What is Stoicism?
"Stoicism" is a word with which we are all familiar; the Oxford English Dictionary cites austerity, repression of feeling and fortitude as characteristics of a Stoical attitude towards life. This popular image of Stoicism has developed over the past four or five centuries as readers have encountered descriptions of ancient Stoic philosophy by Classical authors such as Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch. Like so many other popular conceptions, it contains an element of truth but, as we shall see, it hardly tells us the whole truth.
In antiquity "Stoicism" referred to a philosophical school founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. This school met informally at the Painted Stoa, a covered colonnade on the northern edge of the Agora (marketplace) in Athens, and this is how the "Stoics" gained their name. This was a period of intense philosophical activity in Athens; Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum were still strong, while Zeno's contemporary Epicurus was setting up his own school just outside the city walls. Other philosophers inspired by the example of Socrates — by this time dead for around a hundred years — also flourished, notably the Cynics. Like the Cynics — and in contrast to those in the Academy, Lyceum and Epicurean Garden — the Stoics did not possess any formal school property, instead meeting at a public location right in the
heart of the city. Zeno attracted a large audience and aft er his death his pupil Cleanthes continued the tradition. Cleanthes was himself succeeded by Chrysippus, who is traditionally held to have been the most important of the early Stoics.
The tradition of teaching at the Painted Stoa probably continued until some point in the first century BCE. By this time, Rome had become the most important cultural and political force in the ancient world. The Romans found many Stoic ideas congenial and Stoicism flourished within the Romanized world. In the first century BCE Cicero presented to the Latin-speaking world a number of important summaries of Stoic philosophy. Stoics abounded in Rome during the first century CE, from Seneca, Lucan and Persius to Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. The second century saw the culmination of the Roman appropriation of Stoicism in the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who expounded his own brand of Stoicism in his Meditations.
As we can see, Stoicism appealed to individuals from a wide range of geographical origins and social backgrounds: from Diogenes of Babylon in the East to Seneca from southern Spain in the West; from the ex-slave Epictetus to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius; from Near-Eastern immigrants in Athens to members of the Imperial court in Rome. What was it that attracted such a diverse body of admirers?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that, as the popular image of Stoicism captures, Stoic philosophy is not merely a series of philosophical claims about the nature of the world or what we can know or what is right or wrong; it is above all an attitude or way of life. Stoicism does involve complex philosophical theories in ontology (theory of what exists), epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ethics, but these theories are situated within a very particular conception of what philosophy is. Following Socrates, the Stoics present philosophy as primarily concerned with how one should live. The Stoics were not unique in this, however, and the same applies to the ancient Epicureans and Cynics among others. So how did the Stoic way of life differ from those proposed by the other ancient philosophical schools? Here we come to the theories of ontology, epistemology and ethics — theories that look similar in form to those propounded by modern philosophers — for the Stoic attitude or way of life is built on these
theoretical claims. We shall of course examine the central tenets of the Stoic philosophical system in some detail in the chapters that follow, but in brief the Stoics proposed a materialist ontology in which God permeates the entire cosmos as a material force. They claimed that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness and that external goods and circumstances are irrelevant (or at least nowhere near as important as most people tend to assume). They argued that our emotions are merely the product of mistaken judgements and can be eradicated by a form of cognitive psychotherapy. They brought these various doctrines together in the image of the ideal Stoic sage who would be perfectly rational, emotionless, indifferent to his or her circumstances and, infamously, happy even when being tortured on the rack.
Although Stoicism had declined in influence by the beginning of the third century CE, its philosophical impact did not end then. Despite the loss of nearly all of the texts of the founding Athenian Stoics, the school continued to influence later philosophers, first via the readily available Latin texts of Cicero and Seneca during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and later via collections of the fragments of the early Stoics gathered from a wide variety of ancient authors who quoted their now lost works or reported their views. Stoicism proved especially influential during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and formed one of a number of influences that contributed to the important developments in philosophy during that period. Thinkers ranging from Erasmus, Calvin and Montaigne, to Descartes, Pascal, Malebranche and Leibniz were all well versed in Stoic ideas. Debates during the period concerning the nature of the self, the power of human reason, fate and free will, and the emotions often made reference to Stoicism. This later influence of Stoicism has continued right up to the present day, and the most striking recent example can be found in the later works of Michel Foucault and his analyses of the "care of the self " and "technologies of the self". Thus Stoicism was not only one of the most popular schools of philosophy in antiquity but has also remained a constant presence throughout the history of Western philosophy.
