What is Stoicism? Stoicism is a wisdom philosophy. What that means is that it’s a philosophy about how to live life and live it well. Our philosophy was founded in Athens, Greece, about 2300 years ago by a man named Zeno. After studying with the Cynics for several years, he studied at Plato’s Academy, then started his own school at the central market in Athens. Zeno started his school by standing on a porch in the market and talking to anyone who happened by. In time, he had a regular group of men standing and talking philosophy there with him. The porch became his school. The word for porch in Greek is stoa, and the men who met there to talk philosophy soon became known as the men of the porch, or Stoics.
Stoicism became the preeminent philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and flourished for nearly 500 years. It reemerged as a popular philosophy in the Renaissance when people returned to reason rather than faith to find answers about how to live. Today our philosophy and those who live by it are alive and well all over the world.
Is it true that Stoics repress their emotions and feelings? No. This is an old misunderstanding. Emotions and feelings are normal and natural, and sometimes they’re even essential to our survival. There are times when being afraid and running away is the wisest course of action.
Where the misunderstanding comes from is the Stoic belief that emotions are based upon a judgment. All of us, including Stoics, have emotional reactions to events that can cause anger, grief, and fear, but after the initial instinctivereaction, it is our judgment about the event that either inflames or cools the emotion. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare was a student of Stoic philosophy, by the way, and he often used Stoic themes in his plays.
We believe it is our judgment that makes something either good or bad, not the thing in itself. If we are unhappy, then it was some judgement that inflamed the emotions and made us unhappy. Happiness is everyone’s desire, and Stoicism is all about increasing your happiness and living well.
What things do Stoics consider good and bad? Only virtue is always good, and only the lack of virtue is always bad. We do not believe there is any evil in Nature, only in the behavior of human beings, and that comes about when people deliberately choose what is harmful to themselves.
You see, we don’t believe anyone can harm you, only that you can harm yourself when you choose not to live according to Nature. But we don’t condemn others for lacking virtue, because they are already punishing themselves by their behavior.
No one can hurt me, because I alone am responsible for the nobility of my character–and that is the Stoic’s highest ideal, the noble character. Rich men and women are a dime a dozen, but a noble character is rare and the greatest of all. Stoicism teaches you how to build a noble character.
I’ve heard of the Stoic motto, the goal of life is to live according to Nature, but what does that mean, exactly? Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was the first to use that phrase, “live according to Nature,” and what it means exactly is that Stoics look to Nature as their guide to life. We believe that Nature teaches us everything we need to know about how to live well in this world. That is why Stoic physics is so important. In antiquity, physics was known as natural philosophy, and by studying nature we come to know ourselves and what makes us happy and successful and wise.
Later, another great Stoic, Panaetius, expanded the original motto to include not just nature in general, but also the nature of the individual. Each one of us has a unique personality, including different talents and capacities we can develop to achieve our highest ideal. So, living according to Nature also means to live in accordance with one’s own nature.
Epictetus, a Roman Stoic teacher, said, “If you have assumed any character beyond your strength, you have both demeaned yourself in that, and neglected one which you might have filled with success.” The wise live according to both human nature in general and one’s individual nature in particular.
Are Stoics allowed to enjoy such pleasures as good food, wine, art, music, making love, et cetera? Yes, of course. We are pantheists. The Stoic God is in ALL things. We value our reason above all, because that is our special gift from Nature, but our creator is also in the eyes and ears and nose and taste buds and kinesthetic sense — as well as in the mind.
Do Stoics believe in God? Yes, we do, but we do not all believe in God in the same way. All Stoics are pantheists, because Nature is our god, literally, but you can be an atheist or a deist or an agnostic and still be a Stoic in good standing. The key to what kind of Stoic you are depends on whether you believe that the intelligence and processes of Nature are conscious or unconscious. Is Nature conscious or unconscious? Human beings were created by Nature and have consciousness. Are we the only ones, or is our creator also conscious?
