WE AND THE STOICS TODAY, or “To Those from the Stoa”
by Dimitris Liarmakopoulos, member of the Epicurean Garden in Thessaloniki
A proposition about Stoicism on an Epicurean website causes at least reasonable questions. At a minimum, when an informal agreement in the Garden is in place, and silently applied to the eight years of its progress, we should not make propositions about the rival philosophical schools, but only sporadic references to the need of epicureans’ better understanding. The current swerve is to attribute “honor” to Stoicism, because when we talk about it, we are in fact talking about the philosophy that one way or the other has prevailed today.
We live philosophically
We must not forget that the perceptions of all of us, what we call our mentality, and mainly the organization of our everyday life, even if we do not perceive it, even if we contradict it, is not unphilosophical. We live in a philosophical way.
The fact that we do not perceive the philosophical way of our life is due, on the one hand, to the philosophy itself and especially to our tendency to be eclectic. This was brought about of course by Christianity, which was presented and prevailed over time as a philosophical way of life, and nowadays in the submersion to those things which are defined to us by social and economic necessities. However, religion, economy, and social organization are based on specific philosophical systems. And finally, while philosophy is the foundation, or as we call it in the Garden, the background of the way of life, we – that is, most people- consider it as insignificant and totally absent.
So, it is worth a bit more emphasis on the issue of eclecticism. As there is no virgin birth in nature, so there is neither in culture, and therefore in philosophical thought. Eclecticism as a philosophical tendency appeared quite normal, after the formulation of the most basic philosophical views and systems. When the dust began to settle, eclecticism was mainly observed between the idealistic schools. In their attempt to stand and convince the audience, they borrowed from each other what was convenient.
The good conductor of this tendency was skeptical philosophy. The beginning was made with the Academy, with Arkesilaos as scholarch, who was contemporary of Epicurus, which was the first that adopted views and techniques of skeptics. And one century later, another scholarch at the Academy named Karnead was in fact a skeptical philosopher. The reason was simple: the “era” of the skeptics served to preserve the blur of platonic ideas. The route of eclecticism is marked by the teaching of the academic Antiochus of Ascalon in the first half of the 1st century BC, who claimed that the three schools: Academy, Peripatetic and Stoicism were saying almost the same things in different words. With Antiochus, the Academy passes purely from Thought to Eclecticism. (Zeller – Nestle, History of Ancient Greek philosophy, p.314, 325).
Zeno of Citium
But the first and par excellence eclectic philosophy, as Theodoridis points out, is Zeno’s. His was the philosophy that was later named Stoic, from the point where Zeno chose to teach, the Stoa Poikile of the Athens’ Agora. Zeno (334-262 BC), contemporary of Epicurus, was of Phoenician origin from Citium, Cyprus, where there was a great Phoenician community. His father was a merchant, like Zeno himself, and at the age of 22, he suffered a shipwreck and found himself in Athens. We know what Athens was in the Hellenistic years, a great city in decline, with the prestige of the glorious years accompanying it, with two organized philosophical schools in operation, and many teachers with improvised schools.
Zeno was fascinated and apparently messaged his father, that along with the settlement of the shipwreck’s suspensions he would stay in Athens a little longer, to remain finally for his whole life. He attended lessons from cynic Crates. The Cynics were an offshoot of the Socratic tradition. He also took lessons from Megarians – also a Socratic offshoot- and from the Platonic Polemon.
The main subject of attention in Hellenistic times was the human, and from this point of view, as historians claim, philosophy revived the Socratic tradition.
Zeno, six years after the foundation of the Garden, formulated and taught his own system (300 BC). Stoicism held the exercise of virtue to be the natural purpose of human life but passed by the Cynics and Socrates, who were not interested in physics, because he wanted to support moral theory with scientific truth. The Stoics were proud of following Heraclitus in their physics.
