Book Notes: How to Be a Stoic

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, by Massimo Pigliucci

[Book Notes Disclaimer:  This is not intended to be a book summary, only the contents I found to be the most interesting, potentially valuable, or otherwise relevant at the time of reading. Most of these notes are directly copied lines from the book, but some are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]


Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion—rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good.

– Stoicism is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

– Stoicism was very much a philosophy of social engagement and encouraged love for all humankind and Nature as well.

Although other components of the Stoic system are important, by far the distinguishing feature of Stoicism is its practicality: it began in the guise of, and has always been understood as, a quest for a happy and meaningful life.

– Also owing a significant debt to Stoicism is the increasingly diverse family of practices that goes under the general rubric of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which was initially deployed to treat depression and now is more widely applied to a variety of mental conditions. Aaron T. Beck, author of Cognitive Therapy of Depression, acknowledges this debt when he writes, “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.”

– “Preferred Indifferents”: things that are, in and of themselves, relatively insignificant to a good life, especially when considered over time;  “externals” that do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth. (Personal worth instead depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues.)

– To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one’s character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper—but not fanatical—detachment from mere worldly goods.

In the end, of course, Stoicism is yet another unstraightforward path devised by humanity to develop a more coherent view of the world, of who we are, and of how we fit into the broader scheme of things.

– What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly? – Epictetus

-The theoretical framework of Stocism is the idea that in order to live a good life (in the sense of Eudaimonia), one has to understand two things: the nature of the world (and by extension, one’s place in it) and the nature of human reasoning (including when it fails, as it so often does).

– The Three Stoic Disciplines:  Desire, Action, Assent. These are directly related to the three areas of study and the four virtues…

The Three Areas of Inquiry/Study:  Physics, Ethic, Logic

The Four Virtues:  Courage, Temperance, Justice, Practical Wisdom

-The discipline of Desire (also referred to as Stoic acceptance) tells us what is and is not proper to want. This, in turn, derives from the fact that some things are in our power and others are not. It draws on the virtues Courage and Temperance.

– The discipline of Action (known also as Stoic philanthropy, in the sense of concern for others) tells us how to behave in the world. It is the result of a proper understanding of ethics, the study of how to live our lives, and it draws on the virtue of Justice.

– The Discipline of Assent (or Stoic mindfulness) tells us how to react to situations, in the sense of either giving our assent to our initial impressions of a situation or withdrawing it. This discipline is arrived at via the study of logic—what is and is not reasonable to think—and requires the virtue of Practical Wisdom.

– The Serenity Prayer:  God, grace me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”  The idea behind this prayer is very much in line with a primary goal of Stoicism.

– We are to accept potential negative outcomes with equanimity, because outcomes are never entirely under our control.

– Suppose you are going to find out tomorrow whether you got the promotion or not. Adopting a Stoic approach will allow you to have a night of peaceful sleep beforehand and be ready in the morning to face whatever outcome comes your way, not with resignation but with confidence…

– Your confidence lies not in the outcome, however, for that is outside of your control. Your confidence lies in knowing that you did whatever was in your power to do, because that, and only that, is under your control.

– We cannot change the past, and should not mentally dwell in it, but we can and should learn from it. The right attitude is to derive comfort from the knowledge that you did your best, and that you are still doing your best.

-The power of Stoicism: the internalization of the basic truth that we can control our behaviors but not their outcomes—let alone the outcomes of other people’s behaviors—leads to the calm acceptance of whatever happens, secure in the knowledge that we have done our best given the circumstances.

– What is important is the basic idea of the “dichotomy of control” and its implications [although it’s often not really a dichotomy – situational control is not necessarily zero sum, wherein one thing has total control so another thing must have no control].

– If we take this notion [relative control] seriously, it turns out that most things are not really under our control, from small and insignificant matters to really important ones. The logical consequence of this realization—which is also endorsed by Buddhism and other philosophical and religious traditions—should be to practice non-attachment to things and people.

– [IMPORTANT point that counters an ascetic approach to Stoicism in modern times]:

Stoicism originated and thrived in times of [extreme] political instability; people’s lives could be upturned at a moment’s notice, and death could befall anyone, at any age.

