Stoicism and its lasting influence

Western thinking and the Olympic Games

Stoicism, a Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE, profoundly influences much of today’s Western thought and significant global institutions, including the Olympic Games. Zeno’s teachings, which emphasized living by nature and reason, laid the groundwork for a deeply integrated philosophy into modern values and practices.

The impact of a shipwrecked

Zeno, originally from Citium in Cyprus, founded Stoicism after being shipwrecked and arriving in Athens. Influenced by Socratic thought and Cynicism, Zeno’s philosophy of virtue — encompassing wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — is sufficient for achieving a good life. He began teaching in the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) in Athens, giving Stoicism its name​. Zeno’s journey into philosophy began when he consulted an oracle after a shipwreck. The oracle suggested that he “take on the complexion of the dead,” which Zeno interpreted as a call to study ancient philosophers. He studied under Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic philosopher of the time, who taught him the values of asceticism and self-discipline​. This foundational experience influenced Zeno’s development of Stoic philosophy, which blends Cynic and Socratic elements with his unique insights on virtue and rationality. Stoicism gained significant traction in the Roman Empire, influencing prominent figures and shaping Roman attitudes toward duty, discipline, and governance. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 CE, is one of the most famous Stoic philosophers. His work “Meditations” is a collection of personal reflections on Stoic philosophy and remains a seminal text on Stoic thought. Aurelius’s Stoic principles guided his reign, emphasizing the importance of virtue, rationality, and the state’s welfare​.

Today, Stoicism is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with many finding its teachings relevant to contemporary challenges. The principles of Stoicism are applied in various fields, from leadership and management to personal development and mental health.

Core Principles of Stoicism

Stoicism teaches that emotions result from errors in judgment and that true happiness is achieved through rational thought and self-control, independent of external circumstances. This sensible approach to life encourages resilience and inner tranquility, principles that transcend time and permeate various aspects of contemporary society​.

Living According to Nature

Central to Stoic philosophy is the concept of living in harmony with nature, which means understanding and accepting the natural order of the world and our place within it. This principle advocates for a life guided by rationality and virtue, as opposed to one driven by the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Stoics believe that by aligning our lives with nature’s rational order, we can achieve true happiness and fulfillment​ ​.

The Role of Virtue

For Stoics, virtue is the highest good and the key to a fulfilling life. The four cardinal virtues in Stoicism are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Each virtue represents a crucial aspect of moral character:

  • Wisdom involves understanding the nature of good and evil and making sound judgments.
  • Courage is facing danger, pain, or adversity with resolve.
  • Justice is about treating others fairly and with respect.
  • Temperance is the practice of self-control and moderation in all things​​.

Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

CBT, a widely used therapeutic approach, draws heavily on Stoic principles. It focuses on changing negative thought patterns to improve emotional well-being, much like the Stoic practice of cognitive reframing to maintain stability in life’s challenges. For instance, Stoicism and CBT teach individuals to challenge irrational beliefs and replace them with more rational, constructive thoughts. This approach helps individuals manage stress, anxiety, and depression by fostering a more balanced and resilient mindset​​.

Impact on Moral and Ethical Philosophy

Stoicism’s influence extends to moral and ethical philosophy, whose teachings on virtue and reason inspire contemporary thought. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant have echoed Stoic ideas in their works, emphasizing duty and the rational basis for ethical behavior. Stoicism’s emphasis on universal human rights and the common good has also contributed to modern legal and political theories prioritizing justice and equality​.

Photo by Vincent Giersch on Unsplash

Impact on the Olympic Games

The modern Olympic Games, founded on excellence, friendship, and respect principles, deeply reflect Stoic values. The Stoic ideal of achieving personal excellence through rational effort and self-discipline aligns with the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger). The emphasis on friendship and respect in the Olympics mirrors the Stoic belief in treating others with justice and equality, recognizing the common rational nature shared by all humans​.

Recent academic research has increasingly highlighted the deep connections between Olympic values and Stoicism’s foundational principles, exploring how these ancient ideals are embedded within the modern Olympic movement.

Scholars like Heather L. Reid and Jim Parry have been at the forefront of this exploration, examining the philosophical underpinnings that align the Olympics with Stoic teachings. Reid’s work, particularly her analysis of the pursuit of personal excellence in the Olympics, parallels the Stoic ideal of achieving virtue through disciplined effort and rational thought. On the other hand, Parry delves into the Olympic emphasis on mutual respect and global friendship, reflecting Stoic principles of justice and the interconnectedness of humanity. Their combined efforts have significantly contributed to understanding how Stoic philosophy permeates Olympic values​.

