Choosing the Stoic Path
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
~ Robert Frost
The actual path of our life frequently diverges from the one we planned. For most of us, by the time we reach our thirties it is likely we are living a life wholly different from the one we optimistically envisioned and planned during our teens. Whether it is better or worse is not the point; it will most certainly be different. Unplanned and unforeseen events like sickness, death of a loved one, disabling accidents, unemployment, sudden fortune, unexpected fame, promotions, the passion of falling in love, the birth of a child, etc., happen. Life happens. Such events can be psychologically debilitating if not prepared for; however, they can be the impetus for a new course and a better life. Occasionally, such events inspire us to stop—to bring our life to a momentary halt and reevaluate the path we are on and where it appears to be leading. At those times, like Robert Frost’s famous traveler, we must make a choice. The road ahead diverges and we must pick one path, or the other.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, faced one of those unexpected life events and the subsequent fork in the road as a shipwrecked merchant in a foreign city—Athens. According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno used his downtime wisely; he stopped in an Athenian bookstore and read about the life of Socrates. A new path opened in Zeno’s mind—a fork in the road—and he faced a choice. The choice he made not only changed his life, it is fair to say it profoundly changed Western thought and impacted history in ways he could not have conceived. Frost’s famous traveler only faced two choices. We face a multitude of paths and numerous forking roads as we travel through our lives. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is renewed interest in ancient wisdom and the philosophical way of life many lived at the time Zeno made his life-changing choice. I am going to focus on those options available in Hellenistic times, when philosophy was practiced as a way of life, and consider why a person who has committed themselves to philosophy as a way of life might choose any of the schools available to them. Then I will offer some reasons why they might choose Stoicism.
As Frost’s imaginary traveler considered his options, he knew two things. First, his choice would make a “difference” in his life. Second, knowing how “way leads on to way,” he understood it was unlikely he would ever make it back to explore The Road Not Taken. In other words, the choice was profoundly important and deserving of careful consideration. Moderns who are intrigued by virtue ethics and interested in philosophy as a way of life will likely find themselves facing a similar choice. Faced with several viable philosophical ways of life—Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Cynicism—which to choose?
Unlike modern academic philosophy, ancient philosophical practice was not primarily intellectual; it was transformative. Its goal was not mere knowledge; instead, it intended to cure the soul of the practitioner by unburdening their mind of mistaken notions about the nature of reality and human nature and developing within them a state of moral excellence. This endeavor required more than philosophical discourse. That is why, as French philosopher Pierre Hadot so eloquently points out, ancient philosophical discourse and practice were intertwined and considered inseparable aspects of a way of life. During Hellenistic times, philosophical schools created holistic systems of thought and practice designed to transform the practitioner through a prescribed way of life. The ancient philosophers were physicians of the soul (psyche) and their prescriptions were intended to heal. Nevertheless, they were not painless and easy methods. As Epictetus pointed out,
A philosopher’s school, man, is a doctor’s surgery. You shouldn’t leave after having had an enjoyable time, but after having been subjected to pain. For you weren’t in good health when you came in; no, one of you had a dislocated shoulder, another an abscess, another a headache. (Discourses 3.23.30)
While theory was an essential part of practice for all ancient philosophical schools, it was not the primary motive that drove people to philosophy in general nor to any particular school. Instead, students were attracted to the philosophical way of life as a quest for wisdom, then they made a “specific existential choice” to follow the path prescribed by one of the schools.
Zeno’s Path to Stoicism
While shipwrecked in Athens, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, went to a bookseller’s shop and began reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Zeno was so impressed by the life of Socrates he asked the bookseller where such men could be found. As Diogenes Laertius tells the story, Crates the Cynic happened to walk by at that time, so the bookseller pointed him out and said, “Follow that man.” Zeno did follow Crates and that was the beginning of his philosophical quest. Ultimately, Zeno left Crates and studied under Polemo at Plato’s Academy, and then under Stilpo at the Megarian school. Zeno borrowed elements from each of these schools and ultimately blended them with the concept of a conscious and providential cosmos to create the holistic philosophy of Stoicism. A close look at this story of Zeno and the Athenian bookseller, reveals several interesting things.
