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Stoic Thought

Stoic Physics

Since, as we noted, it is difficult to distinguish thc vews of the first Stoics, we will look at a composite picture, recognizing that Zeno was the originator and making some distinctions where it seems significant to do so.


According to the Stoic view, nothing is immaterial. God, the world, and even words are material. For each thing that one describes three things really exist: the word, the idea, and the physical object (c.g., the word hone, the idea of a horse, and the animal called "horse"). Even emo.tions are material things because they have a physical manifestation (e.g., shame causes a person to blush).


There are two basic kinds of matter: the grosser matter and the finer matter cafled breath or spirit (pneuma) that is diffused throughout reality. This special form of matter holds everything together and is given varlous names: logos (reason), breath (pneuma), providence (pronoia), Zeus, or fire (the element considered most akin to reason). Stolcism was pantheistic in that it found the divine reality in everything. Thus Zeus is everywhere, as the Greeks had said. The Stoic god has been described as a "perfectly good and wise gas" or more exactly as "intelligent, fiery breath."

Soul and Providence.

The human being consists of these two kinds of matter: the heavier matter of the physical body and the lighter matter of the soul. The soul stretched through the body has eight parts: the five senses, voice, generative power, and the "Icading part" (higemonikon), the mind, which is concentrated in the heart. Later Stoics, because of advances in medicine, placed it in the head. The universe is like a giant living body with Its own leading part. (Posidonius later placed it in the sun.) All parts of the universe are connected; thus, what happens in one place is affected by what happens elsewhere. On this basis divination and oracles were defended. Another basis for their defense was the principle of providence. Since the universe is ra.tional, it does take thought for humanity. Chrysippus wrote volumnously to show that this is the best of all possible worlds. Everything is directed toward a good goal, and even evil exists for a good purpose.


The Stoics sought to find their physical theories in the ancient mythology and in so doing promoted the allegorical method of interpreta.tion. Even as Zeus was said to pervade all, so other features of the popular religion were justified. Mythology was seen as a crude expression of truth, presented on the level of the people of the time. The gods did not actuaHy do the things attributed to them, which were descriptions of natural events. In particular this approach served to account for immoral actlons by the gods in the myths. The common people might continue to believe these things, but the phflosopher knew their true meaning. They were accounts of Stoic philosophy in story form. As an example of the way the allegorizing was done at an early stage, note the fällowing: rearranging the letters in the name of the goddess Hera (ERA) gives the word for air (AER); or an easy se.mantic change in DEMETER gives GEMETER (Earth Mother). The allegorical method of interpreting sacred literature was adopted by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria who harmonized the Mosaic religion with philosophy. From Philo the method passed to such Alexandrian Christian scholars as Clement of Alexandrla and Origen.

Conflagration and Regeneration.

Stoicism went back to Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.) for its view of the world. Heraclitus thought that the world was essentially fire in various forms. Fire turned into air, air into water, water to earth, and back again. This constant change is balanced by an interchange. He cafled this principle of balance, stability, or order logos. The logos became another word in the Stoic system for god, since it maintains order. This impersonal reason that gives order to the world is thus unlike the Christian conception found in John 1.

From Heraclitus Zeno got the principle of "creative fire" .- once all was fire and all will become fire again. The world goes through a period of stability, followed by the conflagration (ekpyrösis; cf the language Of 2 Per. 3:10-12). The cycle wiff then be repeated (the regeneration.palingenesia; cf Matt. 19:28; Titus 3:5). Since the world is perfect, if it is done over again it must be done the same way. There was no idea in Stoicism that the soul survives the conflagration, but there was a kind of limited immortality in that the soul is part öf the world soul and will reappear in the new world. Nevertheless personal immortality was not a real possibility.

Stoic Logic and Epistemology

lf reality is rational, it must be possible to represent it rationally. A fimda.mental principle of Greek thought was that the universe is orderly. Problems in understanding it are logical problems and can be solved lf one works on them. Hence, the Stoics gave a lot of attention to logic. The Stoic epistemology took as its criterion of truth a "perception that lays hold' (kataleptic phantasia) . something that must be belleved because it is so compelling. It is not clear whether the nünd lays hold of something or the object lays hold on the mind. lf it is the latter, the view is very near to that of Epicurus, but the Stoics would never have admitted this.

