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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Stoicism is the name of a comprehensive philosophical
system inaugurated at Athens by Zeno of Citium in
the last years of the fourth century B.C. The system
was divided for the purposes of exposition into three
subjects: physics, logic, and ethics; but between these
there is a fundamental connection which makes
Stoicism an organic unity, a philosophy of rational
coherence. The ethical goal is life in accordance with
nature, physis, and this is achieved by consistently
rational or “logical” action (kata logon zēn). Physics,
or the understanding of nature, provides the field of
morality with its values; logic grasps the relationship
between statements and events, which enables man to
articulate nature for himself and plan his life accord-
ingly. The significance of such familiar Stoic attitudes
as uncomplaining endurance of hardship and inflexible
will cannot be adequately grasped without reference
to their physical and logical basis.

1. The Physical Basis of Stoic Ethics. In Stoic the-
ory the world is an organic whole, a rational being,
conceptually divisible into two principles, active and
passive: the active principle is pneuma (“fiery breath”),
a vital, all-pervasive power which gives quality and
coherence to the passive principle, “matter” (earth and
water). Pneuma and matter together constitute “body,”
and body is all that exists. Particular material objects,
whether animate or inanimate, are differentiations of
pneuma in matter, marked off from one another by
their internal structure, but interconnected externally,
since matter is continuous, in contradistinction to the
Democritean, Epicurean Atomism, and its empty
spaces. The external contact between all bodies gives
rise to an eternal sequence of cause and effect, since
movement is a defining characteristic of the pneuma
which organizes all things. This organizing principle
is also called reason (logos), providence (pronoia), and
destiny (moira); all of these are predicates of Nature
or God, who is conceived as the world-soul, a perfect
being, which is immanent in everything and which
directs events to achieve worthy ends.

Man, like all things, is pervaded by God, but he
possesses a special status. The pneuma which gives
coherence to a stone and life to a plant manifests itself
as reason (logos) in mature men. The natural life for
man is “rational” life and this makes him a partner
of God, or universal Nature. As Epictetus, the Stoic
slave, puts it (Discourses I. i, 12): “We [i.e., the gods]
have given you a certain portion of ourselves, the
faculty of choice and refusal, of desire and aversion;
that is, the faculty to make use of the impressions
presented to your mind.” Natural events are outside
human control, but man has the power to evaluate
them and adapt his life accordingly. The world as a
whole develops in an ordered pattern, determined by
immanent providence. But this does not, in the Stoic
view, remove human responsibility for good and evil.
It is the proper function of man's nature to grasp the
cosmic order by his own logos. He achieves happiness
and goodness when he does nothing which is incon-
sistent with or alien to the will of God or Nature.

How does the Stoic set about this task? He has no
innate ideas, no Platonic Forms, the recollection of
which can provide criteria for moral action. His
knowledge is entirely empirical, and the truth of what
he apprehends depends upon external impressions of
a sufficiently clear and accurate kind. But there are
certain guidelines laid down for human nature which
can serve, at least initially, as standards for action, and
which enable the developing logos to grasp the princi-
ples on which morality itself is based. The human
being, like all creatures, has an instinctive attraction
towards those things which promote its own well-being
and a complementary aversion towards their opposites.
Self-love, family feeling, desire for health—these are
basic drives, and their specific objects are “primarily
in accordance with nature.” The human infant will
naturally take something appropriate to its constitution
rather than the reverse, and the same applies to the
mature man. But man differs from the child in his
possession of logos. Moral choice, unlike infantile and
animal behavior, is not a simple response of the orga-
nism to the environment. It is explained by Cicero as
follows (De finibus III, 20-21): from the system of
values acquired by his instinctive responses a mature
man of sound reason intuits a higher-order system, a
principle of moral action, which grasps the relationship
between all events and provides the ultimate category
of value.

