I’m a huge fan of ancient Greek history. Particularly the melting pot of practical philosophy, debate, and the search for “the good life” that was going on at the time. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the history of Stoicism and the ancient Stoics hold a special place in my heart. 

Tracing it’s roots all the way back to a little area of the Athenian agora called the stoa poikilê (painted porch), the philosophy of Stoicism still remains a source of practical wisdom, helpful guidance, and an antidote to suffering.

Stoicism is a philosophy that offered the ancient Greeks a framework on which to build resilience, wellbeing, peace of mind, and moral character, and it continues to offer these things to us in our modern world today.

This is a look into Stoic history and the origins of stoicism to help explain the ancient wisdom that connects ethicsphysics, and logic into a cohesive and practical world view. A world view that has the ability to shape the way we perceive the world around us and the way we live. I’ll also add some personal thoughts along the way to help add context and clarity.

Stoicism: The Birth of A New Philosophy

To find the beginnings of the Stoic practice, we have to wind the clock all the way back to the early 3rd century BCE.

Zeno of Citium, a merchant at the time, travelling between Phoenicia and Peiraeus, found himself washed up on the shores of Greece after losing his ship in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

While in Greece, he happened upon a bookseller and read an account of Socrates from Xenophon‘s Memorabilia

In a historical account written by Diogenes Laertius, Zeno was described as having been so taken by the description of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where men such as this could be found. The bookseller pointed out Crates of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher living in Athens at the time. 

From the spark of reading Socrates to the meeting with Crates, Zeno had been set on the path of the philosopher.

Zeno studied under Crates, StilpoDiodorus Cronus, and Philo, among others, before beginning his own school of philosophy that would come to be known as Stoicism.

The Founders of Stoicism infographic

The Birth and Rise of Stoicism in Athens

The stoa poikilê, or painted porch, was a small area in the agora of ancient Athens where Zeno and his early stoics would gather to discuss what it meant to be good human beings, what right actions meant, and how to reach a life of flourishing, or the Greek word eudaimonia.

The school bloomed in the golden era of philosophical exploration, providing an alternative way of life to the other ideologies that had taken root in Athens.

Under Zeno’s leadership, Stoicism became one of the more popular schools of philosophy at the time, and it attracted a succession of influential thinkers, each of whom built upon the foundations left by Zeno.

From Cleanthes, who strengthened the school’s ethical backbone, to Chrysippus, whose logical structures fortified its teachings, to Polemon of Athens. Each successor made important contributions and left the philosophy stronger than they found it. Below is a brief timeline to help visualise this information:

Zeno of Citium300 – 262 BCEFounding the Stoic school; ethicsphysicslogic integration
Cleanthes of Assos262 – 232 BCEExpansion of ethical doctrines; Hymn to Zeus
Chrysippus of Soli 232 – 206 BCEFormulation of propositional logic; Stoic orthodoxy establishment
Panaetius185 – 110 BCEEthical bridge between Stoic-Roman world; duties and role ethics. Student of Diogenes of Babylon
Posidonius135 – 51 BCEStoic physical theory; reconciliation of reason and emotion
Details of Stoic philosophers and their contribution to the philosophy
Page Break Image for History of Stoicism. Image of a Greek Temple

The Stoic System: Ethics, Physics, and Logic

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

Stoicism is a school of ancient philosophy that stands out for being very systematic.

The Stoics believed that the key to philosophy is learning how we can be virtuous, where virtue is the highest good, and lack of virtue the only evil. The Stoics, like many Socratic philosophies, believed virtues, or character, to be the most important thing in a person’s life.

They believed this virtue to come from three main ideas. These ideas are reflected in the division of the philosophy: 

  1. Clear thinking (logic)
  2. Understanding nature and the universe (physics)
  3. Knowing right from wrong (ethics)

Infographic explaining the three branches of Stoic philosophy; logic, ethics, and physics.