Indeed, Zeno, by gleaning from Heraclitus, sets the unity of everything as frontispiece of his system. The “the world is one and all” he likes and gets from Democritus, along with the “it necessarily happens” but not the atomic theory. He prefers to talk about the four forms of matter. Heraclitus also takes speech, and transforms it into a metaphysical command. He accepts the continuous flow and change of things up to the final ekpyrosis, linking everything to Aristotle’s “first mover” and “immobile force” and the Platonic fate. And as he was an orientalist, when we say for Epicurus that his moral and sociopolitical starting point is freedom, Zeno’s own as an orientalist was God. We see that the Easterns have not changed until today: they do not differentiate life and religion apart, they live and at the same time they are religious. The concept of God is predominant in every drop of their life.
Zeno does not directly refer to deity because he does not need it. He uses concepts such as: “mental power”, “causes of causes” or “unhampered and unchangeable need” and transcribes his fate in terms such as “providence” and “truth”. But his successor Cleanthes from Troad, dedicates an anthem to Jupiter, which made the impression clear:
Drive me, Jupiter, and you the destined,
where I have been meant for a long time ago.
Because I will follow without begrudging
and even if I don’t want to, and I will be proven as bad,
I will follow anyway.
Epictetus saved this version for us. (Epict. Handbook c 59, St. V. Fr. I 527). Drive me Jupiter, and your fate whereever you have me as oblation. I will follow you unhesitatingly. Because even if I don’t want it, I will be forced to follow, but I will stay with my resentment. (Translation by C. Theodoridis). So the Stoics’ worldview, as Theodoridis points out, comprises a theology based on Greek scientific determinism. It is identified with what has been called pantheism in recent years. It locks the way that God directs the world. It puts it under a mechanical necessity. The necessity becomes harmony of the world. One cause brings another, and so all come here studied where we are and go to where God has it as obligation. God made everything with a breath, the divine steam which is the soul of the world, and so it is found in everything. It is the cause and the essence of all the things: Being itself, and at the same time that which is perpetually becoming.
At this point we have the first stage. Let’s go a few centuries later, until today. In Christianity, the Judeans’ god with Plato’s philosophical permission is supernatural – this is not what the Stoics say – as the creator he is life’s patron and present everywhere and filling everything. These are Stoic ideas. God defines and takes part in the dialectic of the universe.
Then, whatever is defined as moving still, as a point of reference around which things move, is Stoic. The a priori idea in modern ideologies, the capital in capitalism, the worker’s right to Marxism, the truth of the party or the leader in the representative democracies.
Human as a fragment of the world
Since God is identified with the world, it is unnecessary to ask ourselves where the human is: “You are part of God. You have some part of him inside you. Why then don’t you understand your relationship with God? Why don’t you know your origin? Don’t you want, when you eat, to remember who you are when you eat and who you feed? (…) You bring God everywhere with you, unfortunate one, and you don’t know it. (…) You have God inside you…”
The above is neither a preacher’s short speech from a pulpit, nor Paul, nor Augustine, nor Tertullian. It is Epictetus, stoic philosopher of the 1st century of our chronology.
Here we come across a faddish dualism. Human consciousness only exists to understand the material origin, composition, and dissolution of material elements and their eternal restoration to their common source. This is the essence for the Stoics, as they define all other thing as “indifferent”.
“The Stoic who knows physics, Christina Kourfali writes in ‘Stoic Art of Life’, perceives himself as part of a wider whole. This knowledge and its reflection steadily takes us away from a purely selfish view…”
“What are you? Epictetus asks. Human. (…) If you see yourself as a human and as part of a whole, that all requires at one time to be sick, at another to travel to the sea and risk, at other to find yourself in need and to die before your time. So why do you begrudge? Don’t you know that the leg, if it is detached, will no longer be a leg, so you will no longer be a human?.
Here is how physics gives the mark of the Stoic morality: With blind trust in providence. And the human is participant. This is how the concept of “sympathy” results, which was imported first and uniquely by the Stoics. From this, the concept of duty draws its origin. Let us consider here the ways in which duty is cultivated opposite to the collaborative concepts, the homeland, the church, the party, the team, or the persons in power.
“The Stoic acts,” as opposed to the Epicureans, as Pierre Hadot points out, “not for his own personal or even spiritual benefit, but in a selfless way, at the service of the human community.”