2. The Logical Basis of Stoic Ethics. Logos, hitherto
translated “reason,” also means “speech,” and the
Stoics devoted much attention to the analysis of lan-
guage and logic in its formal sense. They recognized
as a fundamental distinction between men and animals
the fact that man alone possesses the power of “internal
speech” and an idea of consequence or succession
(ennoia akolouthias). In the content of his significant
discourse man grasps connections in nature, and true
statements are the expression in language of such con-
nections. The sequence of events is ordered and a
necessary consequence of the universal causal nexus.
Only God, who oversees and determines all things,
possesses complete foreknowledge of events. But to the
human reason the world presents itself as a set of events
about which some valid inferences are possible and
indeed necessary if life in accordance with nature is
to be realized by an act of will, rather than external


necessity. In its cruder form this concern for the future
stimulated beliefs in the efficacy of divination, but the
basis of these was the thoroughly scientific principle
that no event occurs without a cause and that signs
of what will happen are available in nature. It is likely
enough that the Stoics' concern for valid inference and
the logical rules which they formulated concerning
hypotheticals were partly prompted by the practical
desire to make prediction as reliable as possible. The
sage is a logician not from academic inclination but
because life in accordance with nature and reason
requires understanding events and the consequences
which follow from them.

Logos is the characteristic of mature human nature;
only its “seeds” are available to the child. Provided
that it is not corrupted by external influences, the
developed logos will enable man to grasp the true
nature of reality, and it will stand as the moral princi-
ple which directs him to a correspondence between
himself and the world. But this natural condition of
the logos is generally not realized owing to “perver-
sions” brought about in childhood by the environment
and bad upbringing. Events themselves and human
influence give rise to beliefs that pain is an evil, pleas-
ure a good, and success or failure in the world the states
to be sought or avoided. This system of values produces
as its consequence actions which are alogos, not irra-
tional as such, but contrary to reason in its natural or
healthy condition. Actions which are properly rational
or “logical” are actions prompted by a logos whose
soundness is guaranteed by the fact that it accords with
Nature or God.

The Stoics' stress on logic led them to see the moral
agent as one who possesses “a body of true proposi-
tions” (Sextus Empiricus, Adversus mathematicos VII,
39-41) which he incorporates in his actions. The bad
man is false to facts. Stoic physics, which denied exist-
ence to the incorporeal, also influenced the treatment
of moral character. The logos itself is “pneuma in a
certain state,” and any state other than that enjoyed
by the good man is eo ipso a bad or unhealthy physical
condition. The fact that the good are differentiated
from the bad by criteria such as true/false, or
healthy/sick, helps to explain the hardness and rigidity
of Stoic ethical theory.

3. The Historical and Cultural Background of Stoic
In looking to Nature as the source of moral
principles which would be binding on any man of
sound reason, Zeno was strongly influenced by histori-
cal and social considerations. The Greek city-state,
which Plato and Aristotle had envisaged as the context
of moral action, was destroyed as an independent po-
litical entity by the conquests of Alexander the Great.
The old civic and national boundaries, though pre
served in theory, were of little consequence in the
enlarged world divided among Alexander's successors,
and the new capitals of Pergamum in Asia and
Alexandria in Africa came to rival Athens as centers
of culture. In a period of such social and political
upheaval, neither the traditional ethics, already found
wanting by Socrates and Plato, nor their immediate
philosophical alternatives provided adequate guides for
conduct. In Alexander's own lifetime the Cynic
Diogenes had challenged contemporary values by
rejecting civic life as an inadequate context for the
proper development of human nature. Zeno, while
avoiding some of the more scandalous aspects of Cynic
asceticism, was equally cosmopolitan in taking the
world itself for the context of moral action, and in
making virtue a disposition of the reason which it is
in the power of any man to realize. But, unlike
Diogenes, Zeno grounded moral theory in physics and
logic, and he also incorporated features of pre-Socratic,
Platonic, and Aristotelian thought. Like Heraclitus he
made logos something common to man and the uni-
verse; like Socrates and Plato he defined virtue in terms
of knowledge. And he seems to reflect Aristotle both
in his treatment of the relation between moral charac-
ter, action, and emotion, and in terminology and
method of analysis.

Zeno was a Phoenician by birth, but he settled in
Athens at an early age and established his school there.
It was fashionable until recently to invoke his Semitic
origin, and that of other early Stoics, as a key to under-
standing the particular character of Stoic ethics, but
this explanation is neither useful nor necessary.
Stoicism is thoroughly Greek, and its ethics derives its
distinctive quality more from a synthesis of existing
concepts than from the introduction of entirely new
ones. Zeno's ethical aim was to provide a basis for
moral action and a means to personal well-being in
the natural endowments of any man, irrespective of
his social status or personal circumstances.

