Ethics 6 – Greek Ethics: Epicurus & The Stoics
Epicurus (341 – 270 BCE) was the founder of the philosophy of Epicureanism. The word ‘epicurean’ is often used today to mean gourmet or enjoying the finer things in life, often food and drink, such as fine chocolates and wine (hence the recipe website, epicurious.com), but this is only a partial grasp of the ancient school of thought. Along with Platonism and Stoicism, Epicureanism was one of the more popular philosophies of late ancient Greek and ancient Roman times. Only fragments of Epicurus’ works survive, quotations in the works of other ancient authors.
Epicurus came from an Athenian family who first lived in an Athenian colony on the island of Samos until later moving to Ionia. He studied Platonism as a boy, then later the works of Democritus, the skeptical atomist who Pyrrho also studied before going to India. After traveling and teaching for some years, Epicurus returned to Athens to found a school in his private garden. Known as ‘The Garden’, it was said to have been situated between the Academy of Plato and the Stoa of the Stoics. While women were only admitted into other circles of philosophy as exceptions, Epicurus made his Garden officially open to women and slaves. On the gate of the Garden was an inscription:
“Stranger, you would do good to stay awhile, for here the highest good is pleasure.”
Epicurus taught that good and evil are pleasure and pain, a doctrine for which he and his school were attacked by many others, labeling them as glutinous hedonists. Many scholars argue that, just as ancient Christianity was opposed to the shamelessness of the Cynics, they were equally opposed to what they saw as the hedonism of the Epicureans, and as Christianity rose in popularity in ancient Syria, Greece and Rome, the popular schools of Cynicism and Epicureanism gradually gave way to Platonism and later Aristotelianism, schools of thought which taught that one should pursue the good and fulfill one’s purpose regardless of pleasure and happiness. A skeptic would take both sides, arguing that sometimes happiness is good, but other times what is good is quite different from what makes us happy.
In modern European philosophy, Epicureanism found a new champion in John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE), founder of Utilitarianism. Mill noted that if you call it Utilitarianism, people think it is dry and boring, but if you call it the Pleasure Principle, or, like Mill’s Epicurean teacher Jeremy Bentham (1750-1830 CE) called it, the Principle of Happiness, people think it is decadent and hedonistic. Mill argues that Epicurus was attacked as a glutton in his time, but he actually had a taste for thought, civilization, and what Mill calls the “higher virtues”, mental pleasures in giving to others and practicing philosophical debate rather than physical selfish pleasures of eating to excess and drinking every night.
Mill argued that, if we pursue happiness for everyone over a long period of time, rather than pursue happiness for ourselves in the short term, Epicureanism is the most ethical philosophy. As Epicurus took the long and social view just as Mill and Bentham did, Epicurus’ opponents were wrong to call him and his followers “swine”, gluttons and hedonists. It is true that the Epicureans believed one should indulge in moderation and enjoy life with friends, but they did not believe in self-destructive immediate gratification. For example, just as Epicurus opened his school to women and slaves, believing this to be the best for social well-being, Mill was an advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, believing egalitarianism, the equality of all before the law, to be best for making the most people happy over the long term. This is hardly self-centered happiness.
Like Pyrrho and Pyrrhonian skeptics, Epicurus taught that the goal of the good life was ataraxia, tranquility and peace of mind. Unlike the cynics and skeptics, Epicurus argued that we should seek happiness for ourselves and others as the ultimate goal, as the thing sought in itself, the thing to which all other purposes aim. Pyrrho would argue that it is freedom of judgement, not happiness, that brings true tranquility. Recall that Aristotle believed our ultimate end to be philosophy and scientific speculation. Epicurus would argue that wisdom and knowledge are pursued because they make us happy. He taught that the best way to make oneself happy is to make others happy, and so we should practice reciprocity, treating others the way we want to be treated. Confucius and Jesus both taught that this is central to ethics. Epicurus argued that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living wisely, and it is impossible to live wisely without living pleasantly. Living wisely for Epicurus centrally involved friendship and working for the greater good.
