Stoicism—the Hellenistic Philosophy and its Background

The central objective of all philosophy is solving the problems of life. This often becomes a tumultuous task, considering an individual has little control over life as a whole. However, one is always in control of their own perspective. The key observation by Stoics is that there are no problems in life but only those in one’s own mind. Well, that would mean taking complete accountability for everything within one’s control and being unaffected by the rest. Stoic philosophy could hence be described as a cure to the ill-workings of one’s mentality. Objective reasoning, depth of judgment, and detachment from the nature of the result were the foundations of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism primarily means understanding your mind and then constructively programming it.


The Father of Stoicism—A Brief Overview

Zeno of Citium was the founder of Stoicism. After losing all his cargo in a shipwreck on a voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus, Zeno ended up in Athens. While visiting a bookstore, he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and later Crates, an Athenian philosopher. This newfound knowledge helped him develop the concept consisting of principles that we now know as Stoicism. After reading the works of Socrates and other great philosophers, he decided to share this knowledge. Stoicism takes its name from the place where he gave lectures to his disciples—the Stoa Poikile or the painted public Colonnade. In his teachings during the 300 BCE, Zeno directly correlated his beliefs and that of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, he was well versed in Platonic thought because he studied at Plato’s Academy with both its successive heads, Xenocrates of Chalcedon and Polemon of Athens. He had divided the philosophy into three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. The Stoics saw physics as the fertile field, logic as a protective fence that kept out corruption, and ethics as the fruit produced by integrating these three areas of study in our actions. Zeno had established the central Stoic structure, which would then be improvised upon by the later stoics like his disciple Cleanthes. These teachings of virtue, tolerance and self-control have inspired generations of thinkers and leaders.


Core Beliefs and Structure

Stoicism at its core tries to answer the question, “What is philosophy?” The answer to this question is simply an outlook of living life in the best possible manner. The stoics had a proclivity towards tranquillity. They would avoid being enslaved by negative emotions and, thereby as a goal, reach a state that they would term—eudaimonia. Wealth was not synonymous with materialistic illusory but having few wants, the Stoics liked to be grateful and did not measure wealth by the parameters that we do today. The Stoics based their philosophy on the fact that one can have complete control over one’s thoughts and resultant actions and none over external events. This way of thinking humbles and makes one realise the insignificance of responding to a situation negatively in the grand scheme of things. When the dynamic is shifted from an individual being in control to external factors, there is always a probability that one cannot control. These situations are thus not worth spending any time on. To sum this up, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”

The philosophy is based on replacing cynical emotions with ones that cause development. The Stoics were never devoid of emotion—they chose the ones they would rather indulge in. Virtue was essential. The Greeks would call it “arete”, and the word was synonymous with excellence. It meant acting rationally and cooperating socially.  The virtues of primary importance to the Stoics were prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.

The idea or notion of ‘good‘ or ‘bad‘ is ascribed to inanimate objects and situations that have no similarity to human circumstances and emotions. The very realization that one has the power to control their life feels liberating to some, and to them, the philosophy holds the most value.

The laws of Nature to the Stoics are good evidence of the world being designed with a purpose. In his work, ‘On the Nature of the Gods’, Cicero attributes the following to Zeno: “Nothing without a share in mind and reason can give birth to one who is animate and rational. But the world gives birth to those who are animate and rational. Therefore, the world is animate and rational”. The concept here being humans are made in the image of their creator, who is responsible for taking potential and transforming it into order. Stoicism is all about finding meaning in this life and using one’s time to do the things that give it meaning.


