Stoicism originated as a Hellenistic philosophy, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium (modern day Cyprus), c. 300 B.C.E. It was influenced by Socrates and the Cynics, and it engaged in vigorous debates with the Skeptics, the Academics, and the Epicureans. The name comes from the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, an open market in Athens where the original Stoics used to meet and teach philosophy.
Stoicism moved to Rome where it flourished during the period of the Empire, alternatively being persecuted by Emperors who disliked it (for example, Vespasian and Domitian) and openly embraced by Emperors who attempted to live by it (most prominently Marcus Aurelius). It influenced Christianity, as well as a number of major philosophical figures throughout the ages (for example, Thomas More, Descartes, Spinoza), and in the early 21st century saw a revival as a practical philosophy associated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and similar approaches.
Some of the key Stoics were Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus
In 161, Marcus Aurelius became the Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity, as well as the plague that left millions dead.
The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. The guidance of wisdom and virtue. His journal, which is now known as his Meditations gives an insight into the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser.
Born around 4BC in Corduba, Spain, the son of a wealthy and learned writer known to history as Seneca the Elder, Seneca the Younger was destined for great things from birth. Seneca’s father selected Attalus the Stoic to tutor his boy, primarily for his reputation as a man of great eloquence. His son took to education with gusto—by Seneca’s own telling, he cheerfully “laid siege” to the classroom and was the first to arrive and last to leave it. The most powerful lesson that Seneca learned from Attalus was on the desire to improve practically, in the real world. The purpose of studying philosophy, Seneca learned from his beloved instructor, was to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.”
In his early twenties, Seneca’s health (A lung condition) forced him to take an extended trip to Egypt to recover where he would spend nearly a decade writing, reading, and building up his strength. He returned to Rome at 35 in 31 AD—a time of paranoia and violence and corruption and political turmoil. Seneca kept his head down for the most part throughout the equally terrifying reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. His life took a sharp turn in 41 A.D. when Claudius became the emperor and exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica. It would be another eight years away from Rome—and although he started productively (writing Consolation to Polybius, Consolation to Helvia and On Anger in a short span), the many writing consolations soon needed some consoling himself. So began his practice of letter writing, which would continue all his life.
Epictetus was born into slavery. Epictetus’ mention of his owner, Epaphroditus, is surprisingly neutral because we know Epaphroditus was cruel even by Roman standards. Later Christian writers tell us that Epictetus’s master was violent and depraved, at one point twisting Epictetus’s leg with all his might. For the rest of his life, Epictetus would walk with a limp. But Epictetus remained unbroken by the incident. “Lameness is an impediment to the leg,” he would later say, “but not to the will.” Epictetus would choose to see his disability as only a physical impairment, and in fact it was that idea of choice that defined the core of his philosophical beliefs. Life was like a play, he liked to say, and if it was the playwrights “pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”
And so he did.
Law established by Augustus in 4AD determined that slaves could not be freed before their 30th birthday. Epictetus didn’t obtain his freedom until shortly after emperor Nero’s death. He chose to dedicate himself fully to philosophy and taught in Rome for nearly 25 years.
There are 4 Virtues of Stoicism: Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom
They are the most essential values in Stoic philosophy. “If, at some point in your life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.”