Monday, June 11, 2012

Chronology and Theology of Stoicism

In the previous post we briefly discussed Stoic philosophy and hinted at a kinship with Christian philosophy. Now we will describe Stoicism in more detail and explain its standing in Eastern Europe and Asia during the time of Jesus.

The above chronology provides a snapshot of Stoic history. Of course the word Stoic comes from the meeting place of Zeno and his followers – the Stoa (covered porch) in the center of Athens. But Zeno was not from Athens. He was born in Citium, a town in southwest Cyprus. Immersed in philosophy from a young age, Zeno migrated to Athens in 311 B.C. at the age of 22. There he studied with the Cynic Crates, Polemo, head of the Academy, and the Megaric philosopher Stilpo. Finally rejecting Platonic metaphysics, Zeno launched his own school around 300 B.C.

There were three components to Zeno’s philosophy: ethics, physics, and logic. His ethics came from Cynic morality, physics from Plato’s Timaeus, and his logic  was a self-developed view of argument and theory of knowledge. Zeno believed that impressions could lead human beings to the external truths that help them understand the world.

By the time of Zeno’s death in 262 B.C. Stoicism had become the dominant Hellenistic philosophy. But with his death came a period of uncertainty among his followers, who did not know what direction to take. Because their mentor was more of an inspiration than systematic thinker, they began to distill Zeno’s teachings into dogma in an effort to create a formal structure for the philosophy. They called themselves “Socratics” and admired the life of their great predecessor.

But then a new leader arose, Chrysippus, a man who may have been greater than Zeno. He was inspirational but at the same time thoroughly analytical. At first Chrysippus was unhappy with the direction of the Stoic school based on doctrinal arguments with the school’s leader Cleanthes, but when the latter died in 230 B.C, Chrysippus became the leader. He helped create structure for Zeno’s beliefs and defended them without reservation. When Chrysippus died in 206 B.C. another leaderless period began.

By the middle 2nd century, the school was led by Antipater, who pushed for recognition of the relationship between Stoicism and Platonism. The common ground identified with the Academy would influence Stoic thinking for all of the future.

At this point in the chronology, I note an event that took place in the middle of the second century – I label it Stoic ambassadors to Rome. On this occasion, representatives of the Stoic school and the Academy traveled to Rome to protest a fine imposed on Athens for its sack of Oropus. During their visit, the Greeks lectured in sold out pavilions and overwhelmed the Romans with their intellectual power. This ignited a permanent interest in Greek philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular which lasted until the end of the empire.

By the late second century, Athens’s role as the center of Stoicism began to wane. The last Athenian leader, Panaetius, died in 110 B.C. without a successor. Posidonius, his pupil, opened a new school in Rhodes.

As the influence of Athens dimmed, the Stoic schools in Rhodes and Rome grew to replace it. By the end time of the Roman republic we see Stoics exerting great influence over Cicero and Brutus. Later Augustus hired Athenodorus to act as his philosophical advisor.

The peak for Roman Stoic thought was reached when Seneca, advisor to Nero, became the leader of the Roman Stoics. Seneca’s death removed the champion, but the belief system carried on through the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Our best sources for Stoic theology are Cicero and Sextus who wrote extensively in the first century B.C. What was this theology? Fundamentally, the Stoics sought to address three issues: 1) proving that the gods exist, 2) explaining the nature of the gods, 3) showing that the world is governed by the gods.

Many proofs are offered for the existence of god – most notably the ordered universe proving the existence of a creator with a guiding hand. Stoics also believed that atheism must be false because, if it were true, that would mean that man, with all his faults, is the highest being in the universe -- an illogical conclusion.

With respect to the nature of the gods, the Stoics provide a definition:

God is an immortal living being, rational, perfect and thinking in happiness, unreceptive of anything bad and provident with regard to the cosmos and the things therein. But he is not of human form. He is the demiurge of the whole and as it were the father of all things, both in general and insofar as the part of him is concerned which pervades all things, and which is called by many names, corresponding to its powers.

Both Zeno and Chrysippus claimed that the cosmos is the substance of god.

Next we turn to the problem of the world governed by gods and the implications of fate. This is the age old problem – if the gods have created a world that is pre-determined, then man has no control over things that happen to him,  is life still worth living?

To the Stoics, God as fate determines everything including setting the example for what is morally good. There is no separation between the divine and practical world. Both are operated by the same principles. Man can develop an understanding of God and the cosmos through divination – the subtle communication of God to man, but divination results from contemplation.

God operates through man via the Pneuma or divine essence. For an inanimate object, Pneuma is its physical properties, but in man Pneuma is the essence of reason which allows him to operate autonomously and interact with his environment. So the Stoics attempt a balance between the predetermined world created by God and the flexibility man can create through his individual personality.

Now that we have looked at some basic theology, how do we view Stoicism at the time of Jesus?

The Romans have been criticized for adding nothing to Stoic philosophy and his criticism is largely valid. Even in the case of Ethics where they spent most of their energy, the Romans concentrated more on the interpretation of Zeno and Chrysippus than they did on any new ideas.

Stoicism in the first century  A.D. was not a refined or reinterpreted version of the original, but a continuation of its founder’s ideals. The impact on Christianity, then, was mainly due to its penetration of Hellenistic culture over three centuries prior to its time. For those who embraced Stoicism at the time of Jesus, Christian philosophy appeared as a kindred belief system once it had gained the form of dogma.


Erlend said...

Hey! Why isn't Epictetus there? He surely justifies a block colour on your chart.

Ryan Mease said...

This was very readable. Did you create the graphic yourself? Classics is definitely a discipline where charts, maps and visual aids are undervalued. It's a sad fact that many of the best maps we have are site maps by German archaeologists from the early 20th century.

Mike Anderson said...


Yes, he could have a block.

One of the purposes of the post was to have the chronology show the movement of Stoicism to Rome, which will eventually relate it to Christianity. Epictetus doesn't fit that scenario.

He studied under the Roman Stoic Musonius before starting his own school at Nicopolis and his writings are an important contribution to Stoic history.

Mike Anderson said...


Yes I created the graphic. I often have to make up something new when nothing suitable exists.

I agree with your statement and find a lack of graphical representations and maps across the study of antiquity. Chronologies provide the temporal context you don't get from the written word. Maps provide the spacial context.

I'm starting up a facebook page for this blog which will contain all the charts and graphs I created over the last five years.