“No school has more kindness and sweetness, more love for people, more interest for the common good..,” the Stoic Seneca gloats.
Festugiere writes that for the Stoics “everything is summed up in the acceptance of Order or – which is finally the same – of Destiny. This is the only thing which counts. Everything else, health and disease, wealth and poverty, people’s praise and disdain, are all indifferent”.
“Desire things to be as they are and not as you wish to be.” This is Epictetus here as well. This is a top sample of the masterful art of life, as it is said, very close to palliative practices and overtly oriental cunning. Leave it, he tells you, it is arranged by providence, which knows better than you. The best thing is to understand that you are part of it and to accept well, with pleasure, whatever it brings you. It will not be wrong even if it is bad for you. Good or bad is indifferent as it is part of the Divine becoming.
Death is not the end
From this the Stoic view of death also arises. We should not be afraid of death. Why? Because is it not actually death. It is not an end. And what is it? It is the transition to another state: a state of reunification with the body of the world, as we are also a fragment of it.
Epictetus says: “…death does not take us from the present state to non-existence, but to the absence of the present state. So I will not exist anymore? – You will not be what you are but something else that the world will need then”.
And Marcus Aurelius said: “You exist as a part. You will disappear through the whole that produced you or, rather, you will evolve through transformation, into your spermatic word.”
We see that they use personal pronouns as if they imply some continuity of consciousness. But they say nowhere that the fragment takes its consciousness together. Only Epictetus later, perhaps after the perseverance of some students or by his own immodesty, accepted such a possibility as an exception for the wise. (Christina Kourfali, “The Stoic Art of Life”).
For Epictetus, the purpose of any philosophical activity is to help us delve as much as we can into the meaning of this transition: we do not die, we exist forever, because the universe is eternal and we are a fragment of it forever.
What does Christianity say differently? Death is an eternal sleep. But through religion there is transcendence: The believer with the love of the god not only goes to Heaven (Persian idea) but in the day of judgment, which will not come late, he will be raised from the dead with his whole body (Judean idea). It is a varied personal salvation by another name but on the same path of the fragmented anonymity of Stoicism.
The logical passage from one point of view to the other, from the anonymous fragmentary salvation to the personal named salvation, is confirmed by the first philosopher martyr of Christianity, Justin, who was one of the first apologists. Justin was a declared Stoic philosopher who became a Christian and was martyred in the days of Marcus Aurelius.
In capitalism, death is bankruptcy. From the cradle, where the Bank is a Saint with miraculous qualities, the soul of the world is the money that is issued from nowhere. The capitalists have institutionalized a resurrection after bankruptcy, since they reloan you the money to live and work again.
Stoicism: Metaphysical Feasibility
The philosophical systems are judged by their knowledge theory, the method of thought, which should give scientific documentation to their doctrines, so that they consistently respond to the reality that man experiences.
Stoics work the logic in Aristotle’s way, but more empirically. They accept Plato’s dialectics, introduce the term “occupation” that connects it with reality and, mainly through Chrysippus – third scholarch – borrow the Epicureans’ presentation as a criterion of truth, and indirectly, as if they were making a begrudging concession, accept the contribution of the senses. Something very important is absent, which we will discuss below. Stoicism is at its basis a materialist philosophy. It starts from the reality of the interaction of matter. But it is trapped in its metaphysical qualities. Today, knowing five more things, we would conscientiously charge them that they gave something demonic to the unknown “energy” of matter. The unity of everything is a concept of eastern origin. And this idea, like dualism, originated by the Indian Upanishads, passed into Zoroastrianism, and from Thrace and Orphism came to Greece. “Zeus is one, Hades is one, Helios is one, Dionysus is one, God is one in all” an orphic Sacred speech says.
But does the dark Heraclitus mean this same unity? Did he mean the same as Parmenides? The “everything flows,” the “unity of the opposites,” “the upward-downward path,” give naturalistic phenomena in a sententious philosophical way. In Heraclitus there is the “idea of an organizational principle that governs beings and phenomena,” but through the logic of the same laws that apply everywhere, wherever matter exists in the vast universe. In the logic of universal laws, Heraclitus is referring to speech as philosophical speech, as basis of things’ interpretation, and not as a metaphysical command that governs the becoming.