[Expanded concept, not in book]: This historical context is good to keep in mind for any historical belief & value system. The farther back in history we go, the more extreme the general living conditions were likely to be relative to how they are now. In other words the degree to which people had to deal with hardship was very high compared to what we typically experience now, especially compared to middle & upper class life in developed countries. A key example is life expectancy. For instance, around the time Stoicism was developed vs now: 

  • Around 3rd century BC, when Stoicism was established, life expectancy for the average person in Greece was probably around 30 years old (this is probably +/- 5 years on average, and of course for some factions of society it would be considerably higher or lower)
  • Around 1900, in the wealthiest & most developed countries, average life expectancy was around 40 years old
  • Around 1950, in the United States, life expectancy was around 50 years old.
  • Currently, average life expectancy in the US is around 78 years old.

So we are living, on average, well over twice as long as the average Greek person lived around 3rd century BC (~30 years vs ~78 years). This indicates how much more difficult conditions must have been around that time, which means there would have been a much greater utility in adhering to a belief, value, & coping system such as Stoic philosophy, or any philosophy or religion. A relatively horrible event, such as parent losing a child would have been common around that time, and a child losing a parent would have been even more common.

Thus, a philosophy like Stoicism would have been much more suitable back then compared to now – it probably would have rang much more true both in theory and in practice when considered in the context of back then. But that doesn’t mean the Stoic approach does not apply anymore. There’s still much truth in its fundamental theory, and it’s definitely still applicable and potentially valuable. Hardship, to varying degrees at various points in life, remains inevitable. Also, compared to back then, the potential for falling into a life of indulgence and chronic mental illness, as a result of our increasingly socially complex, hyper-competitive, materialistic, and technologically advanced society, is probably much higher now than it was back then, so the fundamentals of Stoicism definitely still apply and can still greatly serve us today.

– The difference between Aristotle and the Stoics may seem subtle, but it is crucial: Aristotle thought that contemplation is the highest purpose of human life, because our unique function in the animal world is our ability to think. As you might imagine, this purpose might make for a rather insular existence, so the Stoics shifted the emphasis very much toward the social, essentially arguing that the point of life for human beings is to use reason to build the best society that it is humanly possible to build.

What distinguishes humankind from all other species is our capacity for rationality and arguing for an ethical precept as a result: we ought not to behave like beasts or sheep because doing so negates our very humanity, presumably the most precious (and natural) thing we have.

-In modern discussions of the roots of morality, there are, roughly speaking, four ways to look at the issue, or what philosophers refer to as “meta-ethical” positions: one can be a skeptic, a rationalist, an empiricist, or an intuitionist…

– The Stoic approach to ethics is interesting because it doesn’t actually fit these four neat categories. Indeed, Stoic doctrine can be thought of as a combination of intuitionism, empiricism, and rationalism. The Stoics, however, were most definitely not skeptics. [But skepticism in certain contexts may of course serve as the appropriate approach or response.]

– The Stoics thought that the more we mature psychologically and intellectually the more the balance should shift away from our instincts and toward the deployment of (empirically informed) reasoning.

– One of the first things you learn if you study philosophy is that there rarely is such a thing as a sharp dichotomy in any but the more trivial matters. In fact, when I teach informal logic, I warn my students that more often than not, if someone is presenting them with just one of two forced choices, that person is probably committing what is called the fallacy of false dichotomy—he’s not telling them that other options are available.

– Generally speaking, then, Stoic ethics isn’t just about what we do—our actions—but more broadly about how our character is equipped to navigate real life.

– The Stoics adopted Socrates’s classification of four aspects of virtue, which they thought of as four tightly interlinked character traits: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice…

Practical wisdom allows us to make decisions that improve our eudaimonia, the (ethically) good life.

Temperance makes it possible for us to control our desires and actions so that we don’t yield to excesses.

Justice, for Socrates and the Stoics, refers not to an abstract theory of how society should be run, but rather to the practice of treating other human beings with dignity and fairness.

– The broader point [about Stoic virtue] is not that Stoicism somehow got it right while other traditions did not, but rather that human societies that have developed philosophies of life have repeatedly come up with remarkably similar lists of what we call virtues.

– Whether it’s biology, culture, or, more likely, a combination of both, the fact is that very disparate human societies, rooted in very distinct religious/philosophical traditions, all seem to value the same core group of character traits in their members — the same traits and attitudes the Stoics have been teaching for more than two millennia.

