A brief history of stoicism

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Introduction

For stoics, the ultimate goal of our life is eudaimonia: a state of contentment and flourishing, which can be achieved by living in accordance with nature. Living with nature means both fulfilling your role in the cosmos (which is closely related to notions of fate and providence) and living as a human being. Because human beings differentiate themselves in their nature from other living beings by their ability to use reason, they should act according to their reason. In short, we must act rationally and not let our passions fool us (apatheia). External circumstances are neither good nor bad, so it is best that we are indifferent towards them. This goal of eudaimonia and the methods of reaching it, have been developed over thousands over years. In this post, I will provide a short overview of the golden era of stoicism: the classical period between 300 BC and 200 AD, which is usually divided in three periods: the early stoa, middle stoa and late stoa. The late stoa is best know, because the only sources still in existence are from that period.

1. Early stoa (300 – 100 BC): Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus

The school of stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC in Athens. He opposed the popular school of epicurism, founded by Epicurus, who believed in a materialistic world and an accidental nature, driven by pain and pleasure. Zeno developed his school of stoicism from (amongst others) the ideas of Cynicism, which prioritize virtue and simplicity. He started his teaching in the Stoa Poikile (the Painted Porch) in the center of Athens. This stoa was a covered colonnade, publicly accessible, and caused the name of his philosophy: stoicism. Zeno lay the foundation of stoicism and had an enormous influence in the school. He maintained a distinction of stoic philosophy in three areas: logic, physics and ethics. Today, most emphasis is on ethics, even though Zeno would argue that ethics must always be supported by physics and logic.

Zeno was succeeded by his pupil Cleanthes, who mostly followed the teachings of Zeno and added little of his own. The third leader (scholarch) of the stoic school was Chrysippus of Soli. He greatly developed the three parts of the philosophy, most notably by developing a system of propositional logic. By expanding and solidifying the foundations that Zeno lay down, Chrysippus ensured the position of stoicism as one the strongest philosophies in history. After him, the school was subsequently led by Zeno of Tarsus, Diogenes of Babylon, and Antipater of Tarsus.

2. Middle stoa (100 BC – 0): Panaetius, Posidonius, Cicero and Cato

Beginning from approximately 100 BC, the center of stoicism started to shift from Athens to Rhodos and Rome. The seventh scholarch, Panaetius, was more flexible in his beliefs than the strict Zeno. He simplified stoic ideas about physics and was less interested in logic. This moved the stoic philosophy closer to neoplatonism and made it more accessible. He also introduced stoicism to Rome. Because of the more eclectic character of the middle stoa, along with differences in opinion, Panaetius is considered to be the last scholarch. There no longer was a unified and undisputed school of stoicism, but the stoic philosophy would prove to be able to withstand the test of time.

Posidonius reinforced the ideas of Panaetius and moved even closer to Plato and Aristotle (and could even be considered to be a neoplatonist). In Rome, Cicero and Cato the Younger adopted stoicism. Especially Cato, known for his uncompromising moral integrity and his austere way of life, may be considered as a symbol of stoicism. He seems closer associated with the traditionalist teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus than with the eclectic philosophy of Panaetius and Posidonius.

3. Late stoa (0 – 200 AD): Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius

In the Roman imperial period, the primary area of interest for stoic philosophers was ethics. Logic and physics were not studied as much anymore. The late stoa is the best known period of stoicism, since it is the only period from which full original writings have survived. One of these writings is from Seneca, who used specific day-to-day events to discuss moral issues in his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (moral letters to Lucilius). He is widely praised for his personal style of writing and his Epistulae are still read today. Another stoic author, Epictetus, is known for his Discourses and the Enchiridion (Handbook), which were published by his pupil Arrian. If you are looking for an introduction to stoicism, Epictetus’ Handbook is a good start. This is also the reason that my first series on this blog is devoted to the Handbook (you can find it here). While Epictetus was born as a slave, perhaps the most famous stoic was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. His most prominent work is Ta eis heauton (To himself), which he originally wrote as a personal journal during his military campaign in Germania. It is now commonly known as Meditations. Meditations is probably the most read and discussed stoic work, and still inspires people around the world today. Notions like self-discipline, reason and world citizenship are still relevant concepts in our modern world. Aurelius’ Meditations is also used as a source for personal improvement and growth and has aroused renewed interest over the last years. It is considered to be the last major work of the late stoa.

Conclusion

From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, the stoic philosophy has developed itself as a way of life that has proven to be timeless and useful. It inspired slaves and emperors, businessmen and athletes. While the basic tenets of the old stoa of Zeno have remained the same, middle stoa philosophers moved it from the eccentric to the eclectic. Ultimately, late stoa writers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius provided us with well-developed accounts on stoicism. But although we are all part of the same cosmos, every person is different and every time has its own accents and priorities. I heartily invite you to find your own way of living, by using the works of our great predecessors. We are all students of stoicism: we are together on our Stoic Journey.

 

 

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