Stoicism is a philosophical tradition with roots in Greek and Roman antiquity. Its founder was Zeno (3rd century B.C.).
The influential Zeno taught philosophy to his many disciples in ancient Athens.
Zeno held his classes on a painted porch or stoa. This stoa, decorated with mythological scenes and still visible in Athens today, is the site from which the word “Stoicism” originates.
Stoicism has proven to be a vibrant and influential philosophy across the centuries.
Its proponents have included the Roman playwright and statesman Seneca, the Roman slave-turned-freeman Epictetus, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Later, the influence of Stoicism can be found in Christian theology, modern philosophy (Kant & Humphrey, 1983), and cognitive behavioral psychology (Baltzly, 2018).
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Stoicism: A Philosophical Definition
“Stoicism” is commonly defined as being at peace throughout life’s ups and downs. It denotes a calmness in the face of pain, pleasure, grief, and joy. However, there is more to Stoicism than keeping one’s cool.
Stoicism is a very individualistic philosophy. It focuses on how the individual can develop the “virtues” necessary to harmonize with “nature.”
Nature is a broad concept for the Stoics. It encompasses the natural world and its forces, patterns of interplay in human society, and the inner psyche of the individual. In short, their concept of nature is the whole cosmos, outer and inner.
Further, this nature or cosmos is conceived as inherently orderly, obeying fixed laws of cause and effect.
The main Stoic virtues are:
- Justice, and
By developing these virtues, the individual harmonizes with nature. Harmonizing with nature, including our individual nature, is said to bring eudaimonia (roughly translated as personal happiness or thriving).
Stoic virtues are meant to be practical. They are designed to help resolve external problems and produce inner equilibrium.
The virtue of moderation allows one to avoid attachment to things desired and thus remain free from passions and at peace.
Courage allows one to remain free of fear and thus to keep the mind settled, even amidst life’s dangers.
Justice allows one to interact reasonably with others and thus avoid creating enemies or feeling guilt or remorse.
Wisdom allows one to discern how nature operates, to fit harmoniously with its plan.
Having practiced these virtues, one achieves the highest goal of human existence: attunement to nature and the happiness that follows. This is supposedly true no matter one’s circumstances in life, whether one is from humble origins, as Epictetus was, or an emperor like Marcus Aurelius.
What Is Stoic Meditation?
The classic Stoic texts do not typically refer to meditation in the Eastern sense – that is, as a complete quieting of one’s thoughts.
Classic Stoic meditation is more an exercise in clear thinking.
Clear thinking means that throughout life’s ups and downs, one strives to conceive of things just as they are. One sees things as if through clear glasses, rather than through overly positive rose-colored glasses or overly negative dark ones.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes of being confronted with life’s clouds or disruptions, big and small.
“There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. Don’t demand to know ‘why do such things exist?'” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 111). Such inquiries or value judgments only disrupt peace of mind, while adding nothing to one’s happiness.
Of course, many of life’s events are more potentially distressing than brambles in the path.
Aurelius considers a more difficult situation: you hear that someone has been talking behind your back. From Aurelius’s Stoic perspective, it is best to take this at face value. Yes, someone is talking about you. But it won’t help your peace of mind to further speculate about what exactly the person is saying or how this might make them a bad person, etc. (Aurelius & Hays, 2003).
As a Stoic, you do not rush to judgment or react to everything you hear or see.
If you decide it’s important to know more, you can always ask the person what they’ve been saying about you and why. But you might also decide it’s not worth the trouble and that you won’t let someone else’s opinion of you shake your peace of mind.
Aurelius and other Stoics have maintained that it is not life’s events that upset us. It is rather our judgment or evaluation of events – the elaborate stories we tell ourselves about experiences – that trouble us.
“If you are pained by external things, it is not that they pain you, but your own judgment of them; and it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 97).
In the same vein, Epictetus held that through a Stoic mental framing of events, a person could be “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy” (Epictetus & Dobbin, 2008, p. 29).
For the Stoics, a well-controlled mind or soul is the ultimate refuge. In writing of how people are always trying to “get away from it all, to the country, to the beach, to the mountains,” Aurelius states: “You can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful… than your own soul” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 60).
Stoicism thus holds that while we cannot always control events, we can always control how we think about them. And how we think about them will determine if we remain at peace, and thus happy and flourishing, or not. This emphasis on how we think about things and how this affects our emotions and behavior previewed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) by several centuries.
In CBT, it is also thought that we can control and change how we think about things. For example, the CBT approach to depression holds that negative affect (such as deep and persistent sadness) is at least partly due to depressive thinking to a maladaptive story we tell ourselves about our life or circumstances.
It is also believed that we can reshape or “cognitively restructure” our thoughts about a given event and thus feel less depressed about it.
One Stoic meditation that deserves special mention is memento mori (reflecting on one’s death). This is thought to help us put life’s ups and downs in proper perspective and to inspire us to make the best use of whatever time we might have.
Aurelius referred to memento mori when he wrote: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 20).
Memento mori frames all other Stoic meditations, giving them context and urgency.
Carlos Castaneda wrote a sense of memento mori into his conversations with the Indian sorcerer Don Juan Matus. In Journey to Ixtlan, Don Juan tells Carlos that “Death is the only wise advisor we have” (Castaneda, 1972, p. 55). This means that thinking about one’s impending death helps put life’s events into perspective and reveals what is truly important to oneself.
