What Is Stoic Philosophy—and What Isn’t It? Realities & Myths

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Guide to the Good Life" by William B. Irvine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Stoic philosophy? What’s the difference between Greek and Roman Stoicism? What are some common misconceptions about Stoicism today?

In A Guide to the Good Life, philosophy professor William B. Irvine offers a brief history of Stoicism and an overview of its basic tenets. He compares Greek and Roman views of Stoicism, and he explains why the philosophy isn’t always well understood today.

Continue reading for Irvine’s explanation of Stoic philosophy that sheds light on the good life and its pursuit.

What Is Stoic Philosophy?

To better understand Stoic thought—and to avoid some contemporary misconceptions about what it means to be “stoic”—we’ll briefly consider the historical context and basic tenets of Stoicism. As we’ll see, Irvine’s version of Stoicism involves developing joy and minimizing unhappiness by controlling your desires and finding internal—rather than external—sources of fulfillment.

The Pursuit of the Good Life

What is Stoic philosophy? Stoicism began in Greece around 300 BC and spread to Rome around 140 BC. Irvine describes it as a “philosophy of life.” In other words, Stoicism isn’t interested in abstract theoretical questions—it’s interested in how to live well. Irvine argues that ancient Stoic philosophers were concerned with dispensing practical advice about how you should think and behave in order to achieve a good life. (Shortform note: In solving everyday problems with straightforward advice, Stoicism is very different from most forms of contemporary philosophy, which have been criticized for focusing on abstract thought puzzles, sociopolitical arguments, or the history of philosophy itself.)

But what is a good life? For the Greek Stoics, Irvine says, having a good life meant living virtuously—that is, living as humans were designed to live. The Greek Stoics prized logic and rationality, so for them, to live virtuously meant to exercise reason as fully as possible. For that reason, Greek Stoicism combined ethics (the philosophical study of right and wrong behavior) with logic and physics (which at that time pertained both to the natural world and to what we’d call theology today). (Shortform note: The reason rationality was so important to the ancient Stoics was that they believed that rational thought was the only thing that created happiness and that corrupted reason was the only thing that created unhappiness.)

By contrast, Irvine says, the Roman Stoics dropped the emphasis on logic and physics and instead focused on tranquilitythe lack of negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and the presence of joy—as the basis of a good life. Irvine bases his version of Stoicism entirely on the Roman Stoics because he thinks this emphasis on tranquility is more likely to appeal to modern audiences than the Greeks’ focus on logical virtue. (Shortform note: Some readers have criticized Irvine’s claim that tranquility was the central goal of any Stoic school, arguing that practical wisdom was in fact the highest Stoic value and that tranquility was more closely associated with Epicureanism, an entirely different school of philosophy.)

Stoic Beliefs vs. Contemporary Misconceptions

According to Irvine, one challenge in revisiting Stoicism today is that ancient Stoic philosophy was quite different from what we commonly think of as stoicism. He says that, when people talk about “being stoic” today, they often mean suppressing your emotions or managing not to feel anything in the first place. We might also conflate “stoicism” with living an austere life by shunning pleasures and luxuries. 

(Shortform note: This observation may have been true when the book was published in 2008, but since then, there’s been a surge in popularity for modern reinterpretations of Stoic thought. As a result, today’s readers may be more likely to associate Stoicism with what some critics call “Broicism”—a commercialized, productivity-oriented, hypermasculine mindset designed for tech billionaires and their imitators.)

Irvine explains that the truth is just the opposite: The ancient Stoics weren’t opposed to emotions in general—they were only interested in minimizing negative emotions, and they looked for ways to actively cultivate joy. A number of Irvine’s Stoic practices are based on regulating your reactions so that you’re not unduly upset by external events and can find happiness in any circumstance. (Shortform note: If you choose to practice Stoicism, be careful not to try to suppress any emotions, positive or negative. Doing so can lead to more emotional distress as well as long-term health problems. Instead, think of Stoicism as a way to handle emotions productively rather than a way to get rid of ones you don’t want.)

Similarly, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics believed you could enjoy pleasures and luxuries as long as you related to them correctly, which meant neither craving them nor getting attached to them. Consequently, several of Irvine’s Stoic practices are designed to help you tame your desires by appreciating what you already have and ignoring things that don’t really matter. Irvine explains that these practices are important because we’re never truly satisfied: If you base your happiness on external things (such as money, status, or other people), you won’t stay happy for long before you need more of those things (more money or higher status) or newer versions of them (the newest iPhone or a new romantic partner). 

(Shortform note: Contemporary psychology supports Irvine’s claim that our happiness always fades. Experts explain that we’re constantly on a hedonic treadmill: Our bodies and minds always seek equilibrium, so when something good (or bad) happens to you, you’ll feel an initial surge of emotion before gradually returning to your baseline level of happiness. This phenomenon ensures that nothing can actually grant you lasting happiness. Instead, you need to counter hedonic adaptation via techniques such as pursuing a variety of pleasures, engaging in altruistic behavior, practicing gratitude—and learning Stoicism.)

Moreover, Irvine argues, the ancient Stoics emphasized life’s temporary nature. They warned that if you rely on external things to make you happy, you’ll be unhappy when you inevitably lose those things. For that reason, several of Irvine’s practices are meant to help you prepare for life’s inevitable downturns so that you can handle misfortune skillfully and remain on an even keel. 

(Shortform note: This focus on life’s temporariness closely parallels the Buddhist concept of anicca, or impermanence. Buddhism argues that existence consists of constant change and that we suffer when we refuse to accept that change—for example, when we cling to the past or agonize about the future. Moreover, some experts point out that “anicca” can also translate roughly to “the inability to keep what we like”—in other words, that suffering comes from the (unattainable) desire to hold on to the things that bring you pleasure.)

What Is Stoic Philosophy—and What Isn’t It? Realities & Myths

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Here's what you'll find in our full A Guide to the Good Life summary:

  • A simple step-by-step guide to developing a Stoic practice
  • How to be happier, calmer, and more fulfilled in life
  • How you can evaluate your Stoic progress daily

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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