“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Not many people know about Zeno of Citium, in Cyprus.
Zeno, a philosopher who lived from 332 to 262 BC, is remarkable for being the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy (1). He taught Stoicism, which emphasized the primalcy of goodness, which could only be achieved through living virtuously and in accordance with nature. Zeno was initially a very wealthy merchant, but after he lost his way, turned to philosophy. Despite his riches, Zeno then lived a frugal and ascetic lifestyle, focusing on teaching others about Stoicism. Unfortunately, nearly all of Zeno's writings have been lost, including his most famous work, Republic, in which he laid out his vision of what a prototypical Stoic society might look like.
Stoicism flourished throughout the Greek and Roman worlds and was later championed by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived from 121 to 180 CE (2). Although he enjoyed traditional pursuits such as boxing and wrestling, Aurelius took up the habits of a philosopher as a child, and was then introduced to Stoicism in his 20s by the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Chalcedon, and later on by the Roman politician Quintus Junius Rusticus.
Zeno of Citium, founder of Ancient Stoicism.
In Meditations, Aurelius identifed many different Stoic principles, a mere handful of which may be described as follows (3,4,5,6).
First, to appreciate what you have. Aurelius wrote, "Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there." We often consider that which we do not have, but rarely pause to ruminate on being grateful for that which we already have. What we already have must be cherished, for it will not last.
Second, to realize the obstacle is the way. Aurelius said, "The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." When nature encounters an obstacle, such as a stream of water meeting a rock, it finds a way around it, changing the stream in the process. It is the same with our own obstacles, which should not be avoided but embraced as the necessary path, for the obstacle changes us in the process.
Marcus Aurelius, champion of Ancient Stoicism.
Fourth, amor fati - to love one's fate. Aurelius said, “To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony." This is the attitude of seeing everything in one's life as necessary - not to be merely borne or concealed, but to actually be loved.
Fifth, memento mori - remember, you will die. Aurelius wrote, "Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last." Life without death is pointless, as there is no reason to act now if there is always a tomorrow. You will die, so act now.
Ancient Stoicism persisted in the Greek and Roman worlds until the 300s CE, after which it was supplanted by Christianity. Since then, Stoicism has seen two major revivals, first in Neostoicism, and more recently in Contemporary Stoicism.
Neostoicism emerged in the 1500s and 1600s CE (7). It was propelled by the Flemish Catholic philosopher Justus Lipsius, who sought to combine Stoicism and Christianity. Neostoicism argued along the same lines as Ancient Stoicism, the main difference being that rather than aiming to lead a good life in of itself, one should do so to submit to God. Modern scholars do not consider the synthesis to have been overly successful.
Justus Liupsius, founder of Neostoicism.