Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Kition at the end of the 4th century BC in Athens. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics influenced by its logical system and views of the natural world. According to his teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (“ἡ εὐδαιμονία”, happiness, prosperity) for human beings is to accept the moment as it comes, not to let oneself control by the desire for pleasure nor the fear of pain, to use one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, to work with others and to treat them justly and equitably.

The Stoics are particularly known for their moral teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings and external things such as health, wealth and pleasure are neither good nor bad in themselves (adiaphora, ” ἀδιάφορα”), having value only as “matter on which virtue can act”. Along with Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition constitutes one of the main founding approaches of Western virtue ethics. Stoics also consider that some destructive emotions result from errors in judgment, believing that people should aim to maintain a certain will or intention called prohairesis (“προαίρησις”) that is “in accordance with nature”. They believe that the best proof of an individual’s philosophical quality is not what he says, but how he behaves. To lead a good life, for the Stoics, it is necessary to understand the rules of the natural order, because according to them everything is rooted in nature.

Many Roman Stoics, such as Seneca and Epictetus, emphasize that “virtue suffices for happiness”, a sage should be emotionally resistant to misfortune. This belief is what is called “Stoic calm”, although this expression does not include the conceptions of “radical ethics”, according to which only a sage can be considered truly free, and all moral corruptions as also vicious.

Stoicism flourished in ancient Greece, then Roman Greece and ancient Rome until the 3rd century AD. The last great Stoic philosopher of this period is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Stoicism became less present after Christianity had become the state religion, two centuries later, in the 4th century, it experienced a notable revival of interest in the Renaissance (neo-Stoicism) and in contemporary times ( modern stoicism).

Zeno din Citium
Photography Paolo Monti, Collection Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Paolo_Monti_-_Servizio_fotografico_(Napoli,_1969)_-_BEIC_6353768.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

(Bust of Zeno of Kition, the founder of Stoicism.)

Sources

We only have fragments of the texts of the early Greek Stoics (Zeno of Kition, Cleanthes of Assos and Chrysippus of Soles), and the only complete works of antiquity that we have are those of three thinkers of the imperial Roman era: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Cicero, however, echoes the debates of the Hellenistic period, which tell us quite well about ancient Stoicism. The opponents of the Stoics of that time (Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus) also left us testimonies relating to this doctrine. What we can know about ancient Stoic logic, physics and ethics reveals powerful and original minds that have marked Western history to the present day.

Stoicism constitutes, with Epicureanism and skepticism, one of the main philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period. Centered on the idea of ​​personal happiness, these philosophies often present it under the religious aspect of salvation. If the original Stoicism owes much to the ideas of Heraclitus of Ephesus, Epicureanism turned to the pre-Socratic Democritus, borrowing his theory of atoms. Zeno of Kition having been a pupil of the cynical Crates of Thebes, his stoicism retained some traits of cynicism, such as the elevation of the ethical ideal, as well as the taste for allegories and the moral interpretation of myths. Finally, Stoicism takes up certain aspects of Aristotle’s thought.

Etymology

Stoicism is originally known as “Zenonism”, a term formed from the name of its founder, Zeno of Kition. However, this designation was quickly abandoned, probably because the Stoics did not consider their founder to be perfectly wise and to avoid the risk that this philosophical doctrine would lead to a cult of personality.

The term “stoicism” comes from the Greek substantive Stoa (Poïkilè) (in ancient Greek: “ἡ Ποικίλη Στοά”), or the Portico of paintings (lit. painted in various colors). It was a portico or gallery of columns decorated with large frescoes by famous painters, representing battle scenes illustrating the great deeds of the Trojan War, the Amazons, the victory of Marathon (490 BC), lying on the north side of the Agora of Athens. This is where Zeno and his disciples met for their exchange of ideas. Stoicism is sometimes called “the philosophy of the Portico”, or “Stoa”.

The adjective “stoic” commonly refers to behavior that reflects indifference to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. In French, it was in the 17th century that this term ceased to be associated with the philosophical school, while in English it was used for the first time as a noun in 1579, then as an adjective in 1596.

The current meaning of the word “Stoic” is explained by the loftiness and rigidity of this moral doctrine, strongly linked to Stoic logic and physics. The first duty of man is to eradicate from his soul all the passions which make him mad. Virtue alone suffices to procure happiness. There are no degrees in virtue, just as there are none in vice: any moral fault, even the most trivial, is a crime against reason. The wise alone is happy and free; were he in fact a slave and stripped of everything, he is the king of the world.