Sometimes, Epicurus argued, we do suffer pain willingly, and this is for the purposes of greater pleasure. For example, when one sacrifices and suffers for one’s friends or family, this is because one gets greater pleasure out of one’s friends and family over the long term than one gets out of what is sacrificed. At other times, we pursue pleasure without thinking of the pain that we will suffer later, but this will prevent us from being tranquil and at peace, which will prevent us from being happy over the long term.
Epicurus argued that we should believe only what can be gathered through empirical observation or proven through logical deduction. Skeptics would argue that we should gather evidence and engage in logic, but that nothing should be believed as absolute. Epicurus, an atomist like Democritus, believed that atoms (beings) moving within the void (nonbeing), and that all things, including minds, concepts and gods, are made of atoms bonding together. Unlike Democritus, Epicurus argued that atoms need not move in straight lines, but could curve or wander. Like modern Chaos Theory, Epicurus argued against determinism and allowed for freedom not merely in human thought and action but in all the motions of the cosmos.
Like Xenophanes and Heraclitus, Epicurus believed that the gods are commonly and ignorantly confused with human attributes, which is most impious. The gods do not care about mortals, largely ignoring them. Consequently, the gods do not reward or punish human beings with fortune or tragedy in either this or another life for doing good or evil, but rather happiness is its own reward and pain its own punishment. Additionally, the gods did not create the cosmos, but were merely massive material beings that influenced matters far more than microscopic humans. For the Homeric cultural conservatives, this would itself be a most impious position.
Employing the same argument as Sextus Empiricus and presumably earlier Pyrrhonian skeptics, Epicurus argues that the gods do not care about humanity with benevolence because otherwise evil would not exist in the world. Called, “The Problem of Evil” in philosophical and theological debates that still continue today, Epicureans and skeptics argued that the cosmos cannot be omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent and allow such suffering as we see to exist. Because such suffering exists, it must either be the case that the cosmos is not aware of everything (is not omniscient), is not all powerful (is not omnipotent), or does not care if we suffer (is not benevolent).
In response, Neoplatonists, whose position was supported by Augustine and the Catholic Church after the rise of Christianity in Rome, argued that the universe falls into division and suffering such that it can rise gloriously in union from the ashes, the doctrine known as “The Fall and the Return”. In Christian theology, this was paired with Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden then redeemed by the suffering of Jesus. Similar to the thinking of Heraclitus when he says that a pig does not know peace because a pig does not know war, Neoplatonists and Neoplatonic Christians argued that sin and suffering were necessary for redemption and salvation to be meaningful. Consider that, as adults, we find antiheroes and tragedy to be meaningful. Heraclitus, Epicureans and skeptics would question how much the cosmos enjoys drama like a human.
Epicurus argued that the cosmos is infinite and eternal, believing, as an atomist and like the Eleatics, that, “Out of nothing comes nothing”. Recall the atomist response to the Eleatic challenge, that atoms are indivisible and eternal, yet move in the void. Epicurus argued that, if the cosmos had a limit, one should be able to walk to the edge of it, stick out a fist, and thereby set a new limit for the entire cosmos.
Unlike the cosmos, the mind or soul is, like the body, mortal and therefore Epicurus argued that death is not to be feared, saying, “To us, death is nothing”. Epicureans of the Roman Empire were known to have engraved on their tombstones the Epicurean epigraph, “I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care”, as we do not exist before birth, then live, then die, and no longer are affected by anything. Aristotle argued, to the contrary, that it is right to fear death as it is an end to our aims and purposes, even if it is ultimately inevitable. Epicurus puts emphasis on happiness and tranquility, and so saw fear as a useless obstacle, while Aristotle puts emphasis on purposes and ends, and so saw fear as a useful warning.
