Stoicism: Nature, Physics, and Logic

26.06.2020 |

Episode #8 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham


Hello again. Welcome back. In this lesson, we’ll be looking at a philosophical movement that has a continuing contemporary significance: stoicism.


At the Painted Porch

The stoics were the heir to the cynic philosophers. We saw in the previous lesson that the cynics wanted to act in accordance with nature. But they didn’t manage to really answer the question of what nature actually is. The stoics tackled this challenge head-on. In doing so, they founded a philosophical tradition that flourished for centuries in Greece and in Rome and still resonates today.

The founder of stoicism was Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE). Zeno was born in Cyprus and became a wealthy businessman. But after washing up in Athens after a shipwreck, he wandered into a bookstore and read a book about Socrates by the writer Xenophon. He was enchanted by what he learned and asked where he could find a living Socrates. The bookseller sent him to Crates, the cynic philosopher. Zeno studied with Crates, but he wasn’t a natural cynic: He didn’t have the same taste for ostentatiously displaying his disdain for social convention. Instead, he began teaching at the “painted porch,” or Stoa Poikile, a covered walkway in the center of Athens famed for its paintings. He quickly gained a large following.


Philosophy as a Way of Life

For Zeno, philosophy was not just an abstract pursuit. Like the cynics and the skeptics before him, he saw philosophy as a practical matter. It was about looking for the best way of living well in an uncertain and unpredictable world.

Zeno divided philosophy into three distinct areas. The first was ethics, the question of your ethos, or how you go about living your life. The second area was physics, which for Zeno, was about an understanding of the processes of the natural world that we are a part of. The third was logic, or the nature of reasoning.

All these ideas were already there in cynicism. But Zeno recognized that if we are to live well and in accord with nature, things are not as simple as doing whatever a dog or a mouse might do. We need to understand what nature actually is (physics). We need to get a grip on proper reasoning (logic) so we can think through the implications of this for human life. On this basis, we need to put our understanding into practice (ethics).


How to Live the Stoic Way

For Zeno, the point of philosophy was to find out how to live in agreement with nature. At the heart of stoic ethics, there was a profound insight: We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to live as if the world is other than it is. For example, we feel that the world is unfair when our plans don’t come to fruition. We feel cheated when we get sick or when people we love die. We want to change the world so it better suits our own desires. But the trouble with all this is that the world is bigger than us, and its brute logic cannot be so easily changed. So, rather than trying to transform the world so it is better suited to us, the stoics aim to transform themselves so they are better suited to the world.

For the stoics, virtue comes from living so your will—what you desire and wish for—is in accord with nature. Much of the distress we feel about the world is that we wish it was other than it was. But if we can see the world more clearly as it is and if we can reason better about the world and our place in it, then we can live better in agreement with the world. When we can do that, we can experience the endpoint of stoic philosophy, which is called “passionlessness,” or apatheia.


Apathetic Philosophers?

The word apatheia is the same as the contemporary term, “apathy.” Being apathetic in the modern sense is being listless, tired, or not bothered by anything. It is a negative state of being. But stoic apatheia is different. It is a state of equanimity, where you are not ruffled or bothered by what life throws at you. If you are a stoic, when the train is late, you recognize that it is in the nature of trains to be late. If you go to the doctor and they tell you bad news, you recognize that it is in the nature of bodies to get sick. Therefore, you don’t struggle against the things that life throws at you, and you are freed from mental disturbance.


A Long Tradition

Stoic philosophy was a long tradition and flourished not only in Greece but also later in Rome. Some of the most famous stoic philosophers were Roman, including Emperor Marcus Aurelius. There has been a recent revival of interest in stoicism and stoic-influenced ideas—for example, the idea of “resilience,” is still in use in therapeutic contexts today.

In the next lesson, we’re going to look at another philosophy that was born in the Greek world and continued to exert an influence long after: materialism.


Recommended resources

• This is a one-stop resource for all things to do with contemporary stoicism.

• The School of Life has a video on “Why Stoicism Matters.”


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