Stoicism, caught between determinism & free will

Stoicism, caught between determinism & free will

Stoics say some things are “up to us” while other sare not & that it’s crucially important to distinguish correctly between these. The problem, however, is that Stoicism (through the the writings of Zeno & Chrysippus) endorses determinism — the view that our actions and choices are necessitated by factors beyond our control. So, strictly speaking, nothing is up to us. 

It's why most focus heavily on Epictetus, a Stoic of the later Roman period, who taught that the human faculty of judgment is completely free. This, however “updates” Stoicism into something it never was.

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Cafeteria Stoicism

Stoicism is made up of conflicting writings, especially around God, determinism vs free will, happiness vs avoidance of pain etc. Today most Stoic fans are practicing a cafeteria approach: picking up the few useful bits, modifying others, discarding the rest. 

But it’s important to know that this is what we’re doing. Because to the extent that we’re taking this approach, we’re not practicing Stoicism. We are abandoning it and relying implicitly on different (and often unidentified) philosophic ideas.

Marcus Aurelius writes not about happiness but avoiding pain

Marcus Aureliu affirms that everything that happens is divinely ordered for the best. And given his Stoic teaching, he finds that in this best of all possible worlds there is little to love. He frequently comments on the vanity of existence, the insignificance of life, the sheer pointlessness of so much of what makes up human existence.

"The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy... For Marcus, life was a battle, and often it must have seemed — what in some sense it must always be — a losing battle."

Stoics hold that you should only value things over which you have control: your judgments, emotions & character. In an attempt to avoid pain in a world in which everything you might care about is easily lost. 

Realizing that life is limited is all the more reason to value your life intensely: it requires effort, emotional investment & the risk of pain. (Someday your child may die, but that does not mean that while she’s alive you should withdraw. On the contrary, to keep yourself from loving “too much” is to keep yourself from loving). To temper emotions is to kill one’s capacity to live.

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What is within our control

Stoicism asserts that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

Acknowledge that all emotions come from within

It is not outside forces that make us feel something, it is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings. 

Many of us want to place blame and responsibility on external objects because it’s easy to do, but the truth remains that all conflicts start internally, in our minds.

The next time you run into an obstacle and feel resistance, don’t look at what’s around you. Instead, look within.


‘Living in agreement with nature’ is about behaving rationally like a human instead of randomly (and out of passion) like a beast. In other words, we should always apply our natural ability ‘reason’ in all of our actions. If we apply reason we live in agreement with nature, because we act like humans are meant to act.

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