The Stoics

[from a variety of philosophical resource books]


Epicurean Hedonism

Stoic Views

Belief About the Highest Good

Joy [If It Feels Good, . . .]

One Should Strive for Virtue: It's Better to Be Good Than to Have a Good Time.

Belief About Nature

Atoms, Randomness, Many Worlds.

Logos = Word [Gospel According to John], Logic, Fate [Oedipus!], Moral Nature

Belief About God(s)

Randomness Rules Without Divine Interference.

Divine Providence [Hitler's Vorsehung] Will Not Let Wrong Things Happen.

Belief About the Meaning of Life

The World Has NO Ultimate Meaning; Create Your Own.

Sensible World-Order: Everything Happens for a Reason.

Belief About the Soul

The Soul Exists but Is Mortal.

The Soul Exists and Is Immortal Until the Next Burning of the World.

Attitudes Toward Politics

Individuals Rule and Have Own Initiative.

Social: Common Focus Because We Are All in This Together.

Note that many of our everyday views are inspired by hedonism. We believe in individual initiative, in following our own dreams in our lives, and in a basic "stuff happens" philosophy.

Many of our religious views--particularly in Christianity--are essentially Stoic: Nature is moral; nothing happens without a reason; if a tornado hits you, you must have done wrong.

And some people believe that the good of nature asserts itself in keeping you safe. Some twenty attempts had been made on Hitler's life; he escaped all. What was Providence telling him?


Old Stoa from 336 b. C. E. to 208 b. C. E.

  • Zenon of Kition 336 to 264 b. C. E.--student of the Cynic Krates of Thebes; around 300 b.C.E., Zenon founds the Stoic School into which he accepts Socratic and Cynic elements.

    • Goal of Philosophy: To think rightly and to rid oneself of error

    • Logic is like a fence around the garden of physics and ethics--he uses the term "logics" as a designation for an independent science

    • Epistemology: The world contains things that imprint themselves on the soul of men.  Katalepsis: Impression and thought image fall together into a union of object and image.  Katalepsis is the criterion of truth.  Falsehood occurs with impatience of interrupting Katalepsis too soon.

    • Debate:  Zenon teaches that one need not hear both sides of an issue.  Either one side has made its case or it has not.  If it has made its case, then the case is settled; if it has not made its case, the issue is dead.  Either way, one need not ever listen to the other side. Do you ever believe that in your daily affairs?

    • Physics: Zenon accepts Heraclitus' account of fire as the basic element and of change as the modality of the world.

  • Kleanthes of Assos 331 to 233 b. C. E.--Student of Zenon of Kition--died by suicide by refusing to eat.  

    • Taught dialectics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, physics, and theology.  He compares precepts in the mind to imprints of a seal into wax (impressions).

    • The soul is a "pneuma" [think of pneumatic tires, etc.] that permeates the entire body and outlasts the body until the next burning of the world.

    • Virtue comes from understanding reality; morality is NATURAL.  Moral knowledge, thus, is indistinct from strength of the intellect and of character.

    • Highest Virtues: bravery, self-control, justice, persistence.

    • Zeus is the World Soul. Because of that belief, Kleanthes is the founder of Stoic theology. Stoics before him hadn't bothered with god beliefs.

  • Aratos of Soloi 310 to 245 b. C. E.--wrote "Phainomena" (Celestial Appearances) about the stars--his text was used as a textbook during the Middle Ages.  He was no systematic philosopher but tended toward the Stoa.
  • Ariston of Chios was a student of Zenon of Kition--In Ethics, he taught the moral system of the active life, of trade, and of practical action.  Ariston teaches "a-diaphoria" (indifference): not being dragged one way or the other by extra-moral influences.  [Compare Aristotle's attempt to pull toward the "center" values. Aristotle focuses on how to get there; Ariston focuses on how to stay there.]
  • Chrysippos of Soli 276 to 204 b. C. E.
    • Epistemology (theory of what one can know): The mind is a tabula rasa into which sense impressions imprint the objects of the world into the mind.  Chrysippos distinguishes clearly between object, concept, and word.
    • Ethics: Freedom from love, hate, joy, fear.  Living in harmony with the natural law.  [Try to think "Spock" here or even "Data." This should trigger memories when you hear people say, "It's NOT natural." or, "It's only natural."]
    • Eschatology (theory of the "last things" of this world): The world will periodically burn away, but will be renewed by the deity.  [Compare the biblical stories of destruction and renewal by way of the flood.]
    • Logic: Contributions in logic anticipate the propositional calculus much more so than does Aristotle.  Develops the square of opposition and the rudiments of categorical propositions. You might get smatterings of this in your intro to computational sciences: Boolean logic, truth tables, set theory, etc.]

