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Stoicism and Its Basics Tenets

Updated on June 15, 2017

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy, developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. that teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. For centuries, Stoicism was one of the most influential philosophies in the Greco-Roman world. It has been modified and developed by its numerous followers and teachers over hundreds of years. However, the basic framework always remained the same.

The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, and realizing our ephemeral nature. It’s important that we understand the adversities that we face and not run from them. It’s vital that we learn to transmute them into fuel to feed our fire.

Stoicism requires focusing on how to become better human beings and lead a fulfilling, happy life.

Basics tenets of stoicism –

It is a way of life involving constant practice and training, which incorporates the practice of logic, self-dialogue, contemplation of death and a kind of meditation aimed at training one's attention to remain in the present moment. The following are important basic tenets of Stoicism:

Practice of asceticism - The constant practice of asceticism - a voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures that are not required for basic needs of our daily existence - enables a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm and freedom from suffering, which Stoicism considers the ultimate goal.

All emotions come from within - It is not outside forces that make us feel something. It is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings. We place blame and responsibility on external objects but the truth is that all the conflicts start in our minds. When Stoics run into an obstacle and feel resistance, they don’t look around. Instead, they look within.

No elimination of emotions - Stoicism does not advocate being “stoic” in the sense of being unemotional. Someone may have a “stoic” personality but hold completely different beliefs from someone who is “Stoic” in the philosophical sense of the word. Many people mistakenly assume that Stoics seek to repress, suppress, or eliminate all of their emotions. Even some highly-regarded academic scholars have, in the past, argued that Stoicism teaches the uprooting and elimination of all emotions.

Acceptance of what is beyond control - Much of our emotional life is not entirely within our control. And battling “stoically” against our automatic emotional reactions is bound to seem totally contrary to the well-known Stoic teaching that we should focus on changing things we control while accepting things that are not within our power.

The famous Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) incorporates this basic concept:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Focus on unhealthy passions - Stoicism mainly focuses on passions, which are irrational, excessive and unnatural in the sense of being unhealthy. These passions are also intended to be voluntary. We implicitly choose to indulge in them and perpetuate them. So, Stoicism primarily advises us to stop going along with them. It’s also important to know that for Stoics there is no real division between reason and the passions or emotions.

Stoicism distinguishes between three categories of passion (or desires and emotions):

  • Passions, which are irrational, excessive, unhealthy, and voluntarily perpetuated by us
  • Proto-passions, which are the involuntary or reflex-like precursors of full-blown passions (desires and emotions), for example shaking, sweating, being startled, stammering, blushing, etc.
  • Good passions are rational, moderate, healthy and voluntary passions, which supervene upon wisdom and virtue. They are the consequences of holding true beliefs about what is good, bad and indifferent in our lives.

Changing the belief – Stoics are required to change the belief rather than merely suppressing the feelings. They argue that the beliefs underlying unhealthy passions are false. Stoics should change them by thinking through things philosophically until they actually realize that they are mistaken. For instance, the Stoics don’t tell us to try to suppress our anxiety about death. Rather they argue, on the basis of their philosophy, that death is not intrinsically bad, or evil.

Life after failure – We sometimes spend months or even years on a project only to watch it go awry, giving us a demoralizing sense of failure. The Stoics consider failures as experiences that help them do better next time. They believe in the adage: No failure, No growth.

Development of self-awareness – It’s important to be mindful of the urges that obstruct us from showing up, engaging, committing, and being present. The practice of self-awareness in how we think, feel and behave makes us mindful. We can develop mindfulness as a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it becomes.

Ephemeral nature of humans – Stoicism requires that death should be at the forefront of our thoughts. We should realize the ephemeral nature of life and how this is repeated in many of its facets. The realization that we have lived a certain number of years and the years ahead of us are not guaranteed makes us aware of our ephemeral nature. When we think so, we realize that everyday truly is an opportunity to improve. This also makes us realize to appreciate what we are capable of achieving and how we are responsible for the quality of our lives.

Resigning to fate – This doesn’t mean that Stoics don’t try to improve their future but, on the contrary, they always try to better themselves. According to Stoicism, resigning oneself to fate means that we should not place too high a value on transient thing. By accepting the fact that things come and go, the contentment and peace will follow, which will help us withstand the obstacles of ambition, luxury and most importantly greed.

The bottom line –

This ancient philosophy of Stoicism helps us achieve a tranquil life:

  • By finding value in adversity;
  • By promoting the use of reason to overcome emotions;
  • By teaching that there is no importance of external events;
  • By advocating moderation in all things; and
  • By viewing death as a solution, transition or end, since life after death is unknowable.

It is significant to realize that Stoicism is still valid in the current personal and social scenario to become better human being and lead a fulfilling, happy life.


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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image

      Dr Pran Rangan 6 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Dana for your valuable comments.

      Understanding emotions and their interplay in various interactions gives us an ability to regulate them. I agree with your view that turmoils comes from within and not from outer sources.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 6 months ago from LOS ANGELES

      So much truth in this article. Most people don't want to hear that turmoil comes from within and not outer sources. At the end of the day we all should have control over our emotions and use them in their proper context. Extremely useful article.