Zeno said an emotion was an unnatural movement of the mind. The human soul is basically a thinking apparatus. There was no place in the Stoic system for the desirous part of the soul or spirit, as in Plato. An emotion therefore was either a superabundant wish (a reaching out of the mind) or an exaggerated 'mpulse (something coming in from the outside and moving the nünd more than it should). If the mind is an undifferentiated unity, how can impulses override the rational? Chrysippus answered by saying that emotions are false judgments. He made all things intcflectual. When the soul thinks, that is onc aspect; when it makes a judgment, it turns to another aspcct, but it is the same entity functioning in different ways. An illustration used was this: to feel fear lf you see a lion is a false judgment, since the only thing to fear is an evil life. It is all right to save your life, but do not feel terror. Or, to experlence grief when one's parent dies is a false judgment. Everyone loses his parents. lf one adopts this explanation of crnotions, how.cver, therc must be an explanation of how the emotions stopped. Chrysippus had a complicated answer involving a seeping back in of a true judgment.

Stoic Ethics


The Stoics defined the goal or end of fife as virtue. Since man is rational, and the rational principle pervades the universe, the virtuous man lives in accord with reason (logos). The common formulation of this con.ception was "to live according to nature." This is the best of all possible worlds, and nature is the perfect environmment into which all are born. All people should live in accord with the logos that runs throughout the world. Thus to live in accord with nature means to live reasonably. Zeno apparently often stated the principle as simply "to live in accord"; that is, "to live harmonlously." Sometimes he added a word to clarify the concept, and it seems that later Stolcs fastened on the phrase "to live in accord with nature" (nature understood according to the Stoic perception of reallty). Virtue or perfection, then, is to live in accord with rational nature.

Since virtue is a matter of making the right judgments, it comes down to practical judgment (phronisis). One either has or does not have this ca.pacity to make right judgments. A person is either wise or foolish, completely virtuous or nonvirtuous. This proved to be the hardest part of the ethical theory to defend, but the Stoics stuck to it because they did not want to divide the virtues into little boxes. If a person makes a wrong cholce, it is evident that he does not have proper training. One wrong judgment is as bad as any other. The perfect or whofly right act arising from a perfect judgment was cafled katürthäma. A person who does this is the really wise person. Once one has the power to make right decisions, the power is never lost. Thus the Stoic ethics were in theory quite intellectual.

Was there ever any such a man as the Stoic wise person? By the second generation it was decided that such was only in the past. Not even Socrates survived this attack. Thus, being the wise person, a reality to the first Stoics and a goal they strived to attain, became ideal. But admitting that no one truly wise ever actuafly existed proved to be very damaging. The Stoics initiafly made a division between the wise and the foolish, then presented the wise person as an ideal, and finally adnütted that everyone was quite bad. The other schools made fun of the Stoic wise man.

Indifferent Things.

At this stage another category in early Stoic thought became important. Zeno had spoken of what is indifferent (adiaphoron), which for him was a very large category that included everything except virtue or vice. He further divided the indifferent things (adiaphüra) into two groups: things preferred (c.g., family, house, hath) and things not pre.ferred. In between are the truly indifferent things that make no difference at all in life (e.g., whether the number of one's hairs is even or odd). When asked on what basis some things are preferred, the reply was that they must have something to do with life. With that the Stoics had a basis for bringing the whole social structure back in and so departed from their Cynic origins. The Stoics thus became concerned with preserving society, because it was to be preferred to uncivilized conditions, although it was not part of virtue. Later Stoics figured out a whole series of actions that were fitting or suitable in relation to the "preferred" conditions. A fitting or sultable action was termed kathikon. As perfect actions became impossible, interest shifted to what was practicable. Stolcism increasingly showed an interest in what it considered secondary. It did allow for a class of persons on the way to beconüng wise (those who live according to the fitting), and in those terms did not lose sight of its ideal altogether.


lf everything is leading toward the best, as the Stoic theory of providence affirmed, then everything is determined in advance. The Stoic cyclical theory also pointed to the same conclusion. After the next conflagration, Socrates will gather the youth about him and teach as in the preceding cycle. (And students will be taking the same courses and reading this same textbook . a thought that should deter any potential converts to Stoicism!) Nevertheless, Stoicism belleved in "free will." How is that possible within a deternünistic system? The Stoics used the iflustration of a river with eddies in its current. A person is being carried along the river to perfection. The eddy is the freewill when it resists, but like the stream one eventuafly will be carried along anyway. The wise will submit to the providence of the logos. Since one is going to be swept along regardless, it is better to do so voluntarily. The fundamental problem is how persons can resist at all if all is determined. This is especially acute for Stoics, since for them the divinity is within. How can one resist what one is a part of?

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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