Each of the three branches help us to live wise and reasoned lives because they link together in a kind of philosophical web. Each of the three branches addresses a different area of life, and when combined, they help us to better understand and navigate the world around us.

Of these ideas, Stoics thought that learning about right and wrong (ethics) was the most important for understanding how to live well.

These days, their ideas on logic have become more popular with modern readers, and this is probably because they can be explained as practical tools like The Dichotomy or Control, The View From Above, Memento Mori, and Amor Fati. However, Stoic ethics should not be overlooked.


In Stoic philosophy, the essence of ethical living is believed to reside in the condition of our soul, they put a great deal of value on both wisdom and self-discipline (two of the four cardinal virtues). 

Stoics argue that to live a virtuous life, we must aim to transcend the emotions that disturb our peace of mind. They say this because when we allow our mind to be controlled by our emotions, we are no longer able to behave rationally and therefore it’s unlikely that we will behave virtuously. 

They believe that reason involves applying logical thought and understanding the natural order of the universe, a concept referred to as the logos, which signifies a universal order that exists in the world around us and in every living thing.

The term “passion” in Stoicism covers a range of emotions, including:

  1. Anger
  2. Fear, 
  3. Excessive joy
  4. Lust
  5. Distress

These are generally viewed as responses to external circumstances that can mislead and disrupt our inner peace.

Given that the use of reason can protect our peace of mind from these passions, if we allow passion to disturb us, the disturbance is seen as a result of flawed reasoning.

Chrysippus, a respected figure we touched on earlier, interprets passions as judgments where the individual has incorrectly attributed value to something neutral or indifferent.

He suggests that every passion stems from a misjudgment about what is truly good or evil. For instance, pleasure might come from a mistaken belief in the immediate value of something, whereas desire reflects a misguided anticipation of future gains. 

Similarly, distress and fear are rooted in false perceptions of present or future threats.

In order to grow as people, the Stoics believed in a regular revaluation of our values, aiming to recognize the true worth of things and understanding that passions are not inherent to human nature. 

Achieving freedom from passions, in the Stoic view, leads to a form of happiness that is self-sufficient. We can eliminate fear and anger by recognizing that irrationality is the only true harm and that external forces cannot truly affect one’s inner peace.

Memento Mori Page Break of a Stoic temple

Stoicism’s Influence on Rome

The arrival of Stoicism in the Roman Empire brought with it a significant shift in the philosophical landscape of the time. 

Under the guidance of Greek mentors, Roman leaders began to fall in love with the Stoic teachings, embedding them into the bedrock of Roman culture and governance. This saw the rise of teachers like Gaius Musonius Rufus and Epictetus.

This love of Stoic philosophy was, in part, due to its alignment with the values and virtues that were essential for both governance and the development of one’s character.

The heart of Stoicism contains the search for wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control. These virtues seemed to resonate with Roman leaders of the time, providing them with a path to rational decision-making and effective leadership, especially in times of crisis and hardship (which was often the case in Rome).

The philosophy’s focus on emotional resilience—maintaining composure and clarity of thought regardless of external circumstances—was particularly valuable in a political environment riddled with intrigue, scheming, warfare, and the constant pressure of leadership struggles.

The Stoic Influence on Roman Emperors

While Stoic philosophy became a popular school of thought in the Roman Empire, not all of Rome’s leaders were supportive of it or philosophy in general.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors and perhaps history’s most famous Stoic, is our best example of the Roman acceptance of the philosophy.

His journals, now published as a collection called ‘Meditaions‘ remain one of the most important Stoic texts from the ancient world. In Meditations, Aurelius reflects on his own Stoic philosophy with regards to governance, relationships, and personal growth.

On the other hand, Emperor Nero’s relationship with Stoic philosophy was more complex.

While Stoicism was generally admired in Rome for its principles of virtue, self-control, and rational governance, Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68 AD, often found himself at odds with the philosophy, its ideals, and with the Stoic philosophers themselves.

