The 9 Core Stoic Beliefs

By: Stephen Hanselman

[1] If You Want a Smooth Flow of Life, Live According to Nature

At the core of Stoic teaching is the founder Zeno’s idea that a smooth flow of life (euroia biou) comes from “living in agreement with nature.” It was the second leader of the StoicsZeno’s student Cleanthes, who added the last part, “with nature” (te phusei; or “according to,” kata phusin). The Stoics saw an entirely material universe that was shot-through with reason and purpose, a great world-city of human beings that were connected to it and to each other as both rational and social creatures. Zeno was the first philosopher to treat duty (kathekon) as a central concern, our obligation to act appropriately in our given roles in family and society, and it was no accident that as a consequence he taught that we were obligated to participate in public life until we are unable.

Zeno divided the Stoic curriculum into three parts that were meant not only to be studied, but practiced: physics, logic, and ethics. The Stoics saw physics as the fertile field, logic as a protective fence that kept out corruptions, and ethics as the fruit produced by the integration of these three areas of study in our actions. Zeno had challenged his students to get to the place where everything they did was in “harmonious accord with each man’s guiding spirit and the will of the one who governs the universe.”

The Stoic God was not transcendent and above nature, but instead was synonymous with it. Their pantheism (God in all things) held that each of us shared in the divine fire. Like other Greek thinkers who preceded him, Zeno believed that each of us has a daimon, an inner genius or purpose, that connects us to the universal nature. Those who live by keeping the individual and universal natures in harmony are happy, and those who don’t are not. The disjunction of these two natures is a root source of human misery and not how we are meant to live. So, how do we avoid this disjunction?

[2] Happiness Isn’t Found in Things, but in Virtue Alone – It’s All About What We Value and the Choices We Make

The early Stoics often disagreed about many particulars, but they all agreed that for human beings the happy life was to be found only in the pursuit of virtue (arete, or human excellence), a pursuit that involved tempering our desires, aversions, and impulses so that they align better with the four cardinal virtues of temperance (sophrosune), courage (andreia), justice (dikaiosune), and practical wisdom (phronesis). Simply put, for human beings, virtue happens to be the best operating system for making our way through the world—it’s the program we are all meant to be following. These four main virtues, and the many sub-virtues that relate to them, are where our focus needs to be and they are a package deal—inseparable and complete.

Arius Didymus, who served as one of two close Stoic advisors to the first Roman emperor Augustus, gave us the most complete list we have of the Stoic virtues. His very straightforward definitions present them as essential types of practical knowledge for living:

[*] Wisdom (phronesis) is the knowledge of what things must be done and what must not be done and what is neither, and leads us to appropriate acts (kathekonta). Within wisdom, we’ll find virtuous qualities like soundness of judgment, circumspection, shrewdness, sensibleness, sound­ness of aim, and ingenuity.

[*] Self-control (sophrosune) is the knowledge of what things are worth choosing and what are worth avoiding and what is neither. Contained within this virtue are things like orderliness, propriety, modesty, and self- mastery.

[*]Justice (dikaiosune) is the knowledge of apportioning each person and situation what is due. Under this banner Stoics placed piety (giving gods their due), kindness, good fellowship, and fair dealing.

[*] Bravery (andreia) is the knowledge of what is terrible and what isn’t and what is neither. This included perseverance, intrepidness, greathearted­ness, stoutheartedness, and industriousness.

To approach life in this way involves a complete revolution in our thinking and attitudes. We must stop believing that happiness consists in things and realize instead that it consists alone in virtuous living. When we put external things ahead of virtue, we separate our individual nature from the universal one that connects us all together. Toxic emotions arise, along with anxiety and isolation.

Contrary to popular opinion, Good and Evil don’t reside in the things we desire or wish to avoid, but only in our own thinking and beliefs, and the decisions and actions we take because of them. Epictetus, the great philosopher and former slave, urged his students to focus only on their “reasoned choice” (prohairesis)—our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond, and reorient ourselves to external things and events. These external things, from a moral perspective are indifferent, neither good nor bad in themselves. Only the value we ascribe to things, and how we exercise our reason and choices around them, makes anything good or bad. Left unchecked, our desires and aversions when governed by false beliefs give rise to toxic emotions that cause us great unsteadiness and suffering in life. How we put virtue to work in each case should be our sole focus. Epictetus summarized it this way:

“The essence of good is a certain kind of reasoned choice; just as the essence of evil is another kind. What about externals, then? They are only the raw material for our reasoned choice, which finds its own good or evil in working with them. How will it find the good? Not by marveling at the material! For if judgments about the material are straight, that makes our choices good, but if those judgments are twisted, our choices turn bad.”

