Philosophy named from the Stoa, or portico, in Athens where its adherents gathered.
It was founded by Zeno of Citium (c.336-c.264 BC) – different from Zeno the Elea – but considerably developed by his successors, notably: Chrysippus (c.280-c.206 BC), Posidonius (C.135-C.51 BC), Seneca ‘the Younger’ (c.4 BC-AD 65), Epictetus (C. AD 50-138).
The emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-80) was its last famous adherent, and Cicero (106-43 BC) is one of our main sources.
It rivalled Epicureanism and ancient skepticism through much of its history, and eventually gave way to neo-Platonism and Christianity, both of which it heavily influenced.
The Stoics divided philosophy into three branches, logic, physics, and ethics. In logic they went substantially beyond Aristotle (384-322 BC), inventing the propositional calculus.
In physics (which included metaphysics) they developed a pantheistic but materialist and determinist system contrasting with Epicurean atomism. In ethics they aimed at self-sufficiency and acceptance of fate, treating ‘virtue’ as the only real value, though among the remaining things (‘indif-ferents’) some were ‘preferred’.
A A Long and D N Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987)
Stoicism was originally known as “Zenonism”, after the founder Zeno of Citium. However, this name was soon dropped, likely because the Stoics did not consider their founders to be perfectly wise, and to avoid the risk of the philosophy becoming a cult of personality.
The name “Stoicism” derives from the Stoa Poikile (Ancient Greek: ἡ ποικίλη στοά), or “painted porch”, a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens, where Zeno and his followers gathered to discuss their ideas.
Sometimes Stoicism is therefore referred to as “The Stoa”, or the philosophy of “The Porch”.
The word “stoic” commonly refers to someone who is indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy. The modern usage as a “person who represses feelings or endures patiently” was first cited in 1579 as a noun and in 1596 as an adjective. In contrast to the term “Epicurean”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Stoicism notes, “the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins.”
Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.— Epictetus, Discourses 1.15.2, Robin Hard revised translation
The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, constructed from ideals of logic, monistic 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). Stoicism’s primary aspect involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.” This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,” and to accept even slaves as “equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature”.
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”. 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,” 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).
Beginning around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (“Painted Porch”), from which his philosophy got its name. 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.
Zeno’s ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno’s most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for molding what is now called Stoicism. Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.
Scholars usually divide the history of Stoicism into three phases:
- Early Stoa, from Zeno’s founding to Antipater.
- Middle Stoa, including Panaetius and Posidonius.
- Late Stoa, including Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
No complete works survive from the first two phases of Stoicism. Only Roman texts from the Late Stoa survive.
Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire, to the point where, in the words of Gilbert Murray “nearly all the successors of Alexander […] professed themselves Stoics.”
Diodorus Cronus, who was one of Zeno’s teachers, is considered the philosopher who first introduced and developed an approach to logic now known as propositional logic, which is based on statements or propositions, rather than terms, making it very different from Aristotle’s term logic. Later, Chrysippus developed a system that became known as Stoic logic and included a deductive system, Stoic Syllogistic, which was considered a rival to Aristotle’s Syllogistic (see Syllogism). New interest in Stoic logic came in the 20th century, when important developments in logic were based on propositional logic. Susanne Bobzien wrote, “The many close similarities between Chrysippus’s philosophical logic and that of Gottlob Frege are especially striking.”
Bobzien also notes that “Chrysippus wrote over 300 books on logic, on virtually any topic logic today concerns itself with, including speech act theory, sentence analysis, singular and plural expressions, types of predicates, indexicals, existential propositions, sentential connectives, negations, disjunctions, conditionals, logical consequence, valid argument forms, theory of deduction, propositional logic, modal logic, tense logic, epistemic logic, logic of suppositions, logic of imperatives, ambiguity and logical paradoxes.”
The Stoics held that all beings (ὄντα)—though not all things (τινά)—are material. Besides the existing beings they admitted four incorporeals (asomata): time, place, void, and sayable. They were held to be just ‘subsisting’ while such a status was denied to universals. Thus, they accepted Anaxagoras’s idea (as did Aristotle) that if an object is hot, it is because some part of a universal heat body had entered the object. But, unlike Aristotle, they extended the idea to cover all accidents. Thus if an object is red, it would be because some part of a universal red body had entered the object.
They held that there were four categories.