Steve Jobs (2005) revealed his practice of memento mori when he told a graduating class at Stanford: “Every morning I looked in the mirror and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I do today?” The implication being that if the answer is “no,” a life change is due.
A Look at Stoic Mindfulness
Where does mindfulness fit into this Stoic way of life? We’ve seen that Stoic meditation involves thinking clearly about things so as not to be burdened by value judgments or pointless speculation.
There is also a distinct element of mindfulness in Stoic philosophy. This mindfulness is a more fundamental process than meditation and involves attention to the present moment and its reality.
Attention to present-moment experience means seeing, feeling, and grasping the contours of immediate experience as they are and not as we either fear or wish them to be. It is how things appear before we start to tell ourselves more elaborate stories about them.
Based on this attention to present-moment experience, we can then think clearly about it in ways that are adaptive and that produce happiness. This kind of attention, which emphasizes perception as free as possible from thought, is similar to mindfulness practice as described by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) and others in the mindfulness movement.
It is also in tune with mindfulness as practiced in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 2014).
In DBT mindfulness, one gently pulls the mind back to present-moment experience whenever it wanders into the past or the future. This can be done by focusing on precisely what one is doing in the moment and the sensations one is feeling, without judgment or over-analysis of what is happening.
Podcasts on Mindfulness
The availability of podcasts about mindfulness has increased over the past several years.
In a recent article on Mindfulness Meditation Podcasts, Dr. Alicia Nortje highlighted some of the best and most enjoyable, including:
Mindfulness for Beginners
Mindfulness for Beginners is hosted by Shaun Doneghy.
This popular podcast emphasizes Buddhist teachings and meditation. Each of the podcast episodes features a brief guided meditation and discusses a specific theme such as body mindfulness.
The Science of Happiness (PRX and Greater Good) is hosted by Professor Dachter Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley.
It includes highly rated content on mindfulness and related topics.
Mindful in Minutes is hosted by Kelly Smith. This highly rated podcast features content concerning yoga and mindfulness in brief, practical doses.
Interesting Podcasts About Stoicism
Daily Stoic is hosted by Ryan Holiday. This is a popular site that includes introductory literature on Stoicism.
There are daily emails sent to subscribers, with Stoic lessons and exercises inspired by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelias, Seneca, and others. It hosts frequent podcasts (about every one to three days), with Stoic proponent Ryan Holiday and various writers, athletes, television personalities, and experts. These podcasts focus on applying Stoicism to life’s challenges.
The Practical Stoic is hosted by Simon Drew. This podcast also involves lessons and interviews about Stoicism that emphasize its practical application to everyday problems.
Stoic – The Invincible Soul is hosted by YogaGirl_Izzy. This podcast discusses Stoic philosophy and mindfulness, intending to help listeners lead their best or most fulfilling lives.
Apps and Books on the Topic
Daily Stoic Exercises is an Android app that provides daily quotes from prominent Stoic philosophers (including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelias, and Seneca), for contemplation, inspiration, and guidance.
It is rated highly for its content by users and is available for free.
Stoic Mental Health Journal is an Apple app that offers brief mental exercises and sayings from Stoic philosophy to help one manage daily challenges and stress. It is also highly rated by users and available for free with in-app purchases available. It is fully compatible with Apple (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch) products.
The Stoic App offers a curated list of quotes from prominent Stoic thinkers, sent daily, one at a time to allow for depth of reflection and practice.
It is also highly rated by users and available for free.
The following books include classic Stoic texts and recent interpretations of original sources.
- Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics, 1969. (Amazon)
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated by Gregory Hayes, Modern Library, 2003. This is a popular and user-friendly translation of Marcus Aurelias’s foundational work. (Amazon)
- Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, edited and translated by Robert Dobbin, Penguin Classics, 2008. (Amazon)
- William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Oxford University Press, 2009. (Amazon)
A Take-Home Message
Stoicism is a philosophy with remarkable continuity, from its ancient origins to modern applications.
It has been adapted over the centuries as a guide for those seeking personal development and happiness.
It emphasizes the development of virtues such as moderation, courage, justice, and wisdom. These virtues are designed to harmonize oneself with nature or the cosmos, bringing happiness.
There is an emphasis on staying calm in the face of life’s pains, pleasures, griefs, and joys. Calm is maintained by controlling one’s mental outlook on events, rather than expecting to manage events themselves.
There is an element of mindfulness in Stoicism, which involves sustained attention to present-moment experience. Stoic meditations include reflecting on one’s inevitable death (memento mori) to put one’s experiences and values in a proper perspective.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.
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- Aurelius, M. & Hays, G. (Trans.) (2003). Meditations: A new translation. New York, NY: Modern Library.
- Baltzly, D. (2018). Stoicism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/
- Castaneda, C. (1972). Journey to Ixtlan. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Epictetus, & Dobbin, R. (Ed. and Trans.) (2008). Discourses and Selected Writings. London, UK: Penguin Classics.
- Jobs, S. (2005). Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005. Stanford News. Retrieved from: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html
- Irvine, W. B. (2009). A guide to the good life: The ancient art of Stoic joy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994).Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York, NY: Hyperion.
- Kant, I., & Humphrey, T. (Ed. and Trans.) (1983). Perpetual peace, and other essays on politics, history, and morals.
- Linehan, M. (2014). DBT training manual. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Seneca, L. A., & Campbell, R. (Trans.) (1969). Letters from a Stoic. Penguin Classics.