My admired Ramiro Calle used to say that he was “afraid” that stoicism was becoming so popular, because of the tendency of the West to distort and simplify everything to sell it later as an easy, fast and accessible method to achieve happiness (as it did with mindfulness, Buddhism or yoga, among many other things).
And how right he was! I keep seeing on social networks people sharing things about Stoicism, such as phrases of Marcus Aurelius taken out of context or ideas completely opposite to what the Stoics proposed, such as “Stoicism for success”.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life with a huge transformative potential, that I can assure you, but it is neither for everyone nor an easy path. That said, if you want to know a little more about this “art of living” and how it continues to be one of the most powerful teachings of personal transformation that exists, I invite you to read on.
Brief History and Key Figures of Stoicism
Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, around 300 BC, founded by Zeno of Citium, but it was in ancient Rome where it reached its zenith, with figures such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
Zeno, who encountered Socratic and Cynic thought after a shipwreck that left him in Athens, began teaching in the Painted Portico(hē Poikílē stoá), from which Stoicism takes its name. His teachings focused on virtue as the supreme good and on living in accordance with nature. This did not imply a life of asceticism, but living in harmony with the universe, recognizing what is in our control and what is not.
Later Stoics, such as Chrysippus and Cleanthes, expanded and systematized Zeno’s teachings, but it was in Rome that Stoicism found a wider audience. Seneca, tutor and advisor to Emperor Nero, is famous for his letters and treatises exploring how to live a virtuous life in an unpredictable world. His work is a testament to how Stoic wisdom can be applied in practice, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Epictetus, a freed slave, emphasized the importance of inner control. For him, freedom and happiness depended on our ability to control our perceptions and reactions. His“Enquiridion” is a concise guide to Stoic principles, stressing that it is not external events that disturb us, but our opinions about these events.
Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor, is perhaps the most emblematic figure of Stoicism (and whose phrases you’ll find on social media, sugar sachets, mugs and sundries). In his famous “Meditations,” written as a personal diary during his military campaigns, he reflects on the transitory nature of life and the importance of living according to virtue. His work was not intended for publication, which gives it an authenticity and intimacy that has provoked enormous fascination for centuries.
Subsequently, Stoicism influenced Christian thought, especially figures such as St. Augustine. In modernity, philosophers such as Descartes and Kant were influenced by Stoic principles. More recently, modern psychology, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy and more recently, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have rediscovered and applied many of its central ideas.
Notice to Navigators
The idea that strictly following a specific set of principles will guarantee happiness is one that I consider problematic and even potentially harmful and one that, unfortunately, is most prevalent today. “Do this and get that” is a phrase widely used in sales (and very effective, by the way.) Want to be happy? Use this revolutionary meditation technique 20 minutes a day Not living in abundance and success? You are probably attracting negativity with your thinking, make these changes in your mind and that’s it.
Selling magic formulas for happiness, success, health and love is as old as mankind. “Quick” and “Simple” are two very powerful words, especially in this age where we want it all and we want it now. As you can imagine, Stoicism has not been spared from this. Would you like to be successful, happy, live in the present and be immune to the pain and adversity of life? Follow these simple principles of Stoicism, my friend.
Sarcasm aside, I want to make one thing clear; Whoever is interested in stoicism for the sake of inner peace and all the benefits it promises, think twice. For these people I have written this small warning to navigators.
The search for inner peace and the healing process is a journey that, contrary to what many might expect, often involves traversing painful emotional and psychological territory. This is an uncomfortable truth, but one that is very important for us to understand: the path to authentic serenity and healing requires a direct confrontation with aspects of reality and ourselves that can be, at first, deeply disturbing and difficult to accept.
The act of looking inward, into our depths, is an exercise that often reveals uncomfortable truths about our fears, insecurities, past hurts and unresolved aspects of our personality. This introspection can be a mirror that reflects the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore: our mistakes, our weaknesses, our shadows. Facing these truths can be heartbreaking, as it challenges the idealized image we often have of ourselves and dismantles the illusions in which we take refuge.
Healing also involves accepting reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. This may mean recognizing and letting go of unrealistic expectations, forgiving others and ourselves, or dealing with the pain of past experiences. This aspect can be especially challenging because it goes against our natural tendency to avoid pain and seek comfort. It requires the courage to look at the darkest and most painful parts of our existence and face them openly.