The Philosophy

To understand the philosophy better, it is important to first analyse it with respect to the other prevalent thought processes of the time. The more popular schools of thought besides Stoicism in ancient times would be Epicureanism and Cynicism. While the former advocated a simple life and focused on living life with maximum amusement, the latter was focused entirely on not desiring anything and living a life of abstinence. The Stoics found both extremes to be harmful. Most of what we know as Stoicism today comes from the Romans. Seneca, a prominent Roman Stoic at the time, explained that there is a much-debated choice between three kinds of life—the life of theory, the life of politics, and the life of pleasure. This was the conventional design, and Seneca was not committed to the view that there was such a distinction. The Stoics liked to segregate their core ideas into theory and practice—things to be learned and executed. Stoicism is about the stillness of your mind; one can only be rattled if the source that causes such a reaction is bigger than them. Well, Zeno divided things into three parts: things that are good for us, things that are bad for us, and things that we should remain indifferent to. However, he found that it’s difficult to find things that are universally true for everyone or fall in a single stated category which is where individual rationality comes into the picture. Being rational was an important impulse and prioritised above all else. Marcus Aurelius says, ask yourself of everything you do and whether it is essential, and then finally benefit from doing fewer things better. If you would objectively look at maximising the utility of your time, discarding non-essential tasks would give you a better chance of perfecting what is essential. Thinking is important and should be constructive since the things you think about determine the quality of your thoughts. The Stoics were doing what they were doing to pass down their knowledge for the future of humanity and they believed in putting their people first. To them, the fruit of life was good character and acts of charity.


Cogent Counterinfluence of Stoicism

One of Rome’s greatest emperors, Marcus Aurelius, was one of the most famous stoic writers. Marcus’ Journals about his experiences of war and his learnings would guide the likes of Nelson Mandela through his twenty-seven-year imprisonment during his struggle for racial equality in South Africa. Epictetus, being one of the most influential Stoics, believed our reactions are the central focus of a situation and not the event itself as stated before; this has resonated strongly with modern

psychology and the self-help movement. Negative visualisation should be practised daily to instill a sense of gratitude, thereby enhancing your human experience. The Stoics tell us that this helps us detach ourselves from all else, similar to what more popular concepts like Buddhism promote. Confine yourself to the present. Trichotomy of control—accepting things out of your control while focusing on the other two, is an effective way of being tranquil in the current times. Whereas, Musonius suggested voluntarily partaking in activities that caused you discomfort to increase discipline. If the challenge doesn’t follow there is a certain sense of disappointment wherein your practiced discipline has never been tested. The concept here is about taming your emotions, being tolerant of put-downs, and having more acceptance, thereby achieving eudaimonia.

Today, there has been a rapid surge in the global interest in Stoicism. The majority of recent self-help literature looks to the Stoics for inspiration while institutions like Modern Stoicism host international events, for instance, the Stoicon—promoting the philosophy further.



In the present times, whenever you hear the word “Stoic”, you connect it to words like detached or ignorant. By no means is it self-evident that the above set of presuppositions is accurate. For instance, at a time when the Roman laws considered slavery to be appropriate, Seneca opposed this concept stating every man has the same foundation of humanity. Further, what the ancient Greeks found most logical was to work towards a solution with reason in mind rather than focusing on faith alone. “The first promise that philosophy holds out to us: fellow-feeling, humanity, sociability.” — Seneca.

One obvious criticism of Stoicism is whether it is logical for an individual to put the interest of humanity over their own? Epictetus has an answer for this as the following—he explains that humans cannot possibly achieve the peaks of greatness unless they prove to be useful to the common interest of humanity. He elaborates further with reference to Zeus by stating, “Why, even the sun does everything for its own sake, and, for that matter, so does Zeus himself. But when Zeus wishes to be “Rain-bringer”, and “Fruit-giver”, and “Father of men and of gods”, you can see for yourself that he cannot achieve these works, or win these appellations, unless he proves himself useful to the common interest.”

Another rather prevalent argument is that Stoicism disregards politics. This, again, could be answered by eliminating the presuppositions that stem from misinformation and having a look at their history. As an example, the most important politicians and rulers who saw themselves as Stoics include the Roman senator Cato the Younger, who lived in the 1st century BC and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD. Right from its inception, the Stoics were concerned with building the best possible society for them, and their philosophy has always been about social engagement. Stoicism had a clear stance for not standing idly by immoral behaviour. The ultimate goal is both virtue and moral integrity. For politically active Stoics like Cato, who held significant positions in the Roman Republic, or Marcus Aurelius, the teachings of Stoicism acted as guidelines for their socio-political commitment.



On having a brief look around, one would find a lot of people are Stoics without voluntarily being aware of it. The term might be new for many, but this outlook to life is certainly well documented, especially amongst goal-oriented individuals. The Greeks had clearly been ahead of their times and their philosophies, as they intended, stayed for the reference of future generations.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”


Written by Aayush Niraj for MTTN

Edited by Parva Mehrotra for MTTN

Featured Image by KCRW

Image via Wikipedia


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