Socrates, the Game Changer
Before Socrates, many philosophers spent their time examining the natural world. Socrates changed that. He examined the human condition.
He lived a simple self-sufficient lifestyle. He mingled brazenly amongst the crowds in Athens and rigorously interrogated their beliefs and behaviours, prompting them to reflect on important contemporary issues. Socrates inspired others, in life, and even in death at the hands of his detractors.
After his death, several influential philosophical movements sprang up in Athens. They too looked inward, examining the nature of man, and how one could lead a good life.
Athens became a hubbub of philosophers (seekers of wisdom) and sophists (teachers for hire) and their respective schools and gathering places. They took different approaches, with Stoicism filling the middleground.
Antisthenes, a passionate advocate of Socrates, prescribed a virtuous, ascetic lifestyle that would become an inspiration for Cynic thought and action. The Cynics would live an austere lifestyle: begging for food; living meagrely on the street; and brazenly mocking current social conventions. They were like Socrates on steroids.
They did not have a formal school, but wandered the streets confronting Athenians with their beliefs which were in opposition to most Athenian values. Their rejection of wealth, social norms and any pleasure - not provided by nature - did not appeal to most Athenians. But their rigorous self-discipline did bring some admiration, including that of Alexander the Great.
Alexander sought out Diogenes of Sinope, a famous Cynic renowned for his severely ascetic lifestyle and badgering philosophical manners. As the story goes, Alexander found Diogenes reposed in a large discarded barrel. He applauded Diogenes' discipline, offering to grant him any favour he wished. Diogenes looked up, asking only that Alexander "move out of his sunshine". Simple living and living in strict accordance with nature was all that he needed!
Self-discipline and living in accordance with nature are values we will see again in the practical application of Stoicism. Their paths differed, but their goals were similar: to live a good life.
Hedonists - those pursuing pleasure to live the good life - were at the other end of the philosophical scale.
The Epicurians advocated the pursuit of pleasure, communal living and friendship. For them, pleasure did equal happiness. But, it wasn't without limits. They made methodical deliberations to determine which pleasures were worth pursuing.
They resolved that natural pleasures that had no negative consequences would bring them happiness. Hence, they avoided overindulgence and participation in activities (like politics) that could cause discomfort and frustration. That included moderation in sexual affairs, as overindulgence here could result in unintended consequences (like children). Moderation is a discipline we will see again in the practise of Stoicism.
Another group of Hedonists were the Cyreniacs. They were far less inhibited and sought out immediate gratification. Overindulgence wasn't a problem for them.
Stoics: taking the middle path between the Cynics and Hedonists
Zino of Citium, stranded by shipwreck in Athens around 300 BC, first studied philosophy with the Cynics. He began to realize that he could encourage more people to engage in philosophy, if they were unencumbered by the physical hardships, endured by the Cynics. He started his own school of philosophy preaching from a stoa (porch) in Athen's agora (market). This early form of Stoic philosophy was formalized under Zino and his successor, Chryssipus.
In these early years, the Greeks structured their philosophy around three pillars: physics, logic and ethics.
Physics encompasses the examination of the natural order. Stoics believed that the cosmos - the natural world - embodied divine wisdom, and there was a spark of this divine wisdom in all of us - the divine spark. It was our ability to reason (our spark of wisdom) that distinguished us from everything else in the natural world. It made us unique.
Logic is the art of rhetoric used to promote the philosophy and defend it against its detractors.
Ethics is the articulation of stoic virtue and the pursuit of excellence that allows us to lead a good life: a life free of negative emotions like anxiety, anger, fear, grief and envy.
Living the Good Life
A good life is a life free of negative emotions. It is not to be confused with reaching a euphoric state of happiness, but to achieve a state of tranquility, free of negative emotions.
To achieve the good life, use reason to:
Live a virtuous life - be a good person. (see Stoic Virtue)
Pursue personal excellence in all that you do: live in harmony with nature, by fulfilling your role in the natural order.
Maintain integrity in the face of external influences: preferred and dispreferred indifferents.
Indifferents (like wealth/poverty, pain/pleasure, glory/shame, and life/death) affect all of us indiscriminately.
They are neither good nor bad by themselves; only our reaction to them can be judged as good or bad.
Hence, You DO NOT NEED preferred indifferents (like wealth and fame) to live a virtuous life. Even if you are poor, or in poor health, you can still lead a virtuous life and be happy.
Living the Stoic way provides the emotional fortitude and mental dexterity to maintain happiness in the face of life's setbacks.