In addition, this journey often involves dismantling old structures and beliefs. Many times, the ideas and thought patterns we have built up over the years do not serve our well-being and need to be revised. Changing these ingrained patterns can be a disorienting and distressing experience, as it forces us to step out of our comfort zone and face uncertainty.
But, while this process is painful, it is also profoundly transformative. By facing and accepting our shadows, we begin to integrate them, leading to greater self-understanding and authenticity. This act of courage and honesty with oneself lays the foundation for lasting inner peace and genuine healing. Instead of being an escape from reality, it becomes a full acceptance of it, allowing for profound personal and emotional growth.
It is very important that we understand that this is not a linear or easy process. There are moments of setbacks, doubt and renewed pain. But each step on this path, no matter how painful, is a step towards greater clarity, strength and balance. The inner peace and healing that is achieved after going through these difficulties is profoundly enriching, as it is rooted in truth, acceptance and genuine self-love.
So, although the journey may be unexpectedly painful and challenging, it is a journey worth taking. It offers us the opportunity to face and transform our most difficult realities into sources of strength, wisdom and authenticity.
Fundamental Principles of Stoicism
Most people understand by principles a set of rigid and unbreakable rules. The fundamentals of stoicism are to be seen as a guide, map or compass (whatever you prefer to call it) that serve to make us aware of important aspects of ourselves and reality and reflect on them, leading to personal transformation as we penetrate and deepen these aspects.
One of the great attractions of Stoicism, apart from its practical application, is the simplicity of its principles, easy to understand intellectually. But the truth is that simplicity is a deceptive aspect, because the difficult thing is to bring these principles to our daily life. And by difficult I do not mean that it is something only within the reach of a select few. I mean that it requires will and effort and, believe me, these qualities are less common than they may seem.
The reality is that each individual faces unique circumstances, and a rigid interpretation of any philosophy can be restrictive and impractical. Instead, viewing Stoic principles as starting points for personal reflection allows for a more adaptive and personalized application.
Without further ado, let’s briefly describe the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy.
Control vs. Lack of Control
One of the pillars of Stoicism is the distinction between what is in our control and what is not. The Stoics firmly believed that inner peace and happiness are achieved by accepting this dichotomy. What is in our control are our own actions, thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, external events – health, wealth, social status, and even the actions of others – are beyond our direct control. By recognizing and accepting this separation, the Stoics found serenity amidst the chaos of life.
With this in mind, imagine for a moment what Marcus Aurelius or Seneca would think if they read an article entitled “Stoic Principles for Success.”
Virtue, in Stoicism, is considered the supreme good and the key to a good life. This is based on the idea that to live virtuously is to live in accordance with nature. The Stoics identified four cardinal virtues: wisdom (understood as the correct understanding of reality), courage (the ability to face difficult situations with fortitude), justice (treating others with fairness and benevolence) and self-control (the ability to govern desires and emotions)
As you might guess, developing these virtues is a lifetime’s work.
Perception and Reaction
For the Stoics, it is not the events themselves that disturb us, but the way we interpret them. This idea is key to Stoicism and forms the basis of many modern therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which we have already mentioned. From this point of view, we can choose how we respond to external events. By changing our perception and judgment of events, we can maintain our inner peace and avoid being swept away by negative emotions.
There is a small detail that we must keep in mind; we cannot force our way of seeing the world, it is something that arises naturally, as a result of deep reflection. Many people believe that it is enough to substitute some thoughts for others, which is a mistake.
The Importance of Living the Present
Living in the present or “the here and now” has become such a cliché in modern self-help that it has lost all meaning. The Stoics believed that worrying about the past or the future is futile, since we can neither change the former nor completely control the latter. Instead, we should focus on the present, where our actions, thoughts and decisions have a real impact.
Resilience in the Face of Adversity
Resilience is another word that has permeated self-help. The Stoics saw difficulties and challenges not as misfortunes, but as opportunities to practice virtues. Adversity, they argued, strengthens character and provides opportunities to grow and improve.
