Stoicism and its Legacy


Text written for a public lecture at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, accompanying a small exhibition of Stoic-related books. The talk was recorded and is available as a podcast.

In what follows I am going to try to do three things. I shall try to introduce the ancient philosophy of Stoicism for those who may not know so much about it; I shall try to say something about its later reception; and I shall try to say something about the particular books that are on display. That’s quite ambitious for a relatively short talk but I’ll do my best.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Stoics were so called because they used to meet to discuss philosophical topics at the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in ancient Athens. They started to do so sometime around 300 BC and their founder was Zeno, originally from Cyprus. When Zeno first arrived in Athens he came under the influence of a philosopher called Crates, who was a follower of Diogenes the Cynic. In order to understand the origins of Stoicism it may be useful to say something about the Cynics. The Cynics were famous for their complete rejection of traditional customs and conventions, preferring instead to live as close to nature as they could, hence the name, Cynic or ‘dog-like’. Diogenes, Crates, and other Cynics held that all of the external things that people typically hold to be important for a good life, such as money or social reputation, have no intrinsic value and that all we need in order to live a good, happy life is virtue – that is, an excellent, healthy state of mind. If we have that then we shall live well. Moreover the knowledge that that is all we need in order to live well will enable us face the sorts of external trials and tribulations that will inevitably come along with a calm indifference.

There are two key ideas in what I have just said: i) the idea that only virtue or an excellent state of mind is necessary for living a good, happy life, and ii) the idea that we ought to look to Nature as our guide when thinking about how to live. Both of these ideas left a big impression on Zeno and they went on to become central ideas in Stoicism. But Zeno was clearly not entirely satisfied by Cynicism otherwise he would have presumably joined their ranks instead of setting out on his own. While the Cynics offered a very direct and practical philosophy of life they had less to say about the sorts of theoretical questions that occupy philosophers today. But other philosophers in Athens at the time did address those sorts of questions and Zeno was keen to study with them too. In particular he is said to have spent a number of years as a student at Plato’s Academy where he would have studied a wide range of topics that remain central in philosophy today: questions about what exists, about what knowledge is, and so on.

But ultimately Zeno chose not to join the Academy either and decided to set out on his own. We are told that his immediate followers were known as Zenonians but after a while they came to be known as Stoics after the place where they met to discuss philosophy each day. Inspired by elements of both his Cynic and Platonic education Zeno developed his own distinctive philosophy. In some respects it seems to us a strikingly modern philosophy. Zeno and the other early Stoics held that all of our knowledge comes through the senses and that the only things that exist are material bodies. There is no immortal soul or afterlife, and all that there is is what we see before us. Nature as a whole ought to be thought of as an organic unity, a living being of which we are parts, pre-empting some strands of contemporary ecological thinking. So far so good. Perhaps less modern is the claim that we ought to identify this living Nature with God, and think of it as animated by a divine spirit or breath permeating everything, including us. Indeed the Stoics identify this breath as the soul of God and suggest that each of our individual souls is literally a fragment of this divine soul. This divine spirit immanent within Nature is ultimately responsible for everything that happens and is identified with God’s will, with reason, with providence, and with fate. Everything that happens does so necessarily and does so according to a providential and rational plan.

That tells us something about Stoic physics – how they conceived Nature. When I discussed the Cynics earlier I touched on two ideas that would become central in Stoic ethics. One of the distinctive characteristics of Stoic philosophy is its desire to bring these different parts of philosophy together into a systematic whole. I don’t have time to go into this in the detail that it deserves here but let me at least try to join a few jots. As we have seen the Stoics take from the Cynics the idea that we ought to live in harmony with Nature and, as we have also seen, they develop a pantheistic conception of Nature. So to live in harmony with Nature is to live in harmony with the divine, rational will. We have also seen that the Stoics think that all we need to live a good, happy life is a virtuous, excellent mental state, and we can now see that our own mental virtue is a fragment of the divine soul. So, the more virtuous and rational we become the more in harmony we become with the rational principle that guides all of Nature.

There is one more Stoic idea I should mention before moving on, and it is one for which they are very famous, namely their attitude towards the emotions. The word ‘stoic’ has entered modern vocabulary as a word referring to the control or suppression of emotion, but the ancient Stoic position is something different. The early Stoics suggest that our emotions are not some separate force within our minds that need to be controlled but rather that they are simply the product of beliefs we hold that, in turn, are the product of judgements we make about things. If we alter our judgements, our beliefs will change, and so will our emotions. One consequence of this view is the claim that our emotions are ultimately within our power.

The Stoics go on to claim that many of the harmful emotions that cause people so much distress are in fact based on mistaken judgements and that if we can learn to see why they are mistaken and then stop making them, we shall be able to overcome them. Many of these harmful emotions arise from judgements about external objects or events – thinking that some event is a terrible thing, or worrying about something that might happen in the future, and so on. But if we accept the claim that it is our own inner virtue that is the only thing that really matters for our well being then we shall see that these external things are inessential and that we ought not to judge them as good or bad strictly speaking at all. If we refrain from making those judgements then we won’t generate the harmful emotions.