Middle Stoa  180 b.C.E. to 151 C.E.

  • Panaitos of Rhodos 180 to 100 b.C.E.--He is the founder of the Middle Stoa by bringing Stoic thought to be accepted among Roman aristocrats.
    • He recommends engaging in good behavior instead of making you avoid doing wrong acts: "Thou shalt do X" and not, "Thou shalt not do X."
    • Self-realization is the highest goal; try to perfect your talents. In other words, be all you can be. [Aristotle taught that also.--Hmm. Do you suppose the army recruitment effort read Panaitos and Aristotle?]
    • Differing from the Old Stoa, he thought that the world is eternal and that the soul is mortal.  Note that the periodic burning and purification of the world drops off here.
  • Poseidonius of Apameia 175 to 51 b.C.E.--Student of Panaitos of Rhodos.  Cicero and Pompeius attended his lectures.  
    • He attempts to bridge and connect Aristotle and the Old Stoa.  
    • He wrote a major historical work of 52 volumes, which are now all lost.  I would speculate that they fell prey to the burning of the Library of Alexandria by the Christians, the Christian belief being that the wisdom of the world is foolishness in the eyes of God.
    • His history is pessimistic: he sees cultural history as evidence of the human downfall from "logos," which originally had permeated the cosmos and humanity. Thus, he anticipates the burning of the world.  Meanwhile people must remain in tune with the logos as far as they can still discern its central purpose. Note the difference here: Many of us believe that the world's development is always toward the better; he believed the opposite. How does one set the truth here?
    • Since the body hinders the human attempt to get in touch with the logos, we must imagine the soul to be eternal and distinct from the body. [Fallacy of being ruled by the desirability of consequences?]
    • He believed that the ocean is a world-sea that surrounds all continents.
  • Krates of Mallos--around 150 b.C.E.--Focuses on grammar, Homer, and builds the first model of the globe. And that is also evidence that knowledge can go backwards. Lest you doubt the sophistication of the ancients, read about the Antikythera device or mechanism. Those guys had computers!
  • Porcia died 42 C.E.--She was the wife of Brutus, who killed Caesar.  In fact, she is credited with being the intellect behind Brutus.  Note that the social idea is central for the Stoics; thus, the idea of an empirical ruler is abhorrent. Brutus makes a lot more sense with that view in mind.
  • Arria the Elder . . . died 42 C.E.  Arria was married to Caecina Paetus, who was condemned to death for an insurrection.  When Paetus hesitates to kill himself, she takes a dagger, plunges it into her chest, hands the bloody dagger  to Paetus with the words "Paete, non dolet!" [Paetus, it doesn't hurt.] The imperviousness to pain has become a Stoic virtue for most people's view of Stoics.
  • Arria the Younger . . . 30 to 96 C.E. . . . was married to P. Clodius. She was the mother of Fannia.  Arria's husband also was condemned to death.  Arria the Younger wants to follow her mother's example.  Her husband persuades her to remain living to raise Fannia, their daughter.

Late Stoa 4 b.C.E. to 180 C.E.

