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A Detailed Breakdown on Stoicism Philosophy and Wisdom from the Greats
Stoicism: Learn A Detailed Breakdown on Stoicism Philosophy and Wisdom from the Greats
By George Tanner
Copyright @2017 By George Tanner
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History of Stoicism
The Good Life
Virtue in Stoicism
Stoic Logic and You
Cosmology and Theology in Stoicism
Stoicism and Psychology
Stoicism and the Emotions
Outer Troubles; Preventative measures in Stoicism
Apatheia—Stoic Inner Peace
For over two thousand years the Stoic school has lived, died and been reborn according to the whims of fortune. In its earliest days, it consisted of a small but precocious group of Greeks pacing the public spaces of Athens, teaching virtue by example and challenging vice with argument and irony. In its middle period, it yawned through the Greek islands and into Anatolia and developed a consistent doctrine which earned it a place among the great schools of ancient philosophy. At its height, it stretched across the Mediterranean, carried by the ships and soldiers of the Roman Empire, and whispered in the ears of statesmen and slaves alike. And when its flame was extinguished with the Empire in which it burned, it lived on through Christian doctrine and belief, a specter floating through the pens and consciousnesses of monks and theologians as they copied and recopied texts and carried its ideas into the modern age.
Today it lives again, first and with the great energy in cognitive behavioral therapy, and second in its own right, as a philosophy whose message resonates in spite of its age. Its emphasis on living well, on attention to others, our community, our planet, meet modern problems at the heart and shift the focus of daily life from living well in the sense of pleasure to living well in the sense of virtue. And as a bonus, Stoicism teaches how to deal with difficult coworkers, to cope with stress, to live according to our values, and to choose values that are becoming of our nature as human beings.
So what is Stoicism? The answer to this question in many ways turns on another question: What is wisdom? Further, what part does wisdom play in our daily lives? For the Stoics, wisdom is the virtue that governs all others. It directs us first to choose our ends, those things for the sake of which we do everything else, and how to pursue those ends. If I am a thief and I come up with a new trick or a subtle way of pilfering what does not belong to me, I am clever because I was inventive in obtaining my goal. But I am not wise because my goal, to take what is not mine, is not just, because it damages both the person from whom I am stealing, insofar as I have hurt them materially, and myself, insofar as I have degraded myself by the practice of a vice. Similarly, if I have a noble end, for example dedicating myself to charity, but in order to carry out this end I take loans and bury myself in unsustainable debt, I am not wise because I acted imprudently in pursuit of my goal. Both justice and prudence are cardinal virtues for the Stoics, and they appear together such that it is impossible to practice one while violating another. Stealing from one person in order to be charitable to another, for example, is neither just nor prudent. It is not just because, as before, it is an injury to myself and to another party, and it is not prudent because it is unjust. Stoicism is that school of philosophy for which wisdom, being for them the state that obtains in a fully developed human nature, is the end of all ethical activity, is the goal of practicing the virtues in correct relationship with one another, and is thus the goal of an ethical life.
Stoicism as an ancient school may be thought in opposition to its rivals. Aristotle’s Peripatetic school held that the end goal of an ethical life was eudaimonia, which roughly translates as human flourishing. Wisdom and the other virtues were and are important for Aristotelian ethics, but, unlike for the Stoics, they were not sufficient for the good life, nor did they exhaust human happiness—pleasure and a bit of good fortune are also necessary on Aristotle’s view. For the Epicureans, another rival school, pleasure is the aim of ethical life, is sufficient for a good life, in particular, the relief of pain. More than any other school, the Epicureans were direct competitors with the Stoics. It might be easy to see why. They are, for example, not as concerned with virtue as either the Peripatetics or the Stoics, and though they also hold wisdom to be a cardinal virtue, prudence, for them correct choices with respect to pleasure and pain, is the center of the virtues.
The love of wisdom is, for the Stoics as with their contemporaries, a life in a state of what may be called a kind of desperation. It is akin to a lover who thinks only of their beloved. In his Symposium, Plato has Socrates say that love lives between humans and their desires. The end of love, the result of the lover’s union with their beloved, is reproduction. In the case of people, love’s aim is the creation of children. In the case of trades, love’s aim is the production of crafts. And in the case of wisdom, the lover seeks to produce and to spread concepts. In a sense, then, the philosopher’s goal is always pedagogical. Where possible the philosopher seeks out the truth of the world behind appearances. But not satisfied with keeping knowledge, the philosopher endeavors to spread it through thought and action, to right error by example and fill the gaps of discourse.
Stoicism is a life devoted to this pedagogical discipline. It emphasizes practice, living by example, by teaching the doctrines of Stoicism, particularly ethics, and by exemplifying its doctrines. The Stoics collectively characterize philosophy as askêsis, a kind of practice of knowledge concerning the beneficial. Their approach to philosophy was therapeutic; their emphasis was developing good habits through knowledge of what is and is not to be valued. They aim to strengthen prohairesis, the faculty of choice, and to thereby cultivate wisdom, to become Stoic sages.
