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The concepts of Stoicism

Wisdom and philosophy

Stoic philosophy is a coherent whole: it is a philosophy of totality which aims to be consciously systematic, which is one of the characteristic traits of ancient systems of thought. This doctrine proceeds to divisions of the philosophical discourse, divisions which are used for the exposition of the doctrine, and for its teaching.

Like other Hellenistic philosophers, the Stoics consider the end of philosophy to be ethical: for them, one must “live in accordance with nature”.

Definitions of wisdom and philosophy

Wisdom (sophia / σοφία) is scientific knowledge of divine and human things.

According to Seneca’s distinction, this wisdom is the good of the human spirit, arrived at its perfection, whereas philosophy is the love of wisdom and the aspiration to it through practice and theory: “The philosophy tends where the other has reached”. It is thus the practice (askesis / ἄσκησις) of the art (technè [τεχνή) of the useful, which is the unity and the highest degree of virtue.

Philosophy is divided into three parts, following the division of virtues at their generic level: physical virtue, ethical virtue, and logical virtue.

Divisions of philosophy

The philosophical discourse consists of three parts:

  • physics, which is research into the world and the objects in it;
  • ethics, which is about action;
  • logic (or dialectic), which concerns discourse.

Each of these parts is in turn divided into several parts. This general division, according to Diogenes Laertius, was invented by Zeno of Kition in his treatise On Discourse, and was taken up by Chrysippus of Soles, Diogenes of Babylon and Posidonius. Cleanthes seems to have deviated from this division – he gives six: dialectics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, physics, theology.

These parts are called species, genera (or genera of theorems), or even places (topoï /τόποι), according to the philosophers. To describe this partition of philosophy, the Stoics resorted to several similes, which reflect disagreements within the school:

  • According to the first, physics is the center:
    • philosophy is like an egg: logic is the shell; the white is the ethics and physics is the yellow.
  • According to three others, it is ethics that take center stage:
    • philosophy is a fertile field: the earth is physics; fruits, ethics; and the wall around it, logic.
    • they finally compare philosophy to a living being, a comparison differing from the previous ones to emphasize that the parts of philosophy are not separable; thus, for Posidonius: physics is his blood and his flesh, logic his bones and tendons, ethics his soul.
    • finally, for Seneca, ethics “forms the heart” of philosophy.

The image of the living being seems to suggest that logic is not an instrument or an accessory part, meant only to protect the essential: physical and/or ethical. It is not subordinated to ethics or physics, as a part is to its whole (thus the shell serves the yolk, the wall serves the fruit by protecting them both). It is a primary part of philosophy, and not a part of a part.

If we follow Posidonius and the testimony of Ammonius on this point, then the three parts are at the same time distinct, united, and inseparable. Now, the texts are unclear as to what these parts are the parts of: are they the parts of “philosophy”, or are they the parts of “philosophical discourse” only — given that alongside philosophical discourse, there is philosophical life? If we stick to what Seneca reports, just as the cosmos is one, philosophy is one, and undivided in itself. This is how she appears to the wise. But for the philosopher (the wise apprentice), who cannot yet have an overall view of it, it is good to distinguish parts. In this case, these parts (logical, physical, ethical) would be less parts of philosophy than parts of philosophical learning.

For some Stoics, there is no hierarchy between these genres, so they taught them together, because they are mixed; others, on the other hand, begin with logic (Zeno of Kition, Chrysippus), with ethics (Diogenes of Ptolemais) or with physics (Panetios of Rhodes, Posidonios of Apamea).

Stoic ontology

Divisions of being

The supreme genre of Stoic metaphysics is called, according to Seneca “something”; but, according to Sextus Empiricus, the supreme genus would be the “existent”. Nevertheless, despite this difference of view, it is generally accepted that the Stoics divide things in general into existents and subsistents.

It is said “something” to all that, in nature, exists or does not exist. The something has as its opposite the “not-somethings”, i.e., according to the Stoics, the universals. All existents are bodies. To the genus of non-existents belong incorporeal things and things which are in the mind, falsely formed by thought, such as centaurs and giants, and in general all that makes an impression on the directing faculty without having substance. These intangibles are said to be “subsistents” – for, for example, a fiction in the mind has reality only in thought. This last case nevertheless seems to show the existence of a further division of something: that which is neither corporeal nor incorporeal. Corporeals alone are said to exist.

The “somethings” are thus (existing) bodies or (subsisting) incorporeals.

The Stoics distinguish four kinds of corporeals: the substrate, the qualified (in a common way or in a particular way), the disposed, the relatively disposed (Simplicius of Cilicia, On the Categories of Aristotle, 66).

They distinguish four kinds of incorporeals: the sayable, the void, the place and the time.

If existents are corporeal individual entities, which belong at the same time to the four kinds of the corporeal, every “something” is an individual entity: to be something is therefore to be a particular thing, corporeal or incorporeal. Thus “something” is either subsisting or existing; the existent is predicated only of bodies, but “something” is predicated also of incorporeals.

