This article will mostly explain Stoicism, then will talk about Stoicism in the modern world and the people who use Stoicism as a mask to cover their ugly behaviour.
Definition and history
Before I talk about Stoicism in practice, I should probably explain what it is as a concept and its origins. Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism was originally known as Zenonism, named after the founder of the school, but was later renamed Stoicism, most likely because the Stoics did not consider their founders to be perfectly wise, and to avoid the risk of the philosophy becoming a cult of personality 1. Stoicism derives from the word “Stoa Poikile”, which was a stoa (covered walkway) built in the 5th century BC, where Zeno of Citium taught his philosophy and where he and his followers discussed their ideas. Unlike other philosophers of the time, Zeno chose to teach his philosophy in a public place.
Stoicism offers profound insights into how to live a full and meaningful life. At its core, Stoicism teaches individuals to cultivate inner peace and happiness by aligning their thoughts and actions with reason and virtue. Embracing the idea that we are in control of our attitudes and choices, while external events and circumstances are beyond our control, Stoics strive to achieve a state of inner peace and serenity, regardless of the challenges they face.
A fundamental aspect of Stoic philosophy is its deterministic view of life. According to Stoics, all events are ultimately determined by causes that are seen as external to the individual’s will. In light of this perspective, a virtuous Stoic seeks to align his will with the natural order of the world. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus eloquently put it, they strive to be “sick and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and yet happy, in disgrace and yet happy.”2 This attitude reflects a profound acceptance of life’s inevitable ups and downs, allowing Stoics to find contentment and joy even in the face of adversity.
Stoicism also places great emphasis on the development of self-control and strength as a means of overcoming destructive emotions and the relentless pursuit of wealth or pleasure. By cultivating clarity of thought and impartiality, individuals can come to understand and align themselves with the universal reason that governs the cosmos. This recognition of the inherent order and harmony of the universe enables Stoics to face life’s challenges with resilience and equanimity, focusing on what is truly within their control rather than being consumed by external desires and distractions.
Stoicism offers a practical approach to living a virtuous life, emphasising the importance of aligning one’s thoughts and actions with reason and virtue. By accepting the distinction between what is within their control and what is not, Stoics strive for inner peace and tranquillity. Recognising the deterministic nature of life, they adapt their will to the world and find happiness even in the midst of difficulties. Through the development of self-control and the pursuit of clarity, Stoics seek to overcome destructive emotions and align themselves with the universal reason that pervades the cosmos. By embracing these principles, individuals can lead lives of purpose, resilience and fulfilment.
Fast forward to now
Stoicism has had a lasting impact on philosophy and continues to be relevant today. Its practical approach to life and emphasis on personal responsibility and inner resilience have resonated with individuals seeking to navigage the challenges of existence. Stoic principles can be applied to various aspects of life, from personal relationships to professional endeavors, helping others to lead lives of virtue, tranquility, and meaning.
In psychotherapy, Stoicism is particularly present, as its philosophies are truly helpful when applied in specific ways. For example, a well-known quote from Enchiridion of Epictetus was taught to a lot of Dr. Albert Ellis’ and his followers clients during the initial session of traditional Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy: “It’s not the events that upset us, but our judgments about the events.”3.
All in all, Stoicism is a great philosophy, but like every other philosophy or belief system, it can be grossly misused or distorted when applied inappropriately by individuals. There are multiple ways in which Stoicism is misused or misinterpreted to justify or perpetuate abusive behavior.
Emotional suppressionStoicism encourages one to regulate their emotions and to not be overwhelmed by them. On paper, this is good, as emotions influence people more than what we should personally allow, and practicing proper emotional regulation can lead to healthier outcomes of situations. While this is all good, this philosophy can be confused to have the meaning of expressing little to no emotions, even in situations where expressing emotions is healthy and natural. This is a misinterpretation of the philosophy, as Stoicism actually encourages acknowledging and understanding emtions rather than repressing them. This can also lead to abusive situations, such as an abuser dismissing others needs and feelings, and promoting an unhealthy emotional dynamic.
ApathyStoicism emphasizes personal virtue and self-improvement. While this is beneficial when applied individually, if misinterpreted, it can be read as promoting apathy or indifference towards external events. While Stoicism does emphasize the importance of focusing on what is withing ones control, it does not mean that they advocate for complete detachment from the world or lack of concern for others. Abusers might adopt a stoic maindset to rationalize their actions, believing they are morally superior or justified in causing harm to others, disregarding the emotional impact on their victims.
Indifference to circumstancesStoicism promotes the idea of focusing on what is within one's control, but this can easily be misunderstood. One should focus on what is in their control, but they should not ignore their circumstances and accept them unquestionably. Stoicism does teach acceptance of situations beyond one's control, but it also encourages individuals to actively work towards improving their circumstances and the world around them. Stoicism is not about passive acceptance but rather about finding the strength and resilience to face challenges and make positive changes.
Stoic indifferenceStoicism encourages individuals to cultivate indifference towards external events and outcomes. While this can be helpful for accepting things beyond our control, it can be misapplied in an abusive manner. Abusers might adopt a stoic attitude to justify their neglect or mistreatment of others, claiming that they are merely detached from emotional attachments or that their actions are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Avoidance of seeking helpStoicism can sometimes be misinterpreted as discouraging people from seeking help or support from others, but this is not what is promoted by Stoicism. Stoics value self-reliance and inner strength, but they also recognize the importance of community and relationships. Stoicism does not advocate for isolation or the rejection of assistance when needed. It encourages individuals to form meaningful connections and to contribute positively to society.
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Robertson, Donald (2018). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. Great Britain: John Murray. ↩
Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy, p. 264 ↩
Robertson, D (2010). The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoicism as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. London: Karnac. ISBN 978-1855757561. Wikipedia contributors. (2023, May 12). Stoicism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:11, May 13, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stoicism&oldid=1154434111 ↩