The early Stoics believed that Nature was both providential and conscious. These were the deists, but when Stoicism was adopted in ancient Roman there were a few who believed that Nature was unconscious. These were the first Stoic atheists. Today we have Stoics who are deists, atheists, and agnostics. Such diversity is perfectly acceptable. The Stoic community has a large tent, and we are tolerant of disagreement within it.
Do Stoics believe in life after death? We do not believe in any one certain answer to this question. If you’re looking for certainty, there are two ways you can go about it. The first and most reliable way is for you to die, then you will know for sure. The second way, one that you may consider less drastic, is to join a religious group that promises eternal life. Unfortunately, this is a promise that they cannot prove. If you have faith in a religion, such as the Christians or Muslims, then they will tell you what to believe about life after death. However, if you demand evidence, reason, or proof, then there is none.
We can neither empirically prove nor disprove life in any form beyond the grave. No one can. Religions that tell you otherwise are asking you to have faith in myths, legends, and wishful thinking. Our philosophy never requires such faith. Stoics are more comfortable with disagreement than with faith, and we have always disagreed about this matter. Mostly we’re agnostics. However, we all do agree on one thing: if you live according to Nature in this life, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll have anything to worry about in the next — if there is one.
What is the Stoic attitude about homosexuality and racial and gender issues? This is one of my favorite questions because of our tradition and teachings as a philosophy. Homosexuality was never an issue in ancient Greece when Stoicism was founded, and it isn’t today, but with regard to racial and gender issues, only the Stoics were truly enlightened. Other philosophies were often contemptuous and disparaging, but there has never been any doubt with us: we are all equal.
One little known fact is that Stoics were the first to condemn rape. At a time when rape was far more common than it is even today, the excuse for such behavior was, “The God of love, Eros, made me do it. I was driven to this passion by Eros and powerless to resist.” Stoics said that excuse was nonsense. Rape was wrong. You DO have the power to resist. No god can compel you to behave badly, and no one has the right to violate another person’s body. No excuses. Period. And, of course, we still believe that way today.
Getting back to the matter of equality, the key here is reason. In antiquity, our greatest scientist, Posidonius, traveled widely and studied many different peoples and cultures and confirmed what Stoics have always believed: human beings are the same everywhere, and the thing that unites us all, no matter how differently we may appear, is our greatest faculty, our ability to reason.
Why does the world need a Stoic community, such as the cybercity, New Stoa? Well, first of all, human beings are social animals. That is our nature. We are happier and more productive when we have family and friends to care for and who care for us and give us a context for our lives. It’s always been this way, and it probably always will.
Today most of us live in cities, and the urban environment has become one of isolation and alienation. Our ancient need to belong has been compromised for many if not all of us, and this is a considerable loss. We have been members of a tribe or a community for as long as we have been a separate species, and probably longer — millions of years anyway. It’s in our very bones and DNA.
The Stoic community brings us back to the social animal that we truly are, so that we can live in the world as it is and still have a community that supports us and shares our values. New Stoa is the Stoic community today, and, although we live in many countries all over the world, we are still a community of neighbors, family, and friends.
Can just anyone be a Stoic? I mean, what do you have to do to be a Stoic today? Well, there’s nothing that prevents anyone from becoming a Stoic, but you cannot be a Stoic without agreeing with certain principles. Although we do have a big tent, and Stoics have always been rugged individualists when it comes to their beliefs, we still need to agree on certain essential ideals. Chiefly, these are:
- We are pantheists and Nature is our God.
- We are created by Nature to use reason, our greatest faculty, to learn how to live well and happily in accordance with our Nature.
- All human beings are members of the same family, and both your friends and enemies are to be treated with respect — as if they really were members of your family.
- First, you study how to live in accordance with Nature, then you practice. Study alone is not enough. Stoicism is a wisdom philosophy, a living philosophy. It’s not some abstract intellectual exercise — as is the case with academic philosophies today. We actually live by what we believe.