A slightly later Stoic, Epictetus (whom we’ll come to shortly), adds the thought that these external things are all ultimately out of our control anyway, whereas the one thing that will guarantee our happiness, namely making correct judgements, is the only thing completely within our control. If we can grasp this idea and focus our attention on our own judgements then, if we start to make only correct judgements, we shall avoid unpleasant emotions, not be overly concerned about external trials and tribulations, and achieve the virtuous, rational state of mind that the Stoics claim is the only thing that can deliver a genuinely good and happy life.

I hope that gives us at least a sense of what the Stoics thought. I mentioned earlier that Zeno founded the school. After he died he was succeeded by his pupil Cleanthes, who was, in turn, succeeded by Chrysippus. In many ways Chrysippus was the most important of the early Stoics and much of what I have just described may have been formulated by him. He was also the most prolific of the early Stoics and is said to have written over 700 books. Unfortunately for us more or less all of the works of the early Stoics are lost and for our knowledge of them we have to rely on summaries and quotations preserved by later ancient authors. However there have been some more recent discoveries: at the end of the eighteenth century fragments from previously lost works by Chrysippus were recovered from the charred papyrus scrolls unearthed at Herculaneum. In some cases the scrolls literally crumbled into dust not long after being opened but their contents were thankfully recorded in drawings before they disintegrated. In the display we have a reproduction of one of these drawings, made in 1802 and held in the Bodleian, which now that the scroll is lost is the only evidence we have for the text it records, in this case the Logical Questions of Chrysippus.

The early Stoics including Zeno and Chrysippus were all teaching and writing in Athens in the third and second centuries BC. In the first century BC Athens lost its status as the preeminent centre for philosophy while at the same time Roman authors such as Cicero made the ideas of the Stoics and other Greek schools of philosophy available to a Latin-reading audience. Stoicism attracted a number of Roman admirers and in the first two centuries AD we find what were to become the three great canonical Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca is famous, or perhaps infamous, for being tutor to the Emperor Nero and, as well as writing a series of philosophical essays and letters, he also wrote a series of tragedies. Epictetus was a slave originally from Asia Minor who found himself in Rome where his master allowed him to attend the lectures of a Stoic called Musonius Rufus. In due course Epictetus gained his freedom and he went on to found his own philosophy school in Western Greece. Like his hero Socrates, Epictetus chose to write nothing but one of his pupils, the historian Arrian, wrote up his lecture notes and these notes form the work we now know as the Discourses. Arrian also produced a shorter summary of key ideas called the Handbook. Marcus Aurelius was of course the Emperor who kept a notebook of philosophical reflections we now know as the Meditations. The story of the influence of Stoic ideas is in large part the story of the influence of these three Roman Stoic authors, although we ought not to forget the importance of other sources, such as Cicero, who did much to preserve and transmit Stoic ideas to later generations.

In the third century AD Stoicism fell out of favour, eclipsed in philosophical circles by a renewed interest in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and eclipsed in the wider culture as a practical guide to living by Christianity. While Stoicism did have some influence on the development of both Neoplatonism and early Christian thought, it no longer held the prominent position it had in previous centuries. This continued for much of the Middle Ages, although there were of course exceptions, such as the 13th century Oxford philosopher Roger Bacon, whose section on ethics in his major philosophical work is little more than a patchwork of quotations from Seneca because Bacon thought that Seneca had more or less got it right.

It is in the Renaissance and in particular with the Renaissance Humanists that we see a significant revival of interest in Stoicism. The recovery of previously neglected ancient texts, a taste for Latin authors, and a rejection of the predominant Aristotelian scholastic approach to philosophy all contributed to a renewed interest in the Stoics. All these elements can be seen in the case of Petrarch, writing in the 14th century. Perhaps a little unfairly, Petrarch dismissed Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as a tedious book that left him cold. In its place Petrarch read Cicero, Seneca, and Augustine, all of whom informed him about Stoicism and led ultimately to him composing his Stoic-inspired dialogue Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune. The two kinds are of course bad fortune and good fortune, for Petrarch followed Seneca in seeing unbridled good luck as a very dangerous thing indeed – dangerous because it lulls us into thinking that the external goods that it brings really are goods, when in fact only virtue is a genuine good.

Stoic texts and ideas circulated widely in the 15th century, in both manuscript and print. On display we have a Florentine Manuscript of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, a work in which Cicero discussed at length the Stoic theory of the emotions that I touched on earlier. We also have a copy of the Humanist Angelo Poliziano’s translation into Latin of the Handbook of Epictetus, printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1498.

