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 book I recently reviewed, You Got This, and I wanted to find out more about it. It means taking a detour from psychology into the world of philosophy.
Stoicism in Ancient Greece
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. Destructive emotions, thought to arise from errors in judgment, were dealt with by building self-control and fortitude.
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 differentiate between what can and can’t be controlled. One technique that Stoics used was a view-from-above type of visualization in order to gain a better appreciation of the big picture. Negative visualization involved imagining the worst-case scenario, in the hope that 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. Stoicism emphasizes virtue, which arises 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 could thus be reframed as new opportunities.
Stoics viewed all people as citizens of the world and advocated tolerance and mutual assistance, regardless of material circumstances. Because of this view, they would urge clemency towards slaves.
Views on death
Stoics decreased the fear associated with death by emphasizing its inevitability. 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.
Stoicism’s later influences
Stoicism later had influences on Christianity, notably the apostle Paul and St. Ambrose of Milan. In modern times, stoicism influenced Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, and Nelson Mandela read the journals of Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
This philosophy isn’t, and never was, meant to be a treatment for mental illness, although it could potentially help with maintaining mental health. In You Got This, the author drew on Stoicism to handle fear, and 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.
- CBC Radio: Take it like a stoic: Coping in the time of coronavirus
- Daily Stoic: What Is Stoicism?
- TED-Ed (Massimo Pigliucci): The philosophy of Stoicism
- Wikipedia: Stoicism
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.