The Stoics are a group of philosophers ranging from Zeno of Citium (344-262 BCE) in Cyprus to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180). Other famous Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca and Cicero, but there were many more. Their philosophy covers various domains, including ethics, logic, and cosmology, and academic philosophers may or may not agree with the Stoics on these points. However, even when they disagree, many philosophers today admire the Stoics for one thing: they viewed philosophy not as merely an academic discipline, but as a way of life. The point of doing philosophy was to become a wise person: a sage.
And who doesn’t want to be wise?
I know I do. And I must admit, Stoic philosophy rubs off on you. In stressful times, it sounds very appealing! Last year, I was preparing a lecture on the Stoics for philosophy students at university. So I had read a chapter on their famous advice to exercise not having any emotions. If you think about it, the Stoics argue, any negative emotions are irrational: if you have control over the circumstances that cause a negative emotion, then you can fix it, and if you don’t have control over the circumstances, then there’s no point in worrying about it anyway.
So on my way to the lecture hall I met a colleague, who was winding himself up over the failing IT systems we were having to work with at university. He used many expletives to explain how frustrating it all was. Then he said: “Marthe, you seem unaffected by any of this.” I answered: “Oh, that’s because I’m lecturing about the Stoics today.” He said: “I can tell! You are very Stoical!”
When people say that someone responded very “Stoically” or “philosophically” to a particular situation, they often mean that this person remained calm, didn’t show signs of emotional distress and was able to preserve enough emotional detachment to be able to think clearly. A “Stoical” person remains emotionally unaffected when misfortune strikes. I think the stereotype many people think of when they think about a wise philosopher is someone like that: someone who can remain calm and reasonable when others might flip.
Today, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – a therapy designed to help people ‘train’ their thoughts so they might suffer less from anxiety – owes very much to Stoic philosophy.
But where does this idea come from? And what is the argument with which the Stoics support this idea? That is what we’ll discuss in this class.
There is a very good podcast about philosophy, with interviews with experts about almost every topic within philosophy you can think of, all made very understandable for those who have no background in philosophy: Philosophy Bites. This Philosophy Bites podcast is about living Stoically, with philosopher William B. Irvine, who aims to live Stoically.