A forgotten philosophy

The noun ‘philosophy' covers just about every aspect of intellectual exploration, but the adjective ‘philosophical' is used much more narrowly nowadays. In everyday speech, it tends to be taken very specifically to describe an attitude of patient resignation in the face of loss. There is no particular reason to believe that Aristotle or Plato or their followers were especially ‘philosophical' in this sense: nothing in their thought would necessarily lead to fortitude of this sort.

Such an attitude is more accurately described as ‘stoical' – from the ancient philosophical school of ‘stoicism'. That the two words ‘philosophy' and ‘stoicism' became confused in the popular mind is an indication of how important stoicism was – not just in classical times but in the early modern period, when being ‘stoical' and ‘philosophical' were seen as being the same thing. By the same token, the theories of the stoic thinkers were to a large extent forgotten, swallowed up in the idea of ‘philosophy' as a whole.

The school of the stoa

The set of ideas now known as stoicism were first put forward in the early part of the third century BCE by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium. At the heart of his thought was the conviction that it was up to human beings to live in harmony with the universe, to accept whatever ups and downs fate brought.

More on the Stoas: A stoa in ancient Greece was a walkway, open to the elements at either side, but protected from the worst of the sun and rain by a roof held up by columns. There were stoas along the sides of the agora – the main open public area, where people met to walk and chat, in ancient Athens. Acrobats, entertainers and pedlars plied their trade in the stoas: so too philosophers, who would give classes for small fees. Socrates had done this in the fifth century BCE; so too did Zeno 150 years later. It was for this reason that the philosophical ideas he put forward became known, collectively, as ‘stoicism'.

Strength through self-discipline

The providence that governed the workings of fate should not (and, of course, could not) be resisted, but the individual could take charge of his or her destiny by an effort of will. They might not be able to change what was going to happen, but they could control their response. As developed by later thinkers – notably by Seneca the Younger, most famous of Roman thinkers, in the first century CE – stoicism made self-discipline the greatest of the philosophical virtues.

Seneca argued that:

  • Life would bring its ups and downs, its strokes of luck and its misfortunes, but that the philosophical spirit would endure all these things with the same consistent calm
  • The thinker should no more be laid low by grief or maddened by rage than he or she should be elated by joy: good times and bad would come and go, and the philosophical mind should remain unmoved
  • Nothing need be feared: the most terrifying prospect, after all, was that of death, and that meant no more than nothingness. With sufficient courage, the individual could die nobly.

More on Seneca: Ironically, having lived up to his stoic values, Seneca was forced to die according to them as well. Having fallen foul of the Emperor Nero, to whom he had been tutor and later advisor, he was ordered to commit suicide in CE 65.

A philosophy for Christians

The great stoic philosophers were pagans, but their views struck a chord with later Christian thinkers, who responded to stoicism's emphasis on moral courage and personal responsibility, particularly in the face of persecution.

Seneca was to have an enormous influence on the thinkers of the European Renaissance. Another such thinker was Marcus Aurelius, Rome's Emperor from CE 161 to 180. His Meditations counselled calm in the face of whatever happened in human existence and a detached attitude towards worldly concerns. Though he did not himself believe in an afterlife, his arguments were still an inspiration to men and women who looked to another existence in heaven to resolve their earthly problems.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Aristotle, Plato

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.