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At the age of 30, Zeno of Citium (c. 335 – 263 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, is said to have shipwrecked transporting cargo from Phoenica to the Pireaus. He made his way to Athens, where he sought to reorient himself. Consulting a oracle about what he should do, he was told to have intercourse with the dead — a riddle he wisely interpreted to mean that he should become acquainted with the writings of dead authors. In Athens he found a bookstore, where he had his epiphany of sorts. Listening to the owner read aloud from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, about the life of Socrates, he asked the bookstore owner where he might find such a man as Socrates. And as fate would have it, Crates, the Ancient Cynic philosopher, was walking by precisely at that moment. The book store owner told Zeno to follow him. Zeno did so and eventually become a student at the Academy. He then went on to combine into Stoicism the influences of Socrates, Heraclitus, the Cynics (who ran the Academy), and members of the Peripatetic school.

Zeno we do know developed the basic ideas of the “old Stoa,” but the many quotes passed on to us from Diogenes Laertes are thought unreliable. He founded a school in Athens in which his ideas were taught to students originally known as Zenonians, but who then took on the name of Stoics since they attended lectures at the Stoa Poikile, one of the covered walkways in Athens. The second head of the Stoic school in Athens was Cleanthes of Assus (331/32 – 232 BCE).

We have more of reliable ideas of the views of Chrysippus (c 280 – 207 BCE), who became the third head of the Stoic school in Athens. He developed thought in the three main areas that came to characterize the Stoic school for hundreds of years as it also became a dominant philosophy in Rome: logic, ethics, physics (which included metaphysics). Stoics interpreted Heraclitus as providing a basis for their pantheist fatalism. What was to happen would happen, they maintained, but we had freedom about how we thought and felt about it. This teaching lingers in the later Stoics, but does not generally lead Stoics to have as passive of a stance in the world as one might imagine. Rather, this fatalism tends to be interpreted by them — thinkers who after all include the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, one of Rome’s greatest literary figures, even celebrated at his own time — to mean that even the active stances of various Stoics toward the world were also fated.

While we are left with fragments of the early Stoics, many writings of the later Roman Stoics have been preserved — in particular those of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Of these, Epictetus is thought to be the truest to the early Stoa. Epictetus’ Dialogues is interpreted by Pierre Hadot, one of the great contemporary scholars of Stoicism, as an attempt to provide a faithful portrayal of the ideas of Chrysippus. Stoicism, as Epictetus understood it, was in any case a school of philosophy understood as a way of life. The focus was on the cultivation of a life practice. Philosophy here was viewed as a kind of therapy of the soul that should facilitate happiness and virtue. At the time the Dialogues was written, it had however been four centuries since Zeno had lived.

Pierre Hadot underlines that the ideas developed by Epictetus combined the Socratic ethical tradition, Heraclitus’ physics and metaphysics, and views in logic building on the Megareans (dialecticians following in one tradition of Socrates) and Aristotle (The Inner Citadel, 73). Like Socrates, the Stoics highlighted the absolute importance of moral integrity and care for the soul. This however involved the Stoics not only in paying attention to their moral life in a narrow sense, but was related to their orientation to a dialectic, logical form of reasoning and the need for a coherent worldview  — in alignment with the Logos — that would facilitate happiness. As Zeno is reported to have said: “Live in a coherent way, that is to say, live in accordance with a rule of life which is one and harmonious because those who live in incoherence are unhappy” (Qtd. in The Inner Citadel, 75).

A main focus of Epictetus’ work is on recognizing the difference between those things that are in our control and those that are not. As he says in the first line of the Enchiridion, which is also the focus on his first chapter of the Discourses: “Some things are in our control and others are not.” A key to tranquility is not to try to control those things that are not in our control and only to focus on controlling those that we can change. And what we can change according to the Stoics are not the things themselves but are our thoughts about the things. This is a point reiterated by Epictetus again and again. Epictetus, who had been a slave, took this so far as to say: “I was never so free as when I was in the wrack.”  Like their great moral model, Socrates, the Stoics thought that the only true harm was harm to the soul. The only consequential freedom was also freedom of the soul. Similarly, like Socrates, the Stoics thought that care for the soul required a rational examination of life, meaning not only a regular examination of conscience with a focus on cultivating virtue but also an examination of one’s views of the world and by default the views of the society in which one acquired those.