4. The Stoic Concept of Value and Moral Action.
The universality of Stoic ethics is attained by making
goodness and happiness (the terms are interchangeable)
an internal state, a disposition of the logos. The four
cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, courage,
and self-control—are all aspects of the one rational
disposition and none of them is possible without the
other. The sage or ideal good man is one whose actions
are consistently determined by a reasoning faculty
which accords with the will of Nature or God. This
makes him the only free man. Reason does not give
the sage free will, in the sense that his actions are
undetermined by character and environment. But it
enables him to make what will happen part of his own
will and plan. He is completely unaffected by external


circumstances, since the understanding of nature has
taught him that the only good is virtue, and vice is
the only evil; all else is morally indifferent. Pain and
misfortune in general, like pleasure and external suc-
cess, fall within the category of “indifferents.” The
incidence of such things is not entirely within a man's
control, so that his happiness cannot be assured if it
depends on the gifts of fortune and pleasure. But he
has the power to determine his own attitude to events.
Hence the paradox that the sage is happy even on the
rack and all other men are unhappy no matter what
their situation. Strictly, pleasure and pain are irrelevant
to moral action, since they have nothing to do with
logos. The sage acts from principle or “logic”; pity and
“irrational feelings” are extirpated from his disposition,
though he does experience “rational” emotions such
as joy, and his conduct is invariably beneficial to other
good men. An action performed by the sage, such as
caring for parents, may look the same as the actions
of other men. But the sage's action will be good and
the actions of others bad, since the moral status of any
action is determined by the agent's disposition. The
dispositions of all who are not consistently good are
bad. Hence the further paradox that all men are either
wholly good or wholly bad; there is no midway condi-
tion and there are no degrees of virtue or vice.

This is a hard doctrine, which pays scant regard to
ordinary language or experience, but the reasoning
behind it is clear enough. Aristotle argued that happi-
ness requires a lifetime for its realization and that the
good man will never do anything wrong. Earlier still,
Plato had regarded wrongdoing as a product of
ignorance, claiming that knowledge of the good will
result in virtuous action. If virtue and happiness are
equated it is extremely difficult to account for vicious
action without reference to mistaken judgment, and
this in fact is the Stoic explanation. Bad men commit
errors of the kind mentioned above (Sec. 2) and though
these may differ in degree they do not differ in kind:
they are all equally faults. Virtuous behavior on six
days of the week is not enough. It is all or nothing—
either consistency with reason or inconsistency and

Although Stoic theory divided mankind into sages
and fools, it also recognized the common needs and
desires of all men. Man as a species is so constituted
that he naturally prefers health to sickness, wealth to
poverty, etc. Such conditions of prosperity and
adversity the Stoics termed “natural advantages and
disadvantages,” but they regarded the possession of
them as something morally neutral and irrelevant to
happiness. Virtue and vice are displayed in the manner
in which a man selects “natural advantages” and rejects
their opposites, and how he reacts to their attainment
and loss. The good man will be indifferent to the latter,
but he deliberately selects health and wealth rather
than their opposites, provided that in so doing he does
nothing inconsistent with reason. There are times, as
Cato showed by his suicide, when the Stoic acts con-
trary to his instinctive impulses.

Critics have complained of a double standard here.
If health is preferable to sickness, why should it not
be called “good” or “better”? The Stoic answer is
uncompromising. Health in the abstract is preferable
to sickness, but to call the one “good” and the other
“bad” would confuse them with the category of moral-
ity. The attainment of happiness and virtue can only
be offered to all men, whatever their circumstances,
if its value is shown to be categorically different from
that of “natural advantages.” It is “appropriate” to
prefer health to sickness, to care for one's parents, to
take part in politics, etc., and the consistent perform-
ance of such actions is a prerequisite for the would-be
good man. But though certain acts of this kind are
“unconditionally appropriate,” they are only morally
good when performed by the sage. He, and he alone,
acts always and only from right intentions.

