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 a group of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who followed a realistic but morally idealistic way of living. The philosophy of life was developed by Hellenistic Greeks about 300 BCE and was eagerly embraced by the Romans. The Stoic philosophy also had a strong appeal to Christian theologians of the early 20th century, and it has been applied to spiritual strategies for overcoming addictions. As Australian classicist Gilbert Murray (1866–1957) said:

"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." quoted in Knapp 1926

Stoics: From Greek to Roman Philosophy

The Stoics are one of five major philosophical schools in classical Greece and Rome: Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic. The philosophers who followed Aristotle (384–322 BCE) were also known as the Peripatetics, named for their habit of walking around the colonnades of the Athenian Lyceum. The Stoic philosophers, on the other hand, were named for the Athenian Stoa Poikile or "painted porch," the roofed colonnade in Athens where the founder of the Stoic philosophy, Zeno of Citium (344–262 BC), held his classes.

The Greeks likely developed the philosophy of Stoicism from earlier philosophies, and philosophy is often divided into three parts:

  • Logic: a way to determine if your perceptions of the world are correct;
  • Physics (meaning natural science): a structure to understand the natural world as both active (figured out by reason) and passive (existing and immutable substance); and
  • Ethics: the study of how to live one's life.

Although little of the Stoics' original writings exist, 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 BCE–65 CE), Epictetus (c. 55–135 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) 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 addiction programs.

Below are eight of the main ethical notions held by the Stoic philosophers.

  • Nature: Nature is rational.
  • Law of Reason: The universe is governed by the law of reason. Humans can't actually escape its inexorable force, but they 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 neither good nor bad. It is only acceptable if it doesn't interfere with the 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.

As modern-day stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci (b. 1959) describes the stoic philosophy:

"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."

Serenity Prayer and Stoic Philosophy

The Serenity Prayer, attributed to the Christian theologian 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, say Stoics ancient and modern, we should have the power to change.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

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