It was, however in the 16th and 17th centuries that Stoicism came into its own. In the early 16th century both Erasmus and Calvin spent time editing Seneca’s works and it has been suggested that Calvin’s later ideas about predestination owed something to his knowledge of Stoic ideas about fate. But the real revival came a little later in the work of the Flemish Humanist Justus Lispius. Lipsius was primarily an admirer of Seneca and his dialogue De Constantia written in 1584 presented some of the central Stoic ideas he found in Seneca as what he called an ‘antidote to public evils’. What is striking about Lipsius is that he seems to have wanted to revive Stoicism as a living philosophical movement, or at least a contemporary guide to life. He gathered around himself a number of pupils, including Philip Rubens, brother of Peter Paul Rubens, who wrote some Stoic-inspired poetry published in the volume of his that is on display. In the display we have a reproduction of Peter Paul Ruben’s painting The Four Philosophers that depicts Lipsius reading with some of his pupils. Philip Rubens is among the seated and Peter Paul represents himself standing to the side. The whole group is watched over by a bust of Seneca. (As an aside the ancient bust depicted in the painting is no longer thought to be of Seneca, but Rubens used it here and in his famous painting of the death of Seneca, which is reproduced as an engraved frontispiece to one of the volumes on display.)

While the De Constantia was a pocketbook guide to life focused on how one might draw on Stoic ideas in times of difficulty, Lipsius’s major contributions to Stoic scholarship came later, at the end of his career. In 1605 he published a huge folio edition of Seneca’s works and on display we have one of the later reprints for which the original engravings were revised by Rubens. The year before, in 1604, Lipsius published two handbooks to Stoicism in which he gathered together the scattered fragmentary evidence for the early Stoics for the very first time. These are also on display.

The revival of interest in Stoicism inspired by Lipsius is sometimes called Neostoicism by modern scholars. Neostoicism, so the story goes, is distinct from ancient Stoicism insofar as it proposes various modifications of Stoic doctrine in order to make it acceptable to contemporary Christian readers. At first glance this is what Lipsius appears to do in his De Constantia where he seems to suggest that modern Christian admirers of Stoicism ought to reject the rigid determinism of ancient Stoicism in order to leave room for free will and miracles. In fact I think Lipsius is more orthodox a Stoic than many readers have supposed but the important point for present purposes is that the reception of Stoic ideas in this period was unsurprisingly shaped by its relationship with Christianity.

It is at this point that I should mention Thomas James, who was Thomas Bodley’s first librarian. James was evidently something of an admirer of the Neostoic movement as he translated into English a work by Guillaume du Vair, a French follower of Lipsius who drew heavily on Epictetus. In the preface to the translation, which is on display, James wrote that ‘no kinde of philosophie is more profitable and nearer approaching unto Christianitie than the philosophie of the Stoicks’.

When half a century later the vicar of Rotherhithe Thomas Gataker published his important edition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which is also on display, he prefaced the edition with a lengthy introduction championing the text’s compatibility with Christianity and he included a list of parallels with Biblical passages.

It wasn’t too difficult for these early modern readers of the Roman Stoic authors to find high-minded moral sentiments about virtue and indifference to earthly goods that chimed with their own Christian values. But as people gained a better understanding of the determinist, materialist, and pantheist physics of the early Stoics the claims made by Lipsius, James, and Gataker seemed less convincing. While Christian writers in the early 18th century began to attack Stoicism as a form of atheism, by the middle of the century Enlightenment thinkers started to champion them for the very same reason.

While these disputes about the relationships between God and Nature and free will and determinism went on, other readers continued to turn to the Roman Stoics as a source of practical moral wisdom, less concerned by such physical or theological questions. Noteworthy among these was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who kept a philosophical notebook modelled on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in which he drew extensively on Marcus and Epictetus and reflected on a range of practical questions about how to live. Shaftesbury studied these texts very closely and even proposed a series of amendments to the Greek texts, some of which are recorded in the critical apparatus of an edition of Epictetus by John Upton, first published in 1739. I mention this because Upton’s edition was the one used by Elizabeth Carter for the final item on display, her translation of Epictetus, published in 1758. Carter’s edition is noteworthy for completing the translation of the principal Roman Stoic texts into English. Marcus Aurelius had been translated a number of times by then, most notably by Meric Casaubon in 1634 who coined the title Meditations in the process. And Seneca had been translated in 1614 by Thomas Lodge, who simply translated Lipsius’s edition, including much of his editorial material, and Lodge’s edition of Seneca is on display. But the Discourses of Epictetus had to wait until the 1750s before Carter made them accessible to English readers.

I’d like to conclude by saying something about more recent uses of Stoicism. Everything I’ve said so far has been about the past and one might think that while Stoicism is an interesting thread in the history of philosophy and ideas, it is of little relevance to us today. But it is striking to note that a number of the founding figures of modern cognitive psychotherapy have cited Stoicism as a central influence. In particular Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis have both pointed to the importance of Epictetus’ famous statement that it is not things but our judgements about things that disturb us. Indeed, Ellis went so far as to call Epictetus ‘one of the patron saints of cognitive behavior therapy’. So the ancient Stoic idea that philosophy might offer some kind of therapy for the emotions is alive and well today, and the legacy of Stoicism continues.

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