Stoicism’s origin stories

(Everybody's favorite origin story.)

Everyone loves a good origin story. Spiderman’s has been told a number of times, in both the comic books and the movies. And who doesn’t delight in telling their friends how they met the love of their lives? (In my case, at Stoic Camp, in case you were curious.) So let’s talk about the origin stories (yes, there is more than one) of Stoicism.

Diogenes Laertius gives the classic accounts, which begins with a shipwreck:

“[Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism] was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates [of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher] passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, ‘Follow yonder man.’ From that day he became Crates’s pupil.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.2-3)

Diogenes also tells us that Zeno studied with a number of other philosophers before eventually founding his own school:

“[Zeno] was a pupil of Crates, as stated above. Next they say he attended the lectures of Stilpo and Xenocrates for ten years – so Timocrates says in his Dion – and Polemo as well. It is stated by Hecato and by Apollonius of Tyre in his first book on Zeno that he consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god’s response was that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors.” (Lives, VII.2)

I just love that the oracle (I presume, at Delphi) told Zeno to assume “the complexion of the dead” and that he interpreted this as studying ancient (to him!) philosophers. But the more interesting story concerning the origin of Stoicism is hinted in this second passage, where Diogenes lists some of the teachers Zeno studied with. This gives us a clue to the conceptual roots of Stoicism, and reveals very clearly that it is a type of syncretic philosophy, that is, put together drawing the best elements of a number of other philosophical schools. I will return to the enormous significance of this by the end of the essay.

Let us begin with Crates, of course. As a Cynic, he practiced asceticism, though apparently not in the extreme form that made his, shall we say colorful predecessor, Diogenes of Sinope (of him, Plato famously said that he was “Socrates gone mad”). Crates was apparently a gentle man, with a good sense of humor, which influenced the way he expressed his philosophy. Crates thought — like other Cynics — that people live their lives in a state of mental confusion, and that the way to wisdom is to see the world as it really is, not as we wished it to be.

Then there was Stilpo, a member of the Megarian school, founded by Euclides of Megara, a student of Socrates. In terms of ethics — the study of how to live our lives — the Megarians agreed with Socrates that there is a single good, wisdom. Most importantly for our purposes, however, the Megarians were major innovators in logic, particularly in modal logic, the use of conditionals, and propositional logic. All of these were taken up and greatly developed by the Stoics, particularly the third scholarch of the Stoa, Chrysippus. Note that Zeno also studied with another member of the Megarian school, Diodorus Cronus, famous for his formulation of the master argument as a response to Aristotle’s problem of future contingents. (Interestingly, the master argument is discussed by Epictetus in book II, section 20 of the Discourses. I wrote about it here.)

Next on Diogenes’ list of teachers of Zeno we find Xenocrates of Chalcedon, a mathematician and scholarch of the Platonic Academy. In terms of ethics, Xenocrates thought that virtue yields happiness, but also that external goods enable virtue to be used properly. But Xenocrates’ main interest seems to have been in metaphysics. He held that the famous Platonic ideas are identical with numbers, and he sought to thereby provide a rigorous mathematical foundation for Platonism (though remember that Plato himself allegedly had this inscription placed at the entrance of his Academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”). 

Xenocrates also believed in the notion of a world-soul, which in some way was in charge of the whole changeable universe (as distinct from the unchanging part, the world of ideas). Unlike the Stoics, he was a dualist, believing in a separation between the body, made of matter, and the soul, which was incorporeal. Also, keep in mind that it was Plato — Xenocrates’ teacher — who arrived at the formulation of the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

The last teacher of Zeno mentioned by Diogenes is Polemon of Athens, another scholarch of the Academy (the third, to be precise, counting Plato as the first). He was a student of Xenocrates, and maintained that philosophy should not be studied, but practiced. The highest good, according to Polemon, is to live according to nature. Moreover, he was said to have achieved mastery over his emotional reactions.

You may have noticed that at this point we already have many of the basic elements of Stoicism:

  • A simple life is better than a complex one (from Socrates and the Cynics)
  • We should look at the world as it is, not engage in wishful thinking (from the Cynics)
  • The only true good in life is virtue (from Socrates, the Megarians, and the Cynics)
  • Logic is crucial to a philosophical life (from the Megarians)
  • Though virtue leads to eudaimonia, externals (health, wealth, fame, etc.) are the way we properly exercise virtue (from the Platonists)
  • Metaphysics is important, as we need an account of how the world hangs together (from the Platonists)
  • The world is a living organism endowed with soul (from the Platonists)
  • Philosophy should be practiced (from the Platonists and the Cynics)
  • We should live according to nature (from the Platonists)
  • There are four cardinal virtues (from the Platonists)

It is in this sense that Stoic philosophy is syncretic, then: Zeno took a number of what he thought were the best elements from all the teachers who influenced him, discarded some bits (e.g., Platonic dualism, replacing it with a combination of materialism and the Pre-Socratic Heraclitus’ metaphysics of change), emphasized others (e.g., living according to nature), and developed still more (e.g., the distinction between virtue and externals, the classification of the latter into preferred and dispreferred). Zeno’s successors, then, further modified and expanded the philosophy in a variety of directions: Chrysippus (early Stoa) contributed greatly to the logic part, as well as to the general coherence of the Stoic system; Panaetius (middle Stoa) elaborated a system of so-called role ethics; Posidonius made crucial contributions to the “physics” (i.e., natural science); and Epictetus introduced his famous three disciplines (of desire, action, and assent), and radically improved Panaetius’ role ethics.

This shows two important things that even many modern practitioners of Stoicism do not seem to fully appreciate: the philosophy began as an initially rather haphazard (Zeno) and then increasingly systematized (Chrysippus) system borrowing and adapting from other schools. It then evolved by way of vibrant internal discussions (Posidonius proposed the rejection of the notion that “passions,” i.e., negative emotions, are the result of faulty judgments) and innovations. As Seneca aptly puts it:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

Which in turn means that modern criticism of efforts like those of Larry Becker (or, for that matter, myself) to further update Stoicism are fundamentally misguided. Such efforts are neither new nor a rejection of Stoicism. They have been at the core of the philosophy all along.

At the same time, it does make sense to ask two questions: (i) Are the changes organic, resulting in a coherent yet dynamic philosophy, or are they haphazard and incoherent? (ii) Just how much change, and of what kind, is reasonable to advocate for and still call the resulting philosophy “Stoicism”?

These are good questions, and the answers will depend on the specific changes being proposed. Even in the past some changes were proposed and stuck (Chrysippus, Epictetus), and others didn’t (Aristo, Posidonius). Stoicism is a living philosophy, which will continue to thrive so long as it reflects fundamental aspects and needs of human nature, and so long as its practitioners are sufficiently open minded to keep adapting it to new centuries. Not too open minded, though, or — as Carl Sagan famously said — there will be a risk of their brains falling off.

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