Philosophy & Religion Mores



By William R. Connolly, University of Evansville
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Stoicism was one of the most important and influential traditions in the philosophy of the Hellenistic world. It claimed the adherence of a large portion of the educated persons in the Graeco-Roman world. It had considerable influence on the development of early Christianity. The Roman Stoics, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius were widely read and absorbed by the Western cultural tradition. Indeed, the very word 'stoic' has, in the popular sense, become synonymous with 'philosophical' and has come to represent that courage and calmness in the face of adverse and trying circumstances which was the hallmark of the ancient Stoics.


A restored stoa and famous Stoics.

(Click on any image to see a larger version)

Stoa in Athens
A restored stoa
Bust of Zeno
Zeno of Citium
Bust of Chrysippus
Chrysippus of Soli
Bust of Seneca
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurleius


It is one of the ironies of history that Alexander, once a student of Aristotle, was in large part responsible for undermining the Hellenic political climate to which the classical Greek thought of Plato and Aristotle was inextricably tied. As the free city-state of Hellenic Greece gave way to the empire of the Hellenistic world, the sharp distinction between Greek and barbarian was replaced by the more cosmopolitan view reflective of Stoicism. Persons were less citizens of their particular city-states than citizens of the empire. It is to be expected that philosophy would reflect this change, and that is what we find in the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period. Interest shifted from the speculative systems of classical Greece to a concern for the individual's well-being in the more complex cultural environment of the Hellenistic period. Given its particularly ethical interest, it is not surprising that Stoicism borrowed many of its cosmological and metaphysical ideas from earlier, pre-Socratic philosophers. While the Epicureans adopted the atomism of Democritus, the Stoics borrowed their cosmology from Heraclitus.

Its founder, Zeno (c 336-264 BCE) (not to be confused with the Eleatic Zeno), discussed philosophical ideas at the agora in the Stoa Poikile, Painted Colonnade, or porch and thus his followers came to be called Stoics or "philosophers of the porch". Like so many others, Zeno was impressed with the thought and character of Socrates. Interpreting the Socratic model from the point of view of the Cynics, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and Crates of Thebes, of whom Zeno was for a time a disciple, Zeno admired most in Socrates his strength of character and independence of external circumstances. From Zeno's point of view, virtue resided not in external fortune, wealth, honor, and the like, but in self-sufficiency and a kind of rational ordering of intention.

Principal Ideas

Later Stoics of the Hellenistic period, including Cleanthes of Assos (c 331-233 BCE) and Chrysippus (c281-208 BCE), developed Stoicism as a systematic body of doctrine, complete with a system of logic, epistemology, and cosmology. In logic, the Stoics developed the logic of propositions more recently formalized by Frege and Bertrand Russell. Chrysippus was recognized by his contemporaries as the equal of Aristotle in logic. Stoic epistemology was decidedly empiricist and nominalist in spirit. They rejected both Plato's and Aristotle's notions of form. There are no abstract universals, either apart from particulars, as Plato would have it, or in particular substances, as Aristotle held. Only particular things exist and our knowledge of them is based on the impressions they make upon the soul. Our knowledge of particular objects is therefore based onsense perception, as is our knowledge of our mental states and activities, our soul itself being a material thing.

Metaphysically, the Stoics were materialists. While all that exists is material, nevertheless there are twoprinciples of reality. The passive principle is matter devoid of quality. Borrowing from Heraclitus, the Stoics identified the active principle of reality with the Logos, Reason, or God. Unlike later Christian versions, the Stoic view of the Logos is both materialistic and pantheistic. God has no existence distinct from the rational order of nature and should not be construed as a personal, transcendent deity of the sort essential to later Western theism.

The Stoics were determinists, even fatalists, holding that whatever happens happens necessarily. Not only is the world such that all events are determined by prior events, but the universe is a perfect, rational whole. For all their interests in logic and speculative philosophy, the primary focus of Stoicism is practical and ethical. Knowledge of nature is of instrumental value only. Its value is entirely determined by its role in fostering the life of virtue understood as living in accord with nature. This practical aspect of Stoicism is especially prevalent in the Roman Stoic, Epictetus (c 50-138 CE), who developed the ethical and religious side of Stoicism. This practical side of Stoicism can be understood in terms of a number of key ideas taught by Epictetus. The life of virtue is the life in accordance with nature. Since for the Stoic nature is rational and perfect, the ethical life is a life lived in accordance with the rational order of things. "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well" (Handbook, ch.8).

Essential to appreciating this Stoic theme is the recognition of the difference between those things that are within our power and those not within our power.

Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions--in short, whatever is our doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our doing...So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both the gods and men.

(Handbook, ch. 1)

The only thing over which we have control, therefore, is the faculty of judgment. Since anything else, including all external affairs and acts of others, are not within our power, we should adopt toward them the attitude of indifference. Toward all that is not within our power we should be apathetic.

What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared so to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death is that it is dreadful, that is what is dreadful.

(Handbook, ch. 5)

To avoid unhappiness, frustration, and disappointment, we, therefore, need to do two things: control those things that are within our power (namely our beliefs, judgments, desires, and attitudes) and be indifferent or apathetic to those things which are not in our power (namely, things external to us).

Toward those unfortunate things that are not within our power which we cannot avoid (for example, death and the actions and opinions of others) the proper attitude is one of apathy. Distress is the result of our attitudes towards things, not the things themselves. This is the consoling feature of Stoic fatalism. It is absurd to become distraught over externals for the same reason that it is absurd to become distressed over the past; both are beyond our power. The Stoic is simply adopting toward all things the only logical attitude appropriate to thepast--indifference.

It is tempting to characterize Stoicism as an emotionally cold, not to say sterile, moral outlook. Epictetus certainly provides ample material upon which to base such a charge. Yet this is at least misleading. It is not so much emotion as passion understood as excessive attachment which is Epictetus' target. It is crucial to recall that Epictetus, as the other Stoics, was concerned to provide an account of moral virtue, not a general theory of value.

Stoicism and Christianity

In recent decades one might have been considered competently acquainted with ancient philosophy if one knew the main outlines of the ideas of the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle. Knowledge of the Hellenistic philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism along with the Roman traditions that followed was not considered essential. These traditions were thought to embody ancient philosophy in its decline. This certainly does not reflect the overall influence of Stoicism on the Western tradition.

In the first place a recognizable Stoic school persisted for some five hundred years in antiquity. While it differed from Christianity in fundamental ways (it was materialistic and pantheistic), nonetheless Christianity defined itself in an intellectual environment pervaded by Stoic ideas of the logos. Furthermore, for much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence. Stoic ideas regarding the natural order of things and of each rational soul as a divine element provided one basis upon which later ideas of natural law were erected. Kant's conception of the pre-eminent value of the Good Will and the moral indifference of external circumstances, though not entirely Stoic, shows the influence of Stoicism. In addition, Spinoza's conception of the promotion of the active over and against the passive emotions further reflects the pervasive influence of Stoic ideas. The notion of virtue as conforming to the rational order of things suggests the Christian idea of conforming one's will to divine providence. The influence of Stoicism on subsequent Western ethical and religious thought testifies to its continuing importance.


Primary Works:

The Handbook of Epictetus. Translated by Nicholas White. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.

The Discourses of Epictetus. In The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers. Ed. W. J. Oates, New York, 1940.

The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol. 1. Ed. by A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Secondary Works:

Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy. (See in particular chapter 4). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.

Mates, B. Stoic Logic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Sandbach, F. H. The Stoics. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975.

Copyright © 1995, William R. Connolly.

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