A summary of centuries of Stoic thought to read in ten minutes and refresh some ideas. It tries to not be boring and scare away those who are approaching the subject for the first time, but also to not lose too much rigor. In any case, it is a critical interpretation of issues that can be discussed in much greater length and detail, and of sources that we should all read more frequently.
In the first installment of our Spanish series on the “other” origins of Europe, the legend of the wolf and the Bear put us on the trail of Mithraism. And the second installment discovered that Mithraism was born in an environment that was heavily influenced by Stoicism, if not a deliberate product of this philosophical movement. But, who were these philosophers that became so influential between 300 BCE and the imposition of Christianity in 380 CE?
Zeno was born around 334 BCE in Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant. We know that he was a disciple of Crates, one of the leading thinkers of the Cynic school. But when he was around thirty years old, he had a full-blown crisis about the teachings of his elders. In today’s terms, and in very plain words, the Cynics were degrowthers, and Zeno was a minimalist. So, he broke with Athen’s Cynical millieu and began teaching at the painted portico of the Acropolis. Portico in Greek is stoa, so Zeno and his followers started to become known as the “Stoics.”
But there was a Cynic idea that Zeno and his disciples rejected even more than the love for poverty that the former professed: That of a necessarily chaotic world, characterized by irrational principles or historical deities. That’s what sums up his famous maxim: “There is both a rational and natural order of things.” Of course, by “things,” he refers to the scope of the disciplines that we know today as Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Zeno divided the available knowledge of his time into three main branches: Logic (formal thinking), Physics (what we now call the “hard” and natural sciences) and Ethics (which formed the basis of social relationships).
For the Stoics, Nature begins and ends in itself, and in that sense it is a large network of interrelations, which can be approximated by natural “laws.” The Stoics embrace the empiricism of the Epicureans, and against the “skeptics” — a school that broadly suggested that reality was unknowable — and Platonic idealism, they defended the notion that consensus on the representations that our senses make of natural reality is enough to propose models and demonstrations. That is, they relativize the results of the natural sciences, stripping them of ultimate truth and infusing them with social and historical truth — a truth based on a consensus that may change.
In this sense, the Stoic theory of knowledge lay the foundations that would much later legitimize what we call “the scientific method” and its conception of science as an approximation of the reality of Nature, as if aiming towards a constantly moving target. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) said that truth about Nature is available through investigation, but that there always will be much to discover because “an era is not enough time for research” (ad inquisitionem tantorum una aetas non sufficit). And maybe that’s why Stoics are more interested in the social than the natural.
To begin with, given their “scientific” conception of Nature, they consider that it is not possible to conceive of any “virtue” (self-improvement) that is not based on the acceptance of natural laws and the determinism implicit in them. In other words, there is no room for comforting ourselves with thinking that gods or supernatural phenomena will suddenly show up to get us out of trouble in extreme situations. The natural world is what it is, and there are no grounds to believe in anything other than better knowledge as a tool for surviving and thriving in it. Hence the popular use of the word “Stoic” to mean resignation, a notion that came about as an interpretation and value judgment of Christianity, which succeeded Stoicism as the dominant ideology in decaying Rome.
The virtuous person, the wise person, then, is someone who, above all, accepts the materiality of existence and its subordination to natural laws. In terms of the Eastern monotheisms, the Stoic will be more of an atheist than a pagan. But because the Stoics recognize a “divine,” creative principle in every living being and nature as a whole, they will become known as “pantheistic.” And in fact, the “pantheism” of the Stoics is a bit more complicated than the usual interpretation of the term.
Zeno imagines a sort of fiery “vital principle” that is present in all natural phenomena, especially in living things. Seneca states “divinity” is synonym with “the mind of Nature”, i.e., with its laws and wonderful equilibria. And to the possibility of a body-soul dualism, he sharply retorts: “I have a body, therefore I am, and if I also have a soul, it is because it is in the body.” (orpora ergo sunt, et quae animi sunt; nam et hic est corpus est). A remarkable notion centuries before psychoanalysis or neuroscience, which contradicts the denatured version of him promoted by Christian apologists, who presented him as a proto-Christian and came up with the legend that he had corresponded with St. Paul. Actually, according to Zeno, if there is a soul, it dies with the body. There is only nothingness after death. In the words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) — another stoic that Christian historiographers have tried to “recover” through quotes taken out of context and mistranslations — “we live for a moment, only to fall into complete oblivion and the infinite vacuum.”
