Stoicism: Expectations and Reality

05.09.2019 |

Episode #6 of the course The philosophy of happiness by Dr. Will Buckingham


Welcome to Lesson 6. Today, we are going to look at one of the most enduring and long-lasting philosophical traditions in ancient Greece and Rome: Stoicism.

The founder of Stoicism was Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), who landed in Athens after a shipwreck, wandered into a bookstore, read about Socrates, and decided to be a philosopher. Zeno gave philosophy lectures at the “Painted Porch,” or stoa poikile, in Athens. It was from the stoa that the Stoic school took its name.

The Stoic school lasted a long time. It became one of the most popular philosophies in the Roman Empire. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in Stoicism. You may have heard people talking about “resilience.” If you are resilient, you can deal with the problems of life well, without being knocked sideways. Many contemporary thinkers who talk about resilience refer back to the Stoics as good examples of this.


Epictetus the Slave

One of the most famous Stoics is Epictetus (55-135 CE), a Greek slave who lived in Rome. His owner allowed him to study philosophy, and eventually, Epictetus was granted his freedom. He became a philosophy teacher and was famous for his speaking skills. His book, The Enchiridion, is an outline of his philosophy, compiled by one of his students. The title means something like, “the essential guide.”

In his book, Epictetus distinguishes between the things that are up to us and the things that are not up to us. Epictetus wants to show us how little power we have over our lives. He had no choice in being a slave, but none of us have all that much power over our lives. We are all slaves of fate. We have no choice where we are born. Illnesses and misfortunes come to us through blind bad luck. Most of what happens to us is not up to us.

What is up to us? What can we control? Epictetus says we can control our opinions, our desires, our impulses, and our ideas.


Riding the Bus with Epictetus

Epictetus says that it is pointless trying to control things that are not up to us. It is better to make our desires and opinions conform to the world. What upsets us, Epictetus says, “is not things themselves, but our judgements about the things.”

Let’s take an example. Imagine that you often take the bus to work. You have no other choice: It’s the only way to get there. But you hate it. It is crowded and uncomfortable. People jostle, the bus jolts as it stops and starts, and you have to stand the whole way.

On the bus, you get upset not only because it is uncomfortable but also because you want the bus to be different. You want to be on a nice cool bus, with many seats and no jolting. You want the bus company to get their act together and put out more buses. But you feel powerless because you know the company probably won’t do what you want them to do.

At the root of your discomfort is an antagonism between your own ideas about how things should be and the reality of things.

For the Stoics, the best way to get beyond this antagonism is to adjust our ideas, opinions, and judgments so they accord with reality. Then, when we are being jolted along on our journey, we can calmly think, “Of course, this is how buses are!” rather than feeling agitated. When our expectations are completely in line with reality, then we can be happy.

You can try this out when you are doing something inevitable but unpleasant, like riding a crowded bus. How can you change your views, your opinions, and your judgments to make the experience less uncomfortable?

Tomorrow, we are going to move on to look at another philosophy that explores how happiness comes from adjusting our expectations to accord with the reality of things: Buddhism.

All the best,



Recommended reading

The Daily Stoic has a good article on Epictetus. They also have other fascinating resources on Stoicism.


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