A Brief History of Stoicism

A Brief History of Stoicism

About the Episode | A Brief History of Stoicism

Stoicism began as one of the major schools of philosophy within the Hellenistic period in the mediterranean. For context, Hellenistic literally means “one who uses the Greek language”. This period is marked to have started around the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and some estimates suggest that it ended in 146 BC  following the invasion of the Greek heartlands by Rome. Most people agree that this period officially ended in 31 BC. 

We talk about Hellenism as a period in time, but we can also talk about the “Hellenistic schools of thought”, or the “Hellenistic Philosophies”. This was the period when Greece gave rise to the first structures of Democracy, and places like Athens, where Stoicism began, were bustling with new inventions and ideas. It was a cultural expansion unlike any other time in History, and we have that to thank for much of our western culture that we enjoy today. 

I have a great interview with Michael Tremblay where we discuss the ins and outs of the Hellenistic philosophies, but for now it’s important to know that this period in ancient Greece was marked by massive advancements and explorations into art, theatre, mathematics, sciences, music, literature and of course, philosophy, including schools of philosophy that you may have heard of, like the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans, and of course, Stoicism, which all belonged to the “Hellenistic” tradition. 

And so that brings us to the birth of Stoicism. 

Zeno of Citium was by all accounts the official founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. The story goes that Zeno was a wealthy merchant who was shipwrecked while traveling to Athens with a load full of purple dye. This was very expensive cargo as this die was extracted painstakingly from sea snails, and it was seen as a symbol of luxury and royalty to use such a colour. And as Donald Robertson puts it so eloquently, Zeno’s fortune came from and now returned to the sea. 

So now Zeno is stuck in Athens. What does he do? Well the legend goes that Zeno did what any of us would have done; he traveled to the Oracle of Delphi to receive guidance from the God Apollo. There, the Oracle told him that he was to “dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men.” 

Zeno interpreted this to mean that he should learn from the great thinkers of the past, and began at once to read about people like Socrates, which is very important to know as the Stoic philosophy is widely considered to be a derivative of the Socratic teachings, especially with its focus on virtue as the main good in life. 

And so the legend continues that as Zeno was reading about Socrates, he asked the bookseller, “tell me where I can find a man like this?”. And because Athens was a town full of thinkers and philosophers the bookseller pointed out the window at a man called Crates of Thebes, a famous Cynic philosopher. 

And so Zeno went on to study with Crates for a couple of decades before he started his own school of philosophy in around 300BC on the stairs of a painted porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, thus, Stoicism is created - a philosophy that was founded in the principle that a good life is one that is aimed first at virtue, and is lived in alignment with Nature. 

We really don’t have many writings from the early Greek Stoics, and it’s not until Stoicism makes its way to Rome that we really start to get some great literature to sink our teeth into. It’s important to note that between Greece and Rome there were many notable philosophers who lead the Stoic school and added to the teachings of Zeno. Some of these include Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, and Chrysippus, the third head. And we also have Diogenes of Babylon, who travelled to Rome in 155BC with other philosophers and spread these Greek ideas to the Roman Empire.

And so here we are in Rome, and we now have some excellent writings from four main Stoic thinkers from very different backgrounds in Rome. 

First we have Seneca the Younger, a roman statesman, play writer, investor and advisor to the emperor Nero. Seneca was a confusing fellow because from his writings we see a man who was deeply interested in philosophy, and a man who was trying hard to understand what was good and what was bad. But his history tells us a story of a man that was also entrenched in scandal, especially seeing as Nero was one of the most tyrannical emperors of Rome and Seneca had such a close association. 

 But regardless of his many imperfections, one cannot say that he didn’t wrestle with philosophy, and that’s why he remains my personal favorite of all the Stoics we can learn from. He truly was a person who struggled to live in the way that he taught, and this makes him deeply human. His most popular writings are contained in a book called “Letters from a Stoic”, which is a collection of letters that he wrote to his friend Lucilius on how to live a good life. 

Musonius Rufus is the next of the core Roman philosophers who we can read from today. We don’t have much from Musonius, but what we do have can give us an insight into a man who was very interested not only in the deeper ideas of Stoicism, but also in the very practical day to day application of this philosophy, sometimes maybe too practical. For example, he would discuss the kind of career path a Stoic should choose, or he would even say that a man should not cut off his beard as it’s his sign of being a man. 

And so moving on, we come to Epictetus, who was actually a student of Musonius Rufus. Epictetus started his life as a slave, and his name literally translates to “gained” or “acquired”. Later he was freed by his master, who saw intellectual potential in him, and that’s when he studied with Musonius Rufus. He is widely regarded to be one of the most important Stoic teachers, and what we have from him is a collection of discourses that were captured by a man called Arrian of Nicomedia, who also compiled somewhat of a “best of Epictetus”, and called it the Enchiridion, or “Handbook”. 

And so now we come to Marcus Aurelius, maybe the most widely known Stoic, and also a man who was heavily influenced by the teachings of Epictetus. 

Marcus Aurelius was the last of what is considered to be the five good Roman emperors. He was groomed from a young age, along with his brother Lucius Verus, to be Emperor of Rome. And although his brother didn’t have much of an interest in governing well, Marcus’s love of philosophy and understanding of Epictetus’s teachings led him to carrying out his duty as Emperor in as effective and ethical a way possible. 

As emperor, he had ultimate power, and because of this we are able to see the true power of philosophy, and of Stoicism. As emperor he could have had absolutely anything he wanted. He could have clicked his fingers and summoned anything he liked, including the death of anyone he disliked. But he was a philosopher first, and an emperor second. He was dedicated to living by correct principles, and we can see this in his personal diary which we can read today called “Meditations”. This collection of thoughts from Marcus Aurelius shows us a man who was probably very displeased with the fact that he was emperor. He constantly had people trying to manipulate him, deceive him, and likely kill him. He was faced with every possible temptation, and yet he made sure that the power he had never got to his head, and that in itself is an impossible task. 

And this is a great time to point out that all of these Stoics who I’ve talked about lived lives of extremes. Zeno lost everything in his shipwreck, Seneca was very wealthy and influential but also experienced periods of exile, Epictetus was a slave and experienced exile as well, Marcus Aurelius had ultimate power, and this is a true testament to the fact that Stoicism is a philosophy that was born in adversity, and shaped in the ups and downs of life. 

It’s a philosophy that can help us to be effective human beings at any time in our lives. Sometimes your life will suck, and sometimes your life might be amazing, but what Stoicism offers is a guide for how to deal with the highest highs and the lowest lows of life effectively. And this is why Stoicism has been cited to have influenced people like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, James Stockdale, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, and Nelson Mandela, who is reported to have taken inspiration from the Stoics during his time in jail. 

And so here we are, in the 20s, still being influenced by Stoicism in our society today and still trying to get to the bottom of just how useful and effective this philosophy can be. And that’s where you and I come in. It’s really our job to test these ancient ideas and to see how true they really are. It’s our job to add to the philosophy and take the best ideas from it so that we can do as all of the ancient Stoics did, and that is to welcome the philosophy into a new age. I hope that I can play a role in bringing this incredible philosophy that has stood the test of time into the hearts and minds of as many people as possible, and I hope you’ll join me. Let’s test it’s ideas, improve them, and share them.