Against Democritus, with whom Epicurus shares much thinking, and other skeptics like the Pyrrhonians, Epicurus argued that we must have some innate ideas or concepts that do not require proof. Recall that in Plato’s Parmenides, Parmenides shows that an infinite regress makes knowledge of forms impossible, and that in Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that we already know the truth because of cycles of reincarnation, but we have forgotten that we know. Epicurus does not believe in the immortality of the soul, so he cannot agree with Plato that knowledge is recollection, but he is well aware of the infinite regress that Plato’s Parmenides and the Pyrrhonian skeptics say makes true knowledge impossible to verify, and so Epicurus argues that some ideas are innate, are set in us from the beginning. These ideas are then extended through experience of the world, which Epicurus trusts as a genuine source of truth, unlike Pyrrhonian skeptics who argue that perceptions are untrustworthy given the ten tropes of Aenesidemus.
Epicurus gave three arguments against skepticism. First, he argued that it is impossible to live as a skeptic, as without beliefs there is no reason to act in any particular manner, and so true skeptic would die. Pyrrhonians would argue, as Jains and Buddhists did in India against dogmatic opponents, that if one is not committed to any position, then one is able to take any position, not prohibited from taking a particular position. When a skeptic acts, they would say, the skeptic knows that there may have to be a reversal of course or a reappraisal of judgements.
Second, Epicurus argued that skepticism is self-refuting, as it makes the dogmatic claim that all is relative. If we ask a skeptic if it can be known that nothing can be known, if the skeptic says ‘yes’, then they are contradicting themselves, and if they say ‘no’ then they do not know what they are talking about and their position is of no consequence. This remains a popular argument against skepticism. Right wing evangelical Christians today fear liberal education, rightly or wrongly, as a relativising force, and they frequently invoke this argument to show that relativism, which they identify with the left, with liberal colleges, German philosophy, the Continental tradition, Postmodernism, the entertainment industry, and anything else countercultural they find threatening is fundamentally flawed and false as they encourage people to believe in nothing at all. As mentioned, this equates skepticism with nihilism, which Pyrrho identifies with Plato’s later Academy.
A Pyrrhonian would reply that all evidence so far, including the differences of view amongst dogmatists, would suggest that all is relative, but this is only known relatively, not absolutely. We cannot know that all truth is relative, but we can say that no truth so far has been absolute and escaped the ten, five or two modes. In addition, the skeptic can say ‘yes’, and know that we are always, in a way, contradicting ourselves when we make judgements, and the skeptic can say ‘no’, and known that positions do have consequence, even if they are never absolute.
Third, Epicurus argued that skeptics cannot claim to know anything, including what knowing or truth is. If a skeptic says that nothing can be known or be true, how can they know what ‘know’ or ‘true’ is to use such concepts, even if negatively? A Pyrrhonian would reply that we do relatively know things, and things are relatively true, which is how we ‘know’ what is ‘true’, even though this remains relative. Similarly, we have never experienced an object that was simply hot such that nothing could be hotter, and yet we say that we know what hot is and can say whether or not a thing is hotter than another much of the time with relative accuracy.
Epicureanism became one of the most popular schools of thought of ancient Rome, rivaled primarily by Stoicism but also by Skepticism, Cynicism and Platonism. Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE) was a Roman poet who wrote a philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, a central source for Epicureanism. Other famous Epicurean Roman poets include Virgil, Dante’s guide through the circles of Hell, and Horace, famous for his “Carpe diem”, or “Seize the day” (what some now unfortunately call ‘YOLO’ on the internet).
While Epicureanism largely died out with the conversion of Rome to Christianity by Constantine and the fall of the Roman Empire, it was known in Islamic lands through the work of Lucretius and other philosophers. Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131 CE), the Persian philosopher, poet and mathematician, discovered Epicureanism through Lucretius, who became a great influence on his own poetry. Born in what is today Iran, Khayyam was a follower of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), arguably the greatest philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age, whose philosophical and medical works significantly influenced Medieval Europe, evident in his name being Latinized. Like Epicurus, Avicenna was critical of the work of Aristotle, arguing that universals are concepts in the mind, not physical things. Khayyam is seen by some Islamic and European scholars as an agnostic hedonist, who wrote poems of sharing wine with friends (in spite of this being prohibited by Islam) and wondering who knows what for sure. Others see him as a Sufi mystic, who found the rapture of the divine in the simple beauty of experience.