Heather L. Reid, in her research, argues that the Olympic pursuit of excellence mirrors the Stoic commitment to personal virtue. She points out that the ancient philosophy and the modern sports movement emphasize continuous self-improvement and resilience. Reid’s studies suggest that the rigorous training and mental discipline required of Olympians are modern reflections of the Stoic practice of striving for excellence through rational effort and perseverance. This perspective aligns with the core Stoic belief that true happiness and fulfillment come from living virtuously and rationally, irrespective of external circumstances​.

Jim Parry’s research focuses on the Stoic principles of justice and the unity of humanity, which he sees as fundamentally embedded in the Olympic spirit. Parry explores how the Olympics promote global camaraderie and mutual respect, values that are central to Stoic ethics. By fostering international friendships and emphasizing fair play, the Olympics embody the Stoic vision of a cosmopolitan society where individuals from diverse backgrounds come together to pursue common goals. This reflects the Stoic idea of the “cosmopolis,” a universal city where rational beings live in harmony and mutual respect.​

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, effectively embedded these Stoic principles into his vision for the Olympics as an educational platform for fostering mutual understanding among nations. In his famous speech at the Sorbonne University in 1892, Coubertin articulated the idea of reviving the Olympic Games not merely as a sporting event but as a means to promote international harmony and moral development. He emphasized the importance of the games in fostering a spirit of camaraderie and respect among athletes from different nations, reflecting the Stoic ideals of cosmopolitanism and the common good. This vision aligns with academic findings that highlight the deep-seated influence of Stoic philosophy on Coubertin’s conception of the Olympics, positioning the games as a modern embodiment of ancient virtues.​

Excellence: Stoicism promotes personal excellence through continuous self-improvement and rational living. Olympians embody this through their rigorous training and dedication to their sports. For instance, the intense training regimens and mental discipline that athletes undergo to compete at the highest levels are a testament to the Stoic principle of striving for excellence. This relentless pursuit of personal best aligns with the Stoic idea that excellence is achieved through consistent, rational effort and perseverance​.

Friendship: Stoics advocate for the unity and brotherhood of all humanity, a principle echoed in the Olympic Games celebration of global camaraderie and sportsmanship. The Olympic movement fosters international friendship and understanding by bringing together athletes from diverse backgrounds to compete in a spirit of mutual respect. This reflects the Stoic belief in the interconnectedness of all people and the importance of cultivating relationships based on shared human values and respect.​

Respect: The Stoic commitment to justice and treating others with respect is reflected in the Olympic ideals of fair play, equality, and mutual respect among competitors from diverse backgrounds. The Olympic Charter emphasizes the importance of respect for others, fair competition, and rejecting discrimination. These values mirror the Stoic teachings on justice and the intrinsic worth of every individual, advocating for a world where people are treated equitably and with dignity.​

Stoicism and the Olympic Values

  • Excellence: Stoicism promotes personal excellence through continuous self-improvement and rational living. Olympians embody this through their rigorous training and dedication to their sports.
  • Friendship: Stoics advocate for the unity and brotherhood of all humanity, a principle echoed in the Olympic Games celebration of global camaraderie and sportsmanship.
  • Respect: The Stoic commitment to justice and treating others with respect is reflected in the Olympic ideals of fair play, equality, and mutual respect among competitors from diverse backgrounds.​

In line with Stoic cosmopolitanism, Olympic leaders today aim to foster a sense of global community. Organizing cultural events and international collaborations beyond the Olympic Games, the Olympic family and its network of supporting organizations help to bridge cultural divides and promote mutual respect among people from different backgrounds. These efforts culminate in many cultural exchange programs that unite diverse communities and people to celebrate shared human values.​


Stoicism’s foundational principles continue to shape modern Western thought and global institutions like the Olympic Games. By promoting values of rationality, virtue, and resilience, Stoicism provides a robust philosophical framework that underpins the ethical and moral standards celebrated in contemporary society and the international sporting community. This influence is evident in the pursuit of personal excellence, the fostering of global friendship, and the commitment to respect and justice, making Stoicism as relevant today as it was in ancient times.


  1. Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism — Daily Stoic. (2024).
  2. Holiday, R., & Hanselman, S. (2016). The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. Portfolio/Penguin.
  3. Whiting, K., Stephens, W. O., Simpson, E., & Konstantakos, L. (2020). How Might a Stoic Eat in Accordance with Nature and “Environmental Facts”?
  4. Institute of International Education. (2020).
  5. Navigating Life with Stoicism: A Guide to Inner Peace.
  6. Reid, Heather L. (2012). “Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue.” Routledge.
  7. Parry, Jim. (2006). “Sport and Olympism: Universals and Multiculturalism.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 33(2), 188–204.

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