A Crash Course In Stoicism

Because pop-culture has it terribly wrong

If your understanding of Stoicism is a very contemporary and casual one, it’s likely you will be taken aback by the on-going contents of this “newsletter.”

Stoicism is viewed, in pop-culture, frequently, as being either a philosophy for toxic men looking to justify and reframe their toxic ideas, or as a library of life hacks having (mostly) to do with physical and emotional resilience — but these caricatures of Stoicism are not capital “S” Stoicism.

I’ve already written a book on what Stoicism is, and I don’t intend to regurgitate all of it here, but I do need to do something to prepare you for the advice you’ll read as a subscriber so that you can appropriately benefit from reading it. Therefore...

Let us begin with a ~1300 word crash course in the philosophy of Stoicism

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in approximately 300BCE after this Phoenician merchant-turned-philosopher was shipwrecked on the shores of Athens and had to figure out what to do next. He visited an oracle, most accept that it was the Oracle at Delphi, and was told to “inhabit the skin of the dead.” This, thankfully, not literal advice was interpreted by Zeno as meaning he should study philosophy.

Through a bit of comical serendipity, Zeno found himself a student of Crates the Cynic and of Cynicism. Zeno didn’t, in the end, vibe well with Cynicism (rumour has it he was too modest a man for Cynic antics) and he went on to be taught by others.

Eventually, he founded his own school. Students of this school were initially called “Zenonians”, but eventually became known as Stoics (a name given to them, or self-ascribed by them, because they tended to “hold court” under the Stoic Poikile — a covered colonnade outside the central market of Athens).

That’s the founding history in a nutshell, but what about the philosophy as a philosophy? This is where we’ll find a few surprises.

The Ancient Stoics believed that there was but one aim of a human being’s life: to attain the knowledge of how to live their lives excellently. They referred to this knowledge, and the achievement of it, as “areté”. The foundational basis of this aim was a well-reasoned belief in God — but not the God you’re probably thinking of.

The Ancient Stoics believed that the Universe was, itself, a being — and that this being was God. This is interesting because it means God, to the Ancient Stoics, wasn’t supernatural, but Nature itself. In fact, God and Nature are used interchangeably by the Ancient Stoics. The “mark” of God, if you like, was reason. The Stoics identified this as the Logos. The fact that the Universe exists, and we exist in it, and animals and plants and planets and who knows what else also exist in it, must mean there’s a sort of logic to it; if not, what prevents the universe from being unstable chaos that would make it impossible for any life to take form?

From here the Ancient Stoics reasoned that if Reason and Logic exist as fundamental features of the Universe, then they must also exist in us since we are constituent parts of the Universe — of God. Zeno says as much (through Cicero) when he says:

“If melodiously piping flutes sprang from the olive, would you doubt that a knowledge of flute-playing resided in the olive? And what if plane trees bore harps which gave forth rhythmical sounds? Clearly you would think in the same way that the art of music was possessed by plane trees. Why, then, seeing that the universe gives birth to beings that are animate and wise, should it not be considered animate and wise itself?”

—Zeno of Citium, as reported by Cicero in his work On Nature

According to the Ancient Stoics, we have a bit of the Logos, of God, within in us. With that being the case, surely the most worthwhile thing we could do with our lives would be to fully actualize this portion of God we possess — to fully embody it. Should we one day accomplish such a thing, we would become as rational as the Universe, as God, and what could be a greater achievement than that?

When the Ancient Stoics worked to acquire the knowledge of how to live excellently, this is what they were trying to do — they were trying to achieve the knowledge of how to be completely logical and rational individual human beings.

This might sound like the Ancient Stoics were trying to become as wise as the Universe, but that’s not exactly right. Human beings are part of the Universe, but are not the Universe itself. Instead, the Ancient Stoics were trying embody areté (excellence) as only a human being can.

Excellence as a bumble bee is different than excellence as a fish, which is different from excellence as a planet. Human excellence is unique to humans. More than that, and this is critical to understand, human excellence is different for each individual human because each individual human navigates a different life full of different circumstances and context. So the way you live excellently is necessarily different from how your neighbour lives excellently.

You may be asking yourself a very reasonable question right now:

“If living excellently is different for everyone, how does Stoicism teach people to live excellently? It seems like there would have to be a different Stoicism for every individual.”

— You

This is an excellent thing for you to be asking, because it is almost exactly the case!

Stoicism can’t say, “running red traffic lights is wrong, so living excellently means, in part, you don’t run red traffic lights” because it may very well be, from time to time, morally appropriate to run a red traffic light — and for the Stoics, if it can be right or appropriate even once, then it can’t be always wrong, and so cannot be called wrong (or bad).

There are no edicts in Stoicism, very little dogma as well, instead there is a way of approaching thinking that the Stoics universally employed:

We determine if our behaviour is excellent behaviour by asking ourselves whether the behavior comports with what we reason to be “sage-like” behaviour (a sage is a human who has achieved a state of areté, or excellence, or, as the Romans knew it and as you probably know it: Virtue).

In other words, a Stoic must reason whether the choice they’re making is the choice that someone who possessed the knowledge of how to live excellently would make if they were in the exact same scenario. If yes, then by all means the Stoic should continue. If no, then the Stoic must reason themselves to a change in behavior that better aligns with what they believe to be sage-like behavior.

This makes one overarching goal in a Stoic’s education the gaining of the ability to reason like a sage so that, no matter the situation, they can reason themselves to sage-like behavior.

You’ll need to know one more thing before diving into the questions I’ll answer in this newsletter. You need to know about the Stoic concept of Oikieôsis.

Oikieôsis describes the phenomenon (and process) of coming to know what is yours “to appropriate”. “To appropriate”, in this case, means to identify and accept what is yours to be concerned with, yours to, if you prefer, take care of and bother with.

This concept was handily illustrated in the 2nd Century AD by the Stoic Hierocles with his “Circles of Concern”. The Circles of Concern (pictured below) are a set of concentric rings, with “Self” at the center, which is meant to communicate what is an individual’s to be concerned with (and to what degree and in what order). The diagram is also meant to communicate that everything is ours to be concerned with.

The reason it’s important to know what to appropriate as “your own to care for” is because such knowledge reflects excellence. The excellent human, the wise human, the sage, knows exactly what they ought to care for and be concerned with and to what degree and in what way they ought to be so.

The result of everything you’ve just read, in regards to how one thinks about Stoicism, is something pop-Stoicism very rarely bothers itself with: that whether something is “Stoic” or “un-Stoic” has nothing to do with what choice you make or action you take, rather, it has to do with whether you reasoned to your choices or actions in a way which reflects possession of the knowledge of how to live excellently.

As a consequence of this, the answers you find in this newsletter won’t be “do X” or “don’t do Y”, they will be more like, “ask yourself this” and “think for yourself in such and such a way”. The answers I provide to the questions my readers ask will not be what you expect them to be, but I promise you, while not what you expect, they are answers rooted in actual Stoic philosophy.

Take care,

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