The task of unpacking Stoicism as a philosophy is complex for a number of reasons. Most of the early texts have been lost. We
therefore have to rely on later reports made by authors who are often hostile towards Stoicism and sometimes writing in a quite different intellectual climate. The Stoic texts that we do have are late, and it is sometimes difficult to determine how accurately they reflect earlier Stoic orthodoxy and how much they embody later developments. All of this can make the task bewildering for those new to the subject. The remainder of this opening chapter is designed to assist those new to the subject by introducing the principal figures in the history of Stoicism as well as a number of other ancient authors that anyone approaching Stoicism for the first time is likely to encounter. It concludes with some thoughts about why so many of the early Stoic texts have been lost, thoughts that although speculative form a helpful way into the subject matter of Chapter 2
. Some readers may prefer to start Chapter 2
now, referring back to the contextual information in this chapter as and when it becomes necessary.
The early Stoics
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was born in the 330s BCE in the town of Citium in Cyprus. According to ancient biographical tradition, Zeno travelled to Athens in his early twenties and on his arrival visited a bookstall where he found a copy of Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates. While looking through this book Zeno asked the bookseller if or where men like Socrates could be found; at just that moment the Cynic Crates was walking past and the bookseller said to Zeno "follow that man" (DL 7.2—3). So Zeno's philosophical education began — with the Cynics.
The Cynics were famous for advocating a life in accordance with nature, in opposition to a life shaped by local customs and conventions. They claimed that whatever is according to nature is necessary, while those things according to convention are merely arbitrary. Cynicism argues that one should focus all one's attention on getting those necessary things that are according to nature (food, water,
basic shelter and clothing), and pay no regard whatsoever to the unnecessary and arbitrary rules, regulations and assumptions of the particular culture in which one happens to find oneself. As we shall see, the idea of "living in accordance with nature" was one Cynic idea that the Stoics adopted and developed.
Zeno had no desire to become an orthodox Cynic, however, and was keen to explore the other philosophical discussions taking place in Athens at that time. He is reported to have studied with the philosopher Polemo, the then head of Plato's Academy, with whom he no doubt had the opportunity to study Plato's philosophy in detail. He is also reported to have studied with the philosopher Stilpo, a member of the Megarian school famous for its contributions to logic, who in his ethics was sympathetic towards the Cynics. Stilpo's blend of Cynic ethics with Megarian logic paved the way for a similar blend by Zeno that would later develop into Stoicism.
After this long and eclectic philosophical education Zeno eventually began teaching himself, some time around 300 BCE. Rather than attempt to set up any formal school, Zeno would meet with those who wanted to listen in one of the covered colonnades or Stoa that bordered the Athenian Agora. His preferred spot was the Painted Stoa on the north side of the Agora. While his followers were sometimes known as "Zenonians", they soon came to be known as those who met at the Painted Stoa: "Stoics".
It is common for scholars to analyse what we know of Zeno's teachings by comparing it with what we know about the doctrines of his various educators. Although this approach can be helpful it sometimes has the unfortunate consequence of presenting Zeno as a sort of intellectual magpie, gathering ideas from here and there without much creative input of his own. While Zeno was no doubt influenced by the various teachers with whom he studied, we should not discount his own philosophical contribution to the foundation of Stoicism, nor limit it merely to a creative synthesis of other people's doctrines. With only fragmentary remains of his works it is difficult to assess properly his own contribution, but from the evidence that does survive it seems clear that the foundations of the central doctrines of Stoicism in logic, physics and ethics were indeed laid down by the school's founder.