The Stoics withdraw the gods from Nature and place them, emptied of “superstitio,” in the social realm. Certainly not as autonomous “beings” involved in the course of history and natural phenomena, but as allegories of principles and values present in the will of each one of us. They understand the social realm in a similar manner to how they understand Nature: as a large network of interrelationships and interactions in which we have some leeway, some ability to rebalance relations unilaterally, even de facto leaving and breaking them if necessary. Epictetus (55-135), a Greek slave who ended up as one of the masters of his time, says:
Duties are universally measured by relations. Is your brother unfair? Well, keep your situation with him intact. Do not consider what he does but what you do to keep your freedom in a state consistent with Nature. Nobody can hurt you if you do not consent. You will only be hurt you if believe you’ve been hurt. In this way, therefore, applying the idea to a neighbor, a citizen or a general, you can establish the corresponding duties if you get used to consider the different relationships.
So. following the same reasoning, by cultivating the values of their choice through allegories, rituals, and ceremonies, people learn to take ownership of their own behavior and therefore become able to rationally modify social interactions and their outcomes, bringing them closer to their own way of being. For the Stoics, ethics are the basis of all action within the social realm.
This is why they became one of the main forces that transformed the Roman “religio” into an allegorical system of values for coexistence. Because the belief in supernatural autonomous beings in the style of the Asian gods, with a symbolic language of its own, seemed to them to be childish “superstitio.” As Cato famously said in a phrase later picked up by Cicero, “it is incredible that a haruspex doesn’t break out in laughter when he sees another haruspex.” But of course, the idea of transforming ancient and foreign religions into allegories is not unique to the Stoics, as it was part of the ethos of the ruling classes of the republican era. Cicero himself (106 BCE – 43 BCE), who was a colleague of Cato in the Senate and one of the most influential critics of Stoicism during the first imperial stage, openly campaigns for “rationally” creating tailor-made gods, catering to the common need of “living together”:
It is also convenient to deify human virtues such as intelligence, Pietas [self growth through community], Virtus [self improvement], and Fides [respect for the given word]. In Rome, all these virtues have officially consecrated temples, so that those who have them — and certainly, people of good faith have them — believe that in this way the gods are installed in their spirits.
It is in this sense that Marcus Aurelius, in the first book of his “Meditations,” thanks his mother for teaching him “respect for the gods” as much as his father for teaching him not bear “any superstitious fear.” Gods are allegories; having “an unfounded fear of the Gods” is “superstitio,” that is, confusing the representation of allegories with autonomous beings endowed with will and capacity to intervene in nature and history.
But for the Stoics, everything has an extra little twist. Beyond the “superstitio,” we must be careful with those values, because whichever we choose, they must not oppose nature and its laws, nor human nature. There is no virtue in pain. There is no virtue in pursuing scarcity or suffering, just as there is no virtue in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. An ethics that is not based on the naturalness of humans, in the rationality of an understanding of their role in nature, can only be “pathological” and take us away from ataraxia, the serenity on which the Epicureans had already based their ethics. As Seneca said, “secundum naturam suma vivere” — to live according to (our) nature.
That serenity is born out of a life based on safeguarding freedom and making free use of Reason. For Seneca, once again, the meaning of life is to know and learn, that’s what the “elevation” or true deification of man is all about. The Stoic sage understands virtue as reasoning, learning, and gaining knowledge in a material environment without excess or painful shortcomings. Marcus Aurelius thanks his parents for having allowed him to have private teachers instead of being sent to a public school because “for such purposes, it is necessary to spend generously,” and on the other hand, teaching him how “not to live like the rich.” Spending in knowledge is not superfluous, as it increases personal freedom by allowing him to better understand the nature of things; conspicuous consumption, on the contrary, makes us dependent on external power and takes us away from our own nature, making us less free.