Their own examinations led them to some views about “physics” (as that was understood) that few today would find rationally compelling — in particular the already mentioned ideas of fatalist pantheism based in part in their understanding of Heraclitus. The early Stoics in particular emphasized there was nothing we could do to avert our fate. All we could do was learn to accept it. Their determinism in fact anticipates Nietzsche’s view of eternal recurrence (and surely was the fundamental inspiration for it).  Universal reason unfolds in the world in a deterministic manner, such that the world was thought to develop along a trajectory until it was destroyed then recreated, only to again run the same course. This idea, known as conflagration, went so far that among the Stoic fragments we find: “There will be another Socrates, a Plato, and every man with the same friends and the same fellow-citizens…and this renewal will not happen once but several times; rather all things will be repeated eternally” (qtd. in The Inner Citadel, 77). The course of the universe was thought to unfold in accord with a largely Heracletian teaching of the elements. Behind the appearances of all things in the world, there is an ongoing elemental transformation of fire into air, water, earth. Such a transformation is repeated in cycles eternally and in accord with the plan of the Logos. This was divine. Yet this divinity was not separable from the physical world, but integral to it. And human reason was the divine spark within us that allowed us to understand the reality of logos, the necessity of the world development and the need to come to terms with fate. The focus on the need for coherent, rational thought thus found its place in this philosophy, which was especially emphasized in later Stoic writings are oriented toward our own tranquility. A knowledge of the truths of such “physics” should lead us to accept fate rather than to fight against it. It would be part of the training of our desire.

Again, Stoic philosophy, like much other philosophy of the Hellenic and Roman periods, understood itself as a way of life. Philosophers were not oriented so much on developing creative or unique ideas to set themselves apart from those who came before them. The Stoics understood themselves as part of a school of thought with a spiritual orientation. In alignment with that they developed spiritual exercises for the control of the mind — and theoretical teaching of physics as well as logic were a part of this. The Stoics sought to control what they could, which were their views of things and their emotions. They engaged in disciplining their impulses (related especially to ethics), their desire (related especially to physics) as well their judgments, those ideas to which they would give assent (related especially to logic) (cp. The Inner Citadel, 90).

What they sought to come to desire was whatever it was that fate meted out. This was thus tied to their view of the world as unfolding in accord with Logos. It meant too, though, that it would affect their impulses. They should gain self-control, moderation. They would cultivate virtue. As rational, though, they also needed to assent only to ideas that were logical and coherent and well-founded. So at least ran the theory. In accord with it, the Stoics engaged in examination of conscience regularly, as they attempted to gain control of their impulses and to assent to no ideas that were not rationally grounded. Getting their impulses and desires under control was related to understanding the basic structure of reality as Logos unfolding according to a rational unalterable plan. They had the possibility to best manage these processes of judgment by following logic strictly.

In line with this, Stoics would lean about the world and remind themselves of important truths, learning aphorisms that helped them to control their impulses and cultivate their desire. Epictetus’ Enchiridion, like the Discourses, is full of such views. Only a few from the first paragraphs indicate the kind of ideas being cultivated:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things” (par. 5).

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish but wish that they happen as they do happen and you will go on well” (par. 8).

“Never say of anything ‘I have lost it’ but ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? It is returned. Is your estate taken? Well, is that not likewise returned…” (par. 11)

As William Irvine emphasizes in A Guide to the Good Life (the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy), Stoics would learn such phrases to be prepared for the travails of their everyday lives. It, as Hadot also emphasizes, was all part of their spiritual cultivation.

Hadot indeed reads the Meditations as Marcus Aurelius’ private reflections that he wrote as he was cultivating his stoic spirituality in his everyday life. There we find various ideas thus in the three areas noted — regarding control of impulses, desire, and judgment — sometimes repeated nearly verbatim. According to Hadot, these were exercises to train the impulses, desires, and judgment toward virtue.

