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Introduction | Stoic Ethics | Other Tenets | History of Stoicism
Introduction Back to Top

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy (developed by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. as a refinement of Cynicism) which teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It does not seek to extinguish emotions completely, but rather seeks to transform them by a resolute Asceticism (a voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures), which enables a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm and freedom from suffering (which it considers the ultimate goal).

Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, but rather a way of life, involving constant practice and training, and incorporating the practice of logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, and a kind of meditation aimed at training one's attention to remain in the present moment.

The term "stoic" was taken from the "stoa poikile" (meaning "painted porch" or "colonnade") where Zeno of Citium used to teach. In modern usage, the word refers to someone who is unemotional or indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief or joy, and has little in common with its philosophical roots.

Stoic Ethics Back to Top

As an ethical doctrine, the goal of Stoicism is freedom from passion (in the ancient sense of "anguish" or "suffering") through the pursuit of reason and "apatheia" (apathy, in its ancient sense of being objective, unemotional and having clear judgment). It teaches indifference and a "passive" reaction to external events (on the grounds that nothing external could be either good or evil) and equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.

The Stoics taught that becoming a clear, unbiased and self-disciplined thinker allows one to understand the "logos" (the natural universal reason in all things). Thus, unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance, and if someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason. The solution to this evil and unhappiness can be achieved through the practice of Stoic philosophy (the examination of one's own judgments and behavior in order to determine where they might have diverged from the universal reason of nature). Hence the famous Stoic maxim: "Live according to nature", both in the sense of the laws of the universe and of man's own essential nature, reason.

In many respects, it bears a remarkable similarity to the ethical teaching of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 - 483 B.C.) and Buddhism, which is grounded in the four noble truths: 1) all life has suffering; 2) suffering is rooted in passion and desire; 3) happiness is freedom from the passions; 4) moral restraint and self-discipline is the means by which one becomes free from suffering.

An important aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individualís ethical and moral well-being by having a will which is in agreement with Nature, and by practicing the four cardinal virtues (derived from the teachings of Plato): wisdom ("sophia"), courage ("andreia"), justice ("dikaiosyne") and temperance ("sophrosyne").

For the Stoics, living according to reason and virtue is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, and recognizing the common reason and essential value of all people. They therefore promoted Egalitarianism, and, unusually for their day, encouraged the acceptance of even slaves as equals on the grounds that all are the "sons of God", echoing Socrates' claim that "I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world". They also denied the importance of external differences such as rank and wealth in social relationships.

To some extent, Stoicism assumes Determinism in that it holds that we will in any case do as the necessity of the world compels us, but it holds that we should not merely obey the law, but assent to our own obedience and follow the law consciously and deliberately, as only a rational being can.

The 1st Century AD Roman philosopher and Stoic, Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. - A.D. 65), the most famous and popular philosopher of his day, took the subject of anger seriously enough to dedicate a whole book to the subject. He saw anger as a philosophical problem and amenable to treatment by philosophical argument, not just an irrational outburst over which we have no control. He thought that anger arose from holding overly optimistic ideas about the world, leading to unrealistic expectations, and advised a more pessimistic attitude so that one was mentally prepared for the kinds of bad things that happen, which would therefore not lead to such outbursts of anger.

Other Tenets Back to Top

Stoic Logic and Epistemology asserts the certainty of knowledge, which can be attained through the use of reason and by verifying the conviction with the expertise of one's peers and the collective judgment of humankind. It holds that the senses are constantly receiving sensations, in the form of pulsations which pass from objects through the senses to the mind, where they leave behind an impression. The mind is able to approve or reject an impression, to enable it to distinguish a representation of reality which is true from one which is false. This theory stands, therefore, in direct opposition to the Idealism of Plato, for whom the mind alone was the source of knowledge, the senses being the source of all illusion and error.

In Metaphysics, the Stoics believed in a universe which is a material but reasoning substance, which can be called God or Nature, and which they divided into two classes, the passive (essentially, matter) and the active (variously described as Fate or Logos, a material, intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter). The souls of people and animals are emanations from this primordial fire, and are likewise subject to Fate. This notion that all things are composed of fire is borrowed from Heraclitus, and they also held a cyclical view of history, in which the world was once fire and would become fire again.

To the Stoics, then, all things are material, and nothing is more than material (Materialism). Words and God himself are material; emotions are material, because they have physical manifestations (e.g. blushing, smiling); the mind or soul reduces to matter, because the body produces thoughts or sense impressions in the soul, and the soul produces movements in the body, both which would be impossible if body and soul were not of the same substance.

The Stoics also believed that all the world is one, issuing from one principle (Monism), and that a divine reality pervades the whole universe (Pantheism). Thus, the universe is like a giant living body, with its own leading part (the stars or the sun), but with all parts being interconnected, so that what happens in one place affects what happens elsewhere. In addition, everything in the universe is predetermined (Determinism), although humans have a certain amount of free will (in the same way as eddies play around within the overall current of a river).

History of Stoicism Back to Top

Stoicism first appeared in Athens in the period around 300 B.C. and was introduced by Zeno of Citium. It was based on the moral ideas of Cynicism (Zeno of Citium was a student of the important Cynic Crates of Thebes), and toned down some of the harsher principles of Cynicism with some moderation and real-world practicality. During its initial phase, Stoicism was generally seen as a back-to-nature movement, critical of superstitions and taboos (based on the Stoic idea that the law of morality is the same as Nature).

Zeno's successor was Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 - 230 B.C.), but perhaps his most influential follower was Cleanthes' student Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280 - 207 B.C.), who was largely responsible for the molding of what we now call Stoicism. He built up a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, materialistic physics and naturalistic ethics. The main focus of Stoicism was always Ethics, although their logical theories were to be of more interest for many later philosophers.

Stoicism became the foremost and most influential school of the Greco-Roman world, especially among the educated elite, and it produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities, such as Panaetius of Rhodes (185 - 109 B.C.), Posidonius (c.135 - 50 B.C.), Cato the Younger (94 - 46 B.C.), Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. - A.D. 65), Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Neo-Stoicism is a syncretic movement, combining a revival of Stoicism with Christianity, founded by the Belgian Humanist Justus Lipsius (1547 - 1606). It is a practical philosophy which holds that the basic rule of good life is that one should not yield to the passions (greed, joy, fear and sorrow), but submit to God.

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