Nero’s reign is often characterized by historians as being filled with extravagance, tyranny, and the pursuit of personal pleasure over the public good—traits that are polar opposite to Stoic values. 

Both emperor Domitian and Vespasian both had a more negative view of the philosophy. Below are some Roman Emperors and their views on Stoicism:

EmperorRegard for StoicismNotes 
Marcus AureliusFavorableAdvocated and adhered to Stoic principles
NeroAmbivalentInitially supportive, later at odds
VespasianUnfavorableExiled Stoic philosophers
DomitianUnfavorablePersecuted Stoic practices
Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

The history of Stoicism’s Core Teachings

The closer we look into Stoic philosophy, the more and more it becomes apparent why such an ancient world view is still practiced in the world today.

A large part of what the philosophy offers helps us to build lasting resilience, peace of mind, happiness, and strength of character; all things that help to build a good life. The Stoics cantered their teachings around two ideas:

  1. Eudaimonia: a state of being that we should aim for, marked by wellbeing, flourishing, a good spirit, and a calm mind.
  2. Virtue: character traits that a person should aim to develop. The most important of which are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

With these two ideas, we are given a compass with which to navigate all of the difficulties and hardships of life.

Virtue and Eudaimonia

The pursuit of virtue, according to Stoicism, is the pursuit of excellence in character and rational thinking. The Stoics believed that a person whose actions display virtue in everything they do will naturally lead to a flourishing life. As we’ve seen above, the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism are:

  1. Wisdom: This virtue is about the knowledge of what is good and evil, including the understanding of the natural world, the awareness of the value of logic, and the importance of self-awareness. It involves making reasoned decisions and acting with reasoned choice, and foresight.
  2. Courage: In Stoicism, courage is not just physical bravery but also the moral strength to face any form of adversity or discomfort, including pain, hardship, and death. It involves the resilience to stand up for what is right, overcome fears, and maintain integrity under all circumstances.
  3. Temperance: This virtue is about self-control and moderation, balancing our desires and impulses. It involves living in harmony with oneself by managing and restraining excessive behaviors, desires, and emotions, leading to a balanced and rational life.
  4. Justice: Justice involves dealing fairly and equitably with other people, showing respect for their rights and dignity. It emphasizes the importance of social conduct, ethical behavior towards others, and contributing to the common good, underpinned by honesty, kindness, and social responsibility.

Eudaimonia is a classical Greek term that’s often translated as “happiness,” “flourishing,” or being of “good spirit.” It represents the highest human good in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle.

For the Greeks, eudaimonia was achieved when we lived a life of virtue and reason. A life where our actions align with the best aspects of human nature. It’s about recognizing and growing into our true potential and living a fulfilling, meaningful life. 

The Greeks had another word, “apatheia“, that was critical to achieving eudaimonia.

This idea refers to a state of inner peace that’s achieved by freeing ourselves from the influence of passion—essentially, the absence of distressing emotions. 

It comes from understanding and accepting what is within our control and what is not, and then focusing our energy only on the former. This practice is not about suppressing emotions but rather about not allowing ourselves to be controlled by them, especially the negative ones that arise from desires and hardships we cannot control.

Apatheia serves as a foundation for achieving eudaimonia because it enables you and I to live without being disturbed by external events or internal passions but instead live in harmony with ourselves and the world, pursuing goodness and virtue.

Through apatheia, the Stoics believe we can get to a stable and lasting form of happiness that is based on the quality of one’s character and actions, ultimately leading to a state of flourishing or eudaimonia.