In Europe, Epicureanism was rediscovered in Renaissance times and revived in the 1700s with the rise of scholarship and science in Europe. Epicurus had an influence on both John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. John Locke argued that people should have the political right to life, liberty, and property, and his political philosophy had a significant influence on the American Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, who considered himself an Epicurean, gave Locke’s triad a further Epicurean twist, and wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Karl Marx, father of Communism, wrote his doctoral thesis on the differences between Democritus and Epicurus. Communism, which has often been compared to Mill’s Utilitarianism and the Happiness Principle of Bentham, attempts to remove the rich individuals from society and the wealthy nations from the world such that everyone is as happy and productive as possible. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the middle class fears Communism because they are afraid it will take away their property, and they answer that yes, this is exactly what they intend, for as long as there is poverty possession of property is evil, preventing the happiness of everyone.
The German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were influenced by Epicurus. Schopenhauer, who also revered the Upanishads and Buddhism of India, believed that Epicurus correctly understood the proper attitude towards death. Nietzsche, who was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, mentioned Epicurus in several of his works and praised his wisdom for seeing that humanity may pretend to aim at noble aims beyond pleasure, but this is self-deception that masks how easily we are seduced by what we find to be beautiful. Unlike Aristotle, who argued that philosophy and science are pure aims in themselves, Nietzsche, like Epicurus, argued that we are seduced by the purity of math, fixed understandings and ideal principles, pretending that we are objective to hide our passion. The sign above, in a garden, reads, “A small garden, figs, a little cheese, and, along with this, three or four good friends – such was luxury to Epicurus“, a quote from Nietzsche.
Epicurus suffered from what is today believed to be kidney stones, what likely killed him, and yet Epicurus wrote to friends that he was happy in spite of his great pain. Nietzsche suffered from poor health and stomach ailments for most of his life, and took comfort in Epicurus’ happiness in the face of pain and death. In a very Epicurean fashion, Nietzsche wrote that philosophers have claimed to know great truths and Being itself, yet they have often failed to speak of love, sex and friendship, so what deep understanding of life could they possibly have? Nietzsche, who was deeply cynical about religion, politics and science, about any system that would make us bow to it as objective, was inspired by Epicurus, who found nobility and wisdom in mere pleasure and good company.
Zeno of Citium & Stoicism
Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 BCE), a Phoenician living in the capital of ancient Cyprus, today the city of Larnaca on the South coast of the island. While I will continue to refer to him as simply ‘Zeno’ from here on out, remember that this is a different Zeno than the Eleatic follower of Parmenides who dazzled others with paradoxes.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno the Stoic from Citium was a merchant who survived a shipwreck and found himself in Athens. Recall that Phoenicia was at the West end of the silk road, and traded many goods including spices from India and silks of China to the Greeks and Egyptians. After wandering into a bookstore (presumably after catching his breath and allowing his clothes to dry, though it is amusing to imagine him walking straight out of the ocean, through the gates of Athens and into the bookstore, a soggy squeak with each footstep), he found works about Socrates and asked the shop owner where he could find such a teacher. The owner pointed to the most famous Cynic in Athens, Crates of Thebes, who happened to be passing by, and said, “Follow that man”. Clearly, the owner saw Diogenes and the Cynics as the true inheritors of Socrates’ teaching, like Diogenes himself. If the owner had sided with Plato, he would have directed Zeno to Plato’s Academy.
Zeno practiced being a Cynic under Crates, living simply in public without luxury. Once, Crates had Zeno carry a pot of lentil soup around Athens all day, until Crates suddenly smashed the pot, covering a surprised Zeno in soup in the midst of a crowd. When Zeno began to run away embarrassed, Crates called out, “Why are you running, little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has happened to you!”, attempting to teach the young Zeno that the things and responsibilities we bear can suddenly be destroyed, and the judgements of others are not to be feared. Later Stoics saw themselves as the inheritors of the Cynical tradition.
After studying Cynicism as well as Platonism, Pythagoreanism and other schools of thought, Zeno began teaching in the Athenian marketplace atop the Stoa Poikile, the raised “painted porch” a public stage painted with murals depicting the great battles involving the Athenians. It is from this porch that ‘Stoicism’ gets its name. Zeno’s lectures drew many followers, including rich patrons and kings. He was offered Athenian citizenship, but he declined, fearing it would betray and anger his fellow Phoenicians.
