Stoicism is, without a doubt, one of the most widely misunderstood schools of Philosophy ever established and followed by a wide number of people. The common opinion of Stoic adherents is that they are merely cold, somber individuals dedicated to the idea that happiness is evil, emotion is to be avoided at all costs and pleasure is wicked. Although they do stress control over strong emotions and that pleasure is not the sole end of life, this is a gross misunderstanding of Stoicism.
According to Dr. Zeno Breuninger, Stoics believe a person is born with everything he needs. The Stoic seeks to lead a life at peace with himself and the world around him, governed at all times by moderation and Virtue. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium 331-232 BC), who was a merchant until a shipwreck found him in Athens where he began to study many schools of philosophy(Fieser). He was followed By Cleanthes 331-233 BC) who, originally an athlete, was considered not brilliant but hardworking. Neither of these, however, left any surviving writings.
It is only due to the writings of Chryssipus 281-208 BC), the third head of the ancient Athenian Stoics, that we have any knowledge of the teachings of the early Stoics(Ecole; Mining Co. ) Later Stoics include the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and these have left several works that outline Stoic philosophy, especially Ethics. Perhaps most well known are the Meditations of Aurelius, one of the most well known of Stoic writings. Stoicism is still alive today, revived by men such as Dr. Breuninger, who strive for virtuous life through Stoic teachings(International).
The Stoics, especially Chryssipus, altered the very logical form commonly used by Aristotle and others. The If-Then statement used by the Stoics was a replacement of the form used by Aristotle. Where Aristotle would say, All humans are mortal, the Stoics would phrase it If some person is human then that person is mortal(Fieser). This method, later developed by modern logicians such as Bertrand Russell, is the logic of propositions, where a statement is true if it can be reduced to one of the five in demonstrable forms of the If-Then statement, and is considered one of the greatest Stoic contributions(Stanford;Ecole).
In the realm of Metaphysics, Stoics were essentially materialists(Ecole). They adopted from Plato the idea that reality is marked by the ability to act or be acted upon. To this they added that only a body can do this. Thus, only bodies exist(Stanford). God must, then, be material. The Stoic vision of God is as a Cosmic order, also referred to as Reason, Logos, and a Creative Fire(Ecole). The Stoic God is, then, Pantheistic, one with the universe. Matter is inert, there to be acted upon by this universal plan.
This plan is crafted from the inside, and God acts not as external deity but as a living seed from which the universal order is grown(Stanford). The Stoics identified with the belief, in vogue at the time, that matter is composed of four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. Fire and air were considered to be active, whereas water and earth were labeled passive. Fire and air, the active elements, combine to form pneuma or breath. This pneuma has a constant simultaneous inward and outward movement that holds matter together and yields it the qualities which it possesses.
Pneuma is an interesting concept: It acts upon things, so must be a body, yet it is one with other bodies in the same place at the same time. This blending was apparently allowed by Stoic philosophy, and was necessary as the Pneuma also seemed to serve the function of the soul in higher animals, and take care of bodily functions in both plants and animals(Stanford) thus the soul was both material and one with the physical body. Another concept set forth in Stoic metaphysics is known as eternal recurrence. This is the idea that the universe repeats itself, that everything is a continuous cycle that completely and exactly repeats.
One will, in each successive cycle, be the exact same person he is in the current cycle. Each cycle will begin and end with the same creative fire that began the process, and the other three elements are added into the creation process accordingly(Fieser). When considering Stoicism, it seems epistemology is generally grouped with logic. According to Fieser, this was the way Zeno considered that they should be. This idea is echoed by other sources as well by the organization of their research. Stoics did not believe in abstract universals such as those proposed by Plato and Aristotle.
Only particular things exist, and our knowledge of them is based on impressions they make upon the soul(Ecole). Thus, knowledge depends on sensation, for the soul is material. Knowledge comes from giving assent to a cognitive impression. This is an impression stamped by something that must exist, for it could not leave its mark if it did not. According to Zeno, there are four levels of deepening knowledge. On the surface is the cognitive impression. This is followed by casual assent, a mere acknowledgment of the idea. Then comes comprehension, marked by a deep understanding.
