The Misunderstood Stoic

Tags: musings

I am a big proponent of Stoicism, the philosophy practised by, among others, Marcus Aurelius, also known as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ of Rome. I believe that Stoicism, with its focus on conquering the impulses to react to external stimuli, has a lot to offer for our current society, which is so ripe with flashy baubles vying for our attention. In this article, I want to clarify two of the core beliefs of Stoicism, which tend to be misunderstood.

Emotions

To begin with, already the word stoic (when used as an adjective to refer to certain behaviours) has an unfortunate additional connotation. Looking at the dictionary, we find:

stoic (adjective):
not affected by or showing passion or feeling

This led to the assumption that Stoicism is ‘superhuman’ in the sense of experiencing neither pain nor joy but just being indifferent about all the things in life. Of course, this is a simplification—and in fact, our modern reading of the word ‘passion’ might be completely misleading. The Stoics are not unemotional per se but distinguished between three different types of emotions:

  1. Good or healthy
  2. Bad or unhealthy
  3. Neutral

For a good emotion, they used the term εὐπάθεια (eupatheia). This is the feeling that a practising Stoic experiences when they are comporting their life according to proper judgements, virtue, and wisdom. Moreover, εὐπάθεια also includes having ‘good will toward others’, friendliness, and affection. Other emotions, such as fear or anger, are classified as profoundly bad or unhealthy. However, in contrast to popular assumption, the goal of a Stoic is not to suppress these emotions—which we now know to be highly problematic thanks to psychotherapy—but rather replace them with better ones eventually.

If this cannot be accomplished, there is no need to despair, though. Stoics also believe that our emotions are not within our control and therefore, no one should desire to feel a certain way. Of course, it is good if you feel good, but at the same time, feeling bad should not affect your behaviour or your judgement. An analogy that is often used here is that of the weather. A Stoic should accept an emotion just as they would accept bad weather: even if it rains, you might have certain obligations and people would give you strange looks if you exclaimed that the rain is making it impossible for you to be fair, wise, or do your job.

Likewise, the last category of feelings, i.e. the neutral ones, encompasses certain semi-automated reflexes, such as shivering, blushing, being startled, and so on. The Stoics realise that these things are not fully within our power, hence they can neither be entirely good or entirely bad, and should just be accepted without giving them too much room or too much control over our thoughts. In fact, there is an interesting quote from a 1963 article1 on behavioural sciences:

Out of this capacity to experience a “gap” between self and world, between stimulus and response, man has developed his capacity to use symbols, to reason, and to speak in language. These are the unique ways in which mind expresses itself.

[…]

Indeed I would define mental health as the capacity to be aware of the gap between stimulus and response, together with the capacity to use this gap constructively.

In particular the last sentence can easily be seen as an embodiment of the Stoic principle that we can only control our conscious response, but never our semi-automated reflexes. Stoicism therefore has a very healthy relationship towards feelings, making a clear distinction between those ‘passions’ that are good for us in the long run and those that are not.

Virtue

Another facet of Stoicism that is often misunderstood is the concept of virtue. Having virtue means being able to reason correctly about our life and comporting ourselves according to that which is reasonable. Similar to the cardinal virtues2 of Christianity, the Stoics held a few virtues in high esteem:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Courage
  3. Temperance
  4. Justice

Wisdom is first in this list, and this is not by accident—the remaining virtues can be seen as a practical application of wisdom. If we are courageous, we exercise wisdom by knowing that we have to endure certain things to reach a goal, for example. If we are temperate, we exercise wisdom by being impervious to (bad) passions. Finally, if we are just, we exercise wisdom by dealing fairly with people.

This is not controversial, but often, Stoicism is misunderstood when saying that virtue is the only good thing in life. What about being healthy? What about being rich? What about having a modicum of power over one's fate? The Stoics would certainly agree that there are things that are to be preferred over other things. For example, life is preferred over death, health is preferred over disease, wealth is preferred over poverty, and so on. However, Stoics believe that all of these things are ‘indifferent’ in the sense that they can only be utilised properly by virtue. While one should always prefer, say, wealth over poverty, the pursuit of indifferent things at the expense of wisdom will always lead to ruin. Briefly put, our lives will only be happy if we learn how to use these indifferent things virtuously.

Wisdom should therefore be the primary pursuit and, when facing a choice that has wisdom on one side, and anything else on the other, we should choose wisdom. It is this love of wisdom (or virtue) that is not often understood correctly when paraphrasing Stoicism or trying to restrict this set of beliefs into a mere adjective. Interestingly, modern psychotherapy gave us a lot of insight into the wisdom3 of Stoicism. Donald Robertson, a psychotherapist focusing on cognitive behavioural therapy, noticed these links and wrote a wonderful book on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which analyses these connections in much more detail. It is well worth a read.

Until next time, stay wise!


  1. Rollo May: Freedom and Responsibility Re-examined. The article is well worth a read; the excerpts I quoted occur on p. 101 and p. 102, respectively. ↩︎

  2. Temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude. As you will see, the Stoics believed in the same list, using slightly different wordings, though. ↩︎

  3. No pun intended! ↩︎