The System of Stoic Philosophy

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite division of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, their subdivisions, etc.

The System of Stoic Philosophy


Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite classification of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, and their subdivisions, etc., as reputedly described by the primary sources.¬† It’s still a work in progress, see please feel free to post comments or corrections.

The Parts of Philosophy

From Diogenes Laertius (7.38-41)

Zeno introduced the tripartite division of philosophy in his book On Rational Discourse.  Whereas some Stoics say the three parts of philosophy are mixed and taught together, Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, put them in the following order:

  1. Logic
  2. Physics
  3. Ethics

However, Plutarch says that Chrysippus thought the parts should be studied as follows (Early Stoics, p. 9):

  1. Logic
  2. Ethics
  3. Physics (and theology)

(Later, Epictetus said that the Discipline of Assent, which is linked to logic, should be studied last, as it is important to master the other aspects of Stoicism first.)

Cleanthes divided philosophy into six parts, however.

  1. Dialectic
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Ethics
  4. Politics
  5. Physics
  6. Theology

Several metaphors are used in conjunction with this tripartite division of philosophy.  They appear to differ in terms of whether physics or logic is made central, but logic is perhaps consistently described as providing stability and structure.  For example, philosophy is like an animal:

  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The fleshier parts
  • Physics = The soul

Philosophy is like an egg:

  • Logic = The shell
  • Ethics = The egg white
  • Physics = The yolk

Philosophy is like a productive field:

  • Logic = The surrounding wall
  • Ethics = The fruit
  • Physics = The land and trees

Philosophy is also like a city “which is beautifully fortified and administered according to reason.”¬† According to Sextus Empiricus, Posidonius compared philosophy to an animal, as follows (Stoic Reader, p. 9):

  • Physics = The flesh and blood
  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The soul

Ethics & The Virtues

From Diogenes Laertius (7.84-131).

The early Stoics define “the good” as encompassing three senses:

  1. The most fundamental sense is that through which it is possible to be benefitted, which corresponds mainly to the virtues
  2. In addition, the good includes that according to which being benefitted is a typical result, which refers both to the virtues and to specific virtuous actions
  3. Finally, the good includes that which is such as to benefit, namely the Wise man himself, true friends, and the gods, who engage in virtuous actions and possess the virtues

Praiseworthy men are often referred to as “good and honourable” in ancient Greek literature.¬† Hence, the good in Stoicism is described as being synonymous with what is both beneficial and honourable (or praiseworthy).¬†¬†Alternatively, Diogenes Laertius gives the following list of synonyms for the perfect good, according to the early Stoics all good (agathon) is inherently:

  • Advantageous or expedient (sumpheron), ‚Äúbecause it brings [instrumentally] such things as we are benefitted by when they occur‚ÄĚ
  • Morally binding, a duty¬†(deon), ‚Äúbecause it holds together in cases where this is needed‚ÄĚ
  • Profitable, repaying more than was expended¬†(lusiteles), ‚Äúbecause it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort‚ÄĚ
  • Useful for things (chreisimon), ‚Äúbecause it makes available the use of a benefit‚ÄĚ
  • Well-used or artfully-used (euchr√™ston), ‚Äúbecause it renders the use of it praiseworthy‚ÄĚ (by contrast, the indifferents can be used either well or badly)
  • Honourable or beautiful (kalon), ‚Äúbecause it is symmetrical with its own use‚ÄĚ also ‚Äúbecause it has all the features sought by nature or because it is perfectly symmetrical‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe honourable uniquely means that which makes those who possess it praiseworthy”
  • Beneficial (√īphelimon), ‚Äúbecause it is such as to benefit‚ÄĚ
  • Worth choosing or to be chosen (haireton), ‚Äúbecause it is such that it is reasonable to choose it‚ÄĚ
  • Just (dikaion), ‚Äúbecause it is consonant with law and instrumental to a sense of community‚ÄĚ

Some of these terms are central to Stoic ethical theory.

Although Zeno and Cleanthes did not divide things in such detail, the followers of Chrysippus and others Stoics classify the sub-divisions of ethics as follows:

  1. On impulse
  2. On good and bad things
  3. On passions
  4. On virtue
  5. On the goal
  6. On primary value
  7. On actions
  8. On appropriate actions
  9. On encouragements and discouragements to action

Diogenes Laertius¬†says that whereas Panaetius¬†divided virtues into two kinds (theoretical and practical), other Stoics divided the virtues into logical, ethical and physical.¬† According to Aetius also, there are three categories of virtue, which correspond with the three divisions of philosophy: physics, ethics, and logic¬†(Stoic Reader, p. 9).¬† He doesn’t say what these virtues are, but we might speculate:

  1. Physics = Self-Control (Courage & Moderation, two of the cardinal virtues)
  2. Ethics = Justice
  3. Logics = Wisdom (or Prudence)

Panaetius, anyway, says that there are two [kinds of] virtues, theoretical and practical; others [divide virtue into] logical, physical, and ethical.¬† Posidonious’ followers [say there are] four, and those of Cleanthes and Chrysippus and Antipater [say there are even] more.¬† But Apollophanes¬†says there is one virtue, namely, prudence. (Diogenes Laertius, in Early Stoics, p. 115)

Although Chryssipus and other Stoics claimed that all virtues are essentially one, most Stoics appear to have agreed that there are four “primary” virtues, common to other ancient schools of philosophy:

  1. Prudence or Practical Wisdom (Phronesis), sