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What is Stoicism?

Stoicism came about when the revolution effected by Alexander the Great forced the individual to come to grips with a hugely expanded state. Two methods came about for dealing with this. The first, Epicureanism, made the world less important. The second, Stoicism, made man more important.

General principles of Stoicism:

1. Live in accordance with nature.

2. Used the concept of nature as opposed to convention.

3. Reason is more important than all other virtues. Man’s goal is the attainment of perfect reason.

4. Place and possessions are external and do not affect man’s true self.

5. Each man must play out the role given to him. It’s playing well, not winning that is the object.

6. The Stoic must do his duty to his State.

7. Under a benevolent providence all that happens must be good.

8. Stoic apathy, not listlessness but imperviousness to perturbations.

Cynics (like Diogenes) were flagrant in their flouting of convention. Crates was more refined in his dismissal of convention. Crates taught Zeno.

Early Stoa – Regarded sense impressions as real and force conviction on the mind. The active portion of the universe is the soul as a fiery ether and the passive portion are the inferior elements (mainly earth and water). The latter proceeded from the former and were periodically reabsorbed into it in the world conflagration. The universe was a perfect living creature called god or nature:

1. Zeno (300 – 263 B.C.)

2. Cleanthes (263 - 232 B.C.)

3. Chrysippus – called the second founder (232 – 207 B.C.)

4. Zeno of Tarsus and Diogenes the Babylonian (207 – 150 B.C.)

5. Antipater of Tarsus (150 - 129 B.C.)

Middle Stoa – Panaetius made Stoicism more practical rejecting the world conflagration and the idea that only the perfect sage could be happy. He stressed the active virtues of magnanimity and benevolence as against the passive virtues of fortitude and justice:

1. Panaetius of Rhodes (185 - 109 B.C.)

2. Posidonius – a polymath judged to be second only to Aristotle in influence across many fields (135 - 50 B.C.)

3. Hecaton

Late Stoa – Final (or Roman) phase when theoretical questions became purely academic and interest centred on ethics:

1. Seneca (4 B.C. – A.D. 65)

2. Epictetus – born a slave who preached to many (A.D. 55 – 135)

3. Marcus Aurelius – an emperor (A.D. 121 – 180)

Stoicism - An Outline

- The point of enquiry was to help man live a life in accordance with nature.

- Everything is determined by fate and so to be happy one should cultivate the attitude of acceptance and resignation.

- Founded by Zeno who borrowed ideas from the Cynics (nothing matters except virtue therefore all the trappings and values of conventional society are to be rejected) the Platonists (liked Plato’s creation story from the Timaeus with the idea of a beneficent creator – this made life easier to bear because there was some kind of a divine plan) and Heraclitus (fiery breath animating everything).

- Plato’s Forms were just concepts in the mind, which is physical, and so were themselves fundamentally physical things.

- They adopted Empedocles’ four element system rather than atoms.

- Spoke of pneuma, God and the organising principle of nature as basically the same thing.

- Believed that the universe was eternal and births and dies in fiery conflagrations. And since providence guides each occurrence in the best possible way, every cycle would have to be the same.

- Held that resigned acceptance was the way to achieve happiness. Since Fate controlled everything you can’t change anything.

- Duty, discipline and self-control mark Stoic thought.

- For many Stoics, death in the form of suicide was always an option if life became unbearable. In fact, the difference between life and death was nothing compared to the difference between virtue and vice.

- But if everything is ruled by Fate what is the point in trying to act virtuous? There is a story involving Zeno to answer this. Zeno was flogging a slave who exclaimed, “I was fated to steal.” Zeno replied, “And to be flogged.” For Chrysippus, fate was just cause and effect. A related problem known as ‘the lazy argument’ stated that if Fate was real then there would be no point in trying to do anything. But even if things are fated this does not mean that they are irrelevant.

- If causality is real how can my thoughts and actions be under my control? Chrysippus said that we are not free in the sense that our thoughts and actions are fixed by prior causes but some of those causes have to do with our own characters. He illustrated the idea with reference to a cylinder being pushed down a slope.

- There is no afterlife.

- Providence is good to good people even if it looks like it isn’t.

- Wealth, status and power are all ultimately insignificant.

- All people are equally smiled on by Providence and the only thing that raises one above another is virtue which all men are capable of. They believed in the universal brotherhood of man.

- Developed a tool of logic known as propositional logic because it uses variables to stand for whole propositions. The form is “If P then Q; Not Q; therefore, Not P.”