Stoicism vs. Other Hellenistic Schools

To highlight some of the benefits of Stoicism, sometimes it’s worth comparing what the Stoics believed with some of the other popular philosophies of the time. Below I’ve put together a little summary of some of these philosophies and how they both similar and different to the Stoics:

PhilosophySimilarities with StoicismDifferences
EpicureanismEmphasis on ethical living and the pursuit of a virtuous life.Epicureanism identifies the highest good as pleasure and the absence of pain. This is in contrast to Stoicism’s emphasis on virtue as the sole good.
SkepticismSkeptical approach towards knowledge, questioning assumptions.Emphasis on suspending judgment (epoché) due to the impossibility of certain knowledge, unlike Stoicism’s confidence in the knowledge of what is good.
CynicismValue placed on living in accordance with nature, simplicity, and self-sufficiency.Cynicism advocates for extreme asceticism and rejects social conventions, while Stoicism values social duties and the community.
PlatonismImportance of virtue and the concept of an ordered, rational universe.Platonism focuses on the existence of abstract, perfect forms and the soul’s relation to them, diverging from Stoicism’s more materialistic and present-oriented philosophy.
AristotelianismEthical focus, particularly on the role of virtues in achieving a good life.While Aristotelianism places importance on achieving eudaimonia through a balanced life and the fulfillment of one’s potential, it differs from Stoicism in its understanding of the role of external goods and rationality.

The Evolution of Stoic Teachings

While Stoicism had a modest start in the Hellenistic period under the stoa poikile of ancient Greece, the philosophy quickly began to reach more and more people and, with it’s expansion, began to evolve over time.

Zeno of Citium may have laid the essential framework of stoic philosophy, but others added their own insights as time went by, keeping the philosophy fresh and relevant. As Stoicism spread from Greece to Rome, it faced new challenges and new questions.

Here, thinkers like Chrysippus and later Romans like Musonius Rufus, Seneca, and Epictetus built upon Zeno’s ideas, making sure they stayed useful as times changed.

This shows history that Stoicism wasn’t just a set of unchanging rules but a dynamic philosophy that grew with the needs of society. 

From Zeno’s focus on virtue to Cleanthes and Chrysippus’ work on logic and physics to Roman Stoics’ emphasis on practical ethics for personal and societal good and its influence on modern psychology and leadership, its no surprise that the philosophy is still practiced to this day.

NameOriginYear of BirthYear of DeathAge at DeathContributions
Zeno of CitiumGreek334 BCE262 BCE72Founded Stoicism and emphasized virtue as the highest good.
CleanthesGreek330 BCE230 BCE100The second head of the Stoic school, he stressed the importance of assenting to reason.
ChrysippusGreek279 BCE206 BCE73The third head of the school. He developed Stoic logic and ethics, significantly expanding the doctrine. He excelled in logic, the theory of knowledgeethics, and physics
SenecaRoman4 BCE65 CE61Writings on ethics, Stoic virtues, and practical advice for daily living.
EpictetusGreek50 CE135 CE85Taught the importance of self-control and detachment from external events.
Marcus AureliusRoman121 CE180 CE58Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ reflect personal thoughts on Stoic philosophy and guidance for personal improvement.
Musonius RufusRoman30 CE101 CE71Emphasized the practice of Stoicism in daily life, particularly in relation to ethics.
Cato the YoungerRoman95 BCE46 BCE49He embodied Stoic virtues in his political life, resisting tyranny and corruption.
CiceroRoman106 BCE43 BCE63Although not strictly a Stoic, his writings introduced Stoic ideas to a broader audience and influenced later Stoic thought.
Page Break Image of a Greek Temple

Stoicism and The Formation of Early Christianity

The influence that Stoicism had on early Christianity helps to highlight the flow of ideas and moral frameworks of the time across different cultures and religions. 

Stoicism, as we’ve seen, puts a great deal of value on virtues such as wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, along with the importance of living in accordance with nature and reason. 

These ideas also seemed to have resonated with the audience in the evolving Christian doctrine at the time. It’s very possible that the work of the Stoics went some way towards influencing early Christian thinkers and shaping the development of Christian ethics and theology.