– The true value of a person lies in their core, and that core—our character—remains regardless of the role we happen to play in society, whether by choice, happenstance, or necessity.

Amathia seems to be a crucial word missing from the English vocabulary. It is the opposite of wisdom, a kind of dis-knowledge of how to deal with other human beings, and it results in awful actions undertaken by otherwise perfectly functional, intelligent human beings.

– “As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. The man who remembers this, I say, will be angry with no one, indignant with no one, revile none, blame none, hate none, offend none.” – Epictetus

– The uncomfortable truth is, again, that people suffering from cognitive dissonance are neither stupid nor ignorant. 

[Cognitive dissonance = internal conflict (experienced as psychological confusion and discomfort) that’s created by simultaneously holding two or more valid explanations that actually oppose or contradict each other and cannot both actually be true, so the easier or more personally relevant explanation is accepted while the other explanation is denied despite any truth it carries. Cognitive dissonance is avoided or managed by accepting the easier or more personally relevant explanation, and by denying the more difficult or personally irrelevant explanation. This in turn eliminates or reduces confusion and discomfort, whereas accepting both explanations as true or attempting to reconcile the two would create more confusion and discomfort. This is an extremely natural and inevitable process for all us at some point in time. In general, when considered over time, it is actually an adaptive process for human survival. However, our default approach to cognitive dissonance is not always appropriate or optimal, especially when we’re not actually under pressure to make a decision and when we have the means of establishing truth. Moreover, it is important to be aware of cognitive dissonance and to know that our evolutionary means of dealing with it doesn’t always best serve ourselves or others:  if we have the faculties, resources, and time to sort out explanations – to identify and reconcile the aspects of truth in each explanation – then we should almost always go through with this process rather than risk denying truth out of personal convenience.]

– The wrongdoer [as if by cognitive dissonance] does not understand that he is doing harm to himself first and foremost, because he suffers from amathia – lack of knowledge of what is truly good for himself. And what is good for him is the same thing that is good for all human beings, according to the Stoics: applying reason to improve social living.

– As far as the rest of us are concerned, remembering that people do bad things out of lack of wisdom is not only a reminder to be compassionate toward others, it also constantly tells us just how important it is to develop wisdom.

– Epictetus lost the use of his leg after it was broken by his first master, and his assessment of that fact had been: “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.”

– Facing too many choices on the menu, or too many cars on the dealer’s lot, isn’t a good thing, as modern cognitive science clearly shows. To complicate things, there is the fact that the world itself changes, requiring constant adjustments to our goals, decisions, and actions. Accordingly, we need to learn how to maintain agency under changing circumstances. [We must embrace our sense of free will and self-efficacy.]

-We also need to practice the Socratic task: know thyself. Knowing our physical and psychological abilities includes knowing our limits. Ignorance, or worse, self-deception about our own abilities can be very dangerous. We need to keep an up-to-date, accurate account of what is possible for us. This will depend not just on our abilities but also on the specific (and variable) physical and social environments in which we find ourselves at different times.

– We should be making a habit of reflecting on what is important to us and on the best way to achieve it, and also to continuously revise our life plan, according to our changing abilities and circumstances. Our dynamic plan should be coherent, ambitious, achievable, revisable, and—ideally—compatible with a generally rising level of life [fulfillment].

– Irvine’s “insult game”: what someone says to us is his opinion, which may or may not be grounded in fact. Whether we perceive someone else’s remark as an insult or not is entirely up to us, quite regardless of the intention of our interlocutor.

– A fundamental Stoic idea:  the Dichotomy of Control. Ie, death itself is not under our control (it will happen one way or another), but how we think about death most definitely is under our control. That’s the part we can and need to work on.

