The Stoic Ideal

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

~ Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism is a philosophical school of thought with origins in ancient Greece around the 3rd century BCE. Stoicism was particularly popular throughout the Roman and Greek world, with the majority of its surviving literary corpus written by several prominent figures of the time including Epictetus, Seneca, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I was introduced to Stoicism in university and was drawn to its pursuit of virtue and its emphasis on individual responsibility and living ‘in accordance with nature’. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was my introduction to philosophy and sparked my interest in the use of philosophical study for the development of the inner self.

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

~ Epictetus

The Stoic philosophy is predicated on four main virtues: courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. To the ideal Stoic, virtue is the only good and is achievable by all who seek it — virtue embodied in one individual is possible in all individuals. All virtues are practiced in the realm of individual action: that is, what is controlled by external forces is of no concern. What is in one’s control — one’s thoughts, actions, behaviours — is all one should be concerned with. To practice Stoicism, one must strive towards the highest possible good and do what he ought to do in every situation. How others act, unavoidable obstacles and the inevitable mishaps of life are simply uncontrollable external phenomena that should not deter one from striving towards such a goal. The ideal Stoic seeks to live in accordance with nature, to act virtuously in all situations. He fears lust, desire and emotion, and focuses himself simply and wholly on performing good. He is not concerned with tomorrow; tomorrow is not within his control.

“To love only what happens, what is destined. No greater harmony.”

~ Marcus Aurelius

The practice of Stoicism reduces the complexity of one’s actions and places full responsibility on the individual. He alone is held accountable for his actions, and no rational justification for the performance of an evil deed will suffice. However, by placing the burden of responsibility in his own hands, he needn’t answer to anyone with regards to the ethical: he alone is the judge, and a true Stoic will hold himself accountable and give credit when deserved, even if popular opinion says otherwise.


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