In today’s parlance, a “stoic” is an individual who displays little emotion; we might also call such a person “cold” or “robotic”. But the term originates with an ancient school of philosophy called Stoicism which, while sharing some of the traits we may ascribe to a modern “stoic”, was far more complex than an exodus of emotion.
Stoicism was established in the 3rd Century BC as a “way of life” rather than a philosophy. The goal of these ancient stoics was to achieve a virtuous “good life” through understanding and acceptance of the world’s natural order. Stoics looked at the world and saw every part of it as natural. Birth, death, illness, good health – all things were natural and none were unexpected.
If one was to get sick or one’s family member were to pass, a stoic would see it as foolish to be upset.
Such things are a natural part of life and logically should be expected. Therefore, what is the use in getting upset? Such things were to be expected and to grieve would simply show a lack of understanding of the natural order.
Stoics do not think that you should simply lay back and accept everything as it comes. Rather, they would expect a virtuous individual to exert their full efforts in achieving their goals.
If they were to fare poorly despite this effort, they should not despair, for they have no control beyond their exertion of their own effort.
For example, if I spend hours working on an article only to have my editor tear it up before my eyes, a stoic would say I need not be upset at all.
I had tried my hardest and produced my best work, it cannot be helped that my article was deemed lacking.
In the stoic’s view, all unhappiness or evil stems from a simple ignorance of the true nature of the world.
If you are unhappy, it is because you do not understand the nature of the world and the eventuality of all things.
If you are evil, then you do not understand logic which would clearly dictate that the kindness is the superior way to live one’s life.
Stoics therefore view their philosophy as a way to end suffering and live in reason and virtue.
Though Stoicism is one of the less criticized branches of philosophy, it is not without its flaws. Stoicism seems to lend support to a passive style of existence which, in the face of injustice or moral wrongs, encourages no rectifying action. Moreover, Stoicism depends on a deterministic world view or the assumption that nothing can be helped and we must resign to fate.
This view is hardly guaranteed and if it can be proven to be false, the argument for Stoicism falls apart.
Lastly, some critics claim Stoicism is dogmatic, reliant on obedience to certain ancient principles which can be difficult to challenge.
The difficulty comes not from the inherent strength of the ancient principles but rather, from the stoic’s insistence on accepting a set natural systems. Resistance to this system can be seen as ignorance of its principles and thus, many facets of Stoicism go unchallenged.
Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and famous stoic, once said in his book Meditations, “Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”