Stoicism Essay

This essay has a total of 1718 words and 7 pages.


The point of being independent and not needing things is so that your happiness will not
be destroyed by some accident outside of your control or by the malice of other human
beings. The more your happiness depends on anything someone else can destroy, the less
freedom you have - you are vulnerable to threats. In late antiquity many people felt
insecure; governments were tyrannical, there was a lot of illegal violence, people died
suddenly of disease or poison or through witchcraft or the malice of the gods. According
to Aristotle, happiness consists primarily in worthwhile activity, but it does have some
need of the goods of fortune. 'The good is something of one's own, that cannot easily be
taken from one' (E.N., I.5 , 1095 b25). The Stoics, wanted to find something that could
not possibly be taken away. Yet they did not want to live 'like dogs'. The solution is
this: The good is to live in accordance with reason, and the power to do this cannot be
taken away. Our external circumstances may be the result of accident or the malice of
others, but whether we act rationally given the circumstances is up to us. As for physical
things, it is in accordance with reason to use them when they are available and useful,
but not to become attached to them so that their loss causes distress. Possessions do not
make you vulnerable unless you become attached to them. To live in accordance with reason
is the Stoic conception of the good for man. The Stoics seem to be aware of Aristotle,
borrowing and changing his ideas.

Tyranny, slavery, freedom were important concepts in Stoic thought (see Epictetus).
Freedom is not poverty, it is being able to give up external possessions and external
freedom without distress. According to the Stoics the essential human freedom is inward:
the ability to give or withhold assent to representations (thoughts) that come before my
mind - to assent or not to the representation that something is so, or that the act it
represents is to be done, or that the state of affairs represented is a good or an evil. I
can always withhold my assent to such a representation - that is a power that cannot be
taken away. I cannot prevent the removal of my property, the loss of a limb, the sensation
of pain; but I can withhold by assent from the mental representation of these things as
evils. Someone living perfectly in accordance with reason would feel the pain and perhaps
some psychological disturbance, but would remain tranquil at the centre. Equanimity is the
ideal. Emotion, or at least undue emotion, is to be repressed.

No one lives perfectly in accordance with reason: the 'wise man' is an ideal. The wise man
is happy, i.e. is in possession of the good, no matter what happens to his possessions or
body, because he would refuse to regard as really an evil anything but failure to act in
accordance with reason. (The Stoic paradoxes - 'the wise man is happy on the rack', or in
the bull of Phalaris: he feels the pain, and cries out, but knows all the time that this
is not an evil.)

When Demetrius the city-sacker came upon the philosopher Stibo emerging from the flames of
his city in which his wife and children had just died, he asked 'Did you lose anything?'
Answer: 'No, all I possessed I have with me': 'meaning by this', Seneca says (Letter 9),
'the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character, and indeed the very fact of
not regarding as valuable anything that is capable of being taken away.'

What does the wise man do when he is acting in accordance with reason? His actions aim at
the same sorts of things as other people aim at, but he does ordinary things differently.
According to the Stoics human beings all begin by seeking food, drink, and other things
relating to self-preservation, but may come to make it a goal to seek these things 'in
accordance with nature' or 'in accordance with reason'. This may become the over-riding
goal (see Cicero, De Finibus,, so that we will endure the loss or frustration
of the original self-preservation goals rather than do anything contrary to nature - i.e.
would rather die than do anything contrary to nature. Seeking the original goals in
accordance with nature or reason means seeking them in accordance with the individual's
place as a part of the larger whole - of the human race, of the whole universe. Nature,
for the Stoics, as for Aristotle, is a functional whole, with each part assigned its
special role. Perhaps we can interpret the phrase 'act in accordance with nature, or
reason' as 'act in accordance with the rules of morality', understanding that morality
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