Stoicism

Zeno of Cyprus (334–262 B.C.) founded the Stoic school. He used to lecture from his porch, called a stoa, hence the name Stoic. As was the case with the Epicureans, Stoicism took its cue from the Presocratics (as the Epicureans were Atomists, the Stoics sided with Heraclitus in the belief that everything could be reduced to fire). The word stoic has remained in the language and defines a person who accepts life's slings and arrows without whining about it.

Knowledge and Wisdom

A Stoic would have agreed with an Epicurean that all knowledge comes from sensory experience. They did not accept the Platonic notion of Forms. The mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, upon which experiences are imprinted. And because all knowledge is subjective, so is truth. There is no Eternal Truth in the Stoic handbook.

The Stoics saw wisdom as the greatest virtue, and from wisdom came bravery, self-restraint, and justice. There were no shades of gray in the Stoic philosophy. People are either totally good or utterly evil, completely wise or perfectly foolish. And those who decry the decline of civilization can identify with the Stoics, who were saying the same thing 2,000 years ago.

The Divine

The Stoics believed in a Divinity that shapes our ends. This Divinity, however, like the Stoics themselves, was not of the warm-fuzzy variety. It was called Logos, or Mind, and the path to happiness was to get with the Logos's program and stay on the same page with the Divine Mind. The Stoics also introduced the word pneuma, or breath, which is the soul of the universe. The individual souls all derive from this breathy Oversoul. This is an early form of monotheism, with a dash of Presocratic monism thrown into the mix.

Stoics put no great stock in worldly pleasures; they were a hindrance on the path to wisdom. Passionate emotions got in the way as well. They were to be kept in check. An ascetic lifestyle was the ideal. It promoted the good orderly direction and avoided distracting histrionics.

The most famous Stoic was also a Roman emperor. Marcus Aurelius was a foremost Stoic whose collection of journal entries, written in between vanquishing barbarian hordes, Meditations, is a quintessential distillation of Stoic thought and practice.

“Everything happens for the best, and you can usually expect the worst” was the Stoic philosophy. If a Stoic saw a loved one in peril, the response would naturally be to try to save their life. But if the attempt was unsuccessful and the loved one perished — c'est la vie! Because the Divine governs all, and the person died, then this death must have been for the best. To respond with sadness would be illogical. If you have done your best in this world and you still fail, so be it. Doing your best is its own reward.

The Stoic Ideal

The Stoics took a principle of Aristotle to an extreme degree. Aristotle said that passions have their place in the human psyche, but that reason should rule. The Stoics, on the other hand, saw the passionate side of human nature as evil and something to be eradicated. In later centuries, modern psychologists like Freud and Jung would see this as an impossibility, and an unhealthy thing to even attempt. You can never rid yourself of these impulses and if you try, they will only lay dormant, poised to surface at inappropriate moments.

For the Stoic, if you were consigned to a life of suffering, you could deal with it and still live a life of goodness. In fact, you had the advantage over your wealthy counterpart, because material things often got in the way. One of the famous Stoics, Epictetus, was in fact a slave. He believed in virtue and did not lament his lot in life. He made do with the deck he was dealt, as did Marcus Aurelius, an emperor. Stoicism worked for those at both ends of the scale. Pleasure is not good. Pain is not evil. Virtue is the only good and vice the only evil. And duty is everything.

The Greek expression for negative emotions, such as fear, was pathe. Stoics were antipathe, and the word used to describe their approach to these emotions has come to us through the ages. The Stoics were big time advocates of apathy. The truly wise and good man was apathetic.

Stoics were also not averse to suicide under certain conditions. Seneca, the Roman playwright and noted Stoic, took his own life when he fell out of favor with the notorious emperor Nero. If you have a perfectly indifferent and apathetic outlook, which was the Stoic ideal, your life is meaningless and a small loss if it is snuffed out.

The Stoics were also pantheists. Pantheism is the belief that God is present in everything, not a bearded figure seated imperiously on his throne on the other side of the Pearly Gates.

Both the Epicureans and the Stoics sought the principle of ataraxia, or inner peace. The Epicureans sought it through withdrawal from society and the pursuit of pleasure. The Stoics found it in a Clint Eastwood demeanor and a grim fatalism, perceiving themselves as inconsequential cogs in a cold and indifferent mechanism. Some Stoic principles were adapted by the newly emerging religion of Christianity. Others, including pantheism and the advocacy of suicide, were obviously rejected. And, of course, Christianity found nothing nice to say about Epicureanism.

Is Hannibal Lecter a Stoic?

Hannibal tutors Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs by introducing her to Stoicism 101, “First Principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it itself. What is its nature?” It would seem that even cannibals read the classics.

The person who lived the Stoic ideal to the fullest was called a Sage.

A Sage was a rare bird indeed, and when discovered, followers flocked around him. Nowadays, sage simply means a wise man or woman, but the word has its genesis in the Stoic tradition.

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