A Brief Analysis of Stoicism



This week ending 1 December is the second annual international Live Like A Stoic Week. When I began research a few days ago in order to rush out a quick post for the event I had forgotten how much I was inspired by Stoicism, and consequently I my essays are too involved to finish in time.

After some pestering, Toby Coe has kindly come to the rescue with this brief analysis. He said he read the Meditations, so I hope he didn’t mean Descartes’ or this is going to be a very short post indeed.


The Roman Emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (pictured) writes:

…philosophy doth consist in this, for a man to preserve that spirit which is within him, from all manner of contumelies and injuries, and never do anything either rashly, or feignedly, or hypocritically…”1

This is a very elegant summary of one of the core features of Stoic philosophy, namely, a moral and spiritual view of the task of philosophy. Philosophy is to provide a man the ability to cope with misfortune and not to be dominated by the passions that often make us attached to things that are fragile: fame, wealth and security.

Worse still our happiness becomes attached to these things so much that when they are taken away the effect is devastating, because without them we have no basis for happiness. Philosophy’s job is to train the passions to avoid becoming ensnared by such easy temptations and to help us lead a more self sufficient life, where we can achieve contentment and happiness no matter what may happen to us externally.

One obvious criticism of this view is raised by Anthony Kenny who says of the Stoics: “They purchase the invulnerability of happiness only at the cost of making it unattainable2.” That there is no way that any human being can ever hope to live up to this impossibly high standard of virtue, there will always be something which we are attached to regardless of how hard we try to extricate ourselves. A simple response to this is that it is better to nearer true happiness than far.

Furthermore, to rule out the possibility of obtaining true virtue a priori is unwarranted. Firstly, because there is no agreement about what precisely having such qualities would entail. Secondly, even if where in possession of such knowledge there is the problem of silent evidence. It may be the case that, there have been many people who have attained perfection in virtue but who have never been recognized as doing so. The only way we know about such exemplary figures of the past is because of painstakingly preserved records and ancient tradition. It is quite possible that there may even be such records of truly virtuous people that have simply been lost due the vicissitudes of history.

In summary, for several different reasons Kenny’s objection to Stoic ethics is not insurmountable.

A quite different objection is raised by Bertrand Russell that “Not only bad passions are condemned but all passions3.” The problem with Stoicism for Russell is that it presents a very cold view of ethics where friendship, love, and sexual pleasure are not be indulged in too strongly, because they may disrupt the sage’s supreme calm. In doing so the sage cuts himself off from some of the most obvious components of the good life. In defence of Stoicism it may be said that whilst this approach may appear to be guilty of the vice of aestheticism, perhaps it is possible to reformulate Stoicism in a way that avoids this objection.

One such way would be to say that our ultimate happiness must not lie in any relationship or other external good. The Stoic is allowed to maintain close relationships but avoid placing much store by them that their removal should not lead to all consuming debilitating grief. To allow this to occur is to do a disservice to yourself as no amount of mourning can ever bring back the relationship you valued. Whilst grief can be cathartic, the basic Stoic insight is frequently that it can take on a more sinister all consuming character.


1 Aurelius, Marcus, [180], Meditations, numerous versions available

2Kenny, Anthony, (2004), A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 1 – Ancient Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 286.

3Russell, Bertrand, [1946], (1965), History of Western Philosophy, London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., p. 263.


4 responses »

  1. Russell’s comment is simply a (common) misreading of the Stoics. They clearly stated that the passions they sought to uproot were excessive, unhealthy and irrational, and that the ideal Stoic would possess healthy passions (eupatheiai) instead. So rather than seeking to eliminate emotions they sought to replace unhealthy emotions with healthy ones. They often use the word “passion” simply as shorthand to refer to unhealthy desires and emotions, though. Marcus Aurelius described the Stoic ideal as being “free from passions and yet full of love” – that’s would seem contradictory to modern readers unless they qualify the word “passions” by inserting “irrational”, which is what he’s implying. What you conclude with isn’t really a “reformulation” of Stoicism, it’s closer to what the Stoics actually said than Russell’s version is. Happiness comes only from virtue, but Stoics have a duty to cultivate a sense of “natural affection” (philostorgia) to themselves, the rest of mankind, and to Nature as a whole (or Zeus, in theological terms). Stoics wish that other people would flourish and attain happiness, with the caveat “fate permitting”. The Stoics therefore rejected the complete “indifference” to external events of the Cynic school and replaced it with a compromise position that suggests it’s rational and natural for us to “prefer” certain external outcomes, in the future, for the purposes of planning action in the world, as long as we don’t invest our ultimate Happiness in them, because they’re outside our sphere of control. Have a look at the article below for a more detailed discussion on this point:

  2. Thanks for your comment and generously pointed out my error. The misreading you described is so prevalent in secondary literature that I took if for granted it was in fact the correct interpretaion. Of course, Russell is famous for not representing ideas he does not like inaccurately, I will be more wary the next time I read him.

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