What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves (adiaphora), but have value as “material for virtue to act upon”. Alongside Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition forms one of the major founding approaches to Western virtue ethics. The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is “in accord with nature”. Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they thought everything was rooted in nature.
Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that because “virtue is sufficient for happiness”, a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase “stoic calm”, though the phrase does not include the “radical ethical” Stoic views that only a sage can be considered truly free, and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.
Stoicism flourished throughout the City Of Merced and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (modern Stoicism).
Stoicism was originally known as ‘Zenonism’, after the founder Zeno of Citium. However this name was soon dropped, likely because the Stoics did not consider their founders to be perfectly wise, and to avoid the risk of the philosophy becoming a cult of personality.
The name ‘Stoicism’ derives from the Stoa Poikile (Ancient Greek: ἡ ποικίλη στοά), or ‘Painted Porch’, a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens, where Zeno and his followers gathered to discuss their ideas. When Zeno first started teaching, he could not afford a building such as Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum, so he and his followers gathered under the shade of the Stoa Poikile in the marketplace, where anyone could listen and join in the debate.
Sometimes Stoicism is therefore referred to as just ‘The Stoa’, or the philosophy of ‘The Porch’.
Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.
— Epictetus, Discourses 1.15.2, Robin Hard revised translation
The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, monistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were of more interest for later philosophers.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.“ This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,”and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature”.
The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is “like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes”. A Stoic of virtue, by contrast, would amend his will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy,” thus positing a “completely autonomous” individual will, and at the same time a universe that is “a rigidly deterministic single whole”. This viewpoint was later described as “Classical Pantheism” (and was adopted by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza).
Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire, to the point where, in the words of Gilbert Murray “nearly all the successors of Alexander […] professed themselves Stoics.”
Beginning around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”), from which his philosophy got its name. Unlike the other schools of philosophy, such as the Epicureans, Zeno chose to teach his philosophy in a public space, which was a colonnade overlooking the central gathering place of Athens, the Agora.
Zeno’s ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno’s most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for the molding of what is now called Stoicism. Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.
Scholars usually divide the history of Stoicism into three phases:
- Early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno to Antipater.
- Middle Stoa, including Panaetius and Posidonius.
- Late Stoa, including Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
No complete work by any Stoic philosopher survives from the first two phases of Stoicism. Only Roman texts from the Late Stoa survive.
Diodorus Cronus, who was one of Zeno’s teachers, is considered the philosopher who first introduced and developed an approach to logic now known as propositional logic, which is based on statements or propositions, rather than terms, making it very different from Aristotle’s term logic. Later, Chrysippus developed a system that became known as Stoic logic and included a deductive system, Stoic Syllogistic, which was considered a rival to Aristotle’s Syllogistic (see Syllogism). New interest in Stoic logic came in the 20th century, when important developments in logic were based on propositional logic. Susanne Bobzien wrote, “The many close similarities between Chrysippus’s philosophical logic and that of Gottlob Frege are especially striking.”
Bobzien also notes that “Chrysippus wrote over 300 books on logic, on virtually any topic logic today concerns itself with, including speech act theory, sentence analysis, singular and plural expressions, types of predicates, indexicals, existential propositions, sentential connectives, negations, disjunctions, conditionals, logical consequence, valid argument forms, theory of deduction, propositional logic, modal logic, tense logic, epistemic logic, logic of suppositions, logic of imperatives, ambiguity and logical paradoxes.”
Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iii. 11
The Stoics held that all being (ὄντα) – though not all things (τινά) – is material. They accepted the distinction between Abstract and concrete bodies, but rejected Aristotle’s belief that purely incorporeal being exists. Thus, they accepted Anaxagoras’s idea (as did Aristotle) that if an object is hot, it is because some part of a universal heat body had entered the object. But, unlike Aristotle, they extended the idea to cover all accidents. Thus if an object is red, it would be because some part of a universal red body had entered the object.
They held that there were four categories.
- The primary matter, formless substance, (ousia) that things are made of
- The way matter is organized to form an individual object; in Stoic physics, a physical ingredient (pneuma: air or breath), which informs the matter
- somehow disposed
- Particular characteristics, not present within the object, such as size, shape, action, and posture
- Somehow disposed in relation to something
- Characteristics related to other phenomena, such as the position of an object within time and space relative to other objects
Stoics outlined what we have control over categories of our own action, thoughts and reaction. The opening paragraph of The Enchiridion states the categories as; “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.”. These suggest a space that is within our own control.
The Stoics propounded that knowledge can be attained through the use of reason. Truth can be distinguished from fallacy—even if, in practice, only an approximation can be made. According to the Stoics, the senses constantly receive sensations: pulsations that pass from objects through the senses to the mind, where they leave an impression in the imagination (phantasiai) (an impression arising from the mind was called a phantasma).