First, it is fair to ask why Zeno was so impressed by the life of Socrates he found in Memorabilia. As Scottish philosopher William Leslie Davidson points out while highlighting “The Socratic Impulse” in Stoicism, “we can hardly question that the historical Socrates reasoned on Theistic lines, basing his conception of God and God’s providence on teleology or the marks of design manifest in the universe…” Therefore, within Xenophon’s Memorabilia, we see “the Socrates” who “was characterized by religious reverence and personal piety” and inspired Zeno to follow the path of philosophy. Interestingly, Diogenes Laertius makes a specific note of the fact that Zeno was reading Book II of Memorabilia at the time he asked where men like Socrates could be found. We do not know if Zeno already completed Book I, which highlights the piety of Socrates and defends him against the charge that he did not believe in the gods of the city. Throughout Book I, Socrates counsels his companions to discipline their desires for externals like food, drink, sex, and wealth. Likewise, the opening lines of Book II take up that same theme:
He turned his companions toward training themselves to be continent in their desire for meat and drink, and in regard to lust, sleep, cold, heat, and labor. (Memorabilia II.1.1)
According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno must have read those lines and then continued through Book II to an unknown place where his admiration for the life of Socrates inspired him to ask where he could find such men. We do not need to read much farther to find a good cause for Zeno’s enthusiasm. At the beginning of Book II, Xenophon retells Prodicus’ story of Heracles (Hercules) and his fateful choice between two paths.
When Heracles was starting to enter adolescence from childhood—when youths, since they are already becoming their own rulers, make clear whether in life they will take the road through virtue or that through vice—going out to a quiet spot, he sat down perplexed as to which of the roads he should take.(II.1.21)
Heracles was approached by two women. Both were tall and attractive. The first woman had a pure complexion, modest eyes, a moderate bearing, and she wore white clothing. The second woman wore makeup to make her complexion appear “whiter and rosier than its reality.” Her eyes were “wide open” and “she was wearing the clothes in which her bloom would be most conspicuous” and “She looked down at herself frequently, looked around to see if anyone else was looking at her, and frequently looked at her own shadow” (Memorabilia II.1.22). The first woman was named Virtue and the second was called Happiness by her friends, but her nickname was Vice (II.1.26). Each offered Heracles a path and a destiny. Virtue offered a path of discipline and toil. She promised:
If you should take the road toward me, you will become an exceedingly good worker of what is noble and august; and, for me, that I will appear still far more honored and more distinguished for good things. I shall not deceive you with preludes about pleasure. But I shall truthfully describe the disposition the gods have made of the things that are. For without labor and attentiveness the gods give humans none of the things that are good and noble. (II.1.27-8)
Vice interrupted, as she often does, with a tempting alternative:
Reflect, Heracles, how hard and long is the road to the delights that this woman describes for you. But I shall lead you to an easy and short road to happiness. (II.1.29)
Virtue then unleashed a protreptic diatribe that would make Epictetus proud:
Wretch! What good thing do you have? Or what pleasant thing do you know, not wanting to do anything for the sake of these things? You do not even await the desire for pleasures but rather fill yourself up with everything before desiring it, eating before you are hungry, drinking before you are thirsty. In fact, in order to eat pleasantly you contrive gourmet cooks; in order to drink pleasantly you furnish yourself with costly wines and in summer run around seeking ice; and in order to sleep pleasantly you furnish yourself not only with soft bedclothes but couches and rockers for your couches. For you desire sleep not because of your labor but because you have nothing to do. And you compel [yourself to have] sex before you are in need, contriving all sorts of things and treating (chrēsthai) men as women. Insolent at night and asleep during the most useful part of the day, this is the way you educate your friends. (II.1.30)
Then, as now, the paths of Virtue and Vice are clearly marked, and the philosophical way of life requires that we make a choice. Heracles faced that choice; Socrates also faced that choice. And Zeno faced that same choice. His choice was made clear by the question he asked the bookseller. Zeno was not simply interested in learning more about this philosophical way of thinking. He didn’t ask the bookseller, “Where can I find more books like this?” In fact, before he completed the second book (a chapter by modern standards) of Memorabilia, he made his choice. He asked, “Where can I find men like this?” Zeno chose the path toward virtue.
