This page summarizes what Stoicism is, why I think it is helpful and also links to my and other writings about Stoicism
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy of life practised in ancient Greece and Rome. Since then it has been influenced many thinkers, for example Christian philosophers, Spinoza and the originators of Cognitive Behavioural Therapies. It has undergone a modern resurgence, with many articles and books written in the last 5 years.
Amongst the key ideas of Stoicism are
Virtue (living like an excellent human being) is the supreme human good. Other things (like health, money and pleasure) may be naturally preferred to their opposites (illness, poverty and pain) but virtue is more important - virtue trumps other things we might consider important.
We can take charge of our thoughts and judgements. Although we cannot control our initial thoughts and impulses, we can control how we respond to them. This can empower us to live well, according to reason
We have the ability to reason well. Although we can all be prone to being irrational, we all, with training, can learn how to use reason well. If we do so, we will live according to the key virtues.
The key virtues are wisdom (including practical wisdom), courage, justice (including compassion) and self-control (or moderation). The virtues are inter-dependent. You need all of them. There are also many other virtues, including patience, kindness, and tolerance.
By taking good care of our thoughts and judgements we can manage our emotions well. How we think affects how we feel, so if we notice our judgements, think rationally and also choose to care mostly about virtue, we will also be relatively tranquil.
Happiness is a by-product of virtue. It so happens that if you practice Stoicism, you are quite likely also to be happy.
Ancient Stoics also had a distinctive worldview, believing in causal determinism and a wise, benevolent and living cosmos. Modern Stoics have different views about the relevance of these ideas for modern Stoicism
See my very short guide Stoicism Made Simple for how this works in practice.
Why I think Stoicism is helpful?
You may or may not agree with all of the above principles of Stoicism. My own view is that whether or not all of these ideas (such as virtue being the supreme good) are true, they are very helpful. Some reasons for this are:-
- The thinkers who developed CBT (especially Ellis and also Beck) drew on Stoicism. The basic idea that thinking well leads to emotional well-being has now got a lot of evidence in its favour.
- Stoicism adds to CBT key practices about how to live well, not just to avoid mental illness. The idea of living like an excellent human being is very attractive
- There is little doubt that virtue and well-being (or happiness) positively re-enforce each other. If you are virtuous, you are likely to be happier and vice-versa. My strong hunch is that causation is stronger in the direction from virtue to happiness. So if you believe that both happiness and virtue are important, better aim for virtue than happiness. If you want to aim for virtue, Stoicism provides a practical philosophy of life.
- Stoicism also incorporates ideas similar to Buddhism including mindfulness.
What is Modern Stoicism?
In many ways Modern Stoicism is similar to ancient Stoicism:
- Both advocate a virtue ethics in which flourishing is achieved by living like an excellent human being rather then, for example, trying to maximise happiness or follow a set of rules.
- Both deem virtue as necessary and sufficient for flourishing. Whilst some other virtue ethics such as Aristotle’s argue that some external goods (such as friends, health and wealth) are necessary for flourishing, for both ancient and modern Stoics, external goods are “nice to haves” but not essential.
- Like Ancient Stoicism, Modern Stoicism has a particular emphasis on wisdom as the foundational virtue. The distinction between what we can control and what is cannot control is a crucial part of wisdom.
- Both are practical philosophies, designed to help us live well rather than just provide theoretical understanding.
- There are also some important differences
To begin with the most obvious point , Modern Stoicism uses English (mainly) rather than ancient Greek or Latin. This is not an entirely trivial point since language undoubtedly affects our sense of key concepts such as virtue and emotion. Similarly Modern Stoicism is conducted largely through means of communication unavailable to the ancients – such as social media, the internet and audio recordings.
Modern Stoicism focuses mostly on the big Three Roman Stoics – Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and their interest in ethics and what we would call psychology more than for example ancient Greek Stoics like Zeno or Chrysippus and other areas of interest to ancient Stoics such as Stoic physics, cosmology and logic.
Some modern Stoics try to update Stoicism to take into account contemporary scientific knowledge. This includes neuroscience, psychology and the use of modern research methods.
It would however be a mistake to see Modern Stoicism as a homogenous group Some Modern Stoics see their role as faithfully bringing the ideas of the ancient Stoics to a modern audience in an accessible manner, interpreting the ancient thinkers in a way that makes their ideas most appealing and logical. Others wish to develop a “new Stoicism” which may well contradict some ancient Stoic ideas such as “The cosmos is a wise living thing”. They may replace a dichotomy of control with a trichotomy of control. A third wing of Modern Stoics take a strong interest in Stoic ideas and practices without necessarily endorsing all of its doctrines, such as virtue being sufficient as well as necessary for flourishing. This third group may not identify themselves as Stoics but are nevertheless keen to incorporate some Stoic ideas into a practical philosophical and psychological system and practice.
The beginnings of “Modern Stoicism” could be traced to a number of events, including no doubt books written by Irvine, Robertson and Becker. My own introduction to Modern Stoicism began when I was invited to a seminar at the University of Exeter by Professor Chris Gill back in 2012. We were a small group, with low expectations and little idea that “Modern Stoicism” would capture anyone’s imagination.
In my view a key part of Modern Stoicism’s success so far has been its non-doctrinaire approach. Philosophers and psychotherapists have been invited to write articles and talk at conferences because they have something interesting and, hopefully, constructive to say about Stoicism, whichever “wing” of Modern Stoicism they would identify with. I like to think of Modern Stoicism as a meadow full of many beautiful but different flowers. Let them all bloom.
My writings on Stoicism
Published in Stoicism Today collections:-
Does Stoicism Work? Stoicism and Positive Psychology Tim LeBon
How to become Virtuous - Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy Tim LeBon
In Praise of Modern Stoicism Tim LeBon
Published on the Modern Stoicism blog :-
Stoic Week reports 2017
Are Stoics Happy? (2016)
Stoic Week reports 2015 - what can we learn?
Stoic Week reports 2014 (pdf)
Stoic Week report 2013
Interview with Tim LeBon on Stoicism 2016
Stoic Values Clarification part II (2018 with Professor Christopher Gill)
Stoic Values Clarification Workshop and Dialogue (Toronto Stoicon 2017, with Chris Gill)
Stoicon Workshop: Negative Visualisation And The Possibility of a President Trump by Tim LeBon (New York Stoicon, 2016)
How to become virtuous - lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (London Stoicon 2015)
How to become Virtuous (and less like Basil Fawlty) (London Stoicon 2014)
The Debate: Do you need God to be a Stoic? (with Mark Vernon)Other articles/interviews
Painted Porch Interview - Episode 13 interview with Tim LeBon
Published on my Socrates Satisfied blog
Stoic Ideal Advisor Meditation - Recording and Script
A Day on Behaviour Change - Weekend University 2018- my presentation on Stoicism, CBT and Behaviour Change
The Best Books on Stoicism - a variety of experts give their recommendations
Keep Calm and Get Your Stoic on - Matthew Sharpe
Stoicon 2017 (Toronto) report by William Denton
Stoicon 2017 (Toronto) report by Benjamin Shill
How to Deal with a Possible Trump Presidency Like a Stoic - by Brian Gallagher
Some recommended books