The most important of Zeno's known works is his Republic
. This work of utopian politics was highly controversial in antiquity, both among hostile critics and later apologetic Stoics. The surviving fragments show that it advocated the abolition of the law courts, currency, marriage and traditional education. We are told that it was an early work by Zeno, written when he was still under the influence of his Cynic mentor Crates (DL 7.4). However, this may have been a later apologetic Stoic move, designed to distance the mature Zeno from the Republic
's scandalous contents (we shall look at Zeno's Republic
in more detail in Chapter 5
). The titles of some of Zeno's other known works reflect central themes in Stoic philosophy, such as On Living According to Nature and On the Emotions
Zeno's pupils included Persaeus, Herillus, Dionysius, Sphaerus, Aristo and Cleanthes. The last two of these proved to be the most significant.
Zeno's pupil Aristo of Chios focused his attention on ethics, paying little attention to logic or physics (see DL 7.160). He is perhaps most famous for having rejected the addition to Stoic ethics of the idea that some external objects, known as "indifferents", might be preferable to others; for instance that wealth might be preferable to poverty even though both are strictly speaking "indifferent" (on this see Chapter 5
). Thus he wanted to hold on to a more austere and Cynic outlook, one that has been traced back to Socrates (see Long 1988). In the long run he lost the argument, and the concepts of "preferred" and "non-preferred" indifferents became standard items in Stoic ethics. This no doubt contributed to Stoicism's wider appeal, especially later when it was introduced to a Roman audience, and so Aristo's defeat was probably in Stoicism's best interests. However, his uncompromising heterodox position went down well with the wider public of his day, and his lectures are reported to have been especially popular (DL 7.161).
Cleanthes, like Zeno before him and many later Stoics aft er, came to Athens from the East, in his case from Assos in Turkey. He studied with Zeno and succeeded him as head of the school, in around 263 BCE. His principal claim to fame is as the author of the earliest extended Stoic text to survive (although it is hardly very long). This is the Hymn to Zeus and is preserved in an anthology of material compiled centuries later by John Stobaeus. The Hymn (translated in LS 54 I and IG II-21) is decidedly religious in tone (as the title would suggest) and so it sits somewhat oddly with what else we know of early Stoic physics. Indeed, Diogenes Laertius reports that Cleanthes had little aptitude for physics (DL 7.170), although he is reported to have written two volumes on Zeno's physics and four volumes on Heraclitus. Traditional accounts of Stoic physics often cite Heraclitus as a formative influence, and it may have been via Cleanthes' work on him that Heraclitus made his mark on the development of Stoic doctrine.
The third head of the Stoa in Athens aft er Zeno and Cleanthes was Chrysippus, from Soli, a town in Cilicia, in Asia Minor. He succeeded Cleanthes as head of the school around 232 BCE and died at the age of 73, some time around 205 BCE. Chrysippus' importance for the development of Stoic philosophy is summed up in an oftquoted phrase from Diogenes Laertius: "If there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa" (DL 7.183). He was especially important for the continuation of the Stoa owing to his replies to attacks by sceptical Academic philosophers such as Arcesilaus (see Gould 1970: 9). He is probably the most important of the early Stoics and arguably the most important Stoic philosopher of all. His most significant contribution to the development of Stoicism lay in bringing together the ideas of his predecessors, adding his own original material and setting out a highly systematic philosophical system
that would become the basis for a Stoic orthodoxy. It is, for instance, only looking back aft er Chrysippus that we can judge Aristo as heterodox; before Chrysippus matters were not so settled.
He was probably most famous in antiquity for his skills as a logician, but also praised for his abilities in all parts of philosophy. He is reported to have written some 705 books, and there exists a substantial catalogue of his book titles. All that survive, however, are fragments quoted by later authors, especially Plutarch and Galen, both of whom wrote works attacking Chrysippus. There are now some further remains that have been discovered among the papyrus rolls unearthed at Herculaneum, such as parts of his works On Providence and Logical Questions. It is conceivable that there might be other works by Chrysippus among the charred rolls that have been recovered, awaiting decipherment (see Gigante 1995: 3).
The next head of the Stoa after Chrysippus was Zeno of Tarsus. His successor was Diogenes of Babylon. Diogenes was one of three Athenian philosophers who went on a...