The response of the bookseller is also quite telling. Keep in mind, Zeno was not Greek and he was not a native of Athens. He was a Phoenician businessman from the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus who was shipwrecked in Athens. Therefore, Zeno was likely not familiar with Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum, both of which existed in Athens at that time (Epicurus’ Garden was not established until a few years later). The bookseller could have pointed Zeno toward either of those schools and he would likely have headed in that direction. However, Zeno did not ask where he could find a school of philosophy; he asked where he could find men like Socrates. Therefore, the Athenian bookseller did not send him to Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. Instead, he pointed to Crates the Cynic, who did not have an official school, and said, “Follow that man.” In other words, according to the bookseller, a common man, Crates provided the best living example of a man like Socrates. I suspect if Zeno had asked the same question of an Athenian aristocrat, he may have been pointed in a different direction. After all, it was the Sophists and Academics who were held in high regard by the nobility then, as they are today. Academic philosophy and the practice of philosophy as a way of life have always been distinct paths.
Zeno did follow Crates. Why? What was Zeno looking for? Based on this conversation with the bookseller, it appears Zeno was looking for a way of life that would transform his character. He wanted to live an excellent life, like that of Socrates. French philosopher Pierre Hadot argues, this was how students of philosophy chose the school they would follow in ancient times.
The philosophical school thus corresponds, above all, to the choice of a certain way of life and existential option which demands from the individual a total change of lifestyle, a conversion of one’s entire being, and ultimately a certain desire to be and to live in a certain way.
Therefore, when moderns are considering which philosophical path to follow, they should keep several things in mind. First, all the Hellenistic schools claimed to provide a path to eudaimonia (happiness), even though they offered profoundly different paths to achieve it. Second, to argue that one school is better than another is somewhat meaningless. It is reasonable to assume there are examples of people from each school who did achieve that goal. In the end, it may be a matter of individual personality that inspires a person to prefer one school’s path over another. It may be that Epicureanism, Scepticism, Cynicism, and Stoicism all provide viable paths to eudaimonia. This is not an argument for subjectivism; it is an argument for tolerance. Philosophical discourse between schools remains a healthy part of the philosophical way of life. Nevertheless, none of these philosophical paths can be “proven” effective for everyone. Each may work quite well for a subset of humanity, and a little bit of humility amidst the inter-school rivalries and debates will serve us all well. Third, none of these philosophical paths offers a quick fix for psychological angst. Each philosophical path provides a way of life designed to bring about the transformation of the whole person, and that takes time and effort.
Epicureanism, Cynicism, Scepticism, and Stoicism, each appear to have worked for some people in the past and there is good reason to believe each may still work in the present. The existential choice of a path is up to the individual, who, like Zeno, may need to explore several paths before committing to one or developing their own as he did when he formulated Stoicism. The ancient paths are well defined for anyone willing to make the effort to explore them. Each offers a way of life supported by philosophical doctrines.
Choosing a Way of Life
What was it about the Stoic way of life that attracted people to Stoicism? Like all the Hellenistic schools, it was a life in search of eudaimonia (happiness). So, what was it that differentiated one philosophical way of life from another? In an admittedly oversimplified manner the differences can be expressed as follows:
Skepticism – an intellectual way of life focused on philosophical dialogue, and opposed to orthodoxy and dogmatism. Peace of mind is achieved by freeing oneself from the disturbances caused by holding false opinions. Socratic intellectualism provides the path to virtue and eudaimonia.
Cynicism – an ascetic way of life that denounces all social conventions and recommends a return to life in conformity with nature. Peace of mind is achieved by abandoning social mores and conventions and living as simply as possible.
Epicureanism – a pleasant life of tranquility in the garden amidst a society of friends, free from civic responsibility and interference by the gods. Peace of mind is achieved by abandoning false pleasures and seeking appropriate pleasures.
Stoicism – a life of moral duty within the cosmopolis, lived in constant recognition of the relationship between the human and the divine. Peace of mind and happiness are achieved by abandoning desires and aversions for things and events that are “not up to us” and seeking virtue alone, which is “up to us.”