Stoic “minimalism” is designed to maintain serenity, to strengthen personal autonomy over crony relationships based on authoritarian distribution of welfare. The wise should not aspire to anything that cannot be produced within a set of relationships in “accordance with Nature,” that is, voluntary, free, and based on mutually agreed rights and duties. Epictetus says:
Power is bestowed upon those who can give what others want and remove what others despise. Therefore, whoever wants to be free must get used to not holding any desire or aversion towards that which depends on alien power. Otherwise, he will necessarily be a slave.
Having defined ethics as the central concern of the Stoic, and virtue as the only reasonable goal, the political becomes subordinated to the possibility of self-improvement. In principle, again following Seneca, the Stoic shall “not fear death, nor chains, nor fire, nor the blows of fortune; for he knows that these things, though they seem evil, are really not.” But if the environment does not allow virtue, they shall not feel greater obligation towards the “polis,” they shall feel free to leave, since they are “cosmopolitans” at heart, they are not loyal to any other community than that which they freely choose for developing their virtue in the context of balanced relationships. The freedom to leave, to segregate, even to commit suicide, is the ultimate requirement for genuine liberty.
That is, the Stoic, for the first time, defines inalienable individual sovereignty on the basis of the maxim “one should fear humans just a little, but not fear gods at all” (Scit non multum esse ab homine timendum, a Deo nihil).
In practice, what the Stoics tell us is something like “no limits for gaining knowledge and freedom, but do not burden yourself with needs that will make you dependent on others and therefore less free. And if, in any case, you keep relationships with others that provide you with useful things —customers, servants, the State— don’t let them affect you if they they fail or try to manipulate you with the threat of breaking them.” Epictetus again:
Begin, therefore, with the small things. Have you spilled a little oil? Did someone steal some wine from you? Think of this: “This is the price of serenity and tranquility, and nothing is free in this life.” If you call your servant, he may not come; and if he comes, he might not do what you want him to do. But your servant is never so important as to give him the power to upset you in any way.
And for the same reason, they condemn charity (what today we call “welfarism”) in the public realm and propose philanthropy instead, a concept created by them which differs from charity in fostering autonomy instead of dependency. The Stoic emperors will emphasize distributing lands instead of grains (although they continue doing the latter during supply crises), eliminate rents while legalizing and promoting all kinds of guilds and mutual support associations — largely liberalizing the creation of colegia and subtracting monopoly power from them — and practice philanthropy from a primitive view of the imperial apparatus as something light, underpinned by a robust society that is resilient against threats to freedom. Marcus Aurelius thanked his “brother” Severo,
for conceiving the idea of a constitution based on equality before the law, governed by fairness and equal freedom of speech for all, and a royalty that honors and respects, above all, the freedom of his subjects.
Epicureans and Stoics
But what differentiates Epicureans from Stoics? In principle, very little. In the sciences, the Epicureans insisted on their atomic theory as the basis of scientific materialism, and the Stoics on a reticular view, in nature as a large set of interconnected things. In epistemology, the Epicureans were probably more subtle and arrived in the early stages of the Empire to similar statements to those of Renaissance science. And in their ethics, both seek Ataraxia, serenity or personal sovereignty as a result of virtue.
But Epicurean serenity is linked to happiness, and Stoic serenity to love for knowledge. And the difference is not a minor one. The promise of of Epicurus, another minimalist avant la lettre, of happiness through moderation, joy, and doing things, will eventually tie the Epicurean to a wider social context .
Following the models of Nature of each school, the Stoics see themselves as part of social totality, individuals pursuing knowledge and Serenity. Epicureans see themselves as social atoms, part of a small, real community, united by the pursuit of happiness and linked by fraternity.
As a result, Stoicism — individualistic, secular, balanced, lover of life — in the end, is bound and subjected to politics, as there is nothing that shields the individual from the whole of society or the State.
The Stoic — in principle alien and not interested in the State, ready to leave or commit suicide if there aren’t sufficient conditions to live as they like — ends up influencing the learning and values of the imperial elites to the point of shaping the government of at least two of the so-called “five good emperors”: Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, the latter becoming one of the last great Stoic thinkers of antiquity.