History

Ancient Stoicism

From 301 BC approximately, at the end of the 4th century BC, Zeno of Kition, who studied Platonic philosophy (Platonism) at the Academy of Plato and was a pupil of the cynical philosopher Crates of Thebes, taught philosophy under the Stoa Poïkilè (Stoa Poecile) or the Portico of paintings. Unlike other philosophical schools, such as Epicureanism, it chooses to teach its doctrine in the public space, under the colonnaded gallery overlooking Athens’ central gathering place that is the Agora. Zeno was then the first to divide philosophy into three disciplines: logic, physics, or a certain conception of the world, and ethics. He also defines the founding principles of Stoicism, among which he introduces the concept of sage as a model of human excellence. Zeno’s ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, was a disciple of Socrates. The Socratic origins of cynicism give a certain recognition to stoicism, although the followers of the latter end up dissociating themselves from cynicism, in particular because of the shamelessness it engages.

Zeno’s most influential disciple was Cleanthes of Assos (in Mysia), who transformed the name “Zenonism” into Stoicism, founding the Stoic school. He is known for his Hymn to Zeus, which movingly describes Stoic reverence for cosmic order, as well as the power of reason and universal law. Chrysippus of Soles, in Cilicia, probably the most productive of the early Stoics, succeeded him at the end of the 3rd century BC. While he is a scholar of the Stoic school, he devotes his time to the development of Zeno’s themes in logic, physics and ethics. The study of his work in propositional logic, in which he investigates unparsed propositions joined by linking terms or connectors, represents an important contribution to the history of ancient logic, is particularly relevant to modern logic. For the physical aspect, Chrysippus attempts to prove that fate and free will are not conceptual features unique to Stoicism, establishing clearer boundaries between “the whole” and “the universe”. The works of Chrysippus define the bases of Stoicism in such detail that they changed little after his death.

Middle Stoicism

Stoicism reached Rome in the 2nd century BC, when Panetios of Rhodes founded a philosophical school there. He studied Stoicism in Athens with Diogenes of Babylon and Antipatros of Tarsus, respectively third and fourth scholars of the Stoic school of Athens. Panetios and his disciple Posidonios of Apamea in Syria are opposed to the ethical doctrines of Chrysippus, which they believe have strayed too far from the Platonic and Aristotelian roots of Stoicism. Posidonius is then responsible for the emphasis placed on the religious and moral aspects of the doctrine. Cicero, who holds him in great esteem, draws inspiration from him for his work, notably in his work entitled De natura deorum, which presents a vision of Stoicism most likely reflecting that of Posidonios. Panetios is mainly interested in the notions of duty and obligation, which inspired Cicero for the elaboration of his De officiis. Unlike other representatives of the Stoic school, Posidonius is also interested in the study of natural and providential phenomena.

Panetios of Rhodes in The Chronicle of Nuremberg(Drawing by Panetios of Rhodes in The Chronicle of Nuremberg.)

The popularity of Stoicism in Rome is largely indebted to Panetios and Posidonios. It was precisely for having inflected their doctrine towards themes of moral philosophy and natural science that they seduced the Romans, with whose temperament Stoic moral rigidity had affinities. Stoicism then becomes a philosophy of the individual, showing that it is possible to be stoic in any situation whatsoever. Law, “world citizenship”, nature and benevolent actions are the main areas of interest of Stoicism of this time.

Late Stoicism

Late Stoicism, also called “New Stoicism” or “Imperial Stoicism”, exercised a notable influence on the political circles of the Roman Empire. The Stoic doctrine of the Roman era is illustrated by the writings of Seneca, tutor to Nero then, with Burrus, principal minister of the new emperor. Epictetus, a former slave, who follows the lessons of the Stoic Musonius Rufus in Rome, becomes, once freed, master of this doctrine, which he begins to teach. We know it from the Talks of Arrian of Nicomedia, one of his disciples, also author of the admirable Manual of Epictetus. Finally, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his Thoughts for Myself in Greek, “brings in his intimate and profoundly sincere book a very personal tone, and the moral figure which emanates from it is most endearing”. All these works bear witness to the strength and rivalry between Stoicism and Christianity.

The popularity of Stoicism in the 2nd century is not precisely known, but much of its terminology, as well as the title “sage” is then used in debates and intellectual discussions.

Includes texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia

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