Stoicism: An Introduction

The Stoic School of thought is at the core of the Adult Academy project. It is a foundational block in our Ethos, as well as in the design of our fitness practices, and in the Fire Service Warrior work. Given its central nature – and the fact that the term Stoic gets thrown around a lot without clear definition and can be readily misinterpreted – a brief introduction to Stoicism seems valuable.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that dates back to Ancient Greece. The name comes from the Greek Stoa Poikile – the painted porch – and was part of the Ancient Agora of Athens. The Agora was a centralized place of assembly, for commerce and discourse. It was on the painted porch – the Stoa – that the philosopher Zeno began to present the thoughts that would develop into the Stoic school.

Broadly speaking the Stoic philosophy might be summed up as an actionable method one must pursue to live a “good” life. For the Stoics this involved – in part – living in accord with your own nature, holding as virtues only traits that would be universally seen as beneficial (if you could see a way that a particular quality could have a downside it isn’t universally beneficial), and not being overwhelmed by your passions.

It’s this last quality that most of us think of when we think of Stoicism – being unaffected by the difficulties of life. Its true that the Stoics valued being able to live life without being overly jostled by the negative they also eschewed being lifted too high by the positive. The work of its various teachers carries frequent appeals to living an unaffected life – even under the most trying of circumstances.

While Epictetus might tell us that we shouldn’t be affected by the death of our spouse or child because death isn’t a “bad” thing per se, and Seneca would suggest we live at times as though everything we possess has been taken from us so we can be ready to face that circumstance with equanimity, the way I read and hear stoicism is not that we should have no emotional reaction to them, rather that these things should not OVERWHELM us.

I don’t see the Stoic school as one that denies human nature. I see it as one that reminds us that even under the most trying circumstances we can display calm and collected behavior. We can become inoculated – but not immune – to both the expected and the “surprise” calamities of life. It is natural to react with fear, anxiety, rage, or paralysis when we are confronted with life or limb threatening – even with reputation threatening – circumstances. That is how evolution has shaped our nervous system – our fight, flee, feed, and … mate drives are survival strategies. However, those strategies, when untrained, may be ineffective in our particular circumstance. Evolution, after all, shapes populations over time, it doesn’t prepare YOU to thrive in any given circumstance. Therefore we may be best served if we look at Stoicism as an early form of stress inoculation training, rather than as a display of inhuman rationality.

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