  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca 4 b.C.E. to 65 C.E.--He was an eclectic Stoic in that he was influenced also by Pythagoras, Epicurus, and the Cynics.  He was mainly a tragedian and playwright.  
    • He emphasizes the theological content of the Stoics.  He believes in a world as "reason" and "providence." When you see anywhere a reference to "natural law," remember the Stoics.
    • Ethics encompasses 
      • the willingness to die, 
      • the demand for kindness, 
      • the requirement for social sensitivity, and 
      • a belief in human perfectability. Take a look at the puzzlers. This idea of perfectability is clearly at the heart of the quote from the gospel according to John.   
      • He praises poverty and repression of desire. That's why you will find many people advocate the idea that sexual desire requires the sanctity of marriage: Stoic roots.   
      • Wrath is the worst form of disturbance as a lust to avenge one's hurt.  
      • Thus, humans must perfect themselves and resist all emotions.  [Try to think "Spock" here again. The entire belief of opposition between emotions and reason comes from this source.]
  • Fannia--First century C.E.--daughter of Arria the Younger, follower of the philosopher Demetrius--banished for her independence of thought. That culture obviously believed that thinking women are dangerous!
  • Dion of Prusa was also called "Chrysostomos" (Golden Mouth)  40 to 120 C.E.  Dion preaches a return to nature and the simple life.  Perhaps one can think of him as the hippy of the Stoics. When people today speak of the "simple life," they usually do not mean living of subsistence farming, as did Dion. Modern "simple lives" tend to vary widely in substance, but this view is the common core.
  • Epictetus  50 to 130 C.E.  He was banished from Rome in 89 C.E.  
    • His philosophy consists entirely of the ethics: He believed in strong faith in a divinely organized world as basis for all moral action.
    • Humans have the task to subordinate themselves to the rhythm of the world.
    • Happiness is the freedom from all desires.  [Does that remind us of the Buddha, who taught about 600 years earlier.]
    • Epictetus rejects the state and marriage; he advocates the absolute equality of all humans.
    • The Enchiridion [transcribed by Arrianus--one of his students] was widely followed.  Keeping the Enchiridion close, Admiral Stockdale also mentions that Fredrick the Great of Prussia kept a copy handy--that's the king who proclaimed "Ich bin der erste Diener meines Staates" [I am the first servant of my state.]  Compare Louis XIV's "L'etat c'est moi" [I am the state.]
  • Flavius Arrianus  95 to 175 C.E.--Roman officer.  Student of Epictetus.  He wrote the Indian story about Alexander the Great's Persian campaign.
  • Diogenes of Babylon was in Rome around 155 to negotiate a reduction of war reparations that Athens would have had to pay to the city of Oropos, which Athens had sacked.  Under rule of the Roman Empire, such battles of subjects were not permissible.
  • Marcus Aurelius 121 to 180 C.E.  He was Spanish by birth and was adopted by Roman parents.
    • Ethics: he was a student of Epictetus and advocated unselfish love of one's fellow humans. [As you can see, the Stoa and Christianity were not all that far apart and probably influenced each other.]
    • He teaches the perfectability of humans by way of achieving self-realization [Think "Aristotle" here again and think of John 14.]
    • Happiness comes from complete confidence in a divinely organized world. [Many of us still believe that today, but many of us also would be hard pressed to try to justify the belief with solid evidence. It tends to be more of an "opinion" that someone feels entitle to without facts.]
    • Since the human spirit is of divine origin, humans are "god stuff" and so must be absolutely equal to one another. [This special status of humanity is a bit tough to make sense of also.]
  • General Reflection:  Don't forget that the times were different when these people were living.  Let's not forget that for many Greeks and Romans, drunkenness had a deity and was OK.  Making love to little boys was also OK.  One thing that the Stoa never endorsed, however, was a belief that competitive principles could ever serve to develop a just society with proper distributive justice and rectificatory justice. In many respects, capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with Stoics and with Christianity. As our culture endorses traditions of the Stoa, of Epicureans, and of Christianity, we should really experience some level of cognitive dissonance here.  We must always remember that the moral super-heroes of our culture also were defined by their time.  Remember that Thomas Jefferson or one of his family may have had offspring from a minor: Sara Hamblin, a black slave on his estate, and that George Washington owned slaves.  As we are reflecting about moral values, we are also transforming them for our time.  Further, the ideal of the Stoa is "a-pathy"--the absence of all emotions in favor of complete rationality. When's the last time you've been told that apathy was a good virtue?  As you compare these ideals of the Stoa with Christian values, you may be surprised how many cross-connections exist between the two philosophical developments.  In fact, Christianity has probably evolved into a world religion as a consequence of its close connection with Stoic thought. And Christianity has metamorphosed again and again as it ran up against other belief systems. Many of us now believe that Jesus advocated capitalism, don't we?


Reinhold Schlieper
February 27, 2005