there. If you are just slightly more Stoical than you used to be, that will reduce the energy you waste on feeling frustrated or resentful at the knocks of life and the unpleasantness of other people. Of course, there will be times when you forget your Stoic principles altogether and wallow in self-pity. This will be because you have allowed yourself to become attached to things outside the sphere of choice. Yet as Epictetus says, do not worry, for it is not like the Olympic games. You do not have to wait four whole years to get another chance. You can start again straight away.

The future of Stoicism

Stoicism appeals particularly to people who are disturbed and dislocated by the flow of events. The advocates of Stoicism are such people as a former slave--~Epictetus, an emperor whose reign saw continual troubles--Marcus Aurelius, and a prisoner of war--James Stockdale. This is a philosophy for use in times of challenge and adversity. When confidence and vigour are in short supply, the mood of resignation contained in Stoic thinking can be a source of comfort.

As such, Stoicism is an ideal philosophy for societies where the conditions of life are rapidly changing, especially in a downward direction. It arose in Athens when classical Greece was well past its prime, and it became popular again in Rome when the empire was beginning its long drawn out decline and fall.

Today, western civilisation is finding itself in an increasingly troubled world. Since September 11, 2001, it has become clear that the twenty first century will not necessarily be one of growing peace and harmony among the world's peoples. Instead, it could prove to be as bloody and hate-filled as every other century in humanity's violent history.

It is therefore likely that Stoic philosophy will make a big comeback during the next few decades, when we may have to deal with everything from ethnic tension to the threat of nuclear terrorism. The trend seems to be under way already, with books like those of Mark Forstater and Lawrence Becker beginning to appear.

A good site on this subject is the Coming Dark Age site of Marc Widdowson. This site describes the difficulties currently faced by individual countries and by the world as a whole, and it compares them to the difficulties that caused historical empires and civilisations to decline and disappear. The Coming Dark Age site also suggests how things are likely to develop in future, and it predicts that our planet is heading for a long dark age. So far these predictions of Marc Widdowson have seemed to be pretty accurate.


The Stoic Website
Updated March 2002Gene Marckus

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