[3] We Don’t Control External Events, We Only Control Our Thoughts, Opinions, Decisions and Duties

When we keep externals in the proper perspective, we gain a steadiness (eustatheia) that helps us along life’s way. In the real world, we all have things we need and duties and obligations that arise from our family, relationships, and vocations. Zeno was the first to divide these externals into what he called “preferred and dispreferred indifferents.” What he meant is that while they don’t have intrinsic moral value, they form a kind of second class of value that is an important part of our lives—things like health and wealth are to be preferred over sickness and poverty, and if we are lucky enough to have them they can be a benefit to us and others as we pursue a virtuous life.

But like many of the things in life, health and wealth are often fleeting and much of what happens is beyond our control and, as Epictetus put it, is not up to us (ta ouk eph’ hemin). We must always remember that the only things that are up to us (ta eph’ hemin) are how we exercise our reason, form opinions about the worth and truth of things, along with the decisions and actions we take in trying to do the appropriate things (kathekonta).  No turn of fortune, however difficult, can keep us from virtue and the steadiness and happiness it can bring.

Antipater, the fifth head of the Stoic school, worked hard to bring this practice into everyday life. His formula for virtue was “in choosing continually and unswervingly the things which are according to nature, and rejecting those contrary to nature.” For Antipater, it was all about making sure our self-interests wouldn’t override our moral compass. He was the first to emphasize the importance of marriage and family, to stress the importance of ethical dealing in business, and to highlight how these choices form the basis of a strong society—how working together for the common good is a primary duty both at home and in public life.

This practical everyday ethics would gain further definition by Antipater’s successor Panaetius, who would develop an extensive role ethics and share it with Roman elites through his relationship with the great general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus. Panaetius expanded Zeno’s rule that we should be involved in public life by writing what Cicero would later call the greatest work written on duties—a kind of manual for the rising young leaders in Roman society. Like Antipater whom he would succeed as the head of the Stoic schoolPanaetius emphasized our duty to act for the common good and not just personal gain. He believed we all have an innate desire for leadership and, while we can’t all be the brave Scipio on the battlefield, we can each strive for a greatness of soul (megalopsuchia) that endeavors to bring benefit to others in whatever capacity we serve. It was a timely message in a corrupt society that was becoming overrun by self-interest and the use of military and public office for personal enrichment. And it was an ethical model that gave Stoicism influence at the highest levels of Roman society for the next 300 years.

[4] We’ve Each Been Given All the Inner Resources We Need to Thrive

One of the biggest mistakes about Stoicism is to miss its positivity and joy.

The Stoics weren’t bereft of emotion—they just wanted to eliminate toxic emotions and replace them with good emotions (eupatheia), which included rational wishing (boulesis; as opposed to blind hope), rational caution (eulabeia; as opposed to blind fear), and positive emotions like gratitude (eucharistia), joy (chara), and love for others (philostorgia). The bedrock of Stoic philosophy is an optimistic view of the human personality. We aren’t born in sin, or hopelessly corrupt and without any means in the battle of life.

On the contrary, Cleanthes held that we are each born with the resources (aphormai) we need to thrive in our life’s journey. He wrote that we all had the seeds of virtue in us—that we were like half-completed poems and our job in life was to work to make a complete and beautiful poem. We may face bad environments and obstacles along the way, he wrote, but it’s no different than how the confining rules of poetry give the art its beauty, or how the compression of air by a trumpet’s pipes creates a beautiful sound.

Panaetius also stressed these inborn resources as he urged young leaders to overcome the temptations and barbs of Roman public life. Human beings are given these instincts toward virtue by nature, and we can thrive and live nobly if we learn to live consistently with our own nature and our duties, while making the most of the resources we have been given. Aulus Gellius tells us that Panaetius liked to remind his young charges of the pankratist—a from of Greek Boxing more like today’s UFC fighting. Yes, we will encounter unexpected blows in life, but like a great athlete we will prepare not only to meet them but to overcome.

Arius Didymus would also write about these inborn resources—we each have our own implanted gifts that can lead us to a virtuous life. Our personalities suit us differently to different paths of ethical devel­opment. We all have different launching points, but these inborn tools together with hard effort will get us to where we want to go. We must focus on the task at hand, and waste not a moment on the tasks that are not ours. We must have courage. We must be fair. We must check our emotions. We must, above all, be wise.

