What is Stoicism? -- The Little Book of Stoicism

Reading notes for the first part of the book by Jonas Salzgeber, published in 2019.

Stoicism is a school of phylosophy founded by Zeno in Athens in the 3rd century BC. The primary concern of these philosofers was the question posed by Socrates around a hundred years yearlier: “What does it means to live a good life?”.

A humbling aside

We must note that Greece was the birthplace of the Western thought, with Socrates being considered its founder. So studying Stoicism means examining the earliest roots of all the Western culture.

We should be humbled with the fact that, despite these individuals having lived around 2.5 thousand years ago, much before modern science -- which is only around 5 centuries old, have inquired about deep and universal questions which are still relevent today.

It is also important to note that, in the last few decades, results from modern psychological research have demonstrated experimentally some of the teachings and beliefs as effective in increasing subjective well-being and happiness.

A matter of practice

Stoicism requires a little theory and lots of practice. Teachings are not of much use if they are not put in practice. We should note that consistently following this set of beliefs is much harder than learning about them, but the latter must precede the former.

That is to say that Stoicism is practical in nature and aims to actively improve everyday life. It is not a theoretical study of what human happiness mean, but a practical pursuit of it.

Eudaimonia and Arete

Stoicism believes that a happy life is a life in pursuit of eudaimonia, which means “being good with our inner spirits”, or, “living in harmony with your highest self”. The pursuit of a life well lived means the pursuit of our higher self, our state of being which is in harmony with our moral values.

This pursuit is called arete, which means “expressing the highest version of yourself in every moment”. It is very important to note that, in the Stoic view, happiness is not something achieved after some grand goal, but something which is pursued in the moment. This is consistent with

Emotional resilience

Stoics believe that strong emotions, such as fear, grief or anger, when they cloud our judgment and dictate our actions, are the main source of unhappiness. While feeling emotions is a inherent part of the humam experience, acting on them is a choice. We can -- and should -- always step back, think and select the more appropriate course of action.

Stoics realized that what makes an insult feel hurtful is our own interpretation of it, not its contents. This is corroborated by modern Cognitive Behavioral Theory research, where we our beliefs around a fact are the central element in making it feel good or bad, not the fact by itself.

To make it clear, the goal proposed by the Stoics is not to suppress emotions, but to be consciously aware of them and learning to not mindlessly act upon them. We can act calmly despite feeling angry, act corageously despite feeling anxious, and so on.

The ultimate goal of life

According to the Stoics, the ultimate goal of life is eudaimonia, the “happy and smoothly flowing life that comes from thriving at expressing your ideal version moment to moment”, which means not being enslaved to our negative emotions.