January 08, 2007

A Definition of Stoicism

A unified logical, physical, and moral philosophy, taking its name from the stoa poikile or painted porch in Athens where Stoic doctrine was taught. The first recognized Stoic was Zeno of Citium, who founded the school c. 300 BC. Other early Stoics were Cleanthes of Assos and Chrysippus of Soli. The middle stoa, whose members included Panaetius of Rhodes and Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135–c. 51 BC), was responsible for introducing Stoicism to the Roman world, where it had a lasting effect. The late stoa was Roman, and its most distinguished members included Epictetus and Seneca. As a professed system Stoicism fought running battles especially with the sceptical philosophers of the Academy.

Stoic epistemology was based on the phantasia kataleptik or apprehensive perception. A perception has to fill certain conditions in order to be veridical (ie. truthful or accurate), and these conditions (clarity, common consent, probability, system) were variously attacked by sceptical opponents. The cosmology of the Stoics was firmly deterministic and orderly, as the eternal course of things passes through returning creative cycles (see eternal return), in accordance with the creative principle or logos spermatikos. Stoic proofs of the existence of God centred on versions of the argument to design (hence the name Cleanthes in Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion).

The capstone of Stoic philosophy was an ethic of the consolations of identification with the impartial, inevitable, moral order of the universe. It is an ethic of self-sufficient, benevolent calm, with the virtuous peace of the wise man rendering him indifferent to poverty, pain, and death, so resembling the spiritual peace of God. This fortitude and indifference can sound sublime, but also sound like stark insensibility. As Adam Smith objects, ‘By Nature the events which immediately affect that little department in which we ourselves have some little management and direction…are the events which interest us the most, and which chiefly excite our desires and aversions, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows’ (Theory of the Moral Sentiments, vii. 2. 1). By being above all that, the Stoic is also less than human, and the pursuit of Stoical indifference becomes a celebration of apathy (see also agent centred morality). However, the generally individualistic cast of Greek ethics is tempered in Stoicism by the need to recognize the creative spark in each individual, giving the Stoic a duty to promote a political and civil order that mirrors the order of the created cosmos.


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