Zeno was known for being sullen and quiet, preferring the company of a few or burying himself in his studies to socializing in large groups. According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno avoided crowds, would walk and talk with only two or three others at a time, and would sit at the end of benches such that he was not surrounded. If many people crowded around him asking for answers, he would begin charging them larger and larger sums until they left him alone.
Zeno was also known for speaking briefly, and chastising others who spoke at length without getting to the point. After his follower Ariston had been talking at length, Zeno said, “It would be impossible for you to speak this way if your father had not been drunk when he made you”. When another young follower was speaking too long, Zeno said, “Your ears have run down into your throat”. When yet another young follower was making unfounded arguments, Zeno said, “This is why we have two ears and only one mouth”. He is also said, “It is better to trip with the feet than with the tongue”.
Like Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and later Stoics divided philosophy into three branches: Physics, Logic and Ethics. According to Zeno and the Stoic conception of Physics, the cosmos is a living, rational god. All things are equally a part of this supreme being, a position known as pantheism which was denounced as a heresy by the Catholic Church in the middle ages. The Stoics were influenced by Heraclitus, who they interpreted as saying that the cosmos was not merely a fire, but a single mind which perceives itself entirely as everything.
Christianity was influenced by Stoicism, and by Heraclitus via Stoicism, but the orthodox Catholic position, as well as the position of many American Protestants today, is that God is not identical with the world but removed from it while acting through it, a position that is more Neoplatonic than Stoic (recall Plato’s Timaeus, and the difference between the One and the Demiurge). For Zeno and the Stoics, there is no difference between the One and the Demiurge, as Heraclitus’ fire is not only the cosmos but the craftsman, thinking itself, forming itself and knowing itself as all things.
Recently, some right wing evangelists have called environmentalism a new pantheism, a dangerous heretical force of the Left (such as in the film Resisting the Green Dragon, an evangelical film warning of the corruptive influence of environmentalism among the youth and the Democrats). New-Agers, Wiccans and some Unitarians would agree that they are attempting to revive pre-Christian pantheism of the Celts and Germanic tribes, but they would certainly argue that they are worshiping the same god as the Christians, and not the devil.
Also like Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that the soul is made of fire, and that the elements undergo cycles of transformation and destruction, each dying to give birth to the next. The reason that we see and perceive is that our mind/soul is akin to the pure primordial fire itself, making us an inferior and limited copy of itself. Unlike Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that the cosmic fire was actually aether, the fiery air that Aristotle says makes up the heavenly bodies, which then condenses into fire, which further condenses to make the additional three elements.
Unlike the Pyrrhonians and the Epicureans, who point to the suffering of the world as the problem of evil, Zeno and the Stoics believed that the cosmos is rational and good, preserving what is good and dissolving what is bad, much like the Pythagorean forking Y. While there is some room for free will and choice, Stoics placed value in acceptance of fate. The cosmos works things out in the long run, even if they are difficult in a given situation, and so the wise individual must bear their fate without discomfort or fear, just as the Cynics such as Crates practiced by exposing themselves to the elements. In one story told by Diogenes Laertius, Zeno discovered someone attempting to steal from him, and as he beat him, the thief, who seems familiar with Stoicism, protested, “I was destined to steal!”, to which Zeno replied, “Yes, and to be beaten!”.
For Zeno and the Stoics, studying Logic was important not only for investigating and arguing but for avoiding deception, to prevent being persuaded by the faulty arguments of others. Unlike Pyrrhonians, Zeno believed that some matters are incomprehensible but others are comprehensible, and it is the goal of philosophy to refrain from pursuing the incomprehensible and pursue and grasp the comprehensible. This is similar to the Prayer of St. Francis, which my mother had hanging on our wall in a Salvadorean style when I was young, which read, “Grant me the strength to change what I can, the patience to endure what I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”. A Pyrrhonian would deny the difference between the incomprehensible and the comprehensible, and argue that all things are both incomprehensible and comprehensible, and yet all things should be pursued and investigated.
