By Astrid Popovici
“If someone tried to take control of your body and make you a slave, you would fight for freedom. Yet how easily you hand over your mind to anyone who insults you. When you dwell on their words and let them dominate your thoughts, you make them your master.”
— Epictetus, 50-135 A.D.
With these words, former slave and philosopher Epictetus expresses a core idea of Stoicism: not allowing yourself to be ruled by your emotions. The most famous classical Stoics lived from around the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Stoics believed that we should not let ourselves be swayed by a desire for pleasure or fear of pain.
Stoicism posits that although we can’t always control what happens to us, we do choose how to feel and respond. This gives us the power to influence our internal state regardless of external factors. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations that “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Interestingly, this aspect of Stoicism is expressed in many different philosophies, cultures, and time periods. In the 16th century, Shakespeare wrote that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Similarly, 17th century Milton wrote in Paradise Lost that “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
The Stoics believed that practicing virtue should be the ultimate goal of life. By practicing virtue, Stoicism argues, we can ultimately live according to our natures and achieve happiness. There are four Stoic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. In contrast to the Epicureans, Stoicisms didn’t view happiness as an end in itself, but rather as a byproduct of living a virtuous life.
A common misconception about Stoics is that they thought pleasure was inherently bad. That’s not true—rather, they believed that emotion should not overcome reason or cause someone to indulge in vice rather than acting virtuously.
Another key Stoic idea is perspective. Wrote Marcus Aurelius,
“Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already or is impossible to see. The span we live is small, small as the corner of the earth in which we live it.”
Ultimately, we only truly have control over our small selves. And maybe that’s enough.