[Personal Note on dichotomy of control:  referring to it as a ‘dichotomy’ may be helpful for basic conceptualization, as in situations or conditions are essentially in our control or not in control. But it’s important to understand nuance in the concept. The concept of ‘dichotomy of control’ is not technically a dichotomy. Most situations in life are not entirely controllable or uncontrollable. Most situations have some controllable elements and some uncontrollable elements. To further complicate the matter, we often can’t readily identify all the significant elements affecting us in a situation, and if we do, often we can’t easily determine which elements are actually controllable or uncontrollable. Overall though, the essence of ‘dichotomy of control’ rings true and is very powerful. I will add that it might be better conceived as “Dichotomy of Action”, as in thinking of things in terms of being actionable or un-actionable instead of controllable or uncontrollable. Thinking in terms of control can sometimes lead to a misperception of your ability to influence things and can subsequently lead to confusion, frustration, or disappointment. Also, controlling something seems to infer we can control an outcome or result, which we often cannot. And also ‘uncontrollable’ suggests there is nothing whatsoever we can do to change it. Sometimes that’s true, but often it is not. Taking action is different than taking control – it is more practical. Taking action upon something doesn’t assume power of outcome. And deeming something as un-actionable also doesn’t seem quite as absolute as uncontrollable. Either way, thinking of your circumstances at any given time in terms of them being controllable or uncontrollable, or actionable or un-actionable, is central to the Stoic approach and is extremely helpful in life.]

– [Personal Insight]:  We have no evidence of what occurs after life. Nor do we have any good logic or reasoning for what might occur other than nothing. Technically, any application of reason to determine what happens after life is equally plausible and implausible. It would seem that some post-life states would be more or less plausible, and perhaps there is a valid case to be made for this. But there are essentially infinite possibilities for what happens to us when we die, thus it will do us no good to invest much effort into this reasoning. In fact too much contemplation will do us harm. If new evidence somehow comes to light and establishes definite clues or insights into what happens after life, then perhaps we should re-engage contemplation. But beyond a point – a point that is not far off – logical reasoning about what happens after life is a fool’s quest, for over-investment in the unknowable unknown not only leads us nowhere but it distracts us from living our life to the fullest.]

– Epictetus, ever the wise man, was aware of the danger [of suicidal contagion], and made it clear that a light attitude toward taking one’s own life was not the Stoic way.

– If we understand the ancient Greek concept of amathia, we know that it is more helpful to think of people who do bad things as mistaken and therefore to be pitied and helped if possible, not condemned as evil.

– Seneca explicitly advised taking a deep breath and going for a walk around the block upon first feeling the uncontrollable rise of rage, which he considered a type of temporary madness.

– As an APA article on anger management—which could easily have been written by Epictetus—reminds us: “Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it’s justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself.”

– Fundamental Stoic idea:  to live a good life we have to learn about how the world actually works (as opposed to how we wish it would work), and that we must also learn how to reason correctly in order to best handle the world as it is.

– Epictetus:  “When I see a man in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What can this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he still be anxious?

– [Uprooting anger and anxiety, and preventing them from regrowing, goes beyond treatment by good reasoning and calming techniques. It requires deep lifestyle change, including the development of moral/ethical perspective and virtuous action. It requires progressively resetting your baseline core traits.]

– We most definitely need connection with other people. But nevertheless a man must prepare himself for solitude too—he must be able to suffice for himself, and able to commune with himself.

– Stoics reject the whole idea of embarrassment, especially with respect to societal expectations, because we have no influence over other people’s judgments, only over our own behavior.

[It’s important to distinguish embarrassment from shame:  embarrassment is almost never useful, but shame can be useful. Shame can increase self-awareness and promote growth, whereas embarrassment does not (at least not significantly). Embarrassment should be considered as when you really can’t help what happens — when you make an unintended social faux pas, or a silly or careless mistake, or you expose a shortcoming in yourself — and people respond with belittlement (or when you perceive as if they’re belittling you). Embarrassment is natural, but it should be disengaged as much as possible and as quickly as possible. Shame on the other hand occurs (or should occur) when you negatively affect something or someone (or yourself) and when you could have prevented that negative effect. We should feel shame sometimes, and we should examine it every time we feel it and try to genuinely uproot or mitigate its direct causes.]

– We may have little or no control over the external circumstances that force us into being alone at some times in our lives. But (save for pathological conditions, for which one needs to seek medical help), it is our choice, our own attitude, that turns solitude into loneliness. We may be alone, but we do not consequently need to feel helpless.

True philosophy is a matter of a little theory and a lot of practice:  [Epictetus] “We see that the carpenter becomes a carpenter by learning certain things, the helmsman becomes a helmsman by learning certain things. May we, then, infer that in the sphere of conduct too it is not enough merely to wish to become good, but one must learn certain things?…We want the man who will apply his arguments, and bear witness to them by action.”

