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6 most famous stoic philosophers

Crates the Cynic is reputed to have been the teacher of Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism, who as we shall see can be said to have taught the internalization of the Cynic virtues of continence and self-mastery, and to have applied the concept of ‘indifference’ – apatheia – not to society and the goal of an honourable life, but to the vicissitudes of fortune and the inescapabilities of ageing, illness and death. What recommended Stoicism to educated and patrician Romans later was its high ideal of a noble selfmastered life, a life of courage and fortitude, a robust and manly life which could, with equal dispassion, bear the hardships of the military frontier abroad and the demands of duty at home.

Here are the 6 most famous stoic philosophers


Zeno (334-274) hailed from Citium on the island of Cyprus, where he was born in 334 BCE. He began adult life as a merchant, but after reading Xenophon’s account of Socrates he decided to study philosophy. It is said that while on a visit to Athens he asked a bookseller for advice on whom to approach among the teachers of philosophy, and at that moment Crates passed by, so the bookseller pointed him out. Zeno acquired from Crates his dedication to the Cynic virtues of continence and simplicity, but his modesty prevented him from living with ‘shamelessness’ in the preferred Cynic manner; hence his idea of internalizing the virtues – of being a semi-Cynic in private, as it were. In addition to modesty he also had a strong sense of civic duty, which requires that one perform one’s responsibilities as a citizen rather than rejecting society altogether. His convictions in this respect are illustrated by the fact that when he was offered Athenian citizenship he refused it in order to keep faith with his native Citium, where he had endowed the public baths and was held in great esteem.

Chrysippus ( 280-207 B.C.), who succeeded Cleanthes, was a voluminous author, and is said to have written seven hundred and five books. He made Stoicism systematic and pedantic. He held that only Zeus, the Supreme Fire, is immortal; the other gods, including the sun and moon, are born and die. He is said to have considered that God has no share in the causation of evil, but it is not clear how he reconciled this with determinism. Elsewhere he deals with evil after the manner of Heraclitus , maintaining that opposites imply one another, and good without evil is logically impossible: "There can be nothing more inept than the people who suppose that good could have existed without the existence of evil. Good and evil being antithetical, both must needs subsist in opposition." In support of this doctrine he appeals to Plato, not to Heraclitus.

Chrysippus maintained that the good man is always happy and the bad man unhappy, and that the good man's happiness differs in no way from God's. On the question whether the soul survives death, there were conflicting opinions. Cleanthes maintained that all souls survive until the next universal conflagration (when everything is absorbed into God); but Chrysippus maintained that this is only true of the souls of the wise. He was less exclusively ethical in his interests than the later Stoics; in fact, he made logic fundamental. The hypothetical and disjunctive syllogism, as well as the word "disjunction," are due to the Stoics; so is the study of grammar and the invention of "cases" in declension. Chrysippus, or other Stoics inspired by his work, had an elaborate theory of knowledge, in the main empirical and based on perception, though they allowed certain ideas and principles, which were held to be established by consensus gentium, the agreement of mankind. But Zeno, as well as the Roman Stoics, regarded all theoretical studies as subordinate to ethics: he says that philosophy is like an orchard, in which logic is the walls, physics the trees, and ethics the fruit; or like an egg, in which logic is the shell, physics the white, and ethics the yolk. Chrysippus, it would seem, allowed more independent value to theoretical studies. Perhaps his influence accounts for the fact that among the Stoics there were many men who made advances in mathematics and other sciences.

Stoicism, after Chrysippus, was considerably modified by two important men, Panaetius and Posidonius. Panaetius introduced a considerable element of Platonism, and abandoned materialism. He was a friend of the younger Scipio, and had an influence on Cicero, through whom, mainly, Stoicism became known to the Romans. Posidonius, under whom Cicero studied in Rhodes, influenced him even more. Posidonius was taught by Panaetius, who died about 110 B.C.

