Frequestly Asked Questions (and answers) about Stoic philosophy

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The big questions

What motivates a Stoic?

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, is said to have become interested in philosophy after reading from the second volume of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, which contains Prodicus’s fable of Heracles at the crossroads, in which a young Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) has to make a choice between following the “easy” road of vice, or the hard road of virtue, and chooses virtue over vice. Inspired, Zeno asked the bookseller where such men could be found, and was told to follow Crates the Cynic, who was walking nearby. Zeno then studied Cynicism under Crates, and then other philosophies from other teachers, and ultimately founded Stoicism.

Imitation is a basic human impulse. Children imitate their parents and others around them. Adults continue to have an instinct to imitate those they admire, adopting role models, heroes, and (when taken to an extreme) idols. We react to others and ourselves with admiration or disgust, pride or shame. We have a strong natural impulse to be good and admirable ourselves. If this were not the case, then low self-esteem would not be unpleasant, or high self-esteem, pleasant.

High self-esteem was not in itself, however, a goal of the Stoics. What the Stoics were after could not have been supplied by an experience machine. Instead, they focused on judging ones-self accurately and fairly (see, for example, the end of Epictetus’s Discourse 1.12), and then actually being worthy of esteem: of being virtuous. Put differently, the feeling of being a good person was not the goal, but rather the Stoics were attempting actually to achieve excellence.

When trying to motivate readers, Stoic writers routinely show off the virtues, either abstractly (as in the preface to book 3 of Natural Questions by Seneca), or through specific examples of virtues in people (book 1 of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditation consists entirely of examples of this), or incidents of people being virtuous. Epictetus often uses Socrates, Heracles, and less famous figures such as Helvidius Priscus as examples, Seneca uses Cato, Cicero uses Marcus Regulus. Finally, admiration of the gods and the natural beauty of the world was used by the Stoics to inspire virtue; see Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 5.68-72 (chapter 24 in the linked to translation) or Seneca’s letter 41.

In short, an ideal Stoic is not motivated by the possible consequences of being virtuous, not even the pleasure of high self-esteem, but rather by the reward of being virtuous, of being like one’s heroes and role models in the ways that make them heroic or good role models. From Seneca’s Of a Happy Life Book 9 (Stewart’s translation):

In the first place, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, still we do not seek after her on that account: for she does not bestow this, but bestows this to boot, nor is this the end for which she labours, but her labour wins this also, although it be directed to another end. As in a tilled-field, when ploughed for corn, some flowers are found amongst it, and yet, though these posies may charm the eye, all this labour was not spent in order to produce them — the man who sowed the field had another object in view, he gained this over and above it — so pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her. The highest good lies in the act of choosing her, and in the attitude of the noblest minds, which when once it has fulfilled its function and established itself within its own limits has attained to the highest good, and needs nothing more: for there is nothing outside of the whole, any more than there is anything beyond the end. You are mistaken, therefore, when you ask me what it is on account of which I seek after virtue: for you are seeking for something above the highest. Do you ask what I seek from virtue? I answer, Herself: for she has nothing better; she is her own reward. Does this not appear great enough, when I tell you that the highest good is an unyielding strength of mind, wisdom, magnanimity, sound judgement, freedom, harmony, beauty? Do you still ask me for something greater, of which these may be regarded as the attributes? Why do you talk of pleasures to me? I am seeking to find what is good for man, not for his belly; why, cattle and whales have larger ones than he.

What is the goal of life?

The Stoics (and Greek and Roman rival schools of philosophy) expressed the “big question” of the goal of life in a variety of different ways. One of these was, indeed, to ask what the final goal of life is: if everything we do (or should do), is a means to some end, an end in itself (not requiring justification as a means to some other end), or a combination of the two, what is the goal that is the ultimate end?

Another way the Greek and Roman philosophers expressed this is by asking what it means to achieve εὐδαιμονία/eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is commonly translated as “happiness,” but also sometimes as “blessedness,” “flourishing,” or “prosperity.” All of these English translations have misleading connotations. For example, it does not necessarily refer to a pleasant life as “happiness” does in English, or intervention by a deity as “blessedness” does, etc. When Aristotle was introducing his own answer in Nicomachean Ethics (similar in some ways to the Stoic answer, different in others), he expressed the problem like this (in section 1.4 (translation by D. P. Chase)):

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another- and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension. Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these as well. To examine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.

The Stoics claimed that virtue was necessary and sufficient for εὐδαιμονία/eudaimonia. Marcus Aurelius expresses it clearly in Meditations 8.7. In Chrystal’s translation:

For every nature it is sufficient that it goes on its way, and prospers. The rational nature prospers while it assents to no false or uncertain opinion, while it directs its impulses to unselfish ends alone, while it aims its desires and aversions only at the things within its power, and while it welcomes with contentment all that universal Nature ordains.