But, also, probably due to practical reasons more than Epicurean influence, they will also influence the social reality encouraging communitarian movements among the “cosmopolitan” classes (as we saw with Mithraism)
The core of Platonism is the theory of ideas. According to this theory, the world as we perceive it is only a representation of another, abstract world of unchanging ideas. Everything that is “real” for us is just a degraded form compared to its origin. This importance of the ideal and original nature of things (ontology) has shaped many of the ideologies that still live among us. For Christian ontological thought, the heir of Platonism, things are pure in their origin, for ideas are divine creations, and their “passage” through the world is nothing but a degradation, which only makes sense if history is understood as a road towards restoration, a return to the origin. This source would be God, as conceived by Christians, but the general template morphs into many avatars: the class emancipates itself and in turn emancipates all mankind in Marxism, the motherland that gains back its original essence through the assertion of a state of its own in a culturally “purified” identity, etc.
Stoics and Epicureans are at the opposite end of this ontological view of the world which seeks to “change men,” “improving” them according to preconceived ideals. For the Stoics, what matters is not “restoring” anything, nor does it makes sense to try to change human needs. It’s about having a full view of what is possible and acting accordingly. And for that we must align expectations with the possibilities set by the laws of nature, knowledge and the available technology at any given time. The gods will not make it rain, put an end to disease, or change the course of rivers.
And much in the same spirit, we cannot expect human nature to change, nor change it through laws and punishments. Instead, human nature must be understood as it is, and from there, virtuous “ethoses” must be encouraged. Yes, in plural. Because for the Stoics, although “human nature” has a common basis, it does not develop or manifest itself equally for every person, but takes shape based on their own experience, knowledge, and the meaning they have given to their own existence.
That is, Stoicism’s relationship with nature is primarily “technological,” since it won’t strive to go “back to the origin,” but towards an alignment, through the use of scientific knowledge, between what’s possible within the environment and what’s necessary for people.
And likewise, in the social realm it will generate a “praxology” that will develop an ethics of virtue/knowledge wherever the Stoic may act in the world, whether in a small philosophical community or in the magistracies of Empire. That praxology has to take into account “what is the nature of the whole and what is mine, and how that behaves with respect to the other, and [in turn], which whole that part belongs to,” that is, thinking in terms of communities and networks. And always, at least for Marcus Aurelius, who in the end was an emperor, without giving up the practice of speaking frankly, since “no one prevents you from always acting and saying that which is consistent with Nature, of which you are part.”
The Stoic Ethos of Learning
Discovering that “nature of things” is the permanent adventure of the Stoic. And as we have seen, it doesn’t assume that human nature is unanimous or that it functions according to a unique model. Every person standing before us is a world to decipher. So unlike the Cynic, the Stoic won’t be silent, but a “serene” listener. When Zeno was invited for the first time by Antigonus of Macedonia to a banquet, apparently the king, surprised by his silence, sent him a message asking why he was not involved in the conversation. “Tell the king that here is a man who knows how to listen,” he replied. A celebrated phrase by a character said to have joked with a disciple saying that if we have two ears and only one mouth, it is because we should listen twice as much as we speak.
But neither Zeno nor any of the great Greek Stoics, let alone the Latin ones, were in any way sparing with their speech or agraphic. They were actually defining a form of social relationships based on active listening, just as their relationship with Nature was based on practical observation. This love of listening, the first value transmitted by Stoic teachers at all levels to their disciples, will be one of the clues to follow the footsteps of Stoicism in medieval times in future posts.
The popular use of the word “Stoicism” implies resignation, endurance. But the truth is that the Stoics did not give up, they changed the world by learning to listen, and by making every act and every day a battle to be more free. They didn’t turn to politics and didn’t trust society or the state, even if many great rulers were shaped by their ideas, defended the dignity of slaves, and promoted the extension of education to the less affluent. They did not obsess with origins and essences, but embraced and defended the irreducible diversity of human nature, assuming a cosmopolitanism that extolled real, small communities, dedicated to generating knowledge; they put personal sovereignty and the serenity that characterizes it above any social convention or power structure. And they defended personal integrity and love of knowledge to the point of defending the right to secede and to leave the political community, and even life, if the environment made a virtuous life untenable.
They made up one of the threads with which the tangle of values and stories that we call Europe was was woven. And those of us who live in Europe today should reread them, lest we fall into resignation or melancholy.