Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD. Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.
- Basic tenets
- Propositional logic
- Physics and cosmology
- Ethics and virtues
- The doctrine of
- Spiritual exercise
- Social philosophy
- Modern usage
It was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that emotions resulted in errors of judgment which were destructive, due to the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life (lex divina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they taught that everything was rooted in nature.
Later Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that, because "virtue is sufficient for happiness", a sage was immune to misfortune. This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase "stoic calm", though the phrase does not include the "radical ethical" Stoic views that only a sage can be considered truly free, and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.
From its founding, Stoic doctrine was popular during the Roman Empire—and its adherents included the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It later experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century. Over the centuries, it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance and in the modern era.
The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, monistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were of more interest for 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 that 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 men alike are products of nature."
The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard 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". This viewpoint was later described as "Classical Pantheism" (and was adopted by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza).
Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the 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 is now called 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:
No complete work by any Stoic philosopher survives from the first two phases of Stoicism. Only Roman texts from the Late Stoa survive.
Diodorus Cronus, who was one of Zeno's teachers, is considered the philosopher who first introduced and developed an approach to logic now known as propositional logic. This is an approach to logic based on statements or propositions, rather than terms, making it very different from Aristotle's term logic. Later, Chrysippus developed a system that became known as Stoic logic and included a deductive system, Stoic Syllogistic, which was considered a rival to Aristotle's Syllogistic (see Syllogism). New interest in Stoic logic came in the 20th century, when important developments in logic were based on propositional logic. Susanne Bobzien wrote, "The many close similarities between Chrysippus' philosophical logic and that of Gottlob Frege are especially striking."
Bobzien also notes that "Chrysippus wrote over 300 books on logic, on virtually any topic logic today concerns itself with, including speech act theory, sentence analysis, singular and plural expressions, types of predicates, indexicals, existential propositions, sentential connectives, negations, disjunctions, conditionals, logical consequence, valid argument forms, theory of deduction, propositional logic, modal logic, tense logic, epistemic logic, logic of suppositions, logic of imperatives, ambiguity and logical paradoxes."
The Stoics held that all being (ὄντα) – though not all things (τινά) – is material. They accepted the distinction between concrete bodies and abstract ones, but rejected Aristotle's belief that purely incorporeal being exists. Thus, they accepted Anaxagoras' idea (as did Aristotle) that if an object is hot, it is because some part of a universal heat body had entered the object. But, unlike Aristotle, they extended the idea to cover all accidents. Thus if an object is red, it would be because some part of a universal red body had entered the object.
They held that there were four categories.
The Stoics propounded that knowledge can be attained through the use of reason. Truth can be distinguished from fallacy—even if, in practice, only an approximation can be made. According to the Stoics, the senses constantly receive sensations: pulsations that pass from objects through the senses to the mind, where they leave an impression in the imagination (phantasia) (an impression arising from the mind was called a phantasma).
The mind has the ability to judge (συγκατάθεσις, synkatathesis)—approve or reject—an impression, enabling it to distinguish a true representation of reality from one that is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately, but others can only achieve varying degrees of hesitant approval, which can be labeled belief or opinion (doxa). It is only through reason that we achieve clear comprehension and conviction (katalepsis). Certain 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 judgment of humankind.
Physics and cosmology
According to the Stoics, the universe is a material, reasoning substance, known as God or Nature, 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 that 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 according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter 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 that 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.
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" that 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, which is 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 that result from correct judgment in the same way as passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, "without passion") or peace of mind, where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having "clear judgment" and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.
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 is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato:
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one's own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.
The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life. Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato's self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices. Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one's social duty.
The doctrine of "things indifferent"
In philosophical terms, things that 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 that 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 prefer because they assist life according to nature; things to avoid because they hinder it; and things indifferent in the narrower sense. The principle of adiaphora was also common to the Cynics and Sceptics. The doctrine of things indifferent was revived during the Renaissance by Philipp 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 asceticism). 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), and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines several such practices. For example, in Book II.I:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the 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...