- substance (ὑποκείμενον)
- The primary matter, formless substance, (ousia) that things are made of
- quality (ποιόν)
- The way matter is organized to form an individual object; in Stoic physics, a physical ingredient (pneuma: air or breath), which informs the matter
- somehow disposed (πως ἔχον)
- Particular characteristics, not present within the object, such as size, shape, action, and posture
Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iii. 11
- Particular characteristics, not present within the object, such as size, shape, action, and posture
- Somehow disposed in relation to something (πρός τί πως ἔχον)
- Characteristics related to other phenomena, such as the position of an object within time and space relative to other objects
Stoics outlined what we have control over categories of our own action, thoughts and reaction. The opening paragraph of The Enchiridion states the categories as: “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.” These suggest a space that is within our own control.
The Stoics propounded that knowledge can be attained through the use of reason. Truth can be distinguished from fallacy—even if, in practice, only an approximation can be made. According to the Stoics, the senses constantly receive sensations: pulsations that pass from objects through the senses to the mind, where they leave an impression in the imagination (phantasiai) (an impression arising from the mind was called a phantasma).
The mind has the ability to judge (συγκατάθεσις, synkatathesis)—approve or reject—an impression, enabling it to distinguish a true representation of reality from one that is false. Some impressions can be assented to immediately, but others can achieve only varying degrees of hesitant approval, which can be labeled belief or opinion (doxa). It is only through reason that we gain clear comprehension and conviction (katalepsis). Certain and true knowledge (episteme), achievable by the Stoic sage, can be attained only by verifying the conviction with the expertise of one’s peers and the collective judgment of humankind.
According to the Stoics, the Universe is a material reasoning substance (logos), known as God or Nature, which was divided into two classes: the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter, which “lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion”. The active substance, which can be called Fate or Universal Reason (logos), is an intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter:
The universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.— Chrysippus, in Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 39
Everything is subject to the laws of Fate, for the Universe acts according to its own nature, and the nature of the passive matter it governs. The souls of humans and animals are emanations from this primordial Fire, and are, likewise, subject to Fate:
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iv. 40
Individual souls are perishable by nature, and can be “transmuted and diffused, assuming a fiery nature by being received into the seminal reason (“logos spermatikos”) of the Universe”. Since right Reason is the foundation of both humanity and the universe, it follows that the goal of life is to live according to Reason, that is, to live a life according to Nature.
Stoic theology is a fatalistic and naturalistic pantheism: God is never fully transcendent but always immanent, and identified with Nature. Abrahamic religions personalize God as a world-creating entity, but Stoicism equates God with the totality of the universe; according to Stoic cosmology, which is very similar to the Hindu conception of existence, there is no absolute start to time, as it is considered infinite and cyclic. Similarly, the space and Universe have neither start nor end, rather they are cyclical. The current Universe is a phase in the present cycle, preceded by an infinite number of Universes, doomed to be destroyed (“ekpyrōsis”, conflagration) and re-created again, and to be followed by another infinite number of Universes. Stoicism considers all existence as cyclical, the cosmos as eternally self-creating and self-destroying (see also Eternal return).
Stoicism, just like Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, does not posit a beginning or end to the Universe. According to the Stoics, the logos was the active reason or anima mundi pervading and animating the entire Universe. It was conceived as material and is usually identified with God or Nature. The Stoics also referred to the seminal reason (“logos spermatikos”), or the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos, which is the primordial Fire and reason that controls and sustains the Universe.
The first philosophers to explicitly describe nominalist arguments were the Stoics, especially Chrysippus.
Ancient stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts than today. The word “stoic” has since 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. Logic, reflection, and focus were the methods of such self-discipline, temperance is split into self-control, discipline, and modesty.
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”, that is, “passively” reacting to external events, which is 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 the correct judgment in the same way that passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, “without passion”) or peace of mind, 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 using logic and understanding the processes of nature—the logos or universal reason, inherent in all things. According to reason and virtue, living according to reason and virtue 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 (aretai) of Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato (Republic IV. 426–435):
- Wisdom (Greek: φρόνησις “phronesis” or σοφία “sophia“, Latin: prudentia or sapientia)
- Courage (Greek: ανδρεία “andreia“, Latin: fortitudo)
- Justice (Greek: δικαιοσύνη “dikaiosyne“, Latin: iustitia)
- Temperance (Greek: σωφροσύνη “sophrosyne“, Latin: temperantia)
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of unkindness. The solution to evil and unhappiness then is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one’s own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.
The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life. Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato’s self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices. Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one’s social duty.
In an article for ABC News, Mick Mulroy the former Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Middle East under Secretary Jim Mattis and also a retired U.S. Marine, advocated for using stoicism as the philosophy for the U.S. Military due to its views on controlling anger and fear as well as the stoic concept of universal brotherhood.