Epictetus would later write about many different facets of these inborn resources, which he believed included our senses, our reason, and above all our power of choice, but he also spoke of the many moral preconceptions (prolepseis) that can guide us. He felt that the primary purpose of education was to clarify these moral preconceptions and keep them, echoing Panaetius’ pankratist, “like polished weapons.” Marcus too would give thanks for these inborn resources and say “the art of living was more like wrestling than dancing.” A struggle for which, these Stoics encourage us, we are amply matched.

[5] We Must Eliminate Toxic Emotions – Why Hope, Fear, and Anger are Always the Worst Strategies

If we neglect these inborn resources and fail to remove our false beliefs and the destructive emotions that arise from them, we will find ourselves mired in anxiety, anger, fear, envy and a host of toxic and counterproductive states. A result of this failure is that our duties to family and our roles as leaders will suffer no matter the endeavor.

We often hear today that “Hope is not a Strategy.” It’s a nice knock on the lack of planning, but that kind of vague projection onto future events is really itself a toxic emotion. The Stoics reminded us that Fear was just the flip side of Hope. Hope and Fear are nothing more than letting our thoughts and beliefs project into the future concerning positive or negative outcomes we do not control. Seneca would repeat a saying he learned from the Stoic teacher Hecato of Rhodes, that when we cease to hope we will cease to fear. Seneca was constantly reminding us that instead of borrowing that kind of trouble and the anxiety that comes with it, we will always do better if we focus instead on the present circumstances where we can actually make a difference.

Similarly, anger is an emotion that most of the Stoics spent a lot of time on. Athenodorus Cananites, the other Stoic advisor to the emperor Augustus, taught him a practice he found invaluable. “Whenever you feel yourself getting angry, Caesar,” he instructed, “don’t say or do anything until you’ve repeated the twenty-four letters of the alphabet to yourself.” Time and distance are the best remedy to anger, which usually creates far more trouble than the circumstances that triggered it, as Seneca wrote. While in exile on the island of Corsica for eight long years, Seneca wrote a whole book on Anger that he dedicated to his brother, who was busy serving Claudius, the emperor who had exiled Seneca in a fit of anger. We live in angry times, and much of what we experience is little more than anger biting itself, as Seneca put it. Marcus Aurelius wrote that gentleness and civility are a manlier and more human response to upsetting circumstances, and that the further we are from anger the stronger we will be.

[6] We Are and Must Remain a Unified Self – We Can’t Complain or Blame Anyone Else (Best to Deal with Our Own Demons)

The Stoics believed in a unified rational self. They took responsibility for maintaining that unity and would never support such thinking as “the devil made me do it,” or any other form of laying the blame or responsibility elsewhere. The notable exception among the Stoics was the towering genius Posidonius, who changed Stoic psychology to give what he thought was a better account of the irrational forces he saw tearing great leaders like Pompey apart during his own time. One must design one’s life, Posidonius said, “to live con­templating the truth and order of the universe and promoting it as much as possible, being led in no respect by the irrational part of the soul.” Yet he was still arguing the main point of the Stoics, that we can’t be divided against ourselves. This goes back to Zeno’s harmony of the individual and universal natures, as well as to the Stoic belief, which they took from Heraclitus, that “character is fate.” The original phrase, ethos anthropoi daimon, is actually better translated as “one’s character is a personal god.” This means is that if we let our character turn bad, we will then have a tyrant exercising a reign of terror over our lives. The real demon in life is a bad character.

Epictetus put it best when he said:

“These things don’t go together. You must be a unified human being, either good or bad. You must diligently work either on your own reasoning or on things out of your control—take great care with the inside and not what’s outside, which is to say, stand with the philosopher, or else with the mob!”

That’s easier said than done, which is why we’d rather complain about external sources or find another culprit to blame. But here, Epictetus is equally tough:

“Nothing outside my reasoned choice can hinder or harm it—my reasoned choice alone can do this to itself. If we would lean this way whenever we fail, and would blame only ourselves and remember that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind and uneasiness, then by God, I swear we would be making progress.”

[7] No Man Is an Island: The Stoic Golden Rule

At the time of Epictetus’ death, there was another Stoic studying and teaching in Athens named Hierocles. He wrote a large work called On Appropriate Acts (peri ton kathekonton), from which a number of fragments have been preserved, including a substantial book on The Elements of Ethics (ethike stoicheiosis), a systematic primer intended for classroom use, along with a number of other fragments filled with precepts aimed at a broader audience. Like Antipater and Musonius before him, the topics treated in these popular fragments include advice on marriage, family, and household management.

