There’s often some confusion over the similarities between stoicism and nihilism, and this confusion generally seems to boil down to a misunderstanding of how the Stoics view acceptance and control.

It’s not uncommon for people who are new to stoicism (or people who are deliberately finding fault with it) to read about the stoic principle of control—taking responsibility for what you can control and accepting what you cannot—and confuse this acceptance with apathy or defeatism.

This isn’t at all the case, and today we’re going to explore what the Stoics really meant, what nihilism is, and the real differences between the two.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium, and later expanded by philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. It centers around living in harmony with reason and nature, acting with virtue, and reaching happiness (eudaimonia) as a result.

The Stoics suggested that true happiness (eudaimonia) is found in four main virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

They emphasized the importance of distinguishing between what is within our control (our thoughts and actions) and what is not (external events).

With this in mind, the Stoics taught that we should focus on self-improvement and accept external events as they occur.

This philosophy also underscores the interconnectedness of humanity and the universe, advocating a sense of duty to help others and contribute positively to society.

Stoicism promotes active engagement in the world, encouraging individuals to fulfill their societal roles responsibly and ethically.

Core Beliefs:

  • Virtue and Reason: Stoicism teaches that the path to eudaimonia (a fulfilled and happy life) lies in virtue, which is achieved through living in accordance with reason and nature. Virtue is the highest good and includes wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

  • Control and Acceptance: Stoics distinguish between what is in our control (our own thoughts and actions) and what is not (external events). They believe in taking full responsibility for what is within our control and accepting the uncontrollable.

  • Interconnectedness and Duty: Stoicism emphasizes the interconnectedness of humanity and the universe. It promotes a sense of duty to help others and contribute positively to society.

Outlook on Life: Stoicism advocates for a life of active engagement in the world, emphasizing the importance of fulfilling one’s role in society responsibly and ethically.

What is Nihilism?

Nihilism, which emerged in the 19th century and is often associated with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, presents a very different view.

Nihilism suggests that life and the universe lack any intrinsic meaning or value at all, challenging the idea of objective truth and morality.

It often involves the dismissal of traditional values and beliefs, including religious, moral, and societal norms. In its existential form, nihilism explains that individual life has no inherent purpose or value.

This philosophy can lead to a range of attitudes, from pessimism and despair to a sense of liberation in creating our own personal meaning and values.

Nihilism’s core lies in questioning and often rejecting the established narratives about life’s purpose and the nature of existence.

Core Beliefs:

  • Absence of Objective Meaning: Nihilism posits that life and the universe have no intrinsic meaning or value. It rejects the notion of objective morality and truth.

  • Rejection of Conventional Values: Nihilists often dismiss traditional values and beliefs, including religious, moral, and societal norms, as baseless.

  • Existential Nihilism: This branch of nihilism specifically states that individual life has no inherent purpose or value.

Outlook on Life: Nihilism can lead to various attitudes towards life, ranging from pessimism and despair to a liberated sense of freedom in creating personal meaning and values.

The difference between Stoicism and nihilism:

The fundamental difference between Stoicism and Nihilism is seen in their approaches to meaning, purpose, and ethics.

Where Stoicism seeks meaning through living in accordance with nature and reason, valuing virtue and ethical conduct, Nihilism denies inherent meaning or value in life.

Stoicism’s moral framework is guided by the pursuit of the intrinsic good of virtue, whereas Nihilism challenges the very concept of objective good and morality.

The stoics believe in contributing positively to society and fulfilling one’s duties, whereas the Nihilists tend to view these as the arbitrary constructs of humanity.

In facing life’s challenges, Stoicism advocates for resilience and control over one’s reactions, while Nihilism might lead to indifference or a rejection of conventional responses.


When we look more closely at both of the philosophies, there are clear differences between the two.

Stoicism offers a structured approach to finding meaning and living a virtuous life; Nihilism confronts the notion of inherent meaning and values, presenting a more skeptical view of existence and our role within it.

Each philosophy provides a unique way to examine and respond to the complexities of human life, and both are worth learning about.

What works for one person might not work for another, so where Stoicism works for some, others might prefer to deal with life’s questions with a more nihilistic approach.

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  1. What is the main difference between stoicism and nihilism? Stoicism is about finding strength and meaning within oneself and living virtuously, whereas nihilism denies any inherent meaning or value in life.

  2. Can stoicism and nihilism coexist in one’s philosophy? While they are fundamentally different, some people find elements from both philosophies useful in navigating life’s complexities.

  3. Is nihilism inherently negative? While often perceived as bleak, nihilism can also be seen as liberating, freeing individuals from arbitrary structures and meanings.

  4. What is Nihilism? Nihilism is a philosophical belief that life and the universe lack inherent meaning, value, or purpose. It often questions or rejects established beliefs in moral values, truth, and societal norms.

  5. Who are the key philosophers associated with Nihilism? Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most notable philosophers associated with nihilism, although he didn’t endorse it as a desirable perspective. His work, however, critically examines the foundations of morality and truth, leading to discussions on nihilistic themes.

  6. Are there different types of Nihilism? Yes, there are several forms of nihilism, including existential nihilism (denying inherent meaning in life), moral nihilism (rejecting the existence of objective morality), and metaphysical nihilism (the belief that nothing exists as a substantive entity).

  7. Does Nihilism advocate for pessimism and despair? Not necessarily. While some may interpret nihilism as leading to pessimism or despair due to its denial of inherent meaning, others find it liberating. This liberation comes from the freedom to create personal meaning and values.

  8. Can Nihilism coexist with ethical living? Yes, even though nihilism denies objective morality, it doesn’t necessarily advocate for unethical living. Many who hold nihilistic views still adhere to personal or societal moral codes for various reasons, including personal preference, social harmony, or pragmatic considerations.

  9. Is Nihilism a popular philosophy in contemporary times? Nihilism has gained attention in modern times, particularly in literature, film, and philosophical discourse, reflecting the complexities and ambiguities of the contemporary world. However, it’s not necessarily widely endorsed as a complete philosophy of life.

  10. How does one cope with the ideas of Nihilism? Coping with nihilism involves individual choices. Some may embrace the freedom it offers in creating personal values, while others might find comfort in adopting existentialist perspectives or engaging in pursuits that provide subjective meaning.

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