Stoicism holds that the key to a good happy life is the cultivation of an excellent mental state – which the Stoics identified with virtue and being rational.
The ideal life is one that is in harmony with Nature – of which we are all part and an attitude of calm indifference towards external events.
It began in Greece and was founded around 300BC by Zeno – who used to teach at the site of the Painted Stoa in Athens – hence the name Stoicism.
The works of the early Stoics are for the most part lost – so it is the Roman Stoics who have been most influential over the centuries and continue to be today.
So what were the ideas?
The first is that some things are within our control and some are not and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things that in fact we can’t.
What can we control?
Epictetus argues that we actually control very little.
We don’t control what happens to us – we can’t control what the people around us say or do and we can’t even fully control our own bodies – which get damaged and sick and ultimately die without regard for our preferences.
The only thing that we really control is how we think about things – the judgements we make about things.
This leads us to the second foundational principle from Epictetus: it’s not things that upset us but how we think about things.
We then make judgements about what happens.
If we judge that something really bad has happened then we might get upset – sad or angry – depending on what it is.
If we judge that something bad is likely to happen then we might get scared or fearful.
All these emotions are the product of the judgements we make.
Things in themselves are value neutral – for what might seem terrible to us might be a matter of indifference to someone else or even welcomed by others.
It’s the judgements we make that introduce value into the picture and it’s those value judgements that generate our emotional responses.