A cultivation of an attitude of gratitude is found at the outset of the Meditations. There Marcus Aurelius calls to mind pleasant memories of his grandfather, father, mother, his teachers.

In Book 2 he prepares himself for difficulties that he will meet during the day. “Say to yourself in the morning: I shall meet many people who are interfering, ungracious, insolent, full of guile, deceitful and antisocial; they have all become like that because they have no understanding of good and evil” (11). The emperor is cultivating an attitude not to blame those who act out of ignorance or to be unduly perturbed by them. As he goes on to say: “I cannot be harmed by any one of them. I cannot feel anger against him who is my kin nor hate him” (11).

Later in the text we find Marcus noting: “When, in the early morning, you are reluctant to get up, have this thought in mind: ‘ I rise to do a man’s work. Am I still resentful as I go to do the task for which I was born and for the sake of which I was brought into the world?'” (Book 5, 57).

Similarly: “I do my duty. Other things do not disturb me for they are either inanimate or irrational or else they wander in ignorance of their road” (Book 6, 53).

The Cynic Diogenes was the first to refer himself in cosmopolitan terms, saying when asked where he was from that “I am a citizen of the world.” But the Stoics developed the view of cosmopolitanism. Hints of that are evident in the quote from Book 2 of the Meditations above. Marcus Aurelius sees himself as a brother to others, no matter how ignorant. In the Discourses Epictetus also highlights that we are to understand “we’re all first and foremost children of god” (D 1.3). Though Zeno’s early work has been lost, we do know that he had written a book entitled the Republic, offering a Stoic view of an ideal egalitarian polity. In general, the Stoics underline a fundamental equality among human beings and the brotherhood of man.

In line with their cosmopolitan ideal, the focus of their moral theory thus was not just on controlling impulses and keeping their ideas in check. Stoics developed an early version of natural law theory, viewing the existing laws as at times diverging from the eternal law and maintaining that we need to work to implement the true natural law. This stands of course more than a bit in tension with the idea especially of the early Stoa that there was no way to avert fate. Like any form of pantheism that maintains there is an ethical duty, Stoicism runs up against the limits of logic in this. But whatever the logical inconsistency, this natural law tradition is in Stoicism as well. And a good part of the ethical teaching of Stoicism emphasized that in one’s action one should be oriented to the benefit of humanity generally.

Addendum 1

There are modern forms of Stoicism that incorporate much of the teaching of this great school of thought but that free it from some of its antiquated metaphysical baggage. William B. Irvine’s earlier mentioned work is one example of that. Online one can also find repositories of stoic wisdom, updated in various ways for a very different cultural context and understanding of physics and metaphysics. The Daily Stoic sends out daily emails to remind one to cultivate a stoic attitude. Facebook, too, has various sites focusing on modern stoicism.

For many interested in some form of spirituality without a thick metaphysics, this has appeal today. Here, too, though, many continue to question whether Stoicism, in its ancient or modern guise, does not too easily acquiesce to situations in the world that would better be changed. Addendum 2 takes this up in relationship to Marcus Aurelius’ view of labor.

Addendum 2

Marcus Aurelius’ view in Book 5 of the Meditations is that we should not hesitate to rise in the morning to do the work for which we were born. However, even in accord with a natural law tradition based in some of the early work of the Stoics, might we wonder whether the conditions under which we sometimes now have to labor have been so malformed and made so demeaning that they should not but meet with our disgust?

One fear among many philosophers who reject fatalism and emphasize our obligation to change the world is that Stoicism might often lead us to accept things too readily that could be changed. Hegel famously referred to Stoicism as an expression of “unhappy consciousness” for reasons not too far afield from this.

We see of course that there are some tendencies in Stoicism that counter this acquiescence to what is as rational and necessary. But there is a tension in this school of thought that pulls strongly toward a passive acceptance of reality, however unsavory. Critics who focus on how power relationships have been fundamental to the shaping of forms of labor and various forms of human interaction might rightly ask Marcus Aurelius whether in many cases the “natural” labor that could be a joyous celebration of human creativity has unnecessarily become drudgery from which we should work to be freed.

Go to chapter 12, Epicureanism.

Useful Links

The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Enchiridion by Epictetus


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