What is... psychology series

What Is… Stoicism

Stoicism: the four cardinal virtues and the keys to self-contro.

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 review I did recently of 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 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 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 the What Is series here.


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

You can find a directory of the terms covered in the what is… series here.

There’s also a collection of psychological tests here.

35 thoughts on “What Is… Stoicism”

  1. I am familiar with stoicism. Part of me envies people who are able to be stoical, as I’m very emotional, but part of me isn’t sure. One of the Stoics (I can’t remember if it was actually Epictetus) said, when you see your vase you should tell yourself it is going to break one day, and then you won’t be upset when it breaks. OK, I can see that working. But then he says, when you see your wife and child, you should tell yourself they’re going to die one day, which… I’m really not sure that’s a helpful approach. For one thing, I think I distorted my relationship with my grandparents when I was in my teens by being over-conscious of their mortality. And I think it’s probably not a good idea to be completely stoical when loved ones die. I would want to care. From that point of view, I couldn’t be a Stoic.

  2. I am not familiar with the term stoicism in the behavioral health context. Thanks once again for the education. I hope this feedback is relevant as I am not sure I understood the whole article.

    One thing that hit home reading this post was the behavior of predicting the worst-case scenario for an outcome and then adjusting that worst case scenario – “negative visualization.” For me, this behavior as I understand it is largely unproductive. As an ex-project manager, I envision or have envisioned worst case scenarios all the time. For regular day to day coping, envisioning the worst case scenario is not therapeutic for me but collectively sends me over the edge.

    Envisioning worst case scenarios takes me out of the present moment which is one issue. Envisioning worst case scenarios all the time becomes a habit that is hard to break. In my book, if you are constantly looking for worst case scenarios you are robbing yourself of little moments of happiness and maybe big ones as well.

    I suppose that means I am not a fan of stoicism?

    1. I agree. Envisioning the worst case scenario in a leadership context makes sense, but on a personal level that could start to look a whole lot like catastrophizing.

  3. Hadot wrote much about spiritual exercises in the early philosophers. I am not so familiar with the stoics, but I like the general idea. Contemplating nature is something I could do. : )

  4. Philosophy! Yikes! I sort of understand the concept of appreciating the present moment. I think Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” And that’s good advice. I think it can also be helpful to think, “When this inevitability occurs, I’ll be okay,” like if Big Woof were to die, or my dad were to die, etc. Because envisioning some futuristic trauma is self-defeating, if that makes sense. I had my hearing tested in college, and they told me I might be going deaf. They couldn’t tell, but said they’d retest my hearing in six months and then they’d know. I spent that six months terrified of (oddly enough) living in a world without music. These days, I almost never listen to music. And so that sort of taught me that what we fear as the worst isn’t actually that gloom-and-doom. Another thought: maybe the ancient people came up with these concepts because they didn’t have the benefits we do of psychiatric medicines. They had to cope somehow!

  5. I love Stoicism. I’m working on my understanding, absorbing a reading or two daily and working on implementing the cardinal virtues. It has seriously helped manage my anxiety and depression and it inspired CBT-style therapies. Epictetus has a work called “The Enchiridion”. It’s a handbook, a manual on how to live life. It’s short and there is a modernized version I enjoy called “The Good Life Handbook” by Dr. Chuck Chakrapani. I’ve got a copy and I’ve given away six more – luckily it is relatively inexpensive – $10 in paperback.

  6. That’s an interesting take on suicide. I imagine that if I was a young man in Nazi Germany and was being conscripted and ordered to kill innocent civilians, suicide might be a virtuous alternative to just doing what I’m told.

    Of course, I could also just kill the people giving me the orders instead, so I still don’t think suicide is useful.

  7. “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.”

    Just how do you go from A to B here? I see no connection whatsoever…

  8. Not sure that I’m a stoic and don’t suppose I will ever be. I can be calm and appear emotionless but I’m not – I just hide it well. There’s times I don’t want people to see me full of emotion 🙁

  9. I follow a minor celebrity (Chloe Lukasiak from Dance Moms) who is really into stoicism. I think it can be useful in philosophy, but agree it should not be applied to mental illness.

  10. My goodness I can’t believe this! The DBT book I have then this, my husband is teaching me about stoicism at the moment and I’ve felt pretty negative towards it but am going to give it a chance 😅

  11. I try to practice stoicism but one of the main teachings about not fearing death but embracing it is something I can’t do. I’ve a massive fear of death 🙁

  12. I’m not fond of Stoicism, because I’m not ready for it!

    I just think “we suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgment about them.” as too simplistic, and I tend to feel invalidated by it. It seems to be the tenet most emphasized whenever my friends praise Stoicism, and I get quietly annoyed.

    I got upset with my therapist when she said something similar and asked her if she means abusive events are OK, and that my reactions to abuse isn’t OK. Of course she didn’t mean it that way and I’m aware I’m reactive due to my own baggage – my parents made my reactions to abuse to be “the problem” rather than their maltreatment.

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