The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed
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The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed

M. Andrew Holowchak

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eBook - ePub

The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed

M. Andrew Holowchak

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Stoicism was a key philosophical movement in the Hellenistic period. Today, the stoics are central to the study of Ethics and Ancient Philosophy. In The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed, M. Andrew Holowchak sketches, from Zeno to Aurelius, a framework thatcaptures the tenor of stoic ethical thinking in its key terms. Drawing on the readily available works of Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius, Holowchak makes ancient texts accessible to students unfamiliar with Stoic thought. Providing ancient and modern-day examples to illustrate Stoic principles, the author guides the reader through the main themes and ideas of Stoic thought: Stoic cosmology, epistemology, views of nature, selfknowledge, perfectionism and, in particular, ethics. Holowchak also endeavours to present Stoicism as an ethically viable way of life today through rejecting their notion of ethical perfectionism in favor of a type of ethical progressivism consistent with other key Stoic principles.

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‘We must accept what happens as we would accept the fall of dice, and then arrange our affairs in whatever way reason best determines.’
Plato, Republic
For Stoics, invincibility is a matter of complete virtue, which seemingly requires that one suffer one's share of misfortunes along the way. Complete virtue is not, then, invulnerability to what fortune brings. Stoics did not think that one fully versed and practised in Stoic principles would literally suffer no wounds as ‘invulnerability’ implies. They merely thought there was no wound that could affect a sage's equanimity.1 Thus, invincibility, not invulnerability, is the aim of a good life for Stoics, and the simple formula for that is summed neatly by the Stoic Epictetus' famous dictum, ‘Bear and renounce’ (anekhou kai apekhou).
This first chapter is a summary of what I take to be canonical Stoicism – a view that is, I believe, untenable. Nonetheless, here and throughout, I accept and defend five essential Stoic claims:
Virtue, as equanimity, is the sole human good.
External goods, such as health and wealth, do not affect human happiness.
A simple yet hard life is preferable to one that is soft and secure.
A good life strives to remove, not moderate, emotions, to allow utmost rational activity.
Virtue is a matter of complete cosmic integration – that is, knowing what is one's own and what is not one's own, insofar as one is capable of doing so – and helping others to do the same.


The earliest Stoics were chiefly cosmologists. The word ‘cosmos’, Diogenes says, relates to deity himself – the artificer of the cosmos who at times absorbs into himself all of creation and recreates later; to the orderly arrangement of the heavenly bodies; and to the whole which comprises the first two.2 The Stoic cosmos, taken in the third sense, was believed to be both a plenum and an animal, which was interchangeably called Reason, Fate or Zeus.3 Writes the Roman Stoic Seneca, ‘AH that you see – that which comprises both god and man – is one; we are parts of one great body’4 Nature (physis), regarded universally, was a generative force, responsible for all growth, life and order within the cosmos. As an animate body, the same principles that were responsible for animal vitality were responsible for the life of the cosmos, which continually came to be and passed away in recurrent cycles. Behind the vitality of their phoenix universe were two material principles: god, a fiery and powerful active force; and a type of passive watery matter without attributes that the active force fashioned. These two material principles were not separable natures; they described two aspects of the same material thing.5
Like a human embryo, for Stoics the cosmos was thought to develop through various stages over time. At the first stage, a fiery god acts on the precosmic water. That interaction results in the generation of the four elements – fire, air, water and earth – arranged in spherical tiers in the spherical universe.6 With the birth of the elements, the cosmos comes into being.
Pervasive throughout the cosmos and vitalizing it throughout all of its cycles, there is a tenuous matter called pneuma, a vital but tenuous breath or wind of sort – the same sort of breath that permeates and vitalizes the body as soul.7Pneuma is a material principle that is responsible for coherence and order in the cosmos. Chrysippus states that pneuma does this by effecting a certain tension (tonos) within the cosmos.
Chrysippus appeals to the analogy of a spider and his web to describe the tension that unifies a human being and coordinates activity between his various parts: When any insect lands in the web, the tension of the web conveys this motion to the spider.8 That tensional force is responsible for seeing, hearing, moving, sleep, death and even desire in humans.9 The same analogy can also be used to understand cosmic unity and the coordinated activity of its various parts as well.
From the cosmic tension, there comes to be a vital, material unity and coherence to the cosmos as there is with all things that are its parts. Animals have a soul (psyche). Plants have an analogous binding agency (physis). Even inorganic things have a fiery principle (hexis) that, turning back toward itself, holds them together. Consequently, even the most lifeless of things, like rocks, were thought to be vital in some sense.10
In time, the cosmos matures to such a state that the fiery deity is in perfect command and what is moist is entirely consumed. The cosmos is now a complete conflagration. Yet in the conflagration are the seeds for regeneration of all past, present and future things. All events, then, are predetermined by deity, which is the cosmos. Until such time that a new cosmos is born, identical with the previous one, all evil is vanquished. The cycle is eternal.11


For Stoics, invincibility through virtue is essentially linked to the possibility of knowledge, because invincibility is possession and right use of knowledge.
Knowledge begins through sensation (aisthesis), which Diogenes Laertius says has four meanings for Stoics – the vital force that passes from the principal part of the soul to the senses, discernment through the senses, the apparatus of the sensory organs, and, more generally, the activity of sensory organs.12 The Stoic standard of truth relates to the second of those. It is a specific type of sensory impression, whose likeness to its object is so plain that one who is virtuous is literally forced to assent to the impression being true. This criterion of truth, the cognitive or cataleptic13 impression (kataleptike phantasia), is used as their standard of judgment to serve as a foundation for knowledge. The Sceptic Sextus Empiricus (c. AD 160—210) writes:
A cataleptic impression is one that (1) arises from what is, (2) is stamped and impressed exactly in accordance with what is, and (3) is of such a kind that it could not arise from what is not. Since the Stoics hold that this impression is capable of precisely grasping objects and is stamped with all their peculiarities in a craftsman-like way, they say that it has each one of these peculiarities as an attribute.14
Sextus says the relationship between a cataleptic impression and its object is isomorphic, like a signet ring on wax, for a perceiver. Though we are free to renounce any impression, a cataleptic impression ‘all but seizes us by the hair and pulls us to assent’.15
Cicero, whose philosophical works are an invaluable source for Stoic thought, says of the Stoic cataleptic impression:
Just as a scale must sink when weights are placed in the balance, so the mind must give way to clear presentations. Just as no animal can refrain from seeking what appears suited to its nature – which the Greeks call oikeion – so the mind cannot refrain from assenting to a clear object.16
Epictetus adds that it the nature of the intellect to assent to what is true, to be dissatisfied with what is false, and to withhold judgment on what is unclear.17
Of course, not all impressions are cataleptic in nature.
An impression [phantasia] is an imprint on the soul: the name having been appropriately borrowed form the imprint made by the seal upon the wax. There are two species of impression – the one is cataleptic, the other is non-cataleptic. The cataleptic impression [kataleptike], which the Stoics take to be the test of reality, is defined as what (1) proceeds from a real object, (2) agrees with that object, and (3) is imprinted in seal-like fashion and stamped on the mind. The n...

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Citation styles for The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed
APA 6 Citation
Holowchak, A. (2008). The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2008)
Chicago Citation
Holowchak, Andrew. (2008) 2008. The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Holowchak, A. (2008) The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Holowchak, Andrew. The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.