Posted on 1 January 2020
The Cynics were instrumental in the development of the Stoic school of philosophy, which began in Athens around 300 BC.
Its founder was Zeno (c. 334 – c. 262 BC), who came originally from Cyprus and initially joined the Cynics in Athens after being shipwrecked.
The name ‘Stoic’ comes from the Greek word for portico (stoa), an outdoor structure with columns and a roof. It was from such a structure that Zeno began teaching his form of philosophy, a more moderate form of Cynicism.
Stoicism was later to have great significance for Roman culture. Like the philosopher Heraclitus, the Stoics believed that everyone was a part of the same common sense – or Logos. They thought that each person was like a world in miniature, or ‘microcosmos,’ which is a reflection of the ‘macrocosmos’ – the larger universe.
Stoism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions in order to develop clear judgment and inner calm and the ultimate goal of freedom from suffering.
Stoicism is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, however, but rather a way of life, involving constant practice and training. Stoism incorporates the practice of logic, Socratic dialogue, contemplation of death, and a kind of meditation aimed at training one’s attention to remain in the present moment.
Stoic philosophy led to the thought that there exists a universal rightness, the so-called Natural Law. And because the Natural Law was based on timeless human and universal reason, it did not alter with time and place. Therefore the Stoics sided with Socrates against the Sophists – Natural Law governed all mankind, even slaves.
The Stoics considered the legal statutes of the various states merely as incomplete imitations of the ‘law’ embedded in nature itself. In the same way that the Stoics erased the difference between individual and the universe, they also denied any conflict between ‘spirit’ and ‘matter.’ There is only one nature, they argued.
This kind of idea is called Monism, in contrast to Plato’s clear dualism or two-fold reality. As people of their time, the Stoics were distinctly cosmopolitan in that they were more receptive to contemporary culture than the Barrel Philosophers (the Cynics). They drew attention to human fellowship through politics and many of them were active statesmen.
The Cynics encouraged Greek culture and philosophy in Rome. one of the most distinguished of them being the orator, philosopher, and statesman Cicero (106 – 43 BC).
It was he who formed the very concept of Humanism – that is, a view of life that has the individual as its central focus.
“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.”
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
“What sweetness is left in life, if you take away friendship? Robbing life of friendship is like robbing the world of the sun. A true friend is more to be esteemed than kinsfolk.”
Some years later, a Roman Stoic named Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) said that:
“To mankind, mankind is holy.”
This has remained a slogan for humanism ever since.
The Stoics, moreover, emphasized that all natural processes, such as sickness and death, follow the unbreakable laws of nature.
Man must therefore learn to accept his destiny.
Nothing happens accidentally for the Stoics. Everything happens through necessity, so it is of little use to complain when fate comes knocking at the door.
One must also accept the happy events of life unperturbed, they thought. In this we see their kinship with the Cynics, who claimed that all external events were unimportant.
Even today we use the term ‘stoic calm’ about someone who does not let their feelings take over.
Perhaps the most famous Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 – 180). He was a practitioner of Stoicism, and his personal philosophical writings, which later came to be called Meditations, remain highly influential to this day. Quotes include:
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Image from history.com/