– True friendship, like true love, is revealed when the going gets tough, not when things are nice and easy.

– The Stoics were both keen observers of human psychology (a descriptive activity) and sophisticated thinkers about human morality (a prescriptive activity).

– Once more, Aristotle was no Stoic, and the Stoics would have said that the only friendship that truly deserves to be called a friendship is that ‘of the good’. Crucially, however, they would not have denied either the existence or the importance of the other two classes [‘of utility’ and ‘of pleasure’]. But they would have confined them to the category of “preferred indifferents”: things you may very well have and cultivate, so long as they don’t interfere with your virtues and moral integrity.

Preferred Indifferents [big concept for the Stoic approach]:  The things we recognize as not generally having significant value or utility, especially despite the things being commonly available within society or culture. These are things considered as not essential for the good life, meaning they can contribute to the good life but they don’t necessarily take away from the good life if you don’t have them, or they don’t significantly improve things if you do have them.

– The first goal is to become mindful of the Stoic way to think and—most importantly—act. Eventually, the exercises should become so second nature that you won’t need the reminders (though I still have them pop up on my calendar, just in case) and will be able to practice them spontaneously, applying them to all the small and big events and situations of your life.

– We have encountered a number of Stoic ideas … beginning most importantly with the three Stoic disciplines—desire, action, and assent—and their relationship with the three areas of study—physics, ethics, and logic. Distilled to their bare minimum (in order to derive the most benefit from these spiritual exercises), the Stoic principles are as follows:

1. Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent. [Virtue is essential — absolutely necessary — for living a good life. Other things are not absolutely necessary.]

For Stoics, nothing is to be traded against virtue. The Stoic can pursue the preferred indifferents and try to stay away from the dispreferred ones, so long as doing so doesn’t interfere with virtue.

2. Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life. The Stoics thought that we should take a hint from how the universe is put together in figuring out how to live our lives. Since human beings are naturally social animals capable of reason, it follows that we should strive to apply reason to achieve a better society.

3. Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).

If we are sufficiently healthy mentally, our decisions and behaviors are under our control. Outside of our control is everything else. We should concern ourselves with what is under our control and handle everything else with equanimity.

– The Four Stoic Virtues:

(Practical) Wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion

Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances

Justice: Treating every human being—regardless of his or her stature in life—with fairness and kindness

Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life

– Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: to constantly examine our “impressions”—that is, our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told—by stepping back to make room for rational deliberation, avoiding rash emotional reactions, and asking whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which case we should act on it) or isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).

– If there truly is nothing more to be done about a given situation, then we should no longer “concern” ourselves with it—we should stop trying to do something about the situation—precisely because it is outside of our control.

– Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.

– Mindfulness is what Epictetus is attempting to instill in his students: far from counseling us not to care, he is advising us to care and appreciate very much what we now have, precisely because Fate may snatch it from us tomorrow.

– Our overarching goal: to be a decent person who doesn’t do anything that is unvirtuous or that may compromise our integrity (like behaving obnoxiously in reaction to another’s obnoxious behavior).

– While you are alive and well, you can choose to enjoy the ride, even as you remain aware of the constraints you have and know that whatever you wish to accomplish always comes with a big caveat: Fate (the cart driver, God, the universe) permitting. This is what it means to do whatever you do while “keeping in line with nature.”

– No wonder Epictetus is often associated with the phrase “bear and forbear,” or “endure and renounce.” But remember that the goal isn’t to live an unhappy and grim life. On the contrary, it is to achieve what the Stoics called apatheia, which, despite the obvious and unappealing English echo, we have seen means tranquillity of mind, as well as equanimity toward whatever life happens to throw at us.

– Pause and take a deep breath. [Epictetus] “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control.”

– We must PRACTICE the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions, regardless of whether they are negative, such as insults, or positive such as feelings of lust:  we need to resist the impulse to react immediately and instinctively to potentially problematic situations. Instead, we must pause, take a deep breath, perhaps go for a walk around the block, and only then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible.

– Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity (which, again, is not to be confused with emotional impassivity!) when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others rather than to ourselves. But why, really? What makes us think that we are the universe’s special darlings, or that we ought to be?

