A stone bust of a philosopher in the sky, explaining Stoicism

What is Stoicism? What did the Stoics believe in ancient Greece and Rome?

Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy that was popular in both Greece and Rome. In modern times, Stoicism refers to the practice of perseverance and endurance in the face of adversity.

Keep reading for an overview of Stoicism, explained by William B. Irvine.

Stoicism in Brief

We’ll briefly contextualize Stoicism, explained by Irvine. As he says, Stoicism is an ancient philosophical school that developed in Greece and Rome beginning around the early third century BCE. Today, we know Stoicism largely through the teachings of three main philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. 

In general, the Stoics were pragmatists who focused on withstanding life’s challenges with resolve and resourcefulness. They believed that you should try to control only what’s within your power—your beliefs, attitudes, and choices—and let go of everything else. (Shortform note: The Stoics might have appreciated the notion of antifragility, or growing stronger through surmountable struggles, as explained by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile. Like the Stoics, Taleb argues that setbacks are only a problem when we handle them unskillfully, as when we overreact to them.)

Irvine says that the Stoics perceived adversity not as a setback, but as a training ground, an opportunity for growth. They believed that the highest good was virtue—which comprises character traits like courage, honesty, and patience—and that they could become virtuous by confronting hardships. 

Stoicism Is More Than Self-Help

In addition to asserting that we should only focus on what’s in our control, the ancient Stoics thoroughly developed philosophical positions regarding physics, logic, ethics, and more. Their choice to relinquish control over much of life was grounded in their theology: They accepted fate and believed in a higher order or cosmic plan. 

Fully orthodox Stoicism isn’t what we see today in contemporary self-improvement culture—rather, modern thinkers such as Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle Is the Way) focus on a smaller set of Stoic ideas about discipline and self-mastery that appeal to people today. For instance, Stoic ideas about resilience influenced the development of cognitive behavioral therapy, but this type of therapy doesn’t refer to Jupiter, the Stoics’ main god.
The Philosophy of Stoicism: Explained by William B. Irvine

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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