Greek Philosophy – The Stoics
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.
I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.
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.
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
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.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
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.