The Stoicism code: Origin of Stoicism, Meaning, and Four virtues of Stoic philosophy.

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Earlier today, I read an article on Medium that talked about some of the world's ancient philosophies. There was a mention of the word 'Stoicism' which rang a bell and took me back a few days to when I was researching and reading articles on Stoic philosophy.

I truly wanted to learn everything there is about Stoicism. Unfortunately, I gave up halfway due to some commitments, and never returned to it. However, the article that I read today gave me a cue, and I resumed my research once again.

After an hour or two of my research, I could say that I loved reading about it. There was a lot that I didn't know until then -- so much that I was missing out on. This philosophy intrigued me immensely, to a point where I desperately wanted to share my knowledge about it. And that’s when it hit me; that's when I thought to myself, "What else could be a better platform than my blog to share stuff like this?"

Therefore, in this blog, I have attempted to explain the philosophy of Stoicism in a fashion that is reasonably easy to comprehend.

The history of Stoicism is ensued by the deciphering of the ‘Stoicism code’ moving forward…

Here it goes….

The History

Though the word “Stoic” is used colloquially nowadays, it was a distinguished philosophy back in the day. Zeno of Citium, a Greek Philosopher, founded Stoicism during the Hellenistic Period, specifically, between 320 BC and 30 BC.

Zeno was a wealthy merchant before he became a philosopher, and was shipwrecked in Athens at the age of 22 during a trading voyage. All alone with nowhere to go, most of us would drown in utter despair in such a circumstance, but Zeno didn’t quit. He somehow contrived to make a place for himself while there, despite being thousands of miles away from home.

While in Athens, Zeno had an opportunity to visit a bookstore where he found an intriguing piece of literature; a book about Socrates - a Greek philosopher renowned for being one of the founders of Western philosophy. He found the book so fascinating that he took to philosophy for life. That’s when he said, “I made a prosperous voyage when I was shipwrecked.”

Zeno tried to find the whereabouts of the city’s famous philosophers and commenced his studies with them. This newly acquired knowledge transformed his life and compelled him to start a discussion gathering, where he shared his takeaways from his previous studies. Putting together his life experiences and what he’d learned, he conceived a new philosophy of Stoicism and started preaching it to his disciples. The place where he conducted his sessions was a painted porch, known as 'Stoa poikile' – which also happens to be the place where the name ‘Stoicism’ comes from. The followers of Zeno came to be known as Zenonians.

Marcus Aurelius later adopted Stoicism, adhering to its principles during his stint as the Roman emperor. He also wrote a journal called 'Meditations', where he jotted down his ideas about Stoic philosophy. Furthermore, he propagated this philosophy in Rome and encouraged people to practice it as much as possible.

Some of the famous Stoics of ancient history are:

  1. Seneca, the younger

  2. Epictetus

  3. Cato, the younger

  4. Cleanthes

  5. Hecato of Rhodes, etc.

What is Stoicism?

In literal terms, the word 'stoic' means a person who can endure pain without the slightest show of emotions. In layman terms, it describes one who doesn't complain and is devoid of emotions.

Stoicism’s philosophy says that a person should not pay heed to, or fret, because of the misfortunes that he faces in life. Instead, he should focus on the things that are within his control.

The point is, we cannot have a hold on what happens to us because of the external forces that might not be in our favour. However, the best we can and should do is to take charge of the things that we can command. That is, the way we do things, the virtues we follow, etc.

Thus, the only key to happiness for a Stoic is not allowing external forces or unfavourable events to ruin their lives. Rather, they strive to build a life for themselves in a way that minimises these events. Let's face it - crying over spilt milk has never done anyone good. Hence, the idea of remaining calm in stressful situations forms the basis for this philosophy.

Stoicism, in a way, tells people to be free from passion and be immune to temptations. It also asks a person not to whine over the ungovernable, because that's the only way to reach Eudaimonia; which in common parlance translates to ‘human happiness’. The main goal of this philosophy was ‘living honourably’.

The ‘code.’

The philosophy of Stoicism is based on four virtues that decipher the code of Stoicism. The Stoic philosophy is one paradigm of attributes that I couldn’t stop reading about. The following four cardinal virtues (or, the basis of goodness), lay the very foundation for this philosophy:

1. Wisdom (sophia): Something terrible happens to us, we process it, and then we respond. The gap between the happening of that event and our response is where we do the thinking. That’s the part where we employ our ‘wisdom’. We rely on our wisdom to figure out right and wrong, where we need to be indifferent, what choices we should make, and what we should be wary of. That’s the wisdom this philosophy talks about -- the knowledge of choosing. In this context, Seneca said, “Works not words

2. Temperance (sophrosyne): The virtue of ‘temperance’ means the virtue of ‘self-control’. Temperance means knowing what is essential and striving to attain that. Furthermore, it means controlling our desires for the ‘excess’, the ‘material’ wealth, or ‘worldly’ desires, and living a basic life. Aristotle calls it a ‘golden mean’ that is the middle way between ‘excess’ and ‘deficiency.’

3. Fortitude (andreia): Fortitude, as per the Stoics, means the courage to face the worst. It implies having the audacity to -

  • face death and misfortune,

  • hold on to your principles,

  • leave behind the materialism,

  • risk yourself for others, speak your mind,

  • lastly, to be brave.

Epictetus described the gist of this virtue in two words - ‘persist’ and ‘resist’. According to him, these two words should be memorised by heart and applied where needed to achieve greatness in life.

4. Righteousness (dikaiosune): The virtue of righteousness, fairness, or justice is the crowning glory of all other virtues. According to Marcus Aurelius, what good is wisdom if it’s not put in use for the world? For that matter, what good is courage if it’s about self- interest? Righteousness towards society, not harming others, equality for all are some basics of living for Stoics. It means an understanding of the fact that we are born to serve ourselves as well as others. Therefore, there is a need to do well to others.

The last word

There is a quote from Marcus Aurelius’ journal ‘Meditations’ that says -

‘If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, prudence, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full.’

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