When one reads this one might think that then, if we want to strengthen ourselves, we must go through life looking for adversities to face. But this is far from Stoic thinking. It simply means that when life puts us in a difficult situation we use it to grow, instead of wallowing in victimhood. Where there is pain, there is opportunity for growth, but this does not mean that we actively seek out suffering, but rather that we pay attention to what hurts us (psychologically speaking in this case) rather than trying to run away from it or mask it.
The Exercise of Right Judgment
Right judgment is a recurring theme in Stoicism. It emphasizes the importance of evaluating situations objectively, without being swayed by irrational emotions. This involves developing a clear and rational understanding of the world and our place in it. You are probably wondering, what is the right judgment? Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be conceptualized or answered.
The Connection with Nature
The Stoics saw the universe as a rational and ordered system, governed by logic. They believed that human beings, as part of this universe, must live in harmony with nature and with reason. This connection with the natural order of the world is fundamental to achieving wisdom and virtue.
Although Stoicism is often associated with self-control and a focus on the inner self, it also emphasizes the importance of community and social responsibilities. Stoics believed in universal brotherhood and the idea that all human beings are connected, implying a duty to others and the world around us.
Detachment and Inner Freedom
Finally, Stoicism teaches the value of detachment as a way to achieve inner freedom. By freeing ourselves from the bondage of irrational desires and preoccupation with things beyond our control, we can achieve true inner freedom and peace.
“Detachment” is a word to which we will dedicate an entire article because of its importance and all the misunderstandings surrounding it.
Myths about Stoicism
As with other philosophies and practices, Stoicism has not been free from misunderstandings and myths. In this section we will explore some of the most common misunderstandings surrounding Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism is Synonymous with Emotional Indifference
Perhaps the most common misconception is to equate Stoicism with a lack of emotion or indifference to pain and pleasure. But this perception distorts the true Stoic teaching. The Stoics did not advocate the suppression of emotions, but rather their understanding and proper management. The idea was not to be slaves to our passions and impulsive reactions, but to understand and direct them constructively. Stoic serenity is not the absence of feelings, but the ability to remain calm and rational in the midst of the difficulties that life throws at us.
Stoicism Promotes Fatalism
Another common misunderstanding is the idea that Stoicism promotes a fatalistic attitude towards life, where everything is predestined and our actions are unimportant. While it is true that the Stoics believed in some degree of cosmic determinism, they were not resigned to a passive fatalism. On the contrary, they advocated an active engagement with life, focusing on what is within our control-our actions and reactions-and accepting what is not. This acceptance is not resignation, but a realistic recognition of the limits of our influence on the world.
Stoicism is Only for Hard Times
While it is true that stoicism offers valuable tools for facing challenges, its application is not limited to difficulties. It is a guide for everyday life, offering principles for managing personal relationships, making decisions, managing success and failure, and finding purpose. It is a framework for living in a balanced and meaningful way, regardless of external circumstances.
Stoicism Is Unnatural and Oppressive
Some critics of Stoicism see it as an unnatural philosophy that represses basic human instincts and promotes a life of rigidity and self-oppression. But this interpretation ignores the Stoic emphasis on living in accord with nature. The Stoics understood that to be human means to have emotions and desires, but also to have the capacity to reason and reflect. Therefore, Stoicism does not seek to suppress our nature, but to harmonize our passions and reason to achieve a full life.
Stoicism Disdains Pleasure and Material Goods
It is often assumed that Stoicism condemns pleasure and material goods, promoting an austere lifestyle devoid of joy. The truth is that the Stoics did not despise pleasure or wealth per se, but rather their inordinate pursuit and their valuation above virtue. For the Stoics, pleasure and material goods are preferable but “indifferent” in terms of true happiness, which resides in virtue and character.
Stoicism Promotes Isolation and Social Insensitivity
There is a misconception that Stoicism promotes isolation and lack of empathy, encouraging individuals to disconnect from social problems and relationships. On the contrary, although Stoicism places great emphasis on emotional and mental self-reliance, it also recognizes the importance of community and social responsibility. The Stoics saw humanity as part of an interconnected whole, where each person has a role in the collective well-being.
What is your experience with Stoicism? Leave us a comment
We would like to know your experience with this millenary philosophy. How did it come into your life, what practices do you apply in your daily life, what books do you recommend and any other details you consider important.