Through The Glass Darkly

The Stoics

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early third century BC. The name "Stoicism" derives from the Stoa Poikile, or "painted porch", a colonnade decorated with mythic and historical battle scenes, on the north side of the Agora in Athens, where Zeno and his followers gathered to discuss their ideas. It was one of the major philosophical schools in classical Athens, along with the Plato’s Academy, the tradition of Aristotle, and the Epicureans. Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the third century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance. The French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne was a notable stoic as was the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

It is a philosophy of personal ethics. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness, or blessedness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. One of the key ideas of the stoics was cosmopolitanism; because we share a common logos or reason, we are citizens of a shared world.

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life, said Epictetus in his Discourses. Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved.

Stoicism was a way of life and not just an academic study. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. Becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos ). A primary aspect of stoicism involves improving the individual's ethical and moral well-being - "Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature." This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships - "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy," and to accept even slaves as "equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature".

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that "virtue is the only good" for human beings, and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves, but have value as "material for virtue to act upon". Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said, but how a person behaved.

Scholars usually divide the history of stoicism into three phases:

Early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno to Antipater; Middle Stoa, including Panaetius and Posidonius; Late Stoa, including Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the default setting among educated Romans.

The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute "ask sis", that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline, temperance is split into self-control, discipline and modesty. Mindfulness, in other words.

The good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. The aim was peace of mind, understood as the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature—the logos or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.

The four cardinal virtues (aretai ) of Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato, highly regarded by the stoic tradition

Wisdom (Greek: "phronesis" or "sophia", Latin: prudentia or sapientia )

Courage (Greek: "andreia", Latin: fortitudo )

Justice (Greek: "dikaiosyne", Latin: iustitia )

Temperance (Greek: "sophrosyne", Latin: temperantia ).

Next week: Stoicism and Christianity


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