Stoics and Moral Philosophy - The 8 Principles of Stoicism

Does the Serenity Prayer Echo the Greco-Roman Notion of Stoicism?

Stoa of Temple of Athena Lindia, at Lindos on the Island of Rhodes, Greece, built circa 300 BC
Stoa of Temple of Athena Lindia, at Lindos on the Island of Rhodes, Greece, built circa 300 BC. Bill Raften / Stockbyte / Getty Images

The Stoics were people who followed a realistic but morally idealistic way of living, a philosophy of life developed by Hellenistic Greeks and eagerly embraced by the Romans. The Stoic philosophy had a strong appeal to Christian theologians of the early 20th century, which echoes in our own modern culture.

"I believe that [Stoicism] represents a way of looking at the world and the practical problems of life which possesses still a permanent interest for the human race, and a permanent power of inspiration. I shall approach it, therefore, rather as a psychologist than as a philosopher or historian.... I shall merely try as best I can to make intelligible its great central principles and the almost irresistible appeal which they made to so many of the best minds of antiquity." Knapp 1926

Stoics: From Greek to Roman Philosophy

The philosophers who followed Aristotle (384-322 BC) were known as the Peripatetics, named for their walking around the colonnades of the Athenian Lyceum. The Stoics, on the other hand, were named for the Athenian Stoa Poikile or "painted porch", where one of the founders of the Stoic philosophy, Zeno of Citium (on Cyprus) (344-262 BC), taught. While the Greeks may have developed the philosophy of Stoicism from the earlier philosophies, we only have fragments of their teachings. Their philosophy is often divided into three parts, logic, physics, and ethics.

Many Romans adopted the philosophy as a way of life or art of living (téchnê peri tón bion in the ancient Greek)--as it was intended by the Greeks--and it is from the complete documents of imperial period Romans, especially the writings of Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), Epictetus (c. 55-135) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180) that we gain most of our information about the ethical system of the original Stoics.

Stoic Principles

Today, Stoic principles have found their way into accepted popular wisdom, as goals to which we should aspire--as in the Serenity Prayer of Twelve Step programs.

Below are eight of the main ideas in the area of ethics that were held by the Stoic philosophers.

  • Nature - Nature is rational.
  • Law of Reason - The universe is governed by the law of reason. Man can't actually escape its inexorable force, but he can, uniquely, follow the law deliberately.
  • Virtue - A life led according to rational nature is virtuous.
  • Wisdom - Wisdom is the the root virtue. From it spring the cardinal virtues: insight, bravery, self-control, and justice.
  • Apathea - Since passion is irrational, life should be waged as a battle against it. Intense feeling should be avoided.
  • Pleasure - Pleasure is not good. (Nor is it bad. It is only acceptable if it doesn't interfere with our quest for virtue.)
  • Evil - Poverty, illness, and death are not evil.
  • Duty - Virtue should be sought, not for the sake of pleasure, but for duty.

"Briefly, their notion of morality is stern, involving a life in accordance with nature and controlled by virtue. It is an ascetic system, teaching perfect indifference (APATHEA) to everything external, for nothing external could be either good or evil. Hence to the Stoics both pain and pleasure, poverty and riches, sickness and health, were supposed to be equally unimportant." Source: Internet Encylcopedia of Stoicism

Serenity Prayer and Stoic Philosophy

The Serenity Prayer, attributed to the Christian theologist Reinhold Niebuhr [1892-1971], and published by Alcoholics Anonymous in several similar forms, could have come straight from the principles of Stoicism as this side-by-side comparison of the Serenity Prayer and the Stoic Agenda shows:

Serenity Prayer Stoic Agenda

God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. (Alcoholics Anonymous)

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

To avoid unhappiness, frustration, and disappointment, we, therefore, need to do two things: control those things that are within our power (namely our beliefs, judgments, desires, and attitudes) and be indifferent or apathetic to those things which are not in our power (namely, things external to us). (William R. Connolly)

It has been suggested that the main difference between the two passages is that the Niebuhr's version includes a bit about knowing the difference between the two. While that may be, the Stoic version states those which are within our power--the personal things like our own beliefs, our judgments, and our desires. Those are the things we should have the power to change.


Updated by K. Kris Hirst