Stoicism is not a Philosophy

A short post on the practice of Stoicism.

“All is opinion” - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Stoicism is laconic. Sometimes, to a fault. This brevity can be interpreted as dismissiveness, and when used as an ex-post justification or taken as a philosophical contention in an argument, this interpretation is valid. Simply citing that “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things”(Epictetus) seems like a justification of almost anything. It shifts blame from the cause of an event to the reactions that people have because of it, allowing smarmy internet argumenteurs to defend their abrasive philosophies. Similarly, to those unpracticed in Stoicism, their short aphorisms do nothing to help with the grief or consternation they might feel over things that they do not control.

"On no occasion call yourself a philosopher … Show not your theorems” -Epictetus, Enchiridion

This misuse of Stoicism comes from a miscategorization of Stoic’s and their writings. They are often grouped in with other Greek Philosophers, but their writings aren’t the same. Most philosophers package ideas and arguments into books to spread their way of thinking. Reading and understanding philosophical writings is all you need to do to claim, with authority, your understating of that philosophy. Reading and understanding the texts of Stoic writers is merely the first step. Stoic writings aren’t arguments to support a world view, they are instructions, practices, and mantras. To truly understand Stoicism you have to practice it every day. Stoicism is not a philosophy that you believe or disbelieve, it is an action that you take or do not take.

“Practice then from the start to say to every harsh impression, ‘You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules you have, and firstly, and chiefly, by this: whether the impression has to do with the things that are up to us, or those that are not; and if it has to do with the things that are not up to us, be ready to reply, ‘It is nothing to me.’” -Epictetus, Enchiridion

One cannot prescribe Stoicism onto others. It is a deeply individual and inward looking practice of meditation that requires you to renounce judgement of external things, including the actions of others. Unlike almost all other things called philosophies, it is explicitly not a world view. Meditating on Stoic mantras helps you accept our inability to control the world, and therefore the pointlessness of taking a world view in the first place. Instead, Stoicism encourages you to focus on maximizing the good within yourself, as that is all that is within your control.

The brevity of Stoicism makes it a poor philosophy. Its terse, sometimes self evident statements aren’t good arguments or empathetic pieces of advice. They don’t prove hypotheses about the external world nor do they help others on their own. But this is because Stoicism is not an argument, or advice, or a philosophy. It is a personal practice, a path to ataraxia that one must work hard to follow.