On Five Schools: The Stoics

PhilosoPhactor: The Stoics
Philosophy On A Porch

This is the second in a five part series in which I have selected five
ancient schools of philosophy, each as a modern archetype for the philosophies you’ll find among people. Within these five I see a patternwork still in
evidence in the world of mankind. These are five schools whose maxims are
well known, each attempting to instruct us how to live a good life.
You may not know the source, and the maxim may have evolved into
many forms, or just an idea, but the principles are well soaked into so
called western cultures. It is not just that we find some of our ideas similar, in these schools we see our philosophical great grandfathers and mothers. My understanding, relativistic, is that each works best in specific conditions.

(by pyrrho for publishing jointly at MLW and DocuDharma)

The Stoics:

As with most of these schools I’ll cover, the name of the school has come
to have a common modern meaning. If it’s fair or not is for someone else to
decide, as a skeptic I’m a bit biased but it seems to me the modern meaning of “stoic” get’s at the meaning of the original school better
than the Epicureans got with “epicurean”. An ancient stoic would have less objection to being called stoic in modern terms than and ancient Epicurean would being called an epicurean in the modern sense, which would offend them.

zeno I will be using the print version of the Oxford “Dictionary of
Philosophy” to refresh myself for this series.

Links offered above may or may not have been referenced to research this
post. I may or may not believe their assertions or have been exposed to them,
but they are given to ease further your direct research should you like. I
give my own impressions of the topics within, please form your own
impressions if you are at all interested in the topics, mine include my own
simplifications and interpretations. I try to present them fairly, clearly,
but I am a skeptic myself, a relativist with opinions on all these schools,
and a tendency to eschew the doctrinaire side of each of these schools,
myself, and tend to seek and emphasize the reusable tools each has to

To be stoic is to be resolute in the face of adversity, to uphold virtue, usualy in a traditional sense of virtue. One
thing about the name, and the school, which reflects back on Epicurus’ false
reputation is that the Stoics are named after the Place where Zeno of Citium
taught, the Stoa Poikile, the Painted Porch, rather than after Zeno of
Citium. As a result, and due to a long life of the school, the stoic philosophy
went through
various stages and had a chance to become something different from Zeno’s
philosophy. If it was a refinement or blurring is a matter of interpretation but whatever Epicurus’ self-described followers believed, his philosophy remains
a particular thing attached to his original thinking in spite of how it might be used as an excuse for
indulgence. In contrast to that, and also as a major
contemporary opponent of Epicureanism, Stoicism comes to represent a spirit. It becomes an approach, and that approach was traditionalism. That the world is knowable turns easilly into a belief that it is known, that the our leaders are the right leaders, that our traditions are not random, but sublimely reasonable.

Frankly, the Stoics are conservative in my book, but in moderation, and as such still have
some sage advice. Indeed, I often notice the stoic in the principled conservative, as the source of their misalignment with the Republican party, just a soul seeking a no nonsense strong will, sympathetic to tradition, and accepting the hardness of life as a given. Whomever you are, aometimes you have to be stoic, you ought to be. Sometimes
you owe it to someone, to civil rights, for example, and you have to stand
bravely against something hard. Sometimes such resolve requires philosophy, a philosophy where
virtue is a higher value than practicality… than fear, where hardship is a given and the mind spends no time railing against the unfairness of it all. Alternately, sometimes life is
hard, and the practical thing is in fact the stoic approach, “Don’t Panic”… and the Stoic philosophy is fairly
good at facing such natural adversity. The Stoics are
traditionalists, and take comfort in the certainty tradition offers.

If you want the details of such exchanges of control over the Stoic school and its teachings,
check out the links to the right. The final stages are dominated by an era of
“Roman Stoicism” and this philosophy represents a kind of more chaste Roman
than one might imagine from reading Gaius Petronius.

The Stoics ended up over time favoring a lot of conventional wisdom of the
sort that believes in the rules. They believe in order, it is both a
criticism and compliment to say they make apathy a virtue. I for one have more
sympathy with apathy as a value than traditionalism. Zeno held
that only living virtuously had value, all else was “indifferent”. This is
potentially the philosophy of a hardy soul. The term stoic isn’t quite fair
to that model because it implies something more resolute and less tender… so remember
the stoic of real virtue and endurance can be the noble political activist. Being
too rigid, too stoic, can be a vice when times are good, but when there is an
emergency, and a cousin has broken his leg on a family camping trip miles
from help, the family turns to the stoic members to bear their burdens and carry them through.

