The Philosophy of Stoicism

Reflecting the earlier doctrines of Heraclitus, Socrates, and the Cynic school, Stoicism upheld the pantheistic view that the pure being of God is present in all material things. However, because God is pure reason, everything happens rationally, according to a universal order. In history, order is seen in the regular rise and fall of civilizations. Thus, all events happen rightly and for the best, although viewing them from the limited perspective of a single lifetime might make them appear otherwise. Through reason, man is able to rise above the passions and fears to which he is ordinarily subject and to face whatever comes with Stoic calmness and dignity.

In the 2nd century B.C., Stoicism began to become popular among the practical Romans, such as the statesman Cicero, the scholar Seneca, the slave Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism was gradually modified to include many religious elements and a belief in the brotherhood of all men. After the 2d century A.D., Stoicism was eclipsed by Neoplatonism.

Zeno of Citium. Photo by Shakko Kitsune.
Zeno of Citium. Photo by Shakko Kitsune.


The name Stoic is probably derived from the Painted Stoa, a colonnade (Greek stoa) in the marketplace in Athens where Zeno taught soon after his arrival there in 312 B. c.

The Stoic tradition may be divided into three periods: the Early Stoa, including the period :om Zeno down to 129 B.C., when Antipater of Tarsus was succeeded as head of the Stoa at Athens by Panaetius of Rhodes (about 185-about 109 B.C.); the Middle Stoa, including the years 129 B.C. to 30 B.C., the beginning of the Augustan era in Rome; and the New Stoa, which continued to the beginning of the 3d century A. D. Physics. The basic concept of Stoic philosophy is logos, a Greek word meaning "reason" or "reasoned speech." In Stoicism it designated a divine power, pervading all things. It is often referred to as a breath, which in Greek is pneuma, or a seed. To the Stoics it was reality, and divine. Pneuma or logos was held to be the cause of, and to be present in, each quality of an object. A quality was thought of as anything that defined an object. As Chrysippus wrote, pneuma was called hardness in iron, density in stone, and the white sheen in silver. It permeates both animate and inanimate matter. It is mind, soul, nature, and disposition. As disposition, it is present in bones and sinews and in the earth; as mind, it is found in the intelligence and in the ether. Logos, or the qualities in which it was present, was conceived of as either an active or a passive power. Thus, the roundness of a stone might be the cause of the stone's rolling, or a hot object the cause of heat in another object. On the other hand, the hot might be acted upon by the cold, and the object in which it was present would become cold. This aspect of the Stoic logos explains the interest the Stoics had in the problem of cause and effect. They conceived of every object or event both as predetermined by a series or chain of causes and as a possible cause of other effects. This ordered series of causes they called fate.

Since pneuma was believed to pervade all qualities, it followed that there must be an essential similarity or oneness between the parts of the universe. The intelligence of man, the breath of air, and the solidity of a stone were all pneuma. It was the Stoic acceptance of this essential oneness, together with their belief in a system of interlocking causes, that led them to accept divination, the foretelling of the future by signs such as weather portents and the flight of birds. There was, they held, a divinable connection between such occurrences and future events in human experience.

This determinism raised problems concerning the Stoic concept of logos, however, for logos was believed to be divine, and if it was to preserve its divinity it must not be dependent upon anything external to itself. Hence the independence of logos was asserted in Stoic discussions of possibility of free will. Chrysippus argued that all that is theoretically capable of being, having existence, or occurring, even if it is not going to be, is possible. For example, a stone can be broken, even though it never will be broken. The quality of breakability is part of the logos, therefore, regardless of whether the stone should be broken or not. Similarly, in regard to human free will, the legendary Oedipus was said to have been free either to kill or not to kill his father, in spite of the fact that he had been fated to kill him and did.

Pneuma was said to be a "tensional motion" within each entity, a stretching or tightness responsible for the entity's coherence, and also to be a movement toward the pneuma external to it. This double aspect of pneuma was used to explain sense perception. In sight, for example, pneuma was held to stretch from the seat of intelligence to the eye with a spherical wavelike motion, while the air between the eye and the object, when illuminated by light, was held to take on the quality of pneuma and make the act of sight possible. Thus, the act of vision was attributed to the dynamic power of pneuma, by which presentations of visual objects were transmitted to the intelligence. As productive of coherence within the soul, pneuma was thought to be responsible for consciousness; as extending toward the peripheral environment, for perception. Within the soul a representation awakened an impulse, and in the case of true perception the representation compelled the intelligence to assent to the impulse, thus providing a basis for distinguishing genuine perception from illusory perception.