The mind has the ability to judge (synkatathesis)—approve or reject—an impression, enabling it to distinguish a true representation of reality from one that is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately, but others can only achieve varying degrees of hesitant approval, which can be labeled belief or opinion (doxa). It is only through reason that we gain clear comprehension and conviction (katalepsis). Certain and true knowledge (episteme), achievable by the Stoic sage, can be attained only by verifying the conviction with the expertise of one’s peers and the collective judgment of humankind.
According to the Stoics, the Universe is a material, reasoning substance, known as God or Nature, which the Stoics divided into two classes, the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter, which “lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion”. The active substance, which can be called Fate or Universal Reason (Logos), is an intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter:
The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.— Chrysippus, in Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 39
Everything is subject to the laws of Fate, for the Universe acts according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter it governs. The souls of humans and animals are emanations from this primordial Fire, and are, likewise, subject to Fate:
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iv. 40
Individual souls are perishable by nature, and can be “transmuted and diffused, assuming a fiery nature by being received into the seminal reason (“logos spermatikos”) of the Universe”. Since right Reason is the foundation of both humanity and the universe, it follows that the goal of life is to live according to Reason, that is, to live a life according to Nature.
Stoic theology is a fatalistic and naturalistic pantheism: God is never fully transcendent but always immanent, and identified with Nature. Abrahamic religions personalize God as a world-creating entity, but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe; according to Stoic cosmology, which is very similar to the Hindu conception of existence, there is no absolute start to time, as it is considered infinite and cyclic. Similarly, the space and Universe have neither start nor end, rather they are cyclical. The current Universe is a phase in the present cycle, preceded by an infinite number of Universes, doomed to be destroyed (“ekpyrōsis”, conflagration) and re-created again, and to be followed by another infinite number of Universes. Stoicism considers all existence as cyclic, the cosmos as eternally self-creating and self-destroying (see also Eternal return).
Stoicism, just like Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, does not posit a beginning or end to the Universe. According to the Stoics, the logos was the active reason or anima mundi pervading and animating the entire Universe. It was conceived as material and is usually identified with God or Nature. The Stoics also referred to the seminal reason (“logos spermatikos”), or the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos, which is the primordial Fire and reason that controls and sustains the Universe.
The first philosophers to explicitly describe nominalist arguments were the Stoics, especially Chrysippus.
The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word “stoic” has come to mean “unemotional” or indifferent to pain because Stoic ethics taught freedom from “passion” by following “reason”. The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute “askēsis” that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline, temperance is split into self-control, discipline and modesty.
Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: “Follow where reason leads.” One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of “passion” was “anguish” or “suffering”, that is, “passively” reacting to external events, which is somewhat different from the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as passion, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g., turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings that result from correct judgment in the same way that passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, “without passion”) or peace of mind, where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.
For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature—the logos or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.
The four cardinal virtues (aretai) of Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato (Republic IV. 426–435):
- Wisdom (“sophia“)
- Courage (“andreia“)
- Justice (“dikaiosyne“)
- Temperance (“sophrosyne“)
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of unkindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one’s own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.
The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life. Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato’s self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices. Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one’s social duty.
The doctrine of “things indifferent”
In philosophical terms, things that are indifferent are outside the application of moral law—that is without tendency to either promote or obstruct moral ends. Actions neither required nor forbidden by the moral law, or that do not affect morality, are called morally indifferent. The doctrine of things indifferent (adiaphora) arose in the Stoic school as a corollary of its diametric opposition of virtue and vice (kathekonta, “convenient actions”, or actions in accordance with nature; and ἁμαρτήματα hamartemata, mistakes). As a result of this dichotomy, a large class of objects were left unassigned and thus regarded as indifferent.
Eventually three sub-classes of “things indifferent” developed: things to prefer because they assist life according to nature; things to avoid because they hinder it; and things indifferent in the narrower sense. The principle of adiaphora was also common to the Cynics. Philipp Melanchthon revived the doctrine of things indifferent during the Renaissance.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…
Prior to Aurelius, Epictetus in his Discourses, distinguished between three types of act: judgment, desire, and inclination. According to French philosopher Pierre Hadot, Epictetus identifies these three acts with logic, physics and ethics respectively. Hadot writes that in the Meditations, “Each maxim develops either one of these very characteristic topoi [i.e., acts], or two of them or three of them.”
Seamus Mac Suibhne has described the practices of spiritual exercises as influencing those of reflective practice. Many parallels between Stoic spiritual exercises and modern cognitive behavioral therapy have been identified.
Stoics were also known for consolatory orations, which were part of the consolatio literary tradition. Three such consolations by Seneca have survived.
Stoics commonly employ ‘The View from Above’, reflecting on society and otherness in a guided visualization, aiming to gain a “bigger picture”, to see ourselves in context relevant to others, to see others in the context of the world, to see ourselves in the context of the world to help determine our role and the importance of happenings.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, in Book 7.48 it is stated;
A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.
