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Stoicism

The deaths of Alexander and Aristotle marked a diminishing of the domination of pure Greek philosophy in the culture. In his conquest Alexander started adopting oriental culture. Alexander married the daughter of Darius, and adopted Persian customs such as the diadem and the robe of state. Alexander introduced the oriental notion of the divine right of kings, and decided to follow the tradition of the Far East, in announcing that he was a god.[i] (He did this, despite being laughed at for this view.)

These moves by Alexander were only the start of a flood of oriental influence, including cults, philosophies, and religions.

Zeno of Citium (335 – 265 BC), a Phoenician merchant with ties to Asia, is credited with founding the school of philosophy known as Stoicism. The name stoicism actually comes from the name of the place where Zeno taught, a stoa. A stoa is a colonnade, a place in the city marked by a row of columns. Zeno chose the colonnade in Athens as his place to promote his philosophy. Stoicism was the most popular and influential philosophy from the third century BC to the second century A.D.[ii] if you look at the Stoic philosophy you’ll see that it is still a prominent philosophy adopted by many individuals to this day.

Stoicism is founded around a principle called apatheia (apathy). It’s a philosophy based on the idea of acceptance.  For example, the Roman stoic Seneca said:

“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then, though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”[iii]

The Stoic attitude is to accept your fate, and live up to whatever that is. It doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is that you handle it well. For example, when you get sick, or your vehicle breaks down, or you lose your employment, the Stoic response is, “that’s life” or “stuff happens.”  But the principle is not one of hopelessness, it is one of peace through acceptance of things beyond one’s control.

Stoicism and Epicureanism represent a split in philosophy. They both attempted to achieve a sense of peace in a overwhelming world. They both sought freedom from anxiety. Amazingly, they actually both sought a sense of pleasure, but the pleasure that they sought was not sensual, but rather the pleasure of the soul, so to speak, to be free from anxiety and pain. But they are polar opposites in the sense that the Stoics represent an acceptance of the hardness of life as compared to the Epicurean focus on pursuing a more gentler intellectual peace. There were other points of disagreement as well. The Epicureans believed life was without divine intervention and ended at death while Stoics believed in a Logos centered world with divine interaction as we shall discuss in more detail below. Both Stoicism and Epicureanism thrived in the culture in the centuries after Aristotle.

“the Romans, coming to the spoil Hellas in 146 BC, found these rival squirrels schools dividing the philosophic field; and having neither pleasure nor subtlety for speculation themselves, brought back these philosophies with their other spoils to Rome. Great organizers, as much as inevitable slaves, tended to stoic moods: it is difficult to be either master or servant if one is sensitive. So such philosophy as Rome had was mostly of Zeno’s school…”[iv]

Famous Stoics included Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius the Emperor, and Lucretius.  Epictetus  said:

“Seek not to have things happen as you choose them, but rather choose that they should happen as they do; and you shall live prosperously.”[v]

Epictetus is famous for his response while being beaten as a Roman slave.  He refused to groan under torture, and even seemed not to feel the pain at all. Evidently, His master, whose manner was to treat him cruelly, started twisting his leg just to pass the time.  As his leg was being twisted, he merely commented, “if you keep twisting my leg like that, you’re sure to break it.”  When his leg broke, he mildly responded , “Did I not tell you that you would break my leg?” What is incredible about his response is the peace and courage he displayed in a time of extreme distress. [vi]

As Stoicism was the most  popular and influential philosophy around the time of Christ,  it is significant to note the Stoic view of God. The stoics believed that:

“… the universe is a single ordered whole , a perfect organism that unites within itself all that exists in the world. It is ruled by a supreme cosmic power, a fiery substance that the Stoics called Logos, Divine Reason, or God.  The Logos is the organizing, integrating, and energizing principle of the whole universe.  As a perfect entity, the universe combines within itself the Logos or Divine Reason, which is its soul, and matter, which serves as its body. Since everything is derived from God, everything is a part of God, but not separated or cut from the whole.  Each individual soul is a fragment of the universal Logos or God.”[vi]

Stoicism became gentler as time went on and grew in its tenets.  The brotherhood of all became a tenant of Stoicism as it was reasoned that since everyone has a fragment  of the Logos , then everyone is an equal citizen under the Logos’ universal rule. Therefore all men (and women) have a duty and responsibility to each other. These doctrines were in place and accepted by different members of the cultures around Israel just before the appearance of Christ and Christianity.

Understanding these Stoic concepts of the Logos and the brotherhood of those who are part of the Logos put biblical emphasis on and usages of the word “Logos” in a more understandable context.

That is not to say Christianity adopted Stoic philosophy as some elements of Stoicism are radically different from Christianity. For example, Stoics did not believe in the same eternity as Christianity. Instead they believed that people are in a world period that loops and repeats continuously and endlessly. Each world period ends by the world being absorbed into the divine Fire, the Logos, and then the world is remade exactly as before. All people and events happen exactly as before.

While they share some concepts with Stoic writers, Christian writers, both during the New Testament period and later, address the Logos, the brotherhood of believers and eternity from a Christian perspective.

[i] THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961, p. 108

[ii] RELIGIONS OF THE HELLENISTIC-ROMAN AGE, Antonia Tripolitus, Eerdman’s, GrandRapids, 2002, p. 37

[iii] THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY, p. 109

[iv] ibid. P. 112

[v] ibid. p. 114

[vi] ibid.

[vii] RELIGIONS OF THE HELLENISTIC-ROMAN AGE, p. 37-38

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

November 28th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

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