Stoicism is a philosophy of abstention, or self-restraint. It arose early in the third century B.C. Its founder, Zeno, came from Cyprus, although, says Bertrand Russell, in “Stoicism,” most of the earliest Stoics came from Syria. Much later, most Stoics were Roman.
It is important to remember that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, is known as Zeno of Citium, and he lived from 334-262 B.C. He has no connection with the earlier, famous Zeno of Elea (490-430 B.C.) a philosopher who was known for his paradoxes.
The Theology of Stoicism Changes Over Time
Bertrand Russell, explains: “Stoicism, while in origin contemporaneous with Epicureanism, had a longer history and less constancy in its doctrine.”
Russell points out that the doctrines of Zeno in the early third century B.C. were very different from those of the noted Roman Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, in the late second century B.C.
Over time, the Stoics absorbed ideas from Plato, and eventually, when Marcus Aurelius became ruler of Rome, there were few traces of materialism in Stoic theory. Their theology became tightly focussed on ethical issues.
Marcus Aurelius was known as “The Philosopher-King.”
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Unfortunately, we have very little available from the earliest development of the Stoics, at best mere fragments. Later Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – produced more substantial bodies of work.
The Root of All Suffering, According to Zeno
Founder Zeno of Citium was a true materialist, who believed that emotion was the root of all suffering and that men who succumbed to their feelings were at the mercy of many external negative forces.
Only by resisting emotional involvement and exerting rigid self-control, was a man master of his own fate, and capable of controlling his destiny. In other words, Stoicism was a reaction against Determinism, the theory that we cannot control how we behave and what happens to us.
The resistance to emotion embraces happiness as well as the negative emotions. We should not allow even happiness to disturb our equilibrium.
Russell includes a charming, short piece of dialogue in his book between Zeno and a Sceptic, where Zeno is insisting on the existence of the real world.
“What do you mean by real?” asked the Sceptic.
“I mean solid and material. I mean that this table is solid matter.”
“And God,” asked the Sceptic, “and the Soul?”
“Perfectly solid,” said Zeno, “more solid than anything, than the table.” (sic.)”
Rather scathingly, Russell says, “It is evident, at this point, Zeno, like many others, was hurried by anti-metaphysical zeal into a metaphysic of his own.” However, Russell says he finds the Stoic philosophy “emotionally narrow and in a certain sense, fanatical.”
Most rulers during these times found Stoic philosophy appealing.
The Logos and Universal Rightness
In his Chapter, “Hellenism,” in Sophie’s World, Justin Gaardner says: “Like Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that everyone was a part of the same common sense – or “logos.” They thought that each person was like a world in miniature, or “microcosmos” which is a reflection of the “macrocosmos.”
From this central belief, Stoicism flowed effortlessly into the concept of “universal rightness,” or “natural law.”
This natural law is a timeless law, a law steeped in reason and is unchangeable.
“In this,” says Gaardner, “the Stoics sided with Socrates against the Sophists.”
(A sophist’s sole purpose is to win the argument, not to establish what is actually true.)
Monism – The Oneness of Everything
The erasure of the difference between an individual person and the entire universe denies conflict between spirit and matter because there can be one nature, and one nature only. We call this idea “monism,” and it is at odds with Plato’s dualism, which is a two-sided reality.
Death and sickness are natural processes and man needs to accept that they are just following unbreakable laws.
“Nothing happens accidentally,” explains Gaardner, “Everything happens through necessity , so it is of little use to complain when fate comes knocking at the door.”
It appears, therefore, that while we can learn to control our feelings and not succumb to the charge of acting through determinism, the external world still has dominion over us.
The Stoics Borrow from the Cynics
It’s clear that the Stoics drew many of their beliefs from the Cynics, who also said external events were not important. Zeno favoured the Cynics above all other philosophical schools of the time. In fact, the Cynics were largely responsible for the upsurge in Stoicism in Athens around 300 B.C.
Zeno himself had joined the Cynics in Athens after being shipwrecked. “He liked to talk to his disciples under a portico, from which came the term ‘Stoic’ from the Greek word ‘stoa’ meaning ‘portico,’” explains Gaardner.
Adulation for Socrates, Put on Trial for “Subversion”
The Stoics, claims Russell, greatly admired Socrates. “…his attitude at the time of his trial, his refusal to escape, his calmness in the face of death, and his contention that the perpetrator of injustice injures himself more than his victim.”
Today, we know Socrates, (470-399 B.C.) as the founding father of moral philosophy, and his influence has had a resounding impact on Western philosophy. Socrates was condemned to death because, claimed the authorities, he was becoming a dangerous influence on the young nobility of the city of Athens. As a result, the Athenians brought Socrates to trial for “impiety and corruption” says Jeremy Harwood in “Socrates,” in his book Philosophy – 100 Great Thinkers.
This great and courageous man could have saved himself by agreeing to desist from his philosophy and retire into private life. No matter what his judges said, he refused to co-operate or recant. Condemned to death, he committed suicide by drinking hemlock.
This was his legacy, Harwood quotes:
“His core beliefs – that no one who preserves their personal integrity can come to any long-term harm, and that no one knowingly does wrong – stand as ethical beacons that have retained their importance right up to the present day, as has the Socratic method he devised.”
Socrates did not write anything down, but devoted all of his career to debate and public discussion, the contents of which were unconventional in content. He was not interested in metaphysics but in practicalities, primarily in helping people to understand what is the best way to live.
Bedbugs Are Quite Useful Though!
Although there is much doom and gloom about Stoicism, they did, at least, believe that everything was useful and had a purpose.
“Some animals are good to eat, some afford tests of courage, even bed bugs are useful, because they help us to wake up in the morning and not lie in bed too long,” quotes Russell, referring to one doctrine Zeno believed.
Most importantly, in this philosophy, God is not a separate being from the world, but its Soul and its Divine Fire. Further, the Stoics believed that everything that has happened before will happen over and over again.
From the scholar, Cicero, we learn that Zeno believed in astrology and that he “…attributed a divine potency to the stars.” Cicero was a most distinguished orator and philosopher who helped to encourage Greek culture and learning. He lived from 106 to 43 B.C. and we can thank him for bringing to the world the concept of humanism. “That is the view of life that has the individual as its central focus,” says Gaardner.
Seneca the Younger
A few years later, the Stoic, Seneca the Younger, (4B.C. to 65 A.D.) claimed that mankind is “holy.” The humanists today use this quotation as a slogan.
In contrast to the above, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes a somewhat cynical comment by Seneca the Younger:
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
A revival of the Stoic doctrine of “natural right” reappeared in the 16th to 18th centuries and this extended to the belief that all humans are of equal value. The statesman Marcus Aurelius upheld a policy of equal rights for all people, the same law for everyone, freedom of speech and a government that respects those it rules over.
Russell acknowledges that this was not consistently carried out through Roman times, but it did help to ease the lives of the women and slaves.
Stoic thought also became firmly embedded in Christian theology.
“And when, at last,” says Russell, “in the seventeenth century , the opportunity came to combat despotism effectually, the Stoic doctrines of natural law and natural equality, in their Christian dress, acquired a practical force which, in antiquity, not even an emperor could give to them.”
Today we know that from these ancient beginnings sprung major influences that impacted on Christian theology and on the doctrine of Humanism. Sadly, it is also true that Marcus Aurelius was instrumental in promoting the persecution of Christians because he perceived them as a threat to the stability of society.
Yet, he did this in direct opposition to his philosophical principles, one of which Jeremy Harwood quotes:
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.”