One of the most interesting cross-overs between Stoic philosophy and Christianity is the focus on the universal community and the inherent value of human life. Stoicism taught that all people are part of one and the same community, and as such, everyone deserves respect and kindness. This idea resonated with Christian teachings on love, compassion, and equality before God, as articulated in Jesus Christ’s teachings and the writings of the Apostles. 

The concept of loving one’s neighbour, a cornerstone of Christian ethics, seems to reflect the Stoic principle of oikeiosis, which values the natural inclination towards self-preservation and, by extension, the welfare of others.

It also seems likely that the Stoic idea of the logos, a rational principle that orders the entire universe, influenced the development of Christian theology. Particularly in the conception of the word (logos) in the Gospel of John. Early Christian theologians, such as Justin Martyr, saw the Stoic logos as a precursor to the Christian Logos, strengthening the link between Stoic and Christian thought.

However, while there are similarities between the two belief systems, it’s important to note that the two are very distinct in their core doctrines and ultimate goals. Christianity is built on the belief in a personal God, the incarnation of Christ, and the promise of salvation, which contrasts with the Stoic focus on reason, virtue, rational self-governance, and living in harmony with nature.

Stoicism and Its Lasting Impact

Looking at Stoicism over the last 2000 years, it’s not hard to see some of the impacts it’s had on western philosophy, culture, and even modern psychotherapy.

From laying the foundations of Roman policy to the impact on early Christianity to the formation of cognitive behavioural therapy, the work of the early Stoics has resonated through multiple branches of human history. People, to this day, practice Stoic exercises, read the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus to help find better ways to live, learn Stoic ethics, and develop the virtues that can lead us to human happiness.

Stoicism in Contemporary Philosophy and Therapy

CBT, in a nutshell, is a form of modern psychotherapy that focuses on becoming aware of our negative thought patterns and behaviors and then challenging them to improve our emotional state and develop strategies to overcome them.

The methodology is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected. Therefore, when we change negative thoughts and behaviors, we can change our emotions and improve our mental health. 

CBT is a structured, time-limited therapy that is evidence-based and widely used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, phobias, and stress-related disorders.

In the context of Stoicism, the connections between Stoicism and CBT are generally found in their shared principles and techniques that are used for managing our thoughts and emotions. For example:

  1. Our understanding of control: The Stoics believed in the importance of distinguishing between what is within our control (our perceptions, actions, and responses) and what is not (external events, the actions of others). This concept is also present in CBT, where patients learn to focus their energy and attention on their thoughts and behaviors because these are within their control (and therefore within their ability to change), rather than external circumstances that they cannot change.
  2. Cognitive Bias and Rational Thinking: The Stoics valued rational thinking. This is especially true when challenging irrational beliefs. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, taught that it’s not events themselves that disturb people, but their judgments about them. CBT addresses cognitive bias in a similar way and encourages us to challenge these thoughts and replace them with more rational, realistic ones.
  3. The Role of Habitual Responses: Both Stoicism and CBT highlight the importance of understanding and modifying our habitual responses to the world around us. Where the Stoics practiced exercises to develop the habits of virtue and wisdom, CBT includes the practice of new, healthier thought patterns and behaviors until they become more automatic responses.

So, while CBT is a clinical and evidence-based practice that was developed in the mid-20th century, largely by psychologists such as Aaron T. Beck, its philosophical influence can be traced back to Stoicism. Albert Ellis, was profoundly influenced by the works and central stoic doctrines of Epictetus. Ellis was the man behind Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), an early form of CBT.


For me, the history of Stoicism, from the early stoa and forums of ancient Athens, to the modern applications in psychotherapy, is a great example of how good ideas will persevere over time.

I’m also reminded of how our human nature is much the same today as it was all the way back in ancient Greece, and the ideas that Zeno and his followers discussed, to find the best ways to live, are still valuable 2000 years later.

The Stoic have left us with an excellent framework on which to build our own philosophy of life. With it we can learn to be more resilient, more compassionate, more rational, and lessen the impact of the outside world on our psychological wellbeing.

I hope you found something useful here.

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