Zeno taught his stages of argument via logic by using his hand as a metaphor. Stretching out his hand, palm open as if to receive, he would say, “Perception is like this”. Closing his fingers slightly, he would say, “Assent is like this”. Zeno considered assent, or agreement, to be a free act, such that we can choose whether or not to agree with our perceptions. Closing his hand into a fist, Zeno would say, “Comprehension is like this”, and then clasping his fist in his other hand, he would say, “Knowledge is like this”. Zeno believed that only the truly wise attain knowledge, similar to Plato’s few who make it out of the cave in his Republic. Heraclitus, Sextus and other skeptical thinkers would deny the difference between opinion and knowledge, and might suggest to Zeno that he need never completely enclose his fist to grasp things.
In Ethics, Zeno taught that one should live a simple life, with one’s reason in accord with the Logos of the cosmos (another borrowing from Heraclitus). Like Socrates, Stoics believed that all evil is caused by ignorance, when our logic does not match the cosmic Logos. A simple and reasonable life, in which one accepts one’s place and fate without excessive desire, brings tranquility and happiness. We still use the word ‘Stoic’ to mean straight-faced, showing little emotion even in difficulty. Recall that Diogenes, the original Cynic, used to walk in snow and roll in hot sand such that he would not suffer from heat or cold. Zeno taught that desires, fear and pain come about when we are not in accord with the way of things. Several scholars have pointed out that this sounds very much like Chinese Daoism. Virtue flows naturally from following the cosmos, vice from deviating. Paradoxically, freedom is obtained by submitting to to fate, freedom arising from accepting what must be.
In the Hagakure (In the Shadow of the Leaves) of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, one of the central sources of Japanese Samurai culture, he says there is something to be learned in a rainstorm that applies to everything in life. If a person doesn’t want to get wet, they hurry and try to walk under shelter but get soaked anyway. The person who knows and accepts they are going to get soaked gets just as wet, but walks without fear and concern. Accepting the inevitability of mistakes, pain and betrayal frees the mind to see the immediate.
Not only should one practice thinking using dialectic to be logical, and thus in accord with the cosmos, but Stoics, like Buddhists, believe in practicing meditation exercises such as focusing on the present moment, compassion for others and contemplating death. These clear the mind of problematic thoughts and attachments, allowing the mind to develop and achieve tranquility.
Unlike Epicurus, Zeno argued that pleasure is dangerous, a negative force that impeded the achievement of tranquility. Epicurus would reply that it is desire that leads us to pursue destructive short term pleasures, not pleasure itself which flows naturally from the good life. Zeno argued that we should replace desire with will, fear with caution, and pleasure with joy. In Indian thought, there is a similar distinction between pleasure one gets from particular desired things and joy one gets from simply being, from being tranquil beyond desire. Epicurus could agree with this, as could Aristotle, who would see each negative term as an excess or lack, and each positive term as a practice of moderation.
Also like Epicurus, Zeno placed a value on friendship, even if he was likely uncomfortable having many friends in the same room with him. When asked what a friend is, Zeno replied, “Another I”. A Mayan wisdom proverb similarly reads, “You are my other self“. Just as we should be one with the cosmos, not deviating from its path with our desire, we should identify with other individuals, such that our desires do not deviate from the common good. Additionally, Stoics preached egalitarianism, that all are equal. Like Epicureanism, Stoicism was open to slaves, such as Epictetus, who we will discuss soon. While Zeno did not say that the institution of slavery should be abolished, he taught that the wise consider slaves to be equal to themselves, even if each has a different lot in life to accept with stoic resolution. Later Stoics argued that it is proper to free slaves upon one’s death. Like Diogenes, Stoics also believed in cosmopolitanism, that all people of the world are equals.
Diogenes Laertius claims that Zeno died by holding his breath, which he also says about Diogenes the Cynic, both being in all likelihood physically impossible. As with many other ancient Greek philosophers, only fragments of Zeno’s many works come down to us through quotations in the texts of other ancient Greek authors, particularly those of the later Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. However, before considering these Stoics of the later period, the only period from which we have surviving Stoic texts, we must consider the early Stoic systematizer Chrysippus, whose name sounds a bit like ‘kissy-puss’.
