Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stoicism : An overview

Stoicism gained it's name from the colonnades under which it's founder Zeno (334 - 262 BC) taught  his philosophy (Stoa is Greek for porch). Following his death his former pupils continued to teach and refine his philosophy until Stoicism became one of major schools of thought in the ancient world.

Zeno came to philosophy in a very remarkable way. He found himself unexpectedly  in Athens after suffering a ship wreck and decided to meet the famous Greek philosophers he read so much about in books his father collected from his travels as a dye merchant. So he walked into a book shop and asked where he could find men like Socrates. The book seller pointed and said "Follow yonder man" and so Zeno did.

The man was in fact Crates the Cynic and Zeno soon became his pupil. Crates had become known as 'the door opener' for his habit of bursting into homes and admonishing people over their poor philosophical values and vice ridden lifestyle. He taught his pupils to ignore social convention by humiliating them repeatably. One poor student found himself dragging around Athens a dead fish tied to a dog chain. Crates famously shocked Athenians by making love to his wife in public and by bringing his son to a brothel. He once provoked the musician Nicodromus into punching him in the forehead. Crates then stuck a plaster to his face and wrote 'Nicodromus's handiwork' on the plaster.  He was born wealthy but gave away his fortune to pursue a philosophical life of poverty.

 After studying for a time, Zeno left Crates to study theory and logic in the Academy (Crates tried to prevent this by physically dragging him away) before leaving to combine the theory and logic of the Academy with the aesthetic teachings of the Cynics. Over time, Zenos teachings become known as Stoicism.

Theory (theorein)

For Stoics the most important and meaningful fact about the universe was that the universe is harmonious and ordered. It was this order that the Greeks called divine (theion) and the purpose of the sciences, philosophical inquiry  was to contemplate (theorein) the divine. The Stoics viewed the universe as a single living entity, regulated by the logos (from which we derive the words logic and logical) of which we are all part. In other words, the stoics taught the doctrine of pantheism; that the universe in its totality was divine. Rocks, planets, humans, suns all have their purpose as part of the divine ordered structure of the cosmos like heart, lungs and liver all have their purpose in a human. This is not an external personal God who takes an interest in our welfare; rather this was an cosmic scale ecosystem logically ordered with laws humans could discover through the sciences and philosophy. So logic and physics formed an important core in Stoics teaching as a means of relating our existence to what surrounds us and therefore uncover the meaning of our lives.

In Christian terms the Stoics would have agreed with the opening of Johns gospel (remembering the Word was another name for the Logos, representing the reverence of language) :

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Although the claim that the Word became flesh raised a few eyebrows.Richard Dawkins famously called pantheism "sexed up atheism".

Summary: Stoics held the philosophy positions of pantheism and naturalism, but not of materialism.


Death of Seneca
Because the universe is ordered and because we are all part of the natural order, the Stoics thought the correct course of action was acting in accordance with nature. In other words nature was the standard used to determine the good. Each of us has a place within the harmonious order and our duty was to find that place and adjust ourselves to living harmonious within the natural order as revealed by reason.  If for example you are a bad writer, then you are morally obliged to be a bad writer because that is your role. Right and wrong is determined upon your role in nature, not upon objective morality.

"There is no other or more appropriate means of arriving at a definition of good or evil things, virtue or happiness, than to take our baring from common nature and the governance of the universe" -  Chrysippus.
Stoics framed their ethical arguments around duties and virtual ethics. For example, humans are a social animal so we have duties towards each other.


Logicians have long admired Stoic contribution to logic; Christians have long respected and incorporated Stoic natural law into their ethics. But the Stoics continue to be read and studied for their advice on daily living. The writings of Epictetus who was sold into slavery by his own parents  as a young boy and left crippled by torture are read at Westpoint military academy. Counselors take advice from the letters of Seneca or the personal journalof the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism has heavily influenced theory such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the increasingly popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Here unfortunately I can only give a brief overview.

As mentioned above, the universe for the Stoics was regulated and controlled by the Logos which humans could partially understand through the laws of logic and maths. Humans were part of the whole but subject to the same cause-affect chains as animals or the natural world.  Therefore we should, Epictetus taught, learn to distinguish between what is in our power and what is not and learn to accept what cannot be changed. But what is within our power to change ?

“Some things are up to us [eph' hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.” - Epictetus 

This is one of key insights of Stoicism : ‘man is disturbed not by things but by the view he takes of them’. So while external events happen and are beyond our control, we can, with philosophical training, learn to control our emotions. Note that this is quite different to free will. Indeed for Epictetus the entire point of philosophy was “making preparation to meet the things that come upon us”.

Aside from teaching techniques on changing how we respond to events, Stoicism taught detachment. They thought it obvious that the cosmos involved change with nothing remaining static or lasting forever.  Therefore reason demands that humans avoid forming harmful attachments to people or to objects, that we learn to accept death and change :-

Marcus Aurelius
"Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them." -  Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics didn’t object to earthly pleasures but they warned against becoming enslaved by them. We should occasionally  practice self-denial and learn to imagine our wealth and loved ones taken from us. This is a harsh doctrine but death in Athens was more closely associated with the young than the old; fortunes were won and lost on the whims of rulers.

There is a lot more that can be said about Stoicism but my goal here was to demonstrate how classical philosophy functioned in pre-Christian Greece. In Stoicism we can see logic, physics, psychology and ethics all unified and integrated into a whole. Of course Stoicism had its critics. Philosophers from the Skeptic school attacked the Stoic concept of the Logos while Epicureanism offered rival advice from a more materialistic and atheistic framework. While Stoicism was popular among the noblemen and (later) the Roman senators, Epicureanism was the philosophy of choice for the soldier.
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