Blaise Explains: An introduction to Stoicism

Blaise Explains: An introduction to Stoicism (Unsplash/Adrien Converse)

This is an edited excerpt of Blaise Explains on Stoicism, the first part out of three. Blaise Explains is a series of podcasts by our CEO and founder, Blaise Hope, that centers around current events and topics involving news media, marketing strategies, and general business development. 

I recently had an interesting experience while falling asleep, listening to the audiobook of Marcus Aurelius's "Meditations." This led me to delve into the philosophy of stoicism, which is our focus for today. Specifically, we will explore stoicism in business and its broader implications.

I believe this topic is important to keep in mind, especially during challenging times in business or personal life. However, it is equally relevant during times of success. Stoicism acts as a grounding force that prevents us from getting carried away with things that ultimately don't matter. It is a core belief worth embracing.

Stoicism, one of the philosophical movements that emerged during the Hellenistic period in ancient Greece, was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. It was heavily influenced by Socrates and the cynics, engaging in debates with skeptics, academics and Epicureans.

One notable cynic is Diogenes, who famously lived in a barrel and survived on free onions. He once amusingly told a passing prince, "I am richer than you," or something to that effect. I encourage you to look it up for more details, but I try to avoid excessive Googling during these discussions to maintain the flow without distracting typing noises. 

The name "stoicism" is derived from the word "stoa" or "painted porch." The painted porch at the Agora was the marketplace where stoics gathered. It was a decorated hall where students learned and lectures were given. Stoics, those who followed the movement, aimed to avoid emotions such as fear, envy, impassioned attachment, or excessive love, as they believed these stemmed from false judgment. 

According to stoic philosophy, a sage, someone who has attained moral and intellectual perfection, would not experience these emotions or be affected by them.

Seneca, and later Epicurus, emphasized the belief that the sage is immune to misfortune and that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness. Stoicism is seen as a way of life, a philosophy that governs how one approaches and handles everything internally. The stoics defined philosophy as a form of practice or exercise in expertise concerning what is beneficial.

Stoicism has served as a practical tool for both ordinary individuals and the elite for thousands of years. It was a philosophy intended for action rather than confined to the classroom. The three main branches of stoic philosophy are physics, logic and ethics. 

A philosophy on existence

Physics, the first branch, explores the nature of reality and existence. Stoics accepted the idea that the capacity to act or be acted upon is the defining characteristic of real existence. They believed that only bodies could act or be acted upon.

Stoic physics also encompassed what we now refer to as natural science, focusing on quantifiable and observable phenomena. Reasoning and scientific thought were highly valued in this aspect of stoic philosophy.

The Stoics recognized that everything that exists is corporeal, possessing a material form, including both the body and the soul. However, they also acknowledged the category of the incorporeal. Stoicism embraced two fundamental principles of nature: an active principle represented by reason and God (referred to as logos) and a passive principle represented by substance and matter. 

That’s the reason. God, the active principle, is ungenerated and indestructible, while the passive principle is constantly changing. Stoics believed that the active principle is inherent in the universe and is identified with the creative cosmic fire. They diverged from the Aristotelians and did not accept the concept of a prime mover or a transcendent God outside of time and space, arguing that something incorporeal lacks causal power and cannot act upon things.

Therefore, there is no reason for the change, and one can expect the same results from a fully deterministic and causal model of the universe. In this sense, stoics can be seen as materialists, especially given their understanding of matter as the passive principle that is subject to change.

The ever-relevant logic

The second branch of stoic philosophy is logic. Stoic logic encompasses not only the analysis of argumentative forms but also rhetoric, grammar, the theories of concepts, propositions, perception and thought. Stoic logic involves teaching oneself how to think. It includes not only what we commonly understand as logic but also the philosophy of language and epistemology.

Unfortunately, there is a concern that these valuable skills are being undervalued in current educational systems. Rather than fostering skills in rhetoric, grammar and reasoning, there is a focus on rote memorization and regurgitation of information. 

This creates an imbalance where fewer individuals possess the ability to argue effectively, reason critically and adapt to different situations. This disparity is evident even among highly educated individuals in business. 

Hence, the saying that "everyone ends up working for the C students" holds some truth, as those who spend more time developing thinking and reasoning skills often excel in various fields.

Stoic philosophy also delves into the theory of lekta, which distinguishes between the signifier, the signified and the name-bearer. The signifier refers to the utterance or what is said, while the name-bearer is what is being referred to. These two components are referred to as bodies. 

The signification is the incorporeal aspect called lektón or sayable, which subsists according to rational impressions or the greater meaning conveyed. Rational impressions are alterations of the commanding faculty or the rational mind, whose content can be expressed in language. This aligns with the idea that Socrates, as mentioned by Plato, expresses the contents of the same rational impression in different languages.

At first glance, the stoic theory of sayables appears similar to modern theories of propositions, with propositions being one species of stoic sayables. However, it is important not to equate this subclass of sayables too closely with modern theories of propositions. Stoic theory upholds the identity of the sayable across different utterances but allows for changes in its truth value. 

In addition to axiomatic sayables, which include questions, commands and syllogisms, stoics also develop proportional language. They propose accounts of proportional negation, conjunction, disjunction and engage in ongoing debates over the correct understanding of conditionals, modality and bivalence. 

