Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy
The Stoics

Chrysippus of Soli
Cleanthes of Assos
Zeno 334-262 BC

Zeno [334-262 B.C.] was the founder and head of the school of Stoic thought. He was born at Citium in Cyprus, a Greek city with a substantial number of Phoenician settlers, which accounts for the tradition that he was of Phoenician extraction. He reached Athens as a result of a shipwreck when on a trade mission at the age of 22. Some sources relate that he already had the smatterings of a Greek education, but others say that he acquired his training in Greek in Athens.

Epicurus had already founded his school when Zeno in 301 B.C. established his own in the area of the Poicile Stoa of Athens. On account of this, his students and disciples were known as 'those of the Stoa', the Stoics. Zeno preoccupied himself mostly with ethics, although he laid the foundations of logic and physics at the Stoa, and he was responsible for elevating virtue and duty as the supreme goals of life. Of his students and successors in the school, the most outstanding were Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

Cleanthes was born at Assos in the Troad, and came to Athens as a boxer, until becoming the most devoted disciple of Zeno. He was the first to formulate theology as a special branch of philosophy. His famous 'Hymn to Zeus' is one of the few works of the Stoic school which has survived completely and was considered always as the most important memorial of Stoic piety and the most consummate exposition of Stoic philosophy. Like his mentor Zeno, he died of willful self-starvation.

Chrysippus of Soli in Cilicia succeeded Cleanthes as head of the school. It was he who built up the foundations of logic at the Stoa and cultivated, along with Ethics and the practical devotion to the ideal of duty, all the various branches of philosophy. It was to his dialectics and his remarkable diligence and indefatigability that the Stoa in essence owed its existence and played such a tremendous role both in his age and in the subsequent Greco-Roman world.

The primary concern of Stoic philosophy is Logic, since reason is beyond all others the characteristic point of the universe as a harmonious whole. From this Logos or reason comes the rational faculty of man. Logic to the Stoics was not the agent, as with Aristotle, but a self-contained sphere of philosophy, alongside with physics and ethics. The object of logic is not so much the meanings, but the reasons, the propositions. The logic of the Stoics is a logic of propositions. It is divided into dialectic and rhetoric. The dialectic with the question and response aims at truth, rhetoric with the correct arrangement of words, to formulate truth. The Stoics distinguished the meaning from the things to which they referred, also from the words in which it was expressed, and lastly, from the spiritual energy from which it is created. Only the meaning is incorporeal, whereas all the other elements, things, words, and spiritual energy, originated from matter and are of material composition.

The primary substance of all being is matter, eternal and permanent, and neither grows nor diminishes. But this matter is pervaded by the universal logos or reason. The logos is [p. 178] inseparably bound to matter. It is intermixed with it and spreads through it, it gives it form, and thus creates the universe. From this primary matter come the four elements, fire, air, water, and earth. From these are born beasts, plants, and the world generally. Fire is the most important element since from it are created all the others by a kind of alteration, and to fire they must all return, whereas fire belongs to no other. Since whatever exists is matter, it follows that the soul is also material, it is a body. It is created, as with the body, at birth. This pure materialism is associated by the Stoics in a peculiar manner with the notion of God. God is ideally bound with matter and is called the 'fiery mind' or 'intellectual fire'. This is the soul of the world. It is the spirit which pervades all, even the last particle of matter. And finally, God is the reason or logos which contains the seeds of logic of all things. Zeno associates the one God, in whom he believes, with the many gods of the popular religion. He thus interprets Hera as air, Zeus as the heavens, Poseidon as the sea, and so on.

Yet the core of Stoic philosophy is found neither in logic nor in physics, but in ethics. Their historical immortality the Stoics owe to the ethical ideal which they created. The highest good according to them is happiness which however comes with logic and virtue. The reasoning is as follows: The general urge and the drive of all animals is towards self-preservation. Each animal turns to that which agrees with its nature, it follows the natural life in the words of the famous Stoic dogma. But in the case of reasonable beings 'following the natural life' is that only which derives from knowledge of the general law of the universe, that is, its logical understanding. So whether we define 'following the natural life' as in agreement with ourselves, as does Zeno, or as in agreement with our life with the universe, as Cleanthes, the important fact is that the life of the individual acquires its happiness provided it is in agreement with the logical nature of man, or with the logic of the universe. The significant thing is in other words that happiness coincides with virtue, and virtue is the logicity of life, the harmony of life with the 'reason within us' and with the general order, that is, the logos of the universe. Virtue is alone, in itself, good, just as evil is in itself evil, and all other things are ethically indifferent. Neither health nor wealth is good, nor are poverty and illness evil. The former and the latter are both simple matter, which can be used by one for the good or for the bad. Virtue alone is the good and leads to happiness. Only virtue releases man from fear and the evils of life. The wise man is, according to the Stoics, certainly virtuous, is free of sorrow or fear, sensual pleasure and desire, and generally of all anxieties. This is precisely the good of philosophy, that it liberates man from temptation, gives him absolute peace of mind or rather, an indifference and self-confidence. Passions, according to the Stoics, contend with the mind and disturb one's spiritual health. The appeal of the Stoa asked man to trample upon and to eliminate his passions, thus acquiring virtue, and therefore happiness. [pp. 178-179]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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