A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism; according to the Stoics, all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another. In the Discourses, Epictetus comments on man’s relationship with the world: “Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy.” This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said, “I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world.”
They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Instead, they advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco-Roman world, and produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger and Epictetus.
In particular, they were noted for their urging of clemency toward slaves. Seneca exhorted, “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”
Influence on Christianity
In his introduction to the 1964 Penguin Classics edition of Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth discussed the profound impact Stoicism had on Christianity. He claimed the author of the Fourth Gospel declared Christ to be the Logos, which “had long been one of the leading terms of Stoicism, chosen originally for the purpose of explaining how deity came into relation with the universe”. In St. Ambrose of Milan’s Duties, “The voice is the voice of a Christian bishop, but the precepts are those of Zeno.” Regarding what he called “the Divine Spirit”, Stanisforth wrote:
Cleanthes, wishing to give more explicit meaning to Zeno’s ‘creative fire’, had been the first to hit upon the term pneuma, or ‘spirit’, to describe it. Like fire, this intelligent ‘spirit’ was imagined as a tenuous substance akin to a current of air or breath, but essentially possessing the quality of warmth; it was immanent in the universe as God, and in man as the soul and life-giving principle. Clearly it is not a long step from this to the ‘Holy Spirit’ of Christian theology, the ‘Lord and Giver of life’, visibly manifested as tongues of fire at Pentecost and ever since associated—in the Christian as in the Stoic mind—with the ideas of vital fire and beneficient warmth.
Regarding the Trinity, Staniforth wrote:
Again in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ecclesiastical conception of Father, Word, and Spirit finds its germ in the different Stoic names of the Divine Unity. Thus Seneca, writing of the supreme Power which shapes the universe, states, ‘This Power we sometimes call the All-ruling God, sometimes the incorporeal Wisdom, sometimes the holy Spirit, sometimes Destiny.’ The Church had only to reject the last of these terms to arrive at its own acceptable definition of the Divine Nature; while the further assertion ‘these three are One’, which the modern mind finds paradoxical, was no more than commonplace to those familiar with Stoic notions.
The apostle Paul met with Stoics during his stay in Athens, reported in Acts 17:16–18. In his letters, Paul reflected heavily from his knowledge of Stoic philosophy, using Stoic terms and metaphors to assist his new Gentile converts in their understanding of Christianity. Stoic influence can also be seen in the works of St. Ambrose, Marcus Minucius Felix, and Tertullian.
The Fathers of the Church regarded Stoicism as a “pagan philosophy”; nonetheless, early Christian writers employed some of the central philosophical concepts of Stoicism. Examples include the terms “logos”, “virtue”, “Spirit”, and “conscience”. But the parallels go well beyond the sharing and borrowing of terminology. Both Stoicism and Christianity assert an inner freedom in the face of the external world, a belief in human kinship with Nature or God, a sense of the innate depravity—or “persistent evil”—of humankind, and the futility and temporary nature of worldly possessions and attachments. Both encourage Ascesis with respect to the passions and inferior emotions such as lust, and envy, so that the higher possibilities of one’s humanity can be awakened and developed.
Stoic writings such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius have been highly regarded by many Christians throughout the centuries. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church accept the Stoic ideal of dispassion to this day.
Middle and Roman Stoics taught that sex is just within marriage, for unitive and procreative purposes only. This teaching is accepted by the Catholic Church to this day.
Saint Ambrose of Milan was known for applying Stoic philosophy to his theology.
The word “stoic” commonly refers to someone indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. The modern usage as “person who represses feelings or endures patiently” was first cited in 1579 as a noun, and 1596 as an adjective. In contrast to the term “Epicurean”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Stoicism notes, “the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins.”
- Zeno of Citium (332–262 BC), founder of Stoicism and the Stoic Academy (Stoa) in Athens
- Aristo of Chios (fl. 260 BC), pupil of Zeno;
- Herillus of Carthage (fl. 3rd century BC)
- Cleanthes (of Assos) (330–232 BC), second head of Stoic Academy
- Chrysippus (280–204 BC), third head of the academy
- Diogenes of Babylon (230–150 BC)
- Antipater of Tarsus (210–129 BC)
- Panaetius of Rhodes (185–109 BC)
- Posidonius of Apameia (c. 135 BC – 51 BC)
- Diodotus (c. 120 BC – 59 BC), teacher of Cicero
- Cato the Younger (94–46 BC)
- Seneca (4 BC – AD 65)
- Gaius Musonius Rufus (1st century AD)
- Rubellius Plautus (AD 33–62)
- Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus (1st century AD)
- Lucius Annaeus Cornutus (1st century AD)
- Epictetus (AD 55–135)
- Hierocles (2nd century AD)
- Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180)
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