Minimalists in History: The Stoics


“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE. The name comes from the porch (stoa) where the school’s lectures were held. Well known Stoics include EpictetusMarcus Aurelius and Seneca the Younger (aka “Seneca”).

The Stoics taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge. Morality is rational action. The ethical life is a life lived in accordance with the rational order of things.

To live this way, we must recognize the things that are within our power and those that are not. The only thing over which we have control, the Stoics say, is the faculty of judgment (including our beliefs, desires and attitudes). Everything else is not within our control, and we should be indifferent to those things.

In other words, since we can’t control things like death or the actions of others, we shouldn’t worry about them. Contrary to the popular view of Stoics as cold-hearted, their goal isn’t a total lack of emotion.

Stoicism is about distinguishing what truly makes a difference to our happiness from what does not. It’s developing clear judgment and peace of mind through self-control. Instead of eliminating emotions, we should transform negative emotions into joy, caution and reasonable wishing.

“What difference does it make how much is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already? You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

– Seneca

The Stoics claim that whatever is good must benefit its possessor under all circumstances. The only things that are good, according to the Stoics, are wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. These are the only things that can guarantee our happiness.

External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although the Stoics believe these things do have value, they’re not always good. They are, rather, “indifferent.” They may be part of a good life, but we shouldn’t focus on them, because pursuing them may keep us from the truly good things.

Indifferents have three classes: the preferred, the dispreferred and the absolute. Absolute indifferents are things that don’t seem to matter one way or the other in any circumstance, like whether the number of hairs on your head is odd or even.

Dispreferred indifferents include death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low repute, and ignoble birth. While it’s usually best to try to avoid these, it may sometimes be virtuous to select them.

Preferred indifferents include life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, good reputation, and noble birth. We should, according to the Stoics, usually select these, though we must still use reason to decide whether selecting them might interfere with the truly good things, the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage and moderation.

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