November 5, 2016 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
What’s the core of Stoicism?
Key ideas of this discourse
Stoicism has been in existence since 300 BC. Anything so enduring will have passed through different minds and is unlikely to have survived as an unchanging doctrine. People who are influenced by a philosophy tend to influence it back. So, not all Stoic practitioners may accept all parts of Stoicism. For example, you may not believe in God, but the Stoic teachings often refer to gods. Or you may disagree with Stoic “physics” or some other aspects of Stoicism. That’s perfectly all right.
But what makes a stoic a stoic? What do they have all to agree on? From my perspective, there is one core concept that defines Stoicism. The concept is not an article of faith but a line of reasoning. If one disagrees with the logic behind it, then one probably does not agree with the logic of Stoicism.
The core concept of Stoicism, as described by Epictetus is this:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions …. There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. (Enchiridion, 1)
The basic Stoic argument is that if we are to be sure of achieving freedom, happiness, and serenity, then the means of achieving it should be fully under our control. When we fully understand, and apply it to our lives, the core concept of Stoicism leads to a free, happy, and serene life. Not only Epictetus but all Stoic philosophers I know of (such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus) agree with this.
Epictetus had no doubt about the logic of Stoicism, and he promised his followers this:
I have this purpose: to complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous, and happy … And you are here to practice these things. (Discourses II.19.29)
This is a huge promise. Epictetus did not make this casually. He was the slave of a master who allegedly broke his legs for fun, freed, but then banished. He knew the basis of his promise. He lived it.
The basic teachings of Stoicism as taught by Epictetus is summarized in Enchiridion. The Stoic Gym has published a new version of Enchiridion, The Good Life Handbook. The eBook version is free to download from all major online bookstores.