Obviously, these brief descriptions are simplistic. The essential doctrines of each school are far more complex. However, the point of these descriptions is not doctrinal accuracy. Instead, these are provided to paint a picture of each way of life as it would appear to potential students who are choosing between them. All these paths are reasonable and still viable for moderns with only a minimal amount of modification. As classical scholar A.A. Long points out, all the Hellenistic schools “shared the view that philosophy should provide its adepts with the foundation for the best possible human life—that is to say, a happiness that would be lasting and serene.” He argues the choice between Stoicism and Epicureanism was primarily a choice of worldview (physics and theology) and “systematic training and the study of language.” Long writes,
To put it another way, the choice of Stoicism over another philosophy depended not on its promise to deliver an admirable and thoroughly satisfying life (that project would not distinguish it from rival schools) but on its detailed specification of that life and on the appeal of its claims about the nature of the world and human beings.
In other words, the distinction between Stoicism and the other Hellenistic schools was not limited to their ethical theory and practice. In fact, Stoic ethics was so close to Cynicism in many aspects that Aristo steered his followers away from the Stoa and back to the Cynic roots of Stoicism by rejecting Stoic logic and physics. What set Stoicism apart was its holistic nature where logic and physics are interdependent with ethics. Therfore, the Stoic ethical way of life did not stand alone. In fact, the holistic nature of Stoicism extended its ethical theory and practice beyond what is typically conceived of as “ethics.” As William Leslie Davidson points out, ethics was “the crown and glory of the Stoical sciences.” As a result,
Philosophy was to them a substitute for religion, it was, above all things, their aim to make it a rule of life, “a way of living”—not merely, as now, a necessary part of a University curriculum, but a power operative for good in daily action.
Throughout the history of the Stoa, there were differences among the leading Stoics on non-essential doctrines. Likewise, some placed more emphasis on areas suited to their particular interest and talents. Nevertheless, as we will soon see, there was a common core of doctrines held by all who claimed to be Stoics. These core doctrines supported the Stoic way of life and were essential to its practice. As A.A. Long points out,
As such—and notwithstanding the special interests of individual Stoics—what the school throughout its history primarily offered was a systematic plan of life that would, ideally, assure purposefulness, serenity, dignity, and social utility at every waking moment, irrespective of external circumstances. The Stoics’ rationale for this bold project was founded on their understanding of nature in general (physical reality) and human nature in particular.
The Stoics are considered “dogmatists” because their philosophical system and way of life rely on several dogmas, assumptions, or beliefs. These dogmas define Stoicism and differentiate it from other schools. David Sedley, a recognized scholar of Stoicism, does a brilliant job of highlighting the universal agreement among ancient Stoics about these assumptions (dogmas). In a 2012 podcast, he said, “There were points on which you really had to sign on the dotted line if you were going to be a Stoic.”
In physics, to be a Stoic was to believe that the world is a supremely rational, good, and indeed divine organism. That is a theory held by no other school at the time, and it’s a point on which there is no significant disagreement…
In epistemology, all Stoics agreed that there is a kind of infallible grasp, which they call the cognitive or cataleptic impression…
In ethics, you could not be a Stoic without holding that only one thing is good, namely virtue, and so-called goods—conventional goods—like wealth and health—are in fact morally indifferent…
Again, all of the assumptions above are “unprovable” via empirical means, and the vast majority of modern people will disagree with one or all three. Likewise, many ancients disagreed with some or all of those assumptions. The Sceptics disagreed with Stoic epistemology and all but the Cynics disagreed with the extreme position that “virtue is the only good.” The Epicureans disagreed with the Stoic conception of a providential cosmos. Nevertheless, all Stoics accepted these fundamental assumptions as essential to their philosophical system. Together, they formed an integrated holistic philosophy, and they defined and differentiated Stoicism from other philosophical schools. As Sedley points out, these assumptions were universally agreed upon, and they defined what it meant to be a Stoic.