Prior to Aurelius, Epictetus in his Discourses, distinguished between three types of act: judgment, desire, and inclination. According to French philosopher Pierre Hadot, Epictetus identifies these three acts with logic, physics, and ethics respectively. Hadot writes that in the Meditations, "Each maxim develops either one of these very characteristic topoi [i.e., acts], or two of them or three of them."
The practices of spiritual exercises have been described as influencing those of reflective practice by Seamus Mac Suibhne. Parallels between Stoic spiritual exercises and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy have been detailed at length in Robertson's The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
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, Epictetus 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, whereof the city political is only a copy." This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said "I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world."
They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Instead they 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."
In his Introduction to the 1964 Penguin Classics edition of Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth discussed the profound impact Stoicism had on Christianity. He claimed that the author of the Fourth Gospel declared Christ to be the Logos, which "had long been one of the leading terms of Stoicism, chosen originally for the purpose of explaining how deity came into relation with the universe." In St. Ambrose of Milan's Duties, "The voice is the voice of a Christian bishop, but the precepts are those of Zeno." Regarding what he called "the Divine Spirit", Stanisforth wrote:
Cleanthes, wishing to give more explicit meaning to Zeno's 'creative fire', had been the first to hit upon the term pneuma, or 'spirit', to describe it. Like fire, this intelligent 'spirit' was imagined as a tenuous substance akin to a current of air or breath, but essentially possessing the quality of warmth; it was immanent in the universe as God, and in man as the soul and life-giving principle. Clearly it is not a long step from this to the 'Holy Spirit' of Christian theology, the 'Lord and Giver of life', visibly manifested as tongues of fire at Pentecost and ever since associated – in the Christian as in the Stoic mind – with the ideas of vital fire and beneficient warmth.
Regarding the Trinity, Staniforth wrote:
Again in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ecclesiastical conception of Father, Word, and Spirit finds its germ in the different Stoic names of the Divine Unity. Thus Seneca, writing of the supreme Power which shapes the universe, states, 'This Power we sometimes call the All-ruling God, sometimes the incorporeal Wisdom, sometimes the holy Spirit, sometimes Destiny.' The Church had only to reject the last of these terms to arrive at its own acceptable definition of the Divine Nature; while the further assertion 'these three are One', which the modern mind finds paradoxical, was no more than commonplace to those familiar with Stoic notions.
The apostle Paul met with Stoics during his stay in Athens, reported in Acts 17:16-18. In his letters, Paul reflected heavily from his knowledge of Stoic philosophy, using Stoic terms and metaphors to assist his new Gentile converts in their understanding of Christianity. Stoic influence can also be seen in the works of St. Ambrose, Marcus Minucius Felix, and Tertullian.
In Stoicism's pantheism, God is never fully transcendent but always immanent. God as the world-creating entity is personalized in Christian thought, but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe, which was deeply contrary to Christianity. The only incarnation in Stoicism is that each person has part of the logos within. Stoicism, unlike Christianity, does not posit a beginning or end to the universe.
Stoicism was later 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 and 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, a sense of the innate depravity—or "persistent evil"—of humankind, and the futility and temporarity of worldly possessions and attachments. Both encourage Ascesis with respect to the passions and inferior emotions such as lust, and envy, so that the higher possibilities of one's humanity can be awakened and developed.
Stoic writings such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius have been highly regarded by many Christians throughout the centuries. The Stoic ideal of dispassion is accepted to this day as the perfect moral state by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Saint Ambrose of Milan was known for applying Stoic philosophy to his theology.
The word "stoic" commonly refers to someone indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. The modern usage as "person who represses feelings or endures patiently" was 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."
However, Modern Stoicism also refers to the application of ancient stoic principles to modern life. Stoicism was always meant to be a practical philosophy to be applied rather than debated.