5. Stoic Ethics in Practice. The Stoics themselves
did not claim to be sages, and it was a matter of debate
in the school whether a man of such inflexible moral
will had ever lived in fact. For the majority, “progress”
(προκοπή) towards this standard was the goal, and Stoic
writers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are
constantly urging themselves, and, by implication, their
readers to maintain indifference to circumstances and
to value moral choice as the only property of worth.
Confidence in the benevolence of divine purpose, no
matter what happens, and an immense stress on the
dignity of man provide the Stoic with his strength. And
the reward, in Epictetus' words, is “tranquillity, fear-
lessness and freedom” (Discourses II, 1, 21). Suicide,
rationally chosen, is the way out, the “open door,” if
circumstances make a good life impossible.

The basis of Stoic ethics remained constant through-
out the five hundred and more years (ca. 301 B.C.-A.D.
270) of the school's existence. But unlike the followers
of Epicurus, who handed down their founder's teaching
unchanged, later Stoics modified and developed various
aspects of Zeno's doctrines. Chrysippus, the third head
of the Stoa, following Zeno and Cleanthes, was a
scholar of immense versatility, and much of the evi-
dence for Stoicism is derived from summaries and
criticisms of his works preserved in writers like
Plutarch and Galen. Panaetius and Posidonius in the
second and first centuries B.C. won fame throughout
the Roman world, and Cicero's influential De officiis
is based upon a work by Panaetius. This Stoic was an
intimate associate of Scipio Africanus, and the propa-


gation of general Stoic teaching among Romans owed
much to his humanitas. The traditional Roman atti-
tudes of officium and virtus found further justification
in Stoic ethics, which thus claimed the allegiance of
many Roman statesmen. The De officiis, which Cicero
addressed to his son, stresses practice over theory,
providing a second-best morality of appropriate actions
for the Roman gentleman. It lacks the moral toughness
and personal commitment of Epictetus, the slave of
the imperial period, so admired by the emperor

By cutting through the barriers of birth and wealth,
and by emphasizing the autonomy of the individual,
Stoic ethics did much to liberalize and humanize the
social practice of the Roman empire. In the second
and third centuries A.D. writers as different as the
Christian, Clement of Alexandria, the Aristotelian
scholar, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and Plotinus attest
to its influence. The rules for conduct, intended by
early Stoics as preparatory to the attainment of virtue,
survived to challenge the strong and support the weak
in times which neither knew, nor cared to know, the
physics and logic on which Zeno and Chrysippus had
rigorously built their ethics. In its theory, Stoic ethics
looks forward to Kant's categorical imperative. Some
essential aspects of its practice are preserved in the
behavior commended by our words “stoic” and


Evidence for early Stoicism is collected in J. von Arnim,
Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, 4 vols. (Stuttgart, repr. 1964).
For the Roman period the principal sources are Cicero, De
iii, iv, and De officiis; Seneca, Epistulae morales;
and the works of Epictetus (Discourses) and Marcus Aurelius
(Meditations), thoroughly discussed by A. Bonhoeffer, Epictet
und die Stoa
(Stuttgart, 1894) and A. S. L. Farquharson,
The Meditations of Marcus Antoninus, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1944).
The most authoritative modern work is M. Pohlenz, Die
2nd ed., 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1959), which traces the
history of Stoicism down to Saint Augustine and beyond.
Two French works which deserve particular mention are
E. Bréhier, Chrysippe et l'ancien stoicisme, 2nd ed. (Paris,
1951) and V. Goldschmidt, Le système stoicien et l'idée de
(Paris, 1953).

The last few years have seen a revival of interest in all
aspects of Stoicism among scholars writing in English. In
The Meaning of Stoicism (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), L.
Edelstein gives a stimulating, if at times misleading, intro-
duction. For more detailed study see J. M. Rist, Stoic Philos-
(Cambridge, 1969) and A. A. Long, ed., Problems in
(London, 1971) with contributions by F. H. Sand-
bach, A. C. Lloyd, S. G. Pembroke, I. G. Kidd, G. Watson,
and the editor. W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilisation, 3rd ed.
revised by G. T. Griffith (London, 1952) surveys the culture
during Stoicism's formative period.


[See also Causation; Free Will; God; Happiness; Nature;
Organicism; Platonism; Rationality; Virtù.]