Chrysippus (279 – 206 BCE) was the third master of the Stoic school, after Zeno and Cleanthes, but he is known as the second patriarch of Stoicism because he wrote extensively systematizing Zeno’s teachings, saying to Cleanthes, “Give me the principles, and I will find the proofs myself”. Originally from Ionia, he moved to Athens as a young man where he found Cleanthes and the Stoics. He wrote hundreds of works, all of which are lost, only fragments surviving in the works of others.
While Chrysippus also developed the physics and ethics of Stoicism, he is most famous for his contributions to Logic. The Stoics learned much logic from Aristotle, but they found his syllogistic forms insufficient for dealing with all meaningful propositions. While Aristotle’s syllogisms make use of ‘If’ and ‘then’, they do not deal with common conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, and ‘because’. Modern European logic, based on the work of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, made use of these sorts of conjunctions. Above is Wittgenstein’s truth table for demonstrating how ‘and‘ works. If p and q, which stand for complete statements, are both true, then “p and q” is also true. If either p or q or both are false, then “p and q” is also false.
Chrysippus also used conjunctions to make probabilistic statements, such as ‘more likely than’ and ‘less likely than’. He also studied paradoxes, like those of the Eleatic Zeno, and logical fallacies. In ancient Greece and Rome, Chrysippus was as famous a logician as Aristotle for his work, but because the Neo-Platonists took up the logic of Aristotle, Plato’s student, and not Stoic logic, it was Aristotle’s logic that became famous in the Islamic Golden Age and Medieval Europe. It was only with the development of modern logic that Chrysippus’ genius was again recognized.
Epictetus (55 – 135 CE) was a Stoic slave who lived in Rome. His master was secretary to the infamous emperor Nero, who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. After acquiring his freedom, he taught Stoicism in Rome until philosophers were banned from Rome by Emperor Domitian in 89 CE, a ploy to get rid of rivals who happened to be adherents of Stoicism. Moving to Nicopolis, a Greek city between Athens and Rome, Epictetus set up a Stoic school where he taught until his death decades later.
Origen, the early Christian historian and philosopher, tells a story about Epictetus when he was still a slave that may be mere legend but became a famous illustration of the aims of Stoicism retold by later philosophers including Hegel. The story goes that once, when Epictetus’ master became angry (presumably at Epictetus for maintaining a stoic attitude in a heated moment), his master broke his leg to punish him. Epictetus, undisturbed by the pain or condition of his leg, responded by criticizing his master for irrationally destroying his own property. Epictetus asked his master how he could hope to be an effective slave with a broken leg. It was not the pain or the imposition that bothered Epictetus, but the illogical nature of the act which did not serve a rational and objective purpose. Note that Epictetus does not say that slavery is irrational, but using slavery inefficiently is irrational, is not in accord with the cosmic Logos. Epictetus was said to have a lame leg by various sources, but, according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Epictetus was born with the deformity.
Epictetus taught that, whenever we are disturbed, we should say to our negative emotion, “You are an impression, nothing more”, and then decide calmly whether or not we can change the situation for the better. If we can, we should consider what is best for everyone. If we cannot, we should accept our fate stoically. This is similar to Pyrrhonian skepticism, insofar as Sextus would say to all impressions, “You are an appearance, and I do not have to believe you”. Stoics like Epictetus would not be skeptical of all impressions, only negative emotions that arise when we are not in tune with the way of the cosmos.
Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 CE), Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, was heavily influenced by Epictetus. Educated by Greek tutors in Rome, Aurelius wrote his Meditations, his philosophical work, one of the finest of ancient Rome, in Greek. Here are some quotes from his Meditations that serve as good examples of Stoic philosophy:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be ungrateful, violent, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and uncharitable. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of good and evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own, not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine…I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no one will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with them or hate them, for we have come into the world to work together.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.
The best revenge is to be unlike the one who performed the injury.
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.
Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.
Do every act of your life as if it were your last.