– To indulge in gossip and judge people who are not present simply does not seem to be the virtuous thing to do, and the Stoic idea is that we internally denounce ourselves whenever we engage in such activity.

– General Stoic principle:  we can decide on our best course of action and then redirect our behavior accordingly. Initially, this is difficult, and even feels unnatural, but then habit kicks in and redirecting our behavior becomes easier and easier—until we reach the point where we wonder how we could have ever behaved otherwise.

– Choose your company well. We want friends we can both enjoy and learn from, and that will value us for who we truly are.

– [Good idea] Respond to insults with humor. “If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t be so quick to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it — he could have said more.’”

– Instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, what they say is not yours to control), respond with light self-deprecation. You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed, or at the least disarmed.

– Don’t speak too much about yourself. [Epictetus]  “In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.”

– Speak without judging. [Epictetus] “When someone bathes in haste, don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. When someone drinks a lot of wine, don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.”

– Become a master of distinguishing between matters of fact and judgments, from which we generally ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information.

– “What bad habit of yours have you cured today? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.

– A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.

– A happy life can be pursued in different ways, depending on which concept of eudaimonia—the flourishing life [or the fulfilled life]—one adopts.

– [Author, paraphrased] I believe that adopting, adapting, and adhering to a philosophy of life to guide you is generally more important than whichever specific philosophy you end up choosing.

– It all began with Socrates. Stemming from different interpretations of his teachings, a trio of schools arose: Plato’s Academy, Aristippus’s Cyrenaics, and Antisthenes’s Cynicism. Aristotelianism originated from within the Academy (which Aristotle frequented), Cyrenaism led to Epicureanism, and Cynicism birthed Stoicism—although the actual relationships among all these schools are best thought of as many-to-many rather than in terms of linear descent, given the reciprocal influences that took place over centuries.

– Quotes from Socrates (relevant, although he was not a Stoic):

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

– Socraticism (Socrates ): 

— wisdom is the Chief Good, the only thing that is always good because it is necessary to make proper use of everything else

— our moral imperative is to examine our life, and reason is our best guide in doing so

— The eudaimonic life consists of acting in the right way, and evil is the result of ignorance, or amathia (in other words, nobody purposefully wants to do bad things).

– Platonism (Plato): 

— The eudiamonic life consists of practicing virtue (same as Socraticism)

— Added metaphysical notions (to Socraticism) and recasted things in terms of his famous theory of Forms, where the abstract and idealized Form of the Good is the transcendent principle of all goodness.

– Aristotelianism (Aristotle):

— (Same fundamental approach as Socrates and Plato) Eudaimonia is achieved through the practice of virtue

— Using reason well is part of living the Eudaimonic life

— Certain favorable circumstances (external conditions) are also needed to life the Eudaimonic life

– Epicureanism (Epicurus): 

— Life is about increasing one’s pleasure and (especially) reducing one’s pain. But Epicurean hedonism was much more sophisticated than its Cyrenaic counterpart. For one thing, it included mental pleasures, which were considered superior to bodily ones, and happiness was not just a moment-by-moment thing but a lifelong process. The Epicurean way included freeing oneself from prejudice (especially of a religious nature), mastering one’s desires, living a modest life, and cultivating  friendship. Crucially, however, Epicureans counseled withdrawal from social and political life (because it was much more likely to bring about pain than pleasure)-[questionable/incomplete characterization].

— Epicureans most valued intellectual and lifelong pleasures whereas Cyrenaics most valued bodily moment-to-moment pleasures

– Stoicism (founder was Zeno of Citium)

— struck a middle ground between Aristotelianism and Cynicism, while at the same time strongly rejecting Epicureanism (although when considered in modern context Stoicism and Epicureanism are not so much at odds)

— Stoics granted to the Cynics that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness, but also nodded toward the Peripatetics (Aristotelians) in recovering some interest in external goods, which they classified into preferred and dispreferred indifferents, to be pursued, or avoided, so long as they do not compromise one’s integrity of character.

— Stuck with the Socratic primacy of virtue; rather than becoming ascetic in virtue [as the Cynics did] they elaborated a way to recover and put into perspective what most people would consider desirable externals (ie relationships, wholesome possessions, art, etc)