Posidonius (ca. 135-ca. 51 B.C.) was a Syrian Greek, and was a child when the Seleucid empire came to an end. Perhaps it was his experience of anarchy in Syria that caused him to travel westward, first to Athens, where he imbibed the Stoic philosophy, and then further afield, to the western parts of the Roman Empire. "He saw with his own eyes the sunset in the Atlantic beyond the verge of the known world, and the African coast over against Spain, where the trees were full of apes, and the villages of barbarous people inland from Marseilles, where human heads hanging at the house-doors for trophies were an every-day sight." *He became a voluminous writer on scientific subjects; indeed, one of the reasons for his travels was a wish to study the tides, which could not be done in the Mediterranean. He did excellent work in astronomy; as we saw in Chapter XXII his estimate of the distance of the sun was the best in antiquity. He was also a historian of note--he continued Polybius. But it was chiefly as an eclectic philosopher that he was known: he combined with Stoicism much of Plato's teaching, which the Academy, in its sceptical phase, appeared to have forgotten.

This affinity to Plato is shown in his teaching about the soul and the life after death. Panaetius had said, as most Stoics did, that the soul perishes with the body. Posidonius, on the contrary, says that it continues to live in the air, where, in most cases, it remains unchanged until the next world-conflagration. There is no hell, but the wicked, after death, are not so fortunate as the good, for sin makes the vapours of the soul muddy, and prevents it from rising as far as the good soul rises. The very wicked stay near the earth and are reincarnated; the truly virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round. They can help other souls; this explains (he thinks) the truth of astrology. Bevan suggests that, by this revival of Orphic notions and incorporation of Neo-Pythagorean beliefs, Posidonius may have paved the way for Gnosticism. He adds, very truly, that what was fatal to such philosophies as his was not Christianity but the Copernican theory.  Cleanthes was right in regarding Aristarchus of Samos as a dangerous enemy.

Seneca (the Younger) was born in Spain in 4 BCE and became a senator and adviser to the Emperor Nero in Rome. His efforts to mitigate the increasing cruelty of Nero’s rule failed, so he twice tried to retire but the Emperor refused to let him go. Eventually he was implicated in the Pisonian plot to assassinate Nero, and his punishment was an order to commit suicide, which he did. This occurred in 65 CE. The historian Tacitus gives a graphic account of the occasion; because of his age and condition Seneca was unable to bleed to death effectively after cutting open several veins – the blood flowed too thinly and weakly – and so he took poison as well, eventually immersing himself in a hot bath to speed the blood loss. Tacitus says that he was ‘suffocated by the steam’.

Seneca’s works included essays, moral letters, dialogues and tragedies, almost all published in his lifetime, and they had a wide readership and great popularity. He knew the thought of his Stoic predecessors well, and applied it eclectically to the business of living a good, fortitudinous and reason-governed life. ‘No doubt troubles will come; but they are not a present fact, and might not even happen after all – why run to meet them? … More things make us afraid than do us harm … Do not be unhappy before the crisis comes … Some things torment us more than they ought, some torment us before they even happen; some torment us which should not torment us at all. We exaggerate, or imagine, or anticipate sorrow, unnecessarily.’ The theme is the central Stoic one that it is our own attitudes and beliefs that make life good or bad. Hamlet was epitomizing Stoicism in his remark that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

There is nothing theoretical about the adjurations of the Stoics, for whom philosophy was a practical matter, aimed at making a real difference to the felt quality of life. Understanding oneself and how things are in the world is liberating, they argued, precisely because it puts the key to happiness into our own hands: we can choose to be indifferent to what we cannot influence, while at the same time rationally governing our own feelings. It was a commentator on Stoicism, Cicero, who best found a way of summing up their ethical outlook: ‘to learn to philosophize’, he wrote, ‘is to learn how to die,’ meaning that a right understanding of death frees one from the fear of it, so that one can live with greater courage and autonomy. If you are not afraid of death you are ultimately and completely free, because you always have an escape from the intolerable. Freedom from the oppression of anxiety and fear, and from desiring what one cannot oneself achieve or gain, is happiness itself.

