In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is stoicism.
Stoicism came up in a review I did recently of the book You Got This, and I thought it was worth finding out a little bit more about what exactly it is. It means taking a detour from psychology into the world of philosophy.
Stoicism began as an Ancient Greek philosophy in the 3rd century BCE. Stoics believed that happiness came from accepting the moment and not being controlled by pleasure or fear of pain. Building self-control and fortitude were identified as important ways of dealing with destructive emotions, which were seen as resulting from errors in judgment.
The aim was not to extinguish emotions, but rather to retain clear judgment and calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were important for maintaining self-control, and it was important to be able to differentiate between what can and can’t be controlled. One technique that was used was a view-from-above type of visualization in order to gain a better appreciation of the big picture. Negative visualization could also be used to imagine the worst-case scenario, and then by becoming more familiar with what was feared, the fear itself would ease.
The Stoic Epictetus wrote that “we suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgment about them.”
It sounds like they were early proponents of the idea that actions speak louder than words. Virtue was very important, and it was seen as coming from a will that’s in agreement with nature and logos (rational structure to the universe). The four cardinal virtues were wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Virtue would allow someone to adapt to any situation that arose in a way that allowed them to maintain happiness. Negative situations were seen as new opportunities.
The inevitability of death was emphasized to tone down the associated fear. I found the following lines quite interesting in the Wikipedia entry. I didn’t refer back to the sources cited, but they sounded legitimate.
“The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life. Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato’s self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices. Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one’s social duty.”
Stoics viewed all people as citizens of the world who should be tolerant and help one another regardless of any external or material differences. Because of this view, they would urge clemency towards slaves.
Stoicism later had influences on Christianity, notably the apostle Paul and St. Ambrose of Milan. In modern times, stoicism was an influence in Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, and Nelson Mandela read the journals of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who was a Stoic.
This philosophy isn’t and never was intended to be used as a treatment for mental illness. In the book You Got This, the author was talking about Stoicism to handle fear, and I think I have a better idea now where she’s coming from. “Normal” people (i.e. people without mental illness) face “normal” fears (as opposed to a disordered level of fear) all the time, and I can see Stoic principles being useful in that context. For those of us who aren’t in the “normal” camp, I think the good bits in Stoicism show up in several therapeutic approaches in a slightly different form, but as an overall package, it may not be that helpful.
Is Stoicism something that you’re familiar with or have tried to practice?
This TED-Ed video gives a short and sweet overview.
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- CBC Radio: Take it like a stoic: Coping in the time of coronavirus
- Daily Stoic: What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started
- TED-Ed (Massimo Pigliucci): The philosophy of Stoicism
- Wikipedia: Stoicism