Stoicism is a very familiar philosophy, it can be going down with the ship with
dignity, or just as a way to endure winter without
the sort of panic and drama that besets the, well, less stoic. I’ll be honest,
stoicism doesn’t
appeal to me in nearly as pleasant ways as Epicureanism…
Below more technical details about the Stoics.

Zeno of Citium founded the Stoa, teaching at the stoa poikile in 300 BC. His was the early stoa, the middle stoa, circa 135-51BC, brought the stoa into the Roman world, where it flourished as the late stoa. Stoa as a professional society fought long running critical battles with the nihilistic skeptics of “The Acadamy”, Plato’s school which after his time turned far away from Platonism to a radical nihilistic skepticism. While these skeptics heralded the unknowability of everything, the stoics in absolute contrast accepted a concept of knowledge in which one could reach outside the mind and apprehend reality. Our use of “comprehend” as a conceptual analog of apprehend traces back to a stoic view of how information could make it into the mind in an absolutely knowable form.

For the stoic, verdical knowledge, which can be accepted as true and correct, was judged on grounds which, while given a rational basis, can be recognized, I think, as conventional wisdom: clarity, common consent, probability and system. All these were attacked on skeptical grounds and logical reduction but continue to have wide popular support.

The stoics, unsurprisingly given their general gait as they walk through the world, believed in a physics that was solidly deterministic and orderly, and employed the concept of eternal return. The concept of eternal return is seen repeatedly in philosophy in various forms, generally a principle about the patterns in nature, and idea that one event is followed inexorably by it’s natural consequent, and these form cycles in which the same flow of events happens again and again. Experiences can be seen to “return”. Extreme versions of this principle involve physical laws or metaphysical ideas, such as the hypothetical principle and thought experiment Nietzsche offered in the form of The Eternal Recurrence.

The stoic proofs of God also followed a pattern still familiar in the modern world, relying on argument about the grand design of nature. While “stoic” can mean hard, from the stoic point of view stoicism is benevolent, self-sufficient, and calm. This is what renders the stoic virtuous, peaceful and leads to his subsequent indifference to poverty, pain and death (both his, and notably, others’). Upon this sublime indifference is modeled the stoic God, a character recognizable today in the faith’s of many.

The stoics, from their view, sought only to replicate in mankind the order they saw in the cosmos, and it was, as with all these schools, at an early point at least, a sincere undertaking. What I take from the stoics is not what a lot of people take… faith in a safety net of traditional understanding, rules of thumb which by their nature remain unexplained. It is rather the cold indifference required to go forth without hope when circumstance requires. Recently I have written and otherwise spoke about the maxim “Hope is for the weak” not in a defeatist sense but rather an indomitable sense. I mean it as a stoic might, in the sense of having strength to go on without hope if need be, of communicating to the self, about adversity, that it is powerless to take your will. For the stoics, and for us, this is based on virtue and knowledge of what must be striven for.


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  1. I think of Mr. Spock.

    Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: “Follow where reason leads.” One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of passion was “anguish” or “suffering”[8], that is, “passively” reacting to external events – somewhat different to the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural patheia) which is normally translated as “passion”, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g. turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings resulting from correct judgment in the same way as the passions result from incorrect judgment.

    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 of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom (Sophia), courage (Andreia), justice (Dikaiosyne), and temperance (Sophrosyne), a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.

    A futuristic archetype of the ancient concept.

  2. is currently on display over S-CHIP.

    They know it is wrong, but they have to defend the leader of their ‘tradition.’

    Too bad for them their tradition is currently represented by a madman in thrall to the corporations.

  3. seems to me to be a philosophy that denies a great portion of the human experience, namely emotions. It makes for the perfect slave or soldier, who follows orders and faces pains, even death, without protest. It is a philosophy that seeks to turn humans into robots.

    I sometimes see elements of stoicism raising its head in the style of argument by some self defined “realists.”

    Will you also discuss Epicurus? I found a site that discusses his philosophy. It is one I can identify with more than stoicism.

  4. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I used to accuse my husband of being a stoic, as he is seemingly unemotional, rational,moderate and not at all materialistic. He recommended I read The Meditations so I did, oddly enough I liked it. However in actuality Shayhar is not a stoic in the sense you are describing, he’s a view it from above type, which I found elements of in Marcus Aurelius ‘the point of view of the cosmos’. 

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