Since, with the Stoics, existence is corporeal, and that which acts on a body is a body, action is the property of bodies alone: ​​virtue and knowledge are thus corporeal realities. This ontology poses some problems to explain the causal action of an incorporeal on a body.

We find certain elements of this metaphysics in the 19th century in Alexius Meinong and Bertrand Russel.


The first incorporeal concerns semantics and logic; the other three physics.

The logic


Rhetoric is the science of speaking well in speeches. It is divided into three parts: parliamentary, judicial and panegyric, or in invention, enunciation, plan and staging. They divide rhetorical discourse into preamble, narration, reply to opponents, epilogue.

The dialectic

Diogenes Laertius (VII, 41-44) gives two Stoic definitions of dialectic:

  • dialectics is the science of correct discussion in speeches by question and answer;
  • dialectics is the science of what is true, what is false, and what is neither.

It is divided into two places: the signifieds and the vocal emissions; the locus of signifieds is in turn divided into impressions and sayables, derived from impressions. The place of vocal emissions concerns articulation according to letters, distinguishes parts of speech, deals with solecisms, barbarisms, etc.


The notion of the sayable is the foundation of Stoic logic; it is an incorporeal.


Chrysippus, in his Dialectical Definitions (quoted by Diogenes Laertius, VII, 65), defines proposition as “that which is true or false, or a complete state of affairs which, so far as it is itself concerned, can be asserted”.

Reasoning and demonstration

According to Diogenes Laertius (VII, 76-81), the Stoics would call argument (in Greek logos / λόγος) what is constituted by one or more premises (in Greek lèmma / λῆμμα), an additional premise and a conclusion.

The theory of knowledge

The impressions

Truth and certainty are in the most common perceptions that need to be systematized. Thus knowledge starts from the representation, or image (phantasia / φαντασία), impression of a real object in the soul (like the seal in wax for Zeno). This is a first judgment on things, to which the soul may or may not give its assent: if it is right, then it has an understanding, or perception (katalepsis / κατάληψις) of the object, which is immediate: a certainty of things as such.

The sensation is therefore distinct from the image, since it is an act of the mind. For the perception to be true, the image must be faithful. The faithful image, as a criterion of truth, is called comprehensive representation. It is passive, but capable of producing true assent and perception.

The criteria of truth

Science will then be solid and stable perception, unshakable by reason: solidity due to the support of the certainties between them, to their rational agreements. Thus sure and total perception is systematic and rational science, a system of perceptions acquired by experience, aiming at a particular end, useful to life. Apart from these sensible realities, there is no other knowledge.

However, alongside the sensitive things, there is what can be said about it. Thus the dialectic bears on the statements which are true or false, relative to things. These statements are said in the form of a subject and an attribute expressed by a verb: “Socrates is walking”. It is a simple judgment, which expresses a relation between facts, this being expressed by a complex judgment: if it is light, it is day. It is therefore a de facto connection between an antecedent and a consequent.

The critics

Parrhesia / παῤῥησία is a virtue in Hellenistic ancient Greece; this ancient Greek word, formed from pan / πᾶν (“everything”) and rhema / ῥῆμα (“what is said”) has its origins in the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, doctrines advocating the need for freedom of speech among friends .


Stoic ethics agree with this physics.

We know of several divisions of Stoic ethics:

“[They] divide the ethical part of philosophy into several places: from impulse, from goods and from evils, from passions, from virtue, from end, from first value and actions, from proper functions, from what to advise and what to advise against.”
—Diogenes Laertius, VII, 84

Diogenes indicates that this division does not belong to the most ancient Stoicism (Zeno of Kition and Cleanthes, who treated it, according to him, in a simpler way), but to Chrysippus, Apollodorus, Posidonius, etc. Seneca teaches us a tripartition of Stoic ethics:

“[…] comes in the first place the value which you attribute to each thing, in the second place the impulse, ordered and measured, which you have for things, in the third place finally, the realization of a concordance between your impulse and your act, so that on all these occasions you are in harmony with yourself.”

Epictetus indicates three subjects of ethics (Interviews, III, 2), relating to the exercises one must engage in to become a good man:

  • Desires and dislikes: not missing what one desires, not falling on the object of aversion
  • Impulses and repulsions, i.e. what concerns the proper function (to act with order, reasonably and without negligence)
  • Avoid error and haste, that is to say, what concerns assent.

Influence of Stoicism

The influence of Stoicism on Greek and Roman cultures was considerable, so that rare were the ancient thinkers who did not criticize this doctrine.

This influence continued even after the conversion of the West to Christianity, certain monasteries having thus erected the manual of Epictetus, somewhat modified, as their internal regulations.

Stoicism was also perpetuated in the thought of French philosophers such as Descartes, who declared that “it is better to change one’s desires than to change the order of the world”.

(Includes texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia)

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