Lastly, Science is the strongest degree of conviction that the perception is right. Zeno illustrated this as a tightening fist that eventually grabs one and drags him to assent(Fieser). Due to arguments from Skeptics about the possibility of being grabbed by false impressions, later Stoics stated that cognitive impressions command assent if there is no impediment to their acceptance(Stanford). Stoicism was concerned primarily with Axiology. More, specifically, most Stoic teachings dealt with Ethics and the search for the most noble life.
The first question faced was that of what is happiness? Unlike the Epicureans, peers and rivals of the Stoic adherents, pleasure was not seen as the fastest way to happiness or the goal of life(Stanford). As having what is really good in one’s life defines happiness, the question of what good is comes to light. The Stoic view of good, then, defines what they saw as the path to happiness. Stoics taught that there is only one good. That is Virtue. There are many virtues, of which there are four cardinal, or chief virtues.
From this spring the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance(Stoic). Only through living a virtuous life, then, can happiness be attained. Likewise, there is but one evil, that being Vice. However, not all things are virtues or vices. All other things were considered indifferent by the Stoics(White). This stance was, though, altered slightly. How can all else be indifferent? Herein lies, at best, a paradox. For example, the Stoic would say that both poverty and wealth are indifferent. Is not plenty better than destitution(White)?
This is explained by the idea that, although wealth is not good and poverty bad, wealth does have some value that makes it preferable to poverty. This value does not deal with its goodness, however. Thus, there are positive, negative, and truly indifferent indifferents. Positive indifferents are positive because they are fitting or suitable to us. Plenty is more suitable to us than poverty. Health is more suitable than sickness. Pain is less suitable than the absence of it. So, although some indifferents are preferable to others, it is only the virtues that make one’s life good.
Stoics believe that a life in harmony with nature requires these virtues. Their view that the universe is driven in a fixed cycle by the creative fire-reason-God leads them to a logical outcome that the things that happen to them are predetermined and unavoidable(Fieser). Thus, it makes little sense to try to avoid the inevitable. We believe that we are born without the ball, and we will die without it. It is only here for us to use for a short time, so why cry when we have to give it up or use it later(International)?
This is in reference to an example of a child crying when a toy is taken by another child. The Stoic learns to accept their situation and live according to nature: that is, accepting what happens to them, and not trying to change their fate. Everywhere and continuously it is in your power to be reverently content with your present circumstance, to behave to men who are present with you according to right and to handle skillfully the present impression, that nothing you have not mastered may cross the threshold of the mind(Aurelius 139).
The only acceptable actions to be taken are those that function according to nature and are virtuous, such as caring for one’s body(Stanford). The presence of virtues allows the Stoic to be content with his situation as he learns to want nothing more than what he has. Love only what falls to your lot and is destined for you; what is more suited to you than that(Aurelius 139)? This is the goal of the Stoic, as virtue has become happiness in the sense that he is now in possession of this, the only good.
When the Stoic view of good and the soul are understood, then can their views on emotion be conceived. There is no Stoic teaching that all emotion is bad. They, more accurately, warned against yielding to passions. The Stoics labeled these passions as appetite and fear(Stanford; Aurelius 25). They saw passions as leading one to actions which are irrational, and therefore, wrong. If one is overtaken by strong, overwhelming emotions, then he cannot live according to natural law and virtues(Stoic).
Thus, it is true that the Stoics have always taught restraint, but not complete abstinence from emotion. Stoicism has been much criticized and misunderstood due to its teachings about emotion and virtue. It is true that the Stoic view of Virtue and Vice leaves a rather obvious question about indifferents that is rather weakly explained by later Stoics. Also, the whole concept of the four basic elements of matter are obviously contrary to current scientific truth. Furthermore, their concept of God as a creative fire is totally inconsistent with Christianity and many other world religions.
Despite these weaknesses in Stoic thought, there are many ideas expressed by the Stoics that are applicable, even beneficial to our lives today. How the world is in need of leadership concerned with virtuous living and leading! Who would not benefit by exertion of some greater control over their passions and fears? Although no philosophy seems to have a grasp on exactly what man’s purpose is and the way he is to go about achieving that end, Stoics seem to have grasped a few concepts that all would do well to emulate.