, a school of Hellenistic philosophy
, was founded in Athens
by Zeno of Citium
in the early third century BC. It concerns the active relationship between cosmic determinism
and human freedom
, and the belief that it is virtuous
to maintain a will
) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how they behaved.
Stoic doctrine proved to be a popular and durable philosophy, with a following throughout Greece and the Roman Empire from its founding until all the schools of philosophy were ordered closed in 529 AD by the Emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character to be at odds with his Christian faith.
Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life. - Epictetus
The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, non-dualistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were to be of more interest for many later philosophers.
Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: "Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature." This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy", and to accept even slaves as "equals of other men, because all alike are sons of God."
The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regards to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is "like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes." A Stoic of virtue, by contrast, would amend his will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy," thus positing a "completely autonomous" individual will, and at the same time a universe that is "a rigidly deterministic single whole".
Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Greco-Roman Empire, to the point where, in the words of Gilbert Murray, "nearly all the successors of Alexander [...] professed themselves Stoics.
Beginning at around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (i.e., "the painted porch"), from which his philosophy got its name. Unlike the other schools of philosophy, such as the Epicureans, Zeno chose to teach his philosophy in a public space, which was a colonnade overlooking the central gathering place of Athens, the Agora.
Zeno's ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno's most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for the molding of what we now call Stoicism. Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.
Scholars usually divide the history of Stoicism into three phases:
Unfortunately, as A. A. Long states, no complete work by any Stoic philosopher survives from the first two phases of Stoicism. Only Roman texts from the Late Stoa survive.
The Stoics believed in the certainty
, which can be attained through the use of reason
can be distinguished from fallacy, even if in practice only an approximation can be made. According to the Stoics, the senses
are constantly receiving sensations: pulsations which pass from objects through the senses to the mind
, where they leave behind an impression (phantasia
). The mind has the ability (synkatathesis
) to approve or reject an impression, to enable it to distinguish a representation of reality
which is true from one which is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately, but others can only achieve varying degrees of hesitant approval which can be labelled belief
or opinion (doxa
). It is only through the use of reason that we can achieve clear comprehension and conviction (katalepsis
and true knowledge (episteme
), achievable by the Stoic sage, can be attained only by verifying the conviction with the expertise of one's peers and the collective judgement of humankind
Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.
Stoic physics and cosmology
According to the Stoics, the universe
is a material, reasoning, substance, known as God
, which the Stoics divided into two classes, the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter
, which "lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion. The active substance, which can be called Fate
, or Universal Reason (Logos
), is an intelligent aether
or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter:
The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world's guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality which embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.
Everything is subject to the laws of Fate, for the Universe acts only according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter which it governs. The souls of people and animals are emanations from this primordial fire, and are, likewise, subject to Fate:
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.
Individual souls are perishable by nature, and can be "transmuted and diffused, assuming a fiery nature by being received into the Seminal Reason (logos spermatikos) of the Universe. Since right Reason is the foundation of both humanity and the universe, it follows that the goal of life is to live according to Reason, that is, to live a life according to Nature.
Stoic ethics and virtues
The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word stoic
has come to mean unemotional
or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion
by following reason.
The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, rather they sought to transform them by a resolute askēsis
which enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic
, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline.
Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of passion was "anguish" or "suffering", that is, "passively" reacting to external events — somewhat different from the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as "passion", propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g. turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings resulting from correct judgment in the same way as the passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (απαθεια) (Greek) or apathy, where apathy was understood in the ancient sense — being objective or having "clear judgment" — rather than simple indifference, as apathy implies today. Stoic apatheia is rather the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows - getting carried away by neither.
For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature — the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people. The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom (Sophia), courage (Andreia), justice (Dikaiosyne), and temperance (Sophrosyne), a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason. Likewise, if they are unhappy, it is because they have forgotten how nature actually functions. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy — to examine one's own judgments and behaviour and determine where they have diverged from the universal reason of nature.
The doctrine of "things indifferent"
In philosophical terms, things which are indifferent are outside the application of moral law
, that is without tendency to either promote or obstruct moral ends. Actions neither required nor forbidden by the moral law, or which do not affect morality
, are called morally indifferent. The doctrine of things indifferent (ἀδιάφορα, adiaphora
) arose in the Stoic school as a corollary
of its diametric opposition of virtue and vice (καθήκοντα kathekon
and ἁμαρτήματα hamartemata
, respectively "convenient actions," or actions in accordance with nature, and mistakes). As a result of this dichotomy
, a large class of objects were left unassigned and thus regarded as indifferent.
Eventually three sub-classes of "things indifferent" developed: things to be preferred because they assisted life according to nature; things to be avoided because they hindered it; and things indifferent in the narrower sense.
The principle of ἀδιάφορα was also common to the Cynics and Sceptics. The conception of things indifferent is, according to Kant, extra-moral. The doctrine of things indifferent was revived during the Renaissance by Philip Melanchthon.
Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis
, see ascetic
). Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern
meditation), daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions, hypomnemata
, and so on. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II, part 1:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together...
A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism
. All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly
love and readily help one another. In the Discourses
comments on man's relationship with the world: "Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, where of the city political is only a copy. This sentiment echoes that of Socrates
, who said "I am not an Athenian
or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.
They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco–Roman world, and produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger and Epictetus.
In particular, they were noted for their urging of clemency toward slaves. Seneca exhorted, "Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.
Stoicism and Christianity
Due to Stoicism being founded in the culture of ancient Greece, and in the context of ancient Greek religion
, and historically prior to Christianity
, Stoicism was naturally regarded by the Fathers of the Church
as a 'pagan philosophy'. Nonetheless, some of the central philosophical concepts of Stoicism were employed by the early Christian writers. Examples include the terms "logos
", "virtue", "Spirit", and "conscience". But the parallels go well beyond the sharing (or borrowing) of terminology. Both Stoicism and Christianity assert an inner freedom in the face of the external world, a belief in human kinship with Nature (or God), and a sense of the innate depravity—or "persistent evil"—of humankind. Both encourage askesis
with respect to the passions and inferior emotions (viz. lust, envy and anger) so that the higher possibilities of one's humanity can be awakened and developed. The major difference between the two philosophies is Stoicism's pantheism where God is never fully transcendent but always immanent
. God as the world-creating entity is personalised in Christian thought but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe. Also, Stoicism, unlike Christianity, posits no beginning or end to the universe, and no continued individual existence beyond death. Even so, Stoic writings such as the Meditations
of Marcus Aurelius
have been highly regarded and widely read by Christians throughout the centuries. St. Ambrose of Milan
was known for applying Stoic philosophy to his theology.
The central Stoic idea of logos had an encounter with early Orthodox Christianity through Arius and his supporters. The ecumenical rejection of this belief was evidenced and deemed heretical at the Council at Nicea. Stoicism influenced Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which was highly influential in the Middle Ages in its promotion of Christian morality via secular philosophy.
For example, the Serenity Prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
The word "stoic" now commonly refers to someone indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. The modern usage as "person who represses feelings or endures patiently" is first cited in 1579 as a noun
, and 1596 as an adjective
. In contrast to the term "epicurean
", the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's
entry on Stoicism notes, "the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins.
Below is a selection of quotations by major Stoic philosophers illustrating major Stoic beliefs:
- "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one's desires, but by the removal of desire." (iv.1.175)
- "Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will." (ii.16.1)
- "Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them." (Ench. 5)
- "If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone." (iii.24.2)
- "I am formed by nature for my own good: I am not formed for my own evil." (iii.24.83)
- "Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away." (iv.1.112)
- "Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself." (viii.40)
- "Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return." (iv.23)
- "If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this." (iii.12)
- "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!" (xii.13)
- "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone." (iv.3)
- "Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also" (vi.19)
- "Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space - and most of it uninhabited." (iv.3)
Seneca the Younger:
- "The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live." (Ep. 101.15)
- "That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away." (Ep. 59.18)
- "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes." (De Provid.)
- "Virtue is nothing else than right reason." (Ep. 66.32)
- A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)
- Harvard University Press Epictetus Discourses Books 1 and 2, Loeb Classical Library Nr. 131, June 1925.
- Harvard University Press Epictetus Discourses Books 3 and 4, Loeb Classical Library Nr. 218, June 1928.
- Gill C. Epictetus, The Discourses, Everyman 1995.
- Long, George Enchiridion by Epictetus, Prometheus Books, Reprint Edition, January 1955.
- Long George Discourses of Epictetus, Kessinger Publishing, January 2004.
- Moses, Hadas (ed.), Essential Works of Stoicism (1961: Bantam)
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (transl. Robin Campbell), Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (1969, reprint 2004) ISBN 0-14-044210-3
- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations, translated by Maxwell Staniforth; ISBN 0-14-044140-9, or translated by Gregory Hays; ISBN 0-679-64260-9.
- Oates Whitney Jenning The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius, Random House, 9th printing 1940.
- Bakalis Nikolaos, Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, May 2005, ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
- Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998) ISBN 0-691-01660-7
- Tad Brennan, The Stoic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; paperback 2006)
- Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, (Blackwell, 1995) ISBN 0-631-18033-8
- Brad Inwood, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
- A. A. Long, Stoic Studies (Cambridge University Press, 1996; repr. University of California Press, 2001) ISBN 0-520-22974-6
- Vlassis G. Rassias, "Theois Syzen. Eisagoge ston Stoicismo", Athens, 2001, ISBN 960-7748-25-5
- John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) ISBN 1-84465-053-7
- William O. Stephens, Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom (London: Continuum, 2007) ISBN 0-8264-9608-3
- Steven Strange (ed.), Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004) ISBN 0-521-82709-4