Philosophy On A Porch
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.
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
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,
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.