The Stoics

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The Stoics

Scant Historical Record.

In the six centuries between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e. and the emperor Constantine (312–337 c.e.) the dominant philosophy that commanded the allegiance of thinking people was Stoicism—named for the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) where Zeno of Citium first taught the philosophy. The early development of this philosophy was not preserved in written texts until about 100 c.e., when a disciple of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Arrian, wrote a memoir of his master's conversations with his students and published them as Discourses. Arrian was a Roman official and a soldier with literary tastes, and a man of his position may have had a slave trained in shorthand who could take notes while Epictetus and his students conversed. After Epictetus, the Meditations of the emperor Marcus Aurelius is the last expression of Stoic philosophy. The blanks in the historical record on Stoicism must be filled with second-hand reports of the earlier Stoics, the most important of these being the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers written by Diogenes Laertius. Without Diogenes' biography of Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, and his successors Cleanthes and Chrysippus, it would be impossible to chart the beginnings of this school.

The Cosmopolitan Nature of Stoicism.

Diogenes the Cynic used to say that he was a polites (citizen) of the kosmos (world) which created the word "cosmopolitan." Philosophy was outgrowing the intellectual world of the polis (city-state) and the checklist of the native cities of the great Stoics proves the point. The founders of the School did not come from Athens, the seat of Greek philosophy. Zeno was a Hellenized Syrian who came from Citium, a city in Cyprus. His successor as head of the school was Cleanthes who came from Assos in the Troad, the region of northwest Asia Minor in the vicinity of Troy. He had been a boxer in his earlier career and when he came to Athens, he worked as a gardener while he attended the lectures at the Stoa Poikile. Chrysippus (c. 280–207 b.c.e.), the third head of the Stoic School, came either from Soli or from nearby Tarsus, both in the region of Asia Minor known as Cilicia. The next head of the school was Zeno from Tarsus; after him came Diogenes of Babylon followed by Antipater of Tarsus. After Antipater of Tarsus, Stoicism underwent a revision by the next successor, Panaetius of Rhodes, and a period of history in the philosophy known as the "Middle Stoa" began. This included a change from the rigid practices of the philosophy to a strong focus on humanism and social practice. Because of the revision, many of the prominent figures in Rome converted to Stocisim. Panaetius's writings would influence Cato the younger, the stubborn defender of the Roman republic against Julius Caesar; Marcus Brutus, who was one of Caesar's assassins; and Cicero, Caesar's contemporary, who was an eclectic philosopher, picking and choosing his doctrines from several schools. Cicero favored the scepticism of the Academy, but he also ascribed to some of the teachings of Stoicism. Finally in its last phase, Stoicism became the doctrine of the Roman upper classes under the empire, and in the first century c.e. the Roman aristocrats who were martyred for their resistance to the growing autocracy of the emperors all professed Stoicism.

Stoic Physics.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, divided knowledge into three divisions: natural philosophy, ethics, and logic. Stoic physical doctrine rejected the atomic theory of the Epicureans. "Nothing that is incorporeal exists" was the fundamental principle of Stoic physics, and hence there was no place for void. For the Stoics, matter was continuous and empty space did not exist within the finite universe, but only outside it. Everything, even the soul and God himself, was material. In determining what this material was, the Stoics looked back to Heraclitus and argued that it was Fire. Fire was the logos, the divine reason. Logos pervades the universe as honey pervades a honeycomb, and the human soul was a portion of this logos. The primal fire which is the logos is God, and hence the soul proceeds into the body from God. Periodically the whole world turns to fire and there is a great conflagration that is not so much a destruction of the world as its apotheosis (elevation to divine status), for the world that is consumed by fire has become united with God. Then the fire goes out, and history begins a new cycle, repeating itself in exactly the same way as it unfolded before. History repeats itself in endless cycles.

The Theory of Knowledge.

According to Stoic doctrine, all knowledge reaches the mind through the senses. This view was in stark opposition to Plato's doctrine, that the senses were the source of illusion and error. There was no place for Plato's Theory of Forms in Stoic logic. For the Stoics, concepts have no reality outside the consciousness. They are merely ideas that the mind forms from the evidence with which the senses have supplied it. Virtue is based on knowledge, but to possess knowledge, the conceptions of the mind must mesh with reality, and so the wise man is one who has an accurate grasp of the real world. The Stoics believed it was possible to accurately grasp the real world, and they tried to show how the mind can acquire conceptions that are based on reality.


introduction: Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180 c.e. succeeded Antoninus Pius (138–161 c.e.) whose reign had been long and peaceful. Marcus Aurelius' reign made up for it. He faced a revolt in the east by one of his generals, Avidius Cassius, which he survived. The empire was attacked by plague, probably smallpox although that is uncertain. But most unnerving of all, in 169 c.e. tribes known as the Marcomanni and the Quadi invaded across the Danube frontier of the empire and penetrated as far as northern Italy. Italy had known two centuries of peace, and the invasion was a shattering experience. Marcus Aurelius, who had had little experience in warfare, took command of the army and drove the invaders back. His little book, Marcus Aurelius to Himself which is usually known as the Meditations, was written on the battlefield, when Marcus, no longer a young man and suffering from tuberculosis, campaigned against the Marcomanni and the Quadi. The translation from which the passage excerpted below is taken is from a classic work by George Long, who dedicated his first edition of the Meditations to Robert E. Lee, Confederate commander in the American Civil War, whom Long regarded as another Marcus Aurelius. In the following passage, Marcus expounds the Stoic doctrine of the soul, which is part of the divine logos which permeates the world, and understands that all things pass away and are renewed in another cycle of history which will repeat what has happened before.

