Stoicism and Epicureanism were ancient rivals. And both philosophies are back.
Which philosophy is right?
Do you really have to choose?
I think Stoicism and Epicureanism were rivals because of their similarities. They’re variations on a theme.
Both philosophies explore how to live a virtuous life. Both see ataraxia (“without disturbance”) as a path to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” or happiness). And both emphasize emotional self-control.
Importantly, both said, “Look, we’re all gonna die someday. So don’t worry about it. Fear of death will only bum you out.”
But there are key differences too.
Some differences are less relevant today. The ancient Greeks speculated about physics, and modern science has settle many of the questions.
Ancient Stoics were pantheists—they thought of the universe as a conscious, living organism. But you’d be hard pressed to find a physicist today who agrees.
Ancient Epicureans were atomists. They didn’t originate the idea—Democritus in the 5th century BCE is credited with that. A century later, Epicurus adopted atomism, and materialism in general.
A 21st century physicist would likely say, “Well, ancient Greek atomism isn’t quantum physics, but clearly they were on the right path.”
Certain things follow from these differing visions of the universe. Ancient Stoics believed in providence, but Epicureans were deists who thought the gods were not involved with human affairs.
Modern Stoicism, then, has made some adjustments, adopting a scientific (and hence more Epicurean) understanding of the universe. Traditional Stoicism today, however, sticks with pantheism.
Another key difference is that while both groups advocate living according to nature, Stoics emphasize reason over emotion while Epicureans emphasize pleasure and avoiding pain.
Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. Contrary to stereotypes, Epicureans don’t advocate indulgence. Their philosophy is about using reason to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and they emphasize moderation.
Stoicism is about putting your emotions into perspective so you don’t lose control, but they don’t advocate suppressing your emotions.
Gaining perspective means focusing on what is up to you—your deliberate choices—and letting go of things that aren’t up to you—which is anything external. Stoics say you should be indifferent to all externals, though some externals (like wealth) are preferred while other externals are dispreferred (like poverty).
In other words, Stoics claim that being a virtuous person is the only thing you need to be happy. A sage could be tortured daily in a prison camp and still be happy because torture is a dispreferred indifferent.
Now, this might surprise you, but ancient Stoics saw this as a moderate viewpoint.
Stoicism emerged as a reform of Cynicism. Ancient Cynics were not cynical in the modern sense. They were radical minimalists—Diogenes of Sinope was voluntarily homeless.
Cynics eschewed externals altogether. But Stoics said, “Well, it’s okay to be rich if you’re indifferent toward your money.”
Others in ancient Greece thought externals could bring happiness, but Epicureans disagree with both sides. You need basics, like food, water, shelter, and human connections to be happy. But you don’t need wealth. You don’t even need health—we’ll all get sick and die someday anyway.
In other words, while the Stoic sage has overcome his desires, the Epicurean garden is a place to seek pleasure within set boundaries.
And while the sage is mythical, the garden can be a reality.
The big disagreement, in my view, is that Epicureans think Stoics are too austere, and Stoics think that trying to avoid pain whenever possible could leave you unequipped to deal with a serious crisis.
But, of course, neither group agrees with their critics.