From the Stoics we have a conceptual inversion of the Greek language. We know the fate that Christianity had in store for “Logos,” which Christianity incarnates, crucifies, resurrects and sends back to the skies.
Epicurus, based on the canon, goes back to the early principles. What are these in physics? The atoms of nature and the vacuum. The infinity of atoms means the existence of infinite worlds, alike or dissimilar to ours, in constant change, which allows us to know them. Stoics do not accept the existence of the vacuum because this would overturn the unity of matter. Even if the science of the time was insuffient, how was the movement of bodies allowed? They do not tell us anywhere. On the contrary, Epicurus explains in his epistle to Herodotus (40), that he calls void a “place,” that is the space, and the “intangible,” that is the incorporeal nature.
Epicurus also accepts that everything that happens is borne by some cause. “Nothing can be done by nothing”. But cause is different than necessity. We seek the cause that caused an event, that is its source, and another time the purpose for which that this is done. The cause sometimes indicates the origin and some other times the source. Necessity and utility signify not only the intent but also the purpose – that what is done is done for a specific reason – selected from before, unavoidable, and coordinated. So the world is seen as a huge machine. Here is the engineer and there the production. How much did this concept relate to the development of the industrial age!
We know how Epicurean philosophy resisted this. It was the only philosophy that resisted. We will see this a little further. Epicurus had responded to Democritus, and did not have to debate with the Stoics. And to the Fate in which all – Heraclitus as well – followed Anaxagoras, Epicurus responded: “nothing is done according to Fate, but its name is the void.” A hollow word that “fate” is, without content.
The Stoics do not pursue the possible workings of nature beyond Providence and harmony. They do not give a perspective. Yet, by their theory they present Nature as intentional. Caught by Heraclitus’ ekpyrosis, they are referred to an end and a beginning and to endless cycles of repetition of identical things. In this way they encouraged, in combination with the “sympathy” we mentioned before, divination and superstition, practices that greatly influenced simplistic minds.
As a human’s purpose, they recognize happiness achieved only by the exercise of virtue, (as did Socrates and the Cynics) transcribed for them into reality by acceptance of the order of the world, as we have seen.
Against the “regularity” of the Stoics we contrast Nanopulos’ statement in a recent interview: “It is amazing how much this spatial-time randomness determines us.”
Passion and Freedom of Will
Theodoridis denounces Stoicism as a rival philosophy to the Greek way. We will agree with him when we see what the Stoics maintain in emotions, passions, and freedom of will, the elements that we have identified as the “Fortune” of the strong individuality of the Greek.
The Greek, as Nietzsche points out, and we have spoken many times about it in the Garden, unleashes his passions and then tidies them up. In Epicurean philosophy, our feelings are a criteria of truth, we perceive pleasant and unpleasant with these, so they serve us in our choices and avoidances. On the contrary, the Stoics not only ignore them, but they also recommend apathy from the outset. They call for exercises to limit our passions to a point of dissolution. Epictetus says: “Stand next to a stone and blame it. What will you manage?”
In any case, they advise us to be indifferent to these things because only our judgments about them matter. This is not entirely wrong, but how can you be indifferent about their effects on you? Only if you stifle your feelings. Here we find them in strong affinity with Buddhism.
We read from Cheller-Nestlé, at the point where they analyze the Stoic concept of freedom of will: “…a rigid need, an inseparable sequence of causes and results defines everything that is done. (…) There is no exception even for the human will. A human acts freely as directed by his own “impulse” and what nature imposes on him, he can do freely, that is with his consent, but he is obliged to do it as it is”. In this we see a German form of humor.
The more strongly the Stoics argued for the perfection of the world, the more funny a case they made for freedom of will. According to the Stoics we have free will, of course, but only for the acceptance or not of our fate.