Choosing a Path
The popularization of Stoicism has led some people to believe it is a philosophy for everyone; it is not, and it never was. Certainly, anybody can borrow Stoic ethical principles and apply them to their life. However, that is not the same as living the Stoic way of life. Arguing that Stoicism is for everyone and therefore should be practiced by everyone is to limit the variety within human nature. In Discourses 3.7.19, Epictetus mockingly asks,
In God’s name, I ask you, can you imagine a city of Epicureans? ‘I shan’t marry.’ ‘Nor I, for one shouldn’t marry.’ ‘Nor should one have children; nor should one perform any civic duties.’ So what will happen, then? Where are the citizens to come from? Who’ll educate them? Who’ll be superintendent of the cadets? Who’ll be director of the gymnasium? And then, what will the young men be taught?
It is reasonable to believe that Epicurus, or any other capable Epicurean, could have offered a diatribe every bit as cutting if he asked us to imagine a city of Stoics. We moderns are blessed to have access to knowledge about each of these philosophical paths. It appears many moderns are open to considering the ancient philosophical ways of life because we have reached a point in our secular age where people are searching for some sense of meaning in their lives. There is no point in arguing Stoicism is better than Epicureanism, Scepticism, Neo-Platonism, Cynicism, et al. Each of these paths has produced persons of exceptional character in the past and it seems reasonable to assume they can still do so today. To argue that Stoicism is the only viable path to well-being in modern times is exclusionary. It is the best path for some, not for all. Those who feel compelled to convert the entire world to Stoicism—something the ancient Stoics never did—are likely to create the same arrogant, holier than thou, self-righteous attitude and judgmental environment they reject in religion. In fact, some signs of that are already appearing on social media site where self-proclaimed Stoics gather. What is a modern to do then?
Consider all the paths, then pick the one that resonates with you and follow it for a while. If you like it, stay on it. If you don’t, pick another and follow it for a while. If you feel a strong affinity to one path then you may want to self-identify as a Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic, or Cynic. However, that is certainly not necessary. Even if you commit to one path, you can still borrow from other schools like Seneca did and remain true to the fundamental doctrines of a specific school. If you like elements from several paths you may choose to create something new. That is what Zeno did to create Stoicism. Maybe you too will become a founder of a new school of philosophy. Some choose an eclectic approach and cherry pick what they personally like from a variety of schools. There is nothing wrong with eclecticism if you are intellectually honest about it and recognize an eclectic approach is still a choice—a commitment—and therefore does not grant immunity from criticism. If you want to mix bits of Epicureanism, Stoicism, Buddhism, and Zen, etc., go for it. Years from now, historians of philosophy may be touting a syncretism like that as the breakthrough for philosophical practice in the twenty-first century. However, I will encourage you to refrain from muddying the path of any school to accommodate your own personal biases. Each path includes essential doctrines left behind by those who originally blazed that trail. Those doctrines define and distinguish that path from the other paths. If you find a path is not to your liking pick another. Several paths lead to the summit of eudaimonia. If you do choose to blaze your own trails, please make a new trailhead sign to distinguish the new path from those which already exist. That is only fair to those who may wish to follow the old path later.
The naked reality of life, with its potential meaninglessness and the vicissitudes of fortune, inevitably comes knocking on the door of every human psyche. When that happens, people naturally look for relief from their existential angst. Some fill their lives with a constant stream of distractions so they can ignore the darkness of the existential abyss. It cannot be ignored; we face it at death if we choose not to do so prior. The ancient philosophical paths were designed to guard the human psyche from the winds of Fortuna and the meaninglessness of existence. Stoicism is one of several paths designed to transform the practitioner through a prescribed way of life. The ancient Stoa is still open for those with sick souls (psyche). The prescription for what ails your troubled psyche may be waiting for you within the pages of the Stoic texts. The medicine is strong and the Stoic path is steep and difficult at times. Others claim to have easier paths to virtue and eudaimonia, and they may be correct. You will have to decide that for yourself. However, as Robert Frost’s famous traveler recognized, one truth remains as profoundly undeniable today as it was in ancient times: Whichever path you choose, it will make all the difference.
 Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
 Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002), 174.
 Ibid., 102.
 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of eminent philosophers, n.d. 7.2-3
 William Leslie Davidson, The Stoic Creed (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1907), 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 3.
 A. A Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 18.
 Davidson, The Stoic Creed, 48.
 Long, Epictetus, 20.
 David N Sedley, “64 – David Sedley on Stoicism | History of Philosophy without Any Gaps,” 2012, http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/stoics-sedley.