These are the properties of the rational soul: it sees itself, analyses itself, and makes itself such as it chooses, the fruit which it bears it enjoys itself—for the fruit of plants and that of animals which corresponds to fruits others enjoy—it obtains it own end, wherever the limit of life may be fixed. Not as in a dance and in a play and in such like things, where the whole action is incomplete, if anything cuts it short; but in every part, and wherever it may be stopped, it makes what has been set before it full and complete, so that it can say, I have what is my own. And further it traverses the whole universe, and the surrounding vacuum, and surveys its form, and it extends itself into the infinity of time, and embraces and comprehends the periodic renovation of all things, and it comprehends that those who come after us will see nothing new, nor have those before us have seen anything more, but in a manner, he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen by virtue of the uniformity that prevails all things which have been and all that will be. This, too, is the property of the rational soul, love of one's neighbor, and truth and modesty, and to value nothing more than itself, which is also the property of Law. Thus then, right reason differs not at all from the reason of justice.

source: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Book 11, Sec. 1. Trans. George Long (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1956).

The Virtuous Life.

"Live in harmony with nature" was the watchword of the Stoics, that is, nature in a broad sense. The guiding principle of nature is the logos—that is, reason—which the Stoics identified with God. It manifests itself in both fate or divine necessity, and divine providence. Virtue consists of living in harmony with the guiding principle of nature—that is, the logos—and to be virtuous is the only good; the only evil is not to be virtuous. The Stoics, with some exceptions, admitted that a wise man might choose to avoid illness or death or seek self-preservation if he could do so and still act virtuously. Nonetheless, pain and discomfort should not affect his happiness, nor, for that matter, should their opposites, pleasure and good health. The wise man will be indifferent to such things. Pleasure and favor will not influence him, and so he will be completely just. Nor will he consider pain and death evils, and so he will be absolutely courageous.

Personal Conduct.

Zeno defined emotion as an irrational movement of the soul, and so freedom from emotion is the mark of a wise man. A wise man is indifferent equally to fame and obscurity, and so he is devoid of conceit. Good men are not meddlesome; they decline to take any action that is outside the path of duty. Good men may drink wine, but they will refrain from drinking so much as to become intoxicated. The Stoics held that all sins were equal, for every falsehood is false, not more or less false than any other. If one man is a hundred miles from Rome and another man only five miles distant, they are both equally not in Rome. Good men are by nature sociable, and so they will not live in solitude. There should be no Stoic hermits. Finally, if a wise man has a good reason for it, he will commit suicide, or "make an exit" as the Stoics called it, either for the sake of his country or his friends, or because he is suffering great pain of incurable disease. Death as a Stoic was greatly admired in Rome where Cato the Younger became the paradigm of a Stoic martyr. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 b.c.e. and drove the forces of the defenders of the republic—most of them upper-class Romans—out of Italy and defeated them at Pharsalia in northern Greece. Cato the Younger, an obstinate defender of republican ideals as he interpreted them, managed to rally the republican forces in north Africa, and in 46 b.c.e. Julius Caesar defeated them at Thapsus. Cato heard the news of the defeat at Utica near Carthage and committed suicide, refusing to survive the Roman republic. His suicide won him an acclaim which he had not enjoyed in his political career, for he was an unpleasant man and utterly uncompromising in politics. He became Cato Uticensis (Cato of Utica) who "made an exit" at Utica and thus became a martyr for republican freedom both in ancient Rome and in modern Europe. Seneca the Younger (c. 3 b.c.e.–65 c.e.), the emperor Nero's discarded tutor, made an equally edifying exit. He was accused, justly or unjustly, of being party to a conspiracy to murder Nero and put a new emperor on the throne. Nero decided that Seneca must die, and Seneca committed suicide. He was given no time to make a will, and so he told his family that he left them something far better than earthly wealth: the example of a virtuous life, and then, opening his veins, dictated his last words to his secretary as his life ebbed away. During his lifetime, Seneca had shown a remarkable appetite for earthly wealth, but he died as a Stoic philosopher should.


Edward V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism, Being Lectures on the History of Stoic Philosophy with Special Reference to its Development within the Roman Empire (London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1911; reprint, New York: Humanities Press, 1958).

Jonathan Barnes, Logic and the Imperial Stoa (New York: Brill, 1997).

Lawrence C. Becker, A New Stoicism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Ed. Brad Inwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Marcia L. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. 2 vols. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1985).

Moses Hadas, Essential Works of Stoicism (New York: Bantam Books, 1961).

Brad Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Margaret Reesor, The Nature of Man in Early Stoic Philosophy (London, England: Duckworth, 1989).

J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

—, ed., The Stoics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).