Logic and Rhetoric

In logic, the Stoics made a significant advance over the Aristotelian system. They developed a theory of signs and a logic of propositions. They seem to have taken five inference schemas as basic, and to have derived other schemas from these five.

The Stoic categories were four in number: substratum, qualified object, disposition, and relative disposition. The first probably designated the genus or species of an object, and the third and fourth categories were differentiations or qualifications of substrata and qualified objects. The category "disposition" included any differentia externally related to its environment, such as "sweet" or "red", while "relative disposition" included internally related differentiae such as "left" or "father." The system was essentially nominalistic, and a word as well as an object, could be analyzed in terms of substratum and differentia.

The Stoics departed radically from the Platonic scheme for defining objects by continued subdivision of classes that contained the objects. The Stoic method was based on the disjunctive (either/or) proposition. Each term in the division added a differentia to the previous term.

In rhetoric, the Stoics recognized three kinds of speeches: deliberative, forensic, and panegyrical. They held that the ideal speech had four parts: the introduction, statement of the case, refutation of opponents, and the peroration. The Stoics followed Theophrastus in regarding as criteria of excellence the use of a pure Greek style, clarity, appropriateness, and constructive reasoning. The Stoics added to these a fifth criterion, conciseness.

Ethics and Politics

The Stoics held that there were basically just two classes of men, the wise, who were virtuous, and the unwise, who were wicked. However, they also spoke of those individuals who were making progress toward virtue. Much attention was paid to the character of the ideally wise man by the Early Stoa. Two principles were recognized, the independence of the wise man and his responsibility to do good.

The virtue of the wise man was held to be sufficient for his happiness, and thus his happiness could not be impaired by the loss of family, reputation, or any other external benefit. So far as his virtue was concerned, the Stoic wise man was independent of the society in which he lived. Yet a man could become more virtuous only by exercising his virtue in his relations with other men, and the exercise of virtue was to be found in areas demanding responsibility. Thus it was necessary for him to earn his living, support his family, and take part in public life. Zeno regarded actions of this kind as duties, "acts of which a reasonable account can be given".

Simplicity and frugality played an important role in Stoic ethics. In the Early Stoa this took the form of contempt for social convention. Zeno, in his Republic, argued that the citizens of his state would not build temples, since the work of builders and craftsmen was neither of true value nor sacred. He refused to allow either coinage or law courts in his ideal city. Both Zeno and Chrysippus opposed conventional marriage and advocated the community of women.

More significant was the emphasis the Stoics placed on the essential kinship of all men through their participation in divine reason, or logos. They spoke of a universal society, a kind of brotherhood of mankind, transcending the state. They refused to attach any significance to noble birth and showed concern about the position of the slave. Chrysippus defined the slave as a "hired man for life', suggesting thereby that he regarded the slave as a man doing a piece of work but by nature not different from his master.

The early Stoics all showed interest in politics. Both Zeno and Chrysippus wrote books entitled The Republic. Zeno's disciples Persaeus, Sphaerus, and Cleanthes wrote treatises called Concerning Kingship. Chrysippus argued that the life for which the wise man was most suited was that of a statesman. They had connections with contemporary rulers. Zeno was visited by Antigonus Gonatas, the king of Macedon, and sent one of his pupils, Persaeus, to the King's court. Another pupil, Sphaerus, was the tutor and adviser of King Cleomenes of Sparta, who attempted economic reforms based on land distribution and abolition of debts, and advocated a return to an old-fashioned simplicity of life.

New Stoa

The chief figures of the New Stoa (30 B.C. - 200 A.D.) are Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. All four philosophers were interested chiefly in ethics, which by this time had lost much of the rugged nonconformity of the Early Stoa. They offered sound practical advice to the young Roman nobility.

Throughout the 1st century A. D. the Stoics took a firm stand against the excesses and outrages of the Roman emperors. Their protests frequently found expression in suicide, since this was regarded by the Stoics as an honorable release for those who could no longer fulfill their duties in life. Seneca, who had been the tutor of Nero, was accused of being involved in the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 A. D. and was requested to commit suicide. Musonius was exiled by Nero in 65 A. D. to the island of Gyaros in the Cyclades. He returned to Rome when Nero died in 68 but again suffered exile under Vespasian. He was recalled to Rome by Titus between 79 and 81 A. D. Similarly Epictetus was banished by Domitian in 90 A.D., and retired to Nicopolis in Epirus. With the advent of Marcus Aurelius as emperor, Stoicism once again came into its own. By the middle of the 3d century, however, it had almost entirely disappeared, having been replaced by Neoplatonism and Christianity.

