An Animated Introduction to Stoicism, the Ancient Greek Philosophy That Lets You Lead a Happy, Fulfilling Life

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to Hei­deg­ger, The Sto­ics & Epi­cu­rus

A Guide to Hap­pi­ness: Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Six Great Philoso­phers Can Change Your Life

Free Cours­es in Ancient His­to­ry, Lit­er­a­ture & Phi­los­o­phy 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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