These minutes were spoken on 15 February.
Wednesday’s lecture began as we recalled the anecdote given at the end of the last lecture. The professor informed us that he had found the source of the original story of Zeno’s connection to Socrates on page 103 of Hellenistic Philosophy.
He met with Crates as follows. On a commercial voyage from Phoenicia to sell purple dye he shipwrecked near the Piraeus. He went into Athens . . . and sat down by a certain bookseller. The bookseller was reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia; he enjoyed it and asked where men like that [i.e., like Socrates] spent their time. Fortuitously, Crates came by and the bookseller pointed to him and said, ‘Follow this man.’ From then on he studied with Crates, being in others respects fit for and intent on philosophy but too modest for Cynic shamelessness … (IG II-1)
The efforts have been strenuous to establish a Socratic pedigree for the Stoics. However, it is not the pedigree that is important in philosophy but how lively and sensible the ideas are. Whether or not a direct line of teachers and students can be traced is of little relevance in philosophy as influence can be spread through text. As students we have no real connection to Zeno as our teacher but instead reach back across using the written word. This is aided by the fact that the Stoics wrote a lot. Christippus, for example, wrote 311 books. Stoics also taught in person to spread their philosophy. This is in contrast to the Epicureans who spread their ideas almost solely through personal teachings and left behind only documents such as handbooks used to remind followers of Epicurean teachings.
Zeno began his life in Athens as a teacher. He was so respected in the city that he was named an honorary Athenian after being a renowned teacher there for thirty years and becoming a local hero. His Stoic teachings soon spread to other centres. Within 100 years these ideas had percolated as far as the high school level; Plato or the Epicureans never reached this degree of popularity. The Stoic doctrine became the “Lingua Franca”. The ideas it put forth were commonly accepted and people were glad to have it taught to the youth. Stoicism had become the most influential philosophy of the ancient world in terms of the number of people it reached. Epicureanism appealed mostly to those who psychologically needed such a philosophy, or those who could be sucked into its communal lifestyle, and Plato was too abstract for the common people. The Stoics, however, combined the independence of mind of Socrates with the newest in scientific knowledge (illustrating the influence of the Academy).
Stoicism remained the most influential philosophical doctrine for 400 years, from the third century BC to the first century AD when it finally began to lose ground. Like Aristotle, Stoicism has had, throughout history, great waves of popularity and unpopularity. Chaucer made references to the Stoic Seneca. Queen Elizabeth reportedly enjoyed translating Seneca. Seneca, in fact, was the most influential philosopher from the 14th to 16th centuries and he, along with Cicero and other later Stoics influenced changes to early modern philosophy in the 16th century. While one is upset and friends are unable to console her, it might been common to hear a friend say to her ‘you must think philosophically about this’. Sometimes this is used to mean that one simply should not think about it at all, or one should put it out of one’s mind. ‘Philosophical’ is sometimes used like ‘Stoical’; to be like Seneca is to not let small things bother you, instead remaining calm and focused. Seneca did also caution against excessive positive emotions, but the risk of being derailed by disaster is greater than the risk of being seduced off the track. Another example to illustrate the deep permeation of Stoicism was then given. ‘I feel so stupidly philosophical,’ a depressed person might say, meaning that he has stopped caring, as apathy was desirable to the Stoics.
How widely influential and deeply penetrating Stoic ideas were can also be shown by looking at the writings of the Christian John. This author was Greek. Though he was within the circle of Jesus’ followers his education, what he had of it, had been Greek. His religious views are those of the followers of Jesus, but he expresses the beginning of the world in Stoic terms, as will be explained at the end of the lecture.
Despite the wide range and influence of Stoicism Wednesday’s reading might be considered rather boring. How had this happened to such a popular doctrine? The most important of the Stoic philosophers, Hutchinson noted, were the first three, including Zeno and Christippus. We also know of many other Stoic philosophers and the detailed arguments they provided, through which the boredom they were feeling can be sensed. Seneca also sensed this boredom, yet was still a powerful spokesperson for Stoicism. He was simply not so enthusiastic about aspects of Stoic theory of logic.
The professor then quoted letter 48 from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (p96). In this passage he speaks of friendship, urging that we should also have a friendly feeling towards all of humanity, as they are members of the same planetary community. It reads:
Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything. We have neither successes nor setbacks as individuals; our lives have a common end. No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself. The assiduous and scrupulous cultivation of this bond, which leads to our associating with our fellow-men and believes in the existence of a common law for all mankind, contributes more than anything else to the maintenance of that more intimate bond I was mentioning, Friendship. A person who shares much with a fellow human being will share everything with a friend.
Stoic logic was a system which attracted criticism within it’s own circle. To understand this we were reminded of the background of the word logic. The Greek word logos meant speech, argument, or an account. It has much to do with the word which we translate as ‘reckon’, meaning to think or believe. The Stoics believed that humans were distinguished from other beings by possessing meaningful communication. This communication is key to understanding the world around us, which they believed was also logic, a reckoning structure, taken as a whole. This type of micro and macro comparison was common to Stoicism. The cosmos, they held, is alive and is a rational creature just as man is. This is very similar to Plato’s Timaeus where the living cosmic system has both a rational and a spiritual aspect. This concept involves much restructuring of our thought. We have a strong desire for independence and feel that we have freedom. The Stoic, however, would maintain that this independence is illusory and we are merely part of a larger system. Consider human cells; to think that they have individual likes and wills is absurd. The interests of the individual parts do not outweigh those of the whole. This applies to humans as well as cells, and to be happy we must realize this and the constraints thus imposed on us. As individual systems focused on our own interests it is easy to lose sight of the whole. Stoicism discourages this and instead emphasizes that we remain focused on the whole.
To the Stoic the world is shot through with logos. A living creature, like a human, is composed of complex organizations within complex organizations – logic exists on many levels. The same is true for a creature like a snail, but as it is less complex it has less logic than a human. Inanimate objects also are complex things containing logic, but to a lesser degree than even the snail. From less to more rational they proposed an increase in the degree of logical complication. The overarching framework of Stoicism was thus that we live in an unimaginably complex living system with it’s own internal dynamic, but that the complexity serves the system; all that happens is for the best. This leads to the conclusion that you should accept what fate deals to you. This is one of the most curious and distinctive features of Stoicism.
The Stoics accepted Heraclitus’ theory of organization and disorganization, which is similar to Empedocles theory of increasing chaos and coherence, or love and strife. Like in the big bang theory, the Stoics believed the universe cyclically expanded and reduced upon itself. We then returned to the Biblical passage from John 1, Chapter 1 where the Stoic influence is visible in the Old Testament. It reads: “In the beginning was the logic, and the logic was with God and the logic was God. It was in the beginning with God. All things were made through it and with out it was not anything made. In it was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and has not overcome it.” This gives us insight as to why the Stoics put so much stress on logic. By unraveling this we can discover the key to the universe.