The Elements of Ethics stands out among Stoic ethical writing in the Roman period for its rigorously systematic approach to defining ethical principles. Building on the work of Chrysippus, who had taught about the role of what is fitting or appropriate (oikeios) in our development as human beings, as well as on Antipater’s work in connecting our personal interests to the interests of our fellow human beings, Hierocles created something remarkable.

Beginning with an individual’s capacity for self-perception and its related drive for self-preservation, Hierocles moves to connect that personal sphere of interest to the social sphere—the interests of other people. Hierocles turns the previous Stoic discussions of what is “fitting” or “appropriate” into a challenge to see and practice an ethics that connects the two poles of oikeiosis (appropriation)—the personal and the social. Our individual interests are bound up, because of our fundamental rational and social nature, with the interests and concerns of others. He pictures these spheres of concern as a series of circles, radiating out from our own self/mind:

Try as we might to live in a world dominated by our own interests, we will suffer and fail to realize our humanity unless we are constantly working to connect our sphere of concern with the concerns of others. Hierocles offers a simple solution based on his ingenious model. We should try always to bring the outer circles closer to ourselves—that is, to treat family like you would yourself; to treat a friend as you would family; to treat a fellow citizen as you would a friend; to treat a countryman as a fellow citizen; and, finally, to treat a foreigner as you would your own countryman. In all that we do, we should try to bring these circles closer to ourselves. No man is an island, and none untouchable.

This Stoic oikeiosis is no longer simply appropriating for the self what its constitution requires for physical survival, but now includes the radical concept of making the unfamiliar concern of others familiar. From Chrysippus’ “no-shoving rule” to Antipater’s emphasis on being just to others, the Stoics were building up an ethical system based on interconnectedness (sympatheia) and mutual cooperation. Hierocles provided a simple map for trying to live this virtue in a practical way. It’s the Stoic Golden Rule and it’s desperately needed in our world today.

[8] Our Personal Development is Bound Up in Cooperation with Others

Because of the work done by Chrysippus, Antipater, and Hierocles to build an ethical system that turned on an unbreakable connection between our self-interest and the interests of others, the Stoics were always positively focused on active social engagement with an eye toward cooperation. Seneca would write a whole book, his longest, on being a benefit to others. Constantly on the lookout for ways of being useful to others, he sought out moral exemplars who did the same and, even in his forced retirement from the court of Nero, Seneca hoped that the leisure time of his final years focused on writing would serve the same purpose. Those works, including his Moral Letters and Essays, have stood the test of time and helped countless people.

No Stoic reflected this orientation in his writing more than the emperor Marcus Aurelius. There are more than 80 references in The Meditations to the common good, a phrase that appears on nearly every page of the work. Marcus wrote that every morning he would wake up and think of all the troublesome people he would encounter that day, but then sternly remind himself that, because he knew the beauty of Good and the ugliness of Evil, he would focus instead on how they were really his family and that we are all “made for cooperation.” Elsewhere he would write, “Whenever you have trouble getting up in the morning, remind yourself that you’ve been made by nature for the purpose of working with others.”

That’s a powerful mantra to carry us through each day.

[9] Persist and Resist: It’s All about Progress, Not Perfection

The Stoics saw the art of living as a process of continuous improvement—they believed in progress, not perfection. No matter our roles and duties, no matter the obstacles and difficulties we face, they reminded us that there is always a deeper work going on. The Stoics saw us as both artisans and artifacts. While we work on the things of everyday life, we are doing a deeper work on ourselves. As we make progress in our various endeavors and encounter setbacks, we are constantly improving ourselves: thinking through things better, learning to anticipate trouble (premeditatio malorum), choosing to act in a more virtuous way, and eliminating toxic emotions.

While we never get there fully, our progress brings peace and stability to our lives and benefits to everyone around us. In this activity, we learn to turn words into works, crisis into character, and challenges into opportunities to do and be good. As Marcus said, “the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

This is the key focus of Stoic philosophy, and what sets it apart from all other types of philosophy which tend to focus on argumentation and verbal one-upsmanship. Philosophy, Seneca wrote isn’t for pointing out the faults in others, it’s for scraping off our own faults.

Aulus Gellius records a beautiful passage from Epictetus, when he was asked to sum up his philosophy. “If anyone would take these two words to heart and use them for his own guidance and regulation, he will be almost without sin and will lead a very peaceful life. These two words,” he said, “are ἀνέχου (persist) and ἀπέχου (resist).”

Persist and resist. The courage and perseverance to keep moving toward what is good, and the self-control and awareness to resist what is bad. These are the ingredients of freedom, whatever one’s condition.


By: Stephen Hanselman, co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living and Lives of the Stoics, which is available for pre-order and is set to release on September 29!