Stoicism, Zeno, Epictetus


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Zeno of Citium

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection,” would not suffer such emotions.[1]

Stoics were concerned with 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, and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how they behaved.[2]

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.[1]

From its founding, Stoic doctrine was popular with a following in Greece and throughout the Roman Empire — including the Emperor Marcus Aurelius — until the closing of all pagan philosophy schools in AD 529 by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who perceived their pagan character as being at odds with the Catholic Christian faith.[3][4]

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 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.”[6] This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,”[7] and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature.”[8]

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.”[6] 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,”[7] 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).[9]

Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire,[10] to the point where, in the words of Gilbert Murray “nearly all the successors of Alexander […] professed themselves Stoics.”[11]

Beginning at around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (i.e., “the painted porch”), from which his philosophy got its name.[12] 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.

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’ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm.[19] 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”,[20] 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 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) or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion’),[21] 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 are wisdom (Sophia), courage (Andreia), justice (Dikaiosyne), and temperance (Sophrosyne), a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.

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 dialog and self-dialog, 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, 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, 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.”[30] This sentiment echoes that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said “I am not an Athenian or a Corinthian, but a citizen of the world.”[31]

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.”[32]

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