Early Stoa

The evidence for the dates of the philosophers of the Early Stoa (300-129 B.C.) is skimpy and unreliable. In some cases the ancient tradition cannot give us much more than an approximation; in others, we know the date of a single event in the philosopher's life. Aristo of Chios was prominent in the first half of the 3d century B.C.; Persaeus of Citium was born about 306 B. c. and lived until at least 243 B.C.; Sphaerus, who came from the Bosporus, was at the court of Cleomenes, king of Sparta, from about 236 to 222 B.C.; Cleanthes of Assos probably lived from about 331 to 232 B.C.; Chrysippus, from Soloi in Cilicia, died somewhere between 208 and 204 B. c. Diogenes of Babylon visited Rome in 155 B. c.; and Antipater of Tarsus was in Rome before 133 B.C.

Much work remains to be done on the influence of other philosophic schools on early Stoicism, but Stoicism undoubtedly grew through contact with the other schools in Athens. Zeno himself was a Phoenician who established his own school in Athens after he had studied there with Crates, a Cynic; Stilpo, a Megarian; and Xenocrates and Polemon, both of whom belonged to the Platonic Academy. In addition, he was contemporary with Epicurus, who established his school, the Garden, about 300 B.C., and with the Peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus (about 370-about 287 B.C.).

Middle Stoa

With the Middle Stoa (129-30 B.C.) the scene of Stoic influence shifted from Athens to Rome. Panaetius of Rhodes, who succeeded Antipater of Tarsus as head of the Stoa in 129 B.C., was in Rome at least as early as 140 B. c. He was a friend of Scipio Africanus, an outstanding general and leading aristocrat. Panaetius' pupil Hecaton of Rhodes was a friend of L. Aelius Tubero, who was a candidate for the praetorship in 129 B.C. Blossius of Cumae was the associate of the Roman statesman Tiberius Gracchus in 134 B.C., and Posidonius of Rhodes visited Rome in 87 and 51 B. c. By their associations with the statesmen of Rome, these philosophers strongly influenced Roman public life.

Panaetius philosophy was practical and matter-of-fact. He rejected the possibility that a man might attain perfect wisdom and argued that virtue was not sufficient for happiness. If, as seems probable, he is the source of the first two books of Cicero's De officiis, we must attribute to him Cicero's discussion of decorum as a virtue. The Latin word decorum means "that which is fitting or appropriate." According to the passage in question, we must consider the nature of the individual, his position, wealth, and age if we are to discover whether an action is fitting or not. The whole passage suggests an emphasis on conformity and convention alien to the Early Stoa.

The first book of the De officiis contains an interesting definition of justice. According to this definition, justice requires us not only to avoid injuring another person, but also to take steps to ensure that an innocent person will not receive injury at the hands of another. Thus a passive acquiescence to a wrong is itself a moral wrong. The same high standards are shown in the discussion of a defeated enemy, where it is argued that the lives of enemies who have shown no cruelty should be spared and that, while the guilty must be punished, the mass of an enemy population should be protected. Man's duty to take part in public life is emphasized.

Posidonius of Rhodes has been regarded by some as the father of Neoplatonism. Although there is little in his philosophy to support this interpretation, there are such significant differences between his philosophy and that of the other Stoics that it is misleading to quote his writings, which are available only in fragments, as representative of Stoicism. Among his atypical views were his rejection of the existence of unqualified matter and his argument that God did not create the world but adapted himself to that which already existed. Both of these theories were heretical in terms of the Early Stoa. He seems also to have denied the immortality of the soul, and to have identified it with a geometrical figure.

Stoicism and Early Christianity

Stoicism influenced Christianity in many respects. Christians converted from Stoicism expressed their new ideas in Stoic terms. Thus the term "logos" is found in the first verse of St. John's Gospel, where it is translated as "Word": "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In St. John 4:24 God is called a spirit or in Greek, pneuma. Both "logos" and "pneuma", however, had taken on new meanings consistent with Christian doctrine and reflecting as well the Judaic origins of Christianity. The Stoic belief that the world would eventually be destroyed by fire agreed well with the Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment. The Stoics had emphasized the essential similarity of all men and the moral responsibility of each man to provide for the basic needs of other men. They had insisted on simplicity and frugality and on the independence of the individual in the face of an evil and hostile society. All of these teachings were in harmony with Christianity. It is not surprising, therefore, to find traces of Stoic philosophy in Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Lactantius, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and other Christian writers.

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