Despite its popularity, or perhaps because of it, Stoicism is a difficult thing to define. Is it a philosophy, a nuanced outlook, a mindset, a healthy lifestyle, or a conservative fad? Is it inherently masculine? Is it toxic? Is it all these things?
It’s also not clear why the practice of Stoicism is revived periodically throughout history. While it began in Hellenistic Greece, with philosophers like Zeno, it would continue to draw disciples centuries later in the Roman Republic and Imperial Rome. With the rise of Christianity, many of the early Church Fathers incorporated Stoic teachings into the faith, creating a tradition of Christian Stoicism. Even in the supposedly post-Christian West, many continue to be inspired by Stoicism, applying its principles to a world saturated with pervasive media, raging emotions, and nonstop noise.
To answer these questions about Stoicism, it’s best to go to the source—or sources. In a new edition of Gateway to the Stoics, modern audiences are treated to the writings of three of the greatest Stoics: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. While approaching Stoicism from entirely different perspectives—Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, Epictetus a Greek slave, and Seneca a statesman and teacher who had the misfortune of having the Emperor Nero as a student—the texts of these diverse writers nevertheless cohere to bring out the simplicity, depth, and enduring relevance of Stoicism.
The first thing that distinguishes Stoicism is its genre. Unlike the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, which relied on a dialectal method that scrutinized and reconciled the logic of opposing claims to arrive at a greater truth, the Stoics practice a form of introspection to develop a singular claim on a greater truth. Thus, while Plato wrote dialogues and Aristotle treatises, the Stoics composed reflections, meditations, and letters.
Related to the Stoic style of argumentation is its focus. Although the philosophy presumably encompasses all aspects of life, most of its representative texts emphasize morality and praxis. None of the writers devote much time to proper definitions of key concepts but instead work off a set of self-evident principles. In this way, they are philosophers in the sense that Confucius and Ralph Waldo Emerson are philosophers, converting abstract ideas into practical application. Epictetus is explicit about this: “On no occasion call yourself a philosopher, and do not speak much among the uninstructed about theorems (philosophical rules, precepts): but do that which follows from them.”
While this attitude makes Stoicism accessible to everyone, it also tends to make the texts rather dry and disjointed. Seneca is the exception, since he is a skilled writer and rhetorician making an argument to his reader. However, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus express their thoughts with no clear plan or audience. Thus, it falls to the reader to identify key themes and emerging patterns.
In the collection of texts featured in Gateway to the Stoics, there are four such themes: self-reliance, universal brotherhood, death, and resignation. The first two help explain the enduring appeal of Stoicism in addition to its compatibility with Christianity. The second two themes illustrate the weaknesses of Stoicism and why Christianity overtook it in the Western world.
The theme of self-reliance is most pronounced, especially when reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Enchiridion (or Manual) of Epictetus. What they both prescribe isn’t mere detachment from the material world but rather the cultivation of an ethic of freedom—freedom from the passions, others’ opinions, and fortune. By freeing oneself of these external forces, one will find truth and serenity, or what Aurelius calls being aligned with “universal reason” or “universal nature.” Moreover, this is immediately possible for the individual, no matter what his station in life, as Aurelius enjoins his reader: “It is in thy power to live free from all compulsion in the greatest tranquility of mind.”
Doubtless, this is a powerful message for people today who feel smothered by ubiquitous media and constant chatter. All the Stoics agree that the influences that bring down the individual are really just “opinion” or “externals,” and thus dispensable. As Epictetus explains, “You can be invincible if you enter into no contest which it is not in your power to conquer.” This isn’t cheap advice to pick one’s battles, but a reframing of one’s whole reality. We have a choice to master our circumstances or be ruled by them.
This idea of self-reliance ties into the theme of universal brotherhood. When all the titles and external trappings of life are removed, human beings are all in the same condition. As Seneca notes in a letter to his friend Lucilius: “Never forget that the man you call ‘slave’ grew up from the same stock as you, looks with pleasure on the same sky, breathes the same air, lives just as fully as you do, and will die just as certainly as you will.”
Not only is this stated as a matter of justice and doing right by others, but it sets up his argument of what constitutes slavery: “Show me the man who is not a slave: some are slaves to their sex drives, others to greed; some to their ambition, and all to fear.” This quote encapsulates Stoicism in a nutshell. It is rooted in the premise that all human beings are in a state of voluntary servitude and that true liberation begins in the mind, a truth that extends to all periods in history. As Spencer Klavan notes in his foreword to the book, “Perhaps, like Frederick Douglass after him, Epictetus also learned from studying his own example that a body in chains is not the same thing as a degraded soul.”
Of course, Stoicism isn’t all about empowerment and equality. If one were to judge what mattered most to the Stoics based on the number of mentions, it could easily be the idea of death. Marcus Aurelius continually muses over the fact that death comes for us all, making much of what people pursue in life utterly meaningless: “For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.” Epictetus echoes this sentiment: “Let death and exile and every other thing which appears dreadful be daily before your eyes; but most of all death.”
Presumably, the inevitability of death will inspire an individual to free himself from fear of it and to give up vain pursuits. Still, as Randall Smith points out in From Here to Eternity, the Stoic conception of death is ultimately inadequate and easily leads to a crisis of meaning. What is the point of acting virtuously and living in accordance with the logic of the universe if one will simply die and be forgotten? Is Stoicism just a coping mechanism for those who’ve come to realize that nothing they do really matters? Not one of the writers really answers this important question, despite suggesting this conclusion on numerous occasions.
Coupled with a fixation on death is the resignation that pervades Stoicism. It isn’t so much an acceptance of a grim reality as more a belief that things are predetermined. Marcus Aurelius is the most positive on this point, expressing joy and awe at the beauty of creation: “If a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner so as to give pleasure.” Evidently, the point of life is admiring the logic of the cosmos, not necessarily making one’s mark on it.
Paradoxically, it is Stoicism’s shortcomings that reveal its enduring value, particularly if one is a Christian: Christ makes up what is lacking in the Stoics. In place of a meaningless death and a static world driven by fate, Christ’s Gospel promises both life after death and an intelligible world that can be changed. Along with the Stoics’ cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—the Church adds three more, which make the whole project work: faith, hope, and charity. In this way, the revelations of both Stoicism and Christianity reinforce one another, giving a fuller picture of how people should act and why.
For this reason, Spencer Klavan is right to call out the efforts of today’s young Stoics to reject all belief in God. Sure, Stoicism can still help people with “taking back agency in their own lives” and not “fretting over a world that seems constantly on the verge of ending.” However, he concludes, “in the long run, without God, Stoicism cannot save.” Without a belief in a transcendent deity, or a divine redeemer for that matter, the once venerable philosophy shared by some of the greatest thinkers in the ancient world is inevitably doomed to degenerate into a self-help gimmick.
While Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca may not have known any better, people today have no such excuse. Not only can they read Gateway to the Stoics and learn Stoicism from the masters themselves; they also still live in a Christian-influenced culture and have access to the most meaningful piece of life’s puzzle that Stoicism is unable to provide: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”