Forever known, it seems, as keeping a “stiff upper lip,” Stoicism—like its predecessor, Cynicism—is an ancient school of Greek philosophy that has been reduced into an attitude, a pose rather than a way of life. “We do this to our philosophies,” writes Lary Wallace at Aeon, “We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasizing all the wrong features.” We do this especially to schools as obscure to most people as Stoicism and Cynicism.
“In reality,” however, writes Massimo Pigliucci at The Stone, “practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity): it is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like.” Would the ancient Stoics have agreed with this assessment? In the short TED-Ed lesson above, written by Pigliucci and animated by Compote Collective, we learn about Zeno of Cyprus, “stranded miles from home, with no money or possessions.”
Destitute and “shipwrecked in Athens around 300 BCE,” the once-wealthy merchant discovered Socrates, and decided to “seek out and study with the city’s noted philosophers.” Zeno then taught his own students the principles of “virtue, tolerance, and self-control” that underlie Stoic philosophy (called so for “the porch (stoa poikilê) in the Agora at Athens” where the group congregated). Although the ability to remain calm and composed in a crisis—the quality most associated with Stoicism—occupies a prominent place in Stoic thought, it is centrally concerned with two questions.
As the site 99u puts it, Stoics ask: “1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?” and “2. How can we become better human beings?” In brief, we do so not by obeying or submitting to some kind of capricious divine will, but by attending to the rational structure of the universe, the Logos, an intricate web of cause and effect that determines the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The Stoic cultivates four virtues—Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, and Courage—and the character recommended by Stoic philosophy makes it plain why Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, as Pigliucci notes, was “actually modeled after [Gene Roddenberry’s]—mistaken—understanding of Stoicism.”
Given Stoicism’s concern with happiness and virtue, we might expect Alain de Botton’s School of Life to be an advocate, and we would be right. In the animated introduction to Stoicism above, de Botton assures viewers “you need more of it in your life.” Why? Because “life is difficult,” and Stoicism is “helpful,” for commoners and aristocrats alike. Indeed the most famous of Stoic philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. Considered one of the greatest works of ancient thought, Aurelius’ Meditations is also perhaps one of the most accessible of philosophical texts.
In plain, straightforward language, the emperor-philosopher recommends a series of Greco-Roman virtues, and gives credit to his many teachers. In book two, he writes, “Why should any of these things that happen externally, so much distract thee? Give thyself leisure to learn some good thing, and cease roving and wandering to and fro. Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.” In other words, rather than suffering in courageous silence—the caricature of Stoicism—Aurelius distills much of its essence to this: “Don’t worry about what you can’t control, find good work to do, and do it well and wisely.”