Maybe the greatest hurdle to the adoption of Stoic ideas is how few of their works are extant. This is a problem not at all uncommon when interpreting classical thinkers. We have lists of works written by Epicurus, Aristotle and Zeno, provided to us by authors like Diogenes Laertius, very few of which survive, if any. We can nonetheless build accurate, if not always consistent, accounts of what these thinkers say. For the Stoics in particular, our main references are Roman philosophers like Epictetus, Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero, and, of course, Marcus Aurelius. They preserved the core of Stoicism, and in a way that engages with their peers and draws on a wealth of social and historical examples. It is to these Roman thinkers that I will turn in exploring Stoicism here, and from the examples given at the height of the Roman Empire.
Stoicism’s heart and goal is a life in accordance with nature. As Emperor Marcus Aurelius says in book six of his Meditations,
“In conformity to the nature of the universe, every single thing is accomplished, for certainly it is not in conformity to any other nature that each thing is accomplished, either a nature which externally comprehends this or a nature which is comprehended within this nature, or a nature external and independent of this.”
The Stoic idea of nature is different than the modern idea. Both instinct and inheritance play a role, like our modern concept, but they include the full development of a thing in their conversation. What is the Stoic idea of nature? If I, for example, asked “what is the nature of this seed?” you may answer “to become a tree.” Your answer accords with the idea of nature the Stoics employ; the seed’s nature is not just an embryo contained in a coat with its nutrients, but also that it will become a tree when conditions pertain. Similarly, an individual may steal, lie, cheat and practice infidelity because of some evolutionary adaptation, and an undeveloped person may have these behaviors as part of their nature, but also part of their nature is the capacity to grow beyond these limits, to become rationally and morally developed. The former is a life of animality for the Stoics. As Epictetus says in book one, chapter six of his Discourses,
“What, then, are these things done in us only. Many, indeed, in us only, of which the rational animal had peculiar need; but you will find many common to us with irrational animals. Do they them understand what is done? By no means. For use is one thing, and understanding is another: God had need of irrational animals to make use of appearances, but of us to understand the use of appearances. It is, therefore, enough for them to eat and to drink, and to sleep and to copulate, and to do all the other things which they severally do. But for us, to whom He has given also the faculty, these things are not sufficient; for unless we act in a proper and orderly manner, and conformably to the nature and constitution of each thing, we shall never attain our true end.”
If a seed that never becomes a tree can be said to have failed in its nature, so too can a person who never develops morally be said to have failed.
Moral maturity implies a life cultivated by and in virtue. For this reason, the virtues in Stoic doctrine guide action. The cardinal Stoic virtues are courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. Without these, life is animalistic, unworthy of the name “human.” There is no easy path or royal road to this life. Stoicism demands a foundation of good habits and a critical disposition. And such a character is precisely what Stoicism aims to cultivate.
Among the ranks of the Stoics are scientists, craftsmen, merchants, farmers, politicians—people from every corner of society. What brings them together is their commitment to virtue, their common ethical and intellectual origin, and the practice of Stoic living. Stoicism, like other Western traditions, has its origins in Greece. Their founder is Zeno of Citium. Neither his nor the works of his most famous successor of the same period, Chrysippus, survive. Scholars across the ages have nonetheless constructed an account of their lives from testimony and existing evidence. I can, using their conclusions, give a general history of the origins of Stoic philosophy and its development.
Zeno was born in Cyprus the same year Alexander the Great was, around 336 B.C.E. He was the son of a merchant, and himself became a merchant when he was of age. In one account, in his 20s he experienced a tragic shipwreck, which marked the end of his life at sea. On another account, he was already in Athens when he learned that one of his shipments was lost to the waves. On either account, in Athens he was introduced to Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and from it the character of Socrates, whom he admired. Later, he studied under Crates of Thebes and Stilpon of Megara, philosophers of the Cynic school (the same school to which Diogenes of Synope belonged). Accounts from Diogenes Laertius say that he greeted the shipwreck as an act of good fortune because it allowed him to shed his old life and devote himself to the study of philosophy.
Zeno is famous for teaching in the Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, a central location in Athens where the bounty from distant wars was displayed for the public. It is after this porch that the Stoics would be named, but their original name was the “Zenonians.” In the Stoa Poikile, Zeno discussed virtue and its superiority over pleasure and described a natural law which held precedence over the random swerve of atoms. Both the position that pleasure was the good and that randomly moving atoms were the governing principle of the universe was held by the Epicureans. Zeno also lived his teachings, and he was praised throughout his life for his consistency and his prudence.
Zeno lived and taught in Athens for the remainder of his life. His death is said to be akin to that of Diogenes of Sinope. As an old man, after breaking a toe, he declared himself satisfied with the life he had lived and strangled himself to death. The story may be apocryphal, but it exemplifies his strength of will, his good character, and his self-discipline.