Epictetus (born about A.D. 60, died about A.D. 100) is a very different type of man, though closely akin as a philosopher. Epictetus was born a slave in Phrygia; his name in effect means ‘bought’ or ‘owned’. He was taken to Rome in early life, where his owner (himself a former slave who had served the Emperor Nero) allowed him to study philosophy with the Stoic Musonius Rufus. After he had gained his freedom Epictetus set up as a teacher. In 93 CE the Emperor Domitian proscribed philosophy in Rome and banished the philosophers, whereupon Epictetus moved to Nicopolis in Greece and established a school. He wrote nothing himself, but his teachings have been preserved in the Discourses and, for a more popular readership, in the Encheiridion (‘Handbook’) by his pupil Arrian.

Self-knowledge and self-mastery are the key ideas in Epictetus. He argued that the distinction between what is within our power and what lies outside our power shows where the good is to be found, namely, within ourselves. Our use of reason, and our freedom to choose, allow us to evaluate the experiences we have and to ask ourselves, ‘Can I do something about this?’ If the answer is Yes, then act; if the answer is No, then say, ‘It is nothing to me’; this is the apatheia connoted in the idea of bearing with (‘being stoical about’) the unavoidable or inevitable. Everything turns on our attitudes, which lie under our own control, guided by reason. Acceptance of inevitabilities is freedom; it is ‘the price paid for a quiet mind’.

There is something of fatalism in Epictetus’ teaching. ‘Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall be at peace.  Behave in life as you would at a banquet. A dish is handed round and comes to you; put out your hand and take politely. It passes you; do not stop it. It has not reached you; do not be impatient to get it, but wait until your turn comes . Remember that foul words and blows are no outrage in themselves; it is your judgment that they are so that makes them so. When anyone makes you angry, it is your own thought that has angered you. Therefore make sure not to let your impressions carry you away.’

Marcus Aurelius ( A.D. 121-180) was at the other end of the social scale. He was the adopted son of the good Emperor Antoninus Pius, who was his uncle and his father-in-law, whom he succeeded in A.D. 161, and whose memory he revered. As Emperor, he devoted himself to Stoic virtue. He had much need of fortitude, for his reign was beset by calamities--earthquakes, pestilences, long and difficult wars, military insurrections. His Meditations, which are addressed to himself, and apparently not intended for publication, show that he felt his public duties burdensome, and that he suffered from a great weariness. His only son Commodus, who succeeded him, turned out to be one of the worst of the many bad emperors, but successfully concealed his vicious propensities so long as his father lived. The philosopher's wife Faustina was accused, perhaps unjustly, of gross immorality, but he never suspected her, and after her death took trouble about her deification. He persecuted the Christians, because they rejected the State religion, which he considered politically necessary. In all his actions he was conscientious, but in most he was unsuccessful. He is a pathetic figure: in a list of mundane desires to be resisted, the one that he finds most seductive is the wish to retire to a quiet country life. For this, the opportunity never came. Some of his Meditations are dated from the camp, on distant campaigns, the hardships of which eventually caused his death.

It is remarkable that Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are completely at one on all philosophical questions. This suggests that, although social circumstances affect the philosophy of an age, individual circumstances have less influence than is sometimes thought upon the philosophy of an individual. Philosophers are usually men with a certain breadth of mind, who can largely discount the accidents of their private lives; but even they cannot rise above the larger good or evil of their time. In bad times they invent consolations; in good times their interests are more purely intellectual. Those are Stoic philosophers.

A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Inwood, B. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003
Long, A. A., Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002
Long, A. A., Stoic Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
Rist, J. M., Stoic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969
Sellars, J. (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition, London: Routledge, 2016   

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