Stoics vs. Epicureans

art of encore living personal development stoicism tga Mar 18, 2023

Author’s note: When referring to terms as philosophies, they are capitalized. When referring to modern-day common usage, they are not.

Epicureanism and Stoicism are enduring ancient Greek philosophies and remain relevant. 


Like other philosophies of the time, Stoics and Epicureans are concerned with defining “the good life” and developing operating systems to get closer to it.

Both continue to resonate with (and confuse) those who draw upon their principles and practices to get clear about and closer to what they want in your life's next chapter.


What Is the Meaning of Life?

Stoics and Epicureans both wrestle with “What makes life meaningful?”

For Stoics, virtue is the ultimate aim, and its pursuit is essential for living a good life. 

Epicureans, on the other hand, believe the purpose of life is pleasure.


How Do I Live “The Good Life?”

The Stoics pursue becoming a good person through four cardinal virtues: the courage to practice moderation and justice, which results in wisdom.

The Epicureans maximize pleasure as life’s goal and seek to achieve it by eliminating pain and fear.


Contact With Reality

This is a defining difference between the two philosophies.

The Epicureans believe the best way to eliminate pain and fear is to disengage from society. Social, political, and economic pursuits are to be avoided.

The Stoics, however, advocate full engagement with social, political, and economic pursuits not for fame and fortune but for the common good.


Modern Usage

Another way to better appreciate a Stoic vs. Epicurean approach to life is to distinguish how each philosophy’s practice differs from how we define and use the terms today.

In common usage, a stoic is someone who grimly endures life’s challenges and crises. Life happens to stoic people, but they “keep calm and carry on.”

As a philosophical practice, Stoicism advocates that sustainable joy is possible, even in tough times, through self-awareness, management of negative emotions, and engaging with life’s duties and other people with intention and integrity. 

A student of Stoic philosophy is an agent of their destiny. Life happens through them.

Today, an epicurean is someone who pursues selfish pleasure in excess.

The philosophical Epicurean cultivates happiness through simple pleasures like close friendships, intellectual pursuits, and time spent in nature while avoiding the risk of strife inherent in social, political, and economic endeavors.

A student of Epicurean philosophy is afraid life will happen to them if they engage with it too fully.


Another Modern-Day Distortion

Beyond the confusion caused by the common usage of stoic and epicurean meanings being the opposite of what each philosophy teaches, some amplify this noise-to-signal ratio by acting epicurean while waving a Stoic banner.

Seneca, an ancient Roman writer and statesman is most often held up to legitimize the pursuit of fame and fortune while claiming Stoic pedigree.

It is true that Seneca was one of the most well-known and wealthy of his time.

It’s also true that Stoics do not believe fame and fortune are necessarily vices.

The Stoics are indifferent to fame and fortune. It is not necessary to live a good life, yet it is what the Stoics call a “preferred indifferent.”

All things being equal, fame and fortune are okay as long as they do not interfere with the pursuit of what really matters, virtue (moral character and ethical behavior).

And this is where the “Seneca argument” gets a little shaky.

Seneca acquired most of his fame and fortune during his eight years as an advisor to Nero, one of Rome’s most tyrannical, indulgent, and debauched emperors ever.

While it can be argued that Seneca tried to use his influence to mitigate Nero’s sociopathic tendencies, the historical record doesn’t show it had any impact.

Seneca eventually tried to exit Nero’s court (and succeeded when Nero ordered him executed by his own hand).

But why did he not do so sooner? Fear? The reputation and rewards offset the downside? 

Maybe, but neither justification is very Stoic. 

In fact, acquiring fame and fortune just because it’s convenient and pleasant is very epicurean.



Stoicism or Epicureanism, which is the operating system that can help you live a fulfilling and meaningful second half of life?

It depends.

It’s not an either-or, neither, or even a both-and proposition. It depends on your temperament and tolerance, not to mention what you want to achieve and how you want to live your legacy.

However you pursue living the good life with the time you have left, you’d do well to avoid a stoic or epicurean approach.

h/t This article is inspired by a conversation between Dan Nicholson and Nic Peterson on (Un)Exploitable.

Scott Perry, Encore Life Coach at Creative on Purpose

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