Christus, in particular, asserts that bivalence and the law of excluded middle apply even to contingent statements about future events or states of affairs. He argues that every proposition is either true or false, and the possibility of motion without a cause would contradict this principle.

So we concluded that there is no motion without a cause.  One of the most significant topics in stoic logic is the criterion of truth, which led to debates with the skeptical New Academy. According to Christus, the criterion of truth is the cognitive impression, the Fantasia cataleptic, an impression that firmly grasps its object.

I love that phrase, an impression that firmly grasps its object. The relation between the object and the impression – the development of impressions and reasoning – that will get you there is at the core of this and why I think it holds such value just in one's daily life. Whether or not you choose to become stoic or not a criterion or canon of truth is an instrument for definitively determining what is true. All Hellenistic schools offer various perspectives on how to measure or evaluate whether something is true or not. 

According to Zeno's definition, the stoic cognitive impression is an impression that arises from what exists, is stamped, and impressed in accordance with the nature of that very thing. It is of such a nature that it cannot arise from what does not exist. Therefore, what is true must be related to what exists. 

However, stoics do not claim that simply having a cognitive impression constitutes real knowledge. True knowledge, or episteme, requires cognition that is secure, firm, unchangeable and guided by reason. You need to be able to attack your own ideas and know that they'll stand up or adjust them and furthermore work into a systematic hole with other such cognition. They have to make sense, not just on their own, but in the wider pantheon.

This lesson is particularly relevant today, as many people engage in arguments on societal and political issues in such a way that deliberately obstructs the ability to actually review it in its context and as part of a systematic hole of how you do things. This leads to negative consequences such as “cancel culture.” It is essential to have ideas that can stand up to scrutiny and exist within a comprehensive systematic whole.

This is also kind of one of the reasons why communism became popular. It gives you an excuse to shut down and fascism, for that matter. It just shuts down everything you disagree with because it's not part of your systematic hole. Having them exist would show that they do not coexist with the systematic whole, so they shut down all other thinking and prosecute it, which is why you always have to be able to have your ideas stand up.

The Stoic ethics

The stoic school had a significant influence on Greek society. Since stoics gathered and learned in public places, the general ideas of their philosophy were well-known compared to the views of Plato or Aristotle. This is also partly because Stoicism discussed the questions that most people are concerned with, such as death, suffering, wealth, poverty, power and even slavery.

At the Greek political level, the Antigonid dynasty had connections with stoic philosophy. Meanwhile, on the Roman political level, those associated with stoicism included Cato the Younger, Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus, Gaius Octavius and many more massive figures in history that influenced our lives to this very day. Stoicism also influenced Roman philosophers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and author of "Meditations."

Stoics believed ethics was the point of doing philosophy. The best way into the thicket of stoic ethics is through the question of what is good. The possession of what is generally good secures a person's happiness, and happiness is the ultimate goal of stoics. 

The only stoic’s motto was to live according to nature. This means both the rational providential aspect of the cosmos and, more specifically, human nature. There's a line in meditations where Marcus Aurelius talks about what sex is but the act of friction and the stimuli that you get from that.

Stoics emphasize that there is something greater and incorporeal that transcends these physical aspects. It's not to knock the importance of it in society and in interpersonal relations, but you know, at a certain point, why do people stay together if they're no longer able to, or they are physically unable to — [when they are] in advanced age or after disability? It’s because there’s something greater, incorporeal, than that. 

This aligns with Plato's or Stanford's ideas and emphasizes the significance of higher virtues and values beyond immediate gratification. Living in agreement with nature, in this sense, can even demand that I select things that are not typically appropriate to my nature at all when that nature is considered an isolation from these particular circumstances. 

As long as the future is uncertain to me, I always hold to these things which are better adapted to obtaining the things in accordance with nature, for God himself has made me disposed to select those, but if I actually knew that I was fated now to be ill, I would even have an impulse to be ill — for my foot too, if it had intelligence, would have an impulse to get muddy.

It's sort of the idea of having your fortune told and then having it come true, mainly because the fact that you've had it told has made it much more likely that it's now going to come true.

Having the future be uncertain allows you to dictate it. Via your own philosophy and the way that you think human nature here is translated as a social animalistic thing, capable of bringing rational judgment to bear on problems posed on how to live one's life.

For stoics, human beings have a natural tendency to develop a moral tendency that begins with instinct and then can be greatly defined with the onset of the age of reason, the childhood stage and beyond. Stoics believe that human beings are naturally:

  1. Believers in a fashion to advance our interests and goals,
  2. Identify with other people's interests,
  3. Figure out ways to navigate the changes in life. 

These qualities are universal, and we can identify with them at any point in history, not just in the present. It is worth noting that these ideas were particularly prominent in ancient Greece, but they remain relevant today.

Stoicism provides a framework for translating the goal of living a virtuous life into evaluating one's actions. How to translate the goal of living into an evaluation of actions when someone performs an action that records with nature, which good reasons can be given for. Stoics call that proper function, something that falls on a person to do. It is your obligation to behave like this. 

Think about what that means in the context of running a company. It falls on you to do it properly in accordance with nature, in accordance with what is around you and the conditions and circumstances that you find yourself in, and so that you have good reasons to do it.


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