In Discourse 4.5, Epictetus expresses the same idea, but in terms of its inverse (Matheson’s translation):

When is a horse miserable? When it is deprived of its natural faculties, not when it is unable to crow like a cock, but when it is unable to run. And the dog? Not when it cannot fly, but when it cannot follow a trail. On the same principle a man is wretched, not when he cannot throttle lions or embrace statues (for he has not been endowed by nature with faculties for this), but when he has lost his rational and trustworthy faculty…

Epictetus goes on to describe the “qualities that make him man, the distinctive stamp impressed upon his mind”, listing them as “Gentle, sociable, patient, affectionate.”

Epictetus expands on this in Discourse 4.1:

For when is a vine faring badly? When it is acting contrary to its own nature. When is a cock faring badly? Under the same conditions. So also man. What, then, is his nature? To bite, and kick, and throw into prison, and behead? No, but to do good, to work together, and to pray for the success of others. Therefore, he is faring badly, whether you will or no, when he acts unfeelingly.

You imply, then, that Socrates did not fare badly? — He did not; it was his judges and accusers who fared badly. — Nor Helvidius at Rome? — No, but the man who put him to death. — How so? — Just as you too do not say that the cock which has won a victory, even though he be severely cut up, has fared badly, but rather the one who has been beaten without suffering a blow. Nor do you call a dog happy when he is neither in pursuit nor toiling hard, but when you see him sweating, suffering, bursting from the chase. What is there paradoxical in the statement, if we say that everything’s evil is what is contrary to its own nature? Is that paradoxical? Do you not say it yourself in the case of everything else? Why, then, do you take a different course in the case of man alone? But our statement that the nature of man is gentle, and affectionate, and faithful, is this not paradoxical? — No, that is not paradoxical, either. — How, then, does it come about that he suffers no harm, even though he is soundly flogged, or imprisoned, or beheaded? Is it not thus — if he bears it all in a noble spirit, and comes off with increased profit and advantage, while the other man is the one who suffers harm, the man who is subjected to the most pitiful and disgraceful experience, who becomes a wolf, or a snake, or a wasp, instead of a human being?

There were, of course, many who disagreed with them. One major objection was that virtue itself was only valuable because of what it produces – happiness, prosperity or health for one’s self or one’s community, etc. The Stoics insisted that virtue was not valuable because of these things, but that being virtuous was more like a sport or a performance art like dancing than something like painting or shoe-making. It does produce side effects, but these are incidental. An archery contest results in arrows sticking out of targets, but archers do not enter such contests because there is anything inherently good about arrows being in targets. Expressed in terms from modern psychology, the Stoic view was that the motivation for true virtuous action is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Another objection (from the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle) was that, although virtue was central, additional circumstances are required. Virtue, the Peripatetics and Stoics agreed, was a kind of art: the art of living. Just as an art like shoe making requires tools and materials to be practiced, so the Peripatetics claimed that a virtuous life required at least some minimal resources for its practice. The Stoics, on the other hand, claimed that virtue can be practiced in any circumstance, although it might take different forms. In some cases, perhaps the only virtue that can be practiced is endurance, but this still is practicing virtue.

A number of sources discuss the Stoic’s “ultimate goal” in depth. Cicero’s On Ends compares the claims of several philosophical schools, including that of the Stoics (whose view is described in book 3). Seneca provides a short account in Letter 71, and a more in-depth discussion in the essay “Of a Happy Life”. The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas provides a modern scholarly account of eudaimonism, with a particular emphasis on Aristotle and the Stoics, and a good discussion of the similarities and differences between the two.

How do I find meaning in life?

The question of how to find a feeling of meaning is related to the problem of identifying the goal, but it is not the same. The feeling of a lack of such purpose arises from the belief that one is not achieving ones actual purpose, and so can be symptomatic of either of two things: a misunderstanding of what one’s goal actually is, and actually not achieving it. The way to achieve a sense of meaning, then, is to properly understand ones true purpose, and then actually achieve it, which is done through engaging in virtuous endeavors (being virtuous). This is discussed at greatest length and detail by Seneca in his essay “Of Peace of Mind”. From the Stoic point of view, it is important to remember that it is not the feeling of a sense of meaning that is important. Rather, the feeling is merely a useful tool for identifying when one is not living as virtuously as one might, so that one might change how one lives when such change is needed.

Feeling like your life is meaningless is a symptom of your not really believing that you are living a meaningful life. The solution to finding meaning, then, is to make sure that you are evaluating your own life fairly, and then to change how you are living to match that understanding. Judging your life fairly entails distinguishing what you can and cannot control (what you are or are not responsible for, virture or externals), and exerting yourself fully in ways you find κάλος (admirable or morally beautiful). What these endavors might be depends on your circumstance. If someone is in significant hardship and little power, defiance or dignified resiliance may be the most admirable course (and in extreme hardship, these can be admirable indeed), while those with more power have a broader scope. In any case, the endeavor chosen and the way of reacting to it depend on each individual’s nature (personal character) (see Cicero’s On Duties, 1.110-1.114).

The association between the exercise of virtue and fulfillment, life satisfaction, or subjective well-being is a feature not only of Stoicism but other philosophies as well (including rivals such as Epicureanism), although the details of how they are related vary. The association is also seen in modern psychology. See, for example, van Zyl et al. 2021, Proyer et al. 2015, and the many other studies they cite.