The Christian is free to accept or not accept the love of God, but he is not saved without it. The modern economic state allows everyone to say that money is not everything, but you cannot live without it.
Marxism builds its dialectical and historical materialism in the same way, adapted to the need, since according to Marx “freedom is the conscious acceptance of necessity”.
Epicurus, of course, accepts the limitations of nature for humans. But he does not see the human’s freedom in relation to nature, but coming from nature itself. Because freedom exists in the elements of matter, from which the human comes himself.
The Human’s Defeat and the Political Prevalence of Stoicism
Exactly this disdain for freedom was the main reason that the Roman administrative order adopted the Stoic theory. Stoic theory provided the main food for the concept of duty, of trust, of submission to Fate, of human reconciliation with misfortune, and of resignation from any claim of better luck. In this sense, Stoicism emerges as the philosophy of subordination, and in political terms, as we literally pointed out in our last suggestion in May, Stoicism is the main recipe for construction of “citizenship.”
Stoicism provides the main philosophical background to Christianity, and to all the ideologies born by “enlightenment” in the West. The aim of Stoicism is to reshape reality, whether or not beautified, in a way that does not give leeway for escape. Stoicism says that it is necessary to set a purpose in life, the best, a collective purpose that we are called to serve, which we will believe in it with the logic of a blind supporter until it prevails. Thus, Marxism sets out the victory of the proletariat, Capitalism sets out the financial gain and prosperity of capital, the Administrative model of representation sets out service of the party’s guidelines for the good of the party, and so on.
The historical events of the era we call “late antiquity” are revealing in our case. Stoicism did not touch the Macedonian kings, because they were tenacious realists, while it conquered the Romans (see Festugiere). The Romans, unlike the Greeks, who held to philosophy above all, had perceived their mission as ecumenical, therefore, the most important thing for them was administration (see Farrington).
During the Pax Romana period, the Roman ruling elite reached the limits of their spread, and sought to stop looting, since the Romans had become champions through massacre and ruin, and sought to design the practical administration of the conquered. What does management mean? The way I get taxes, which seems to me more efficient than war. But how will I manage peacefully so many people? With Greek democracy? But even my res publica is rejected. I need a strong administration. And empire was made. I also need a proper philosophy and religion of submission.
For philosophy, they chose Stoicism for all the reasons we have mentioned. Religion was offered to them a few centuries later. So as the professor Theodoridis may say that in those years Hellenism was defeated by the East, but this was done at Roman initiative for the needs of their own plutocracy.
Stoicism is a pessimistic philosophy, since it calls a man to accept defeat: the fact that life itself transcends him. It calls a man at the same time to make this sad disadvantage an advantage, by recognizing that this is his fate, reconciling him with its truth, and in so doing to contribute to his personal happiness and to the balanced course of the world.
But as Lucius Torquatus in the defense of Epicurus responds to Cicero: “… what value can a philosophy have, believing that everything happens because it is written in this way by the fate? These are what the old women believe, and even the uneducated ones!”
1. The Greeks, Procurators, Heraclitus. Athanasios Kyriazopoulos, Cactus – Odysseas Chatzopoulos, 1995
2. Epicurus, Texts – Sources. D.S. Hutchinson, Yannis Avramidis. Thyrathen publications, 2000.
3. Charalambos Theodoridis, Epicurus, the true face of the ancient world, Bookstore of Hestia, 1954.
4. A.J. Festugiere, Epicurus and his gods, 1945, Thyrathen publications, 1999.
5. Benjamin Farrington, The belief of Epicurus, 1967, Transl. Polycarpos Polycarpou, Kalvos Publications, 1969.
6. Pierre Hadot, What is the ancient greek philosophy, 1995, Indictos, 2002.
7. History of greek philosophy, Cheller – Nestlé, Translation: Charalambos Theodoridis, Bookstore of Hestia, 1941.
8. Luc Ferry, Learning to live, Philosophical treatise for the next generations, 2006, Plethron Publications, 2010.
9. Christina Kourfali, The stoic art of life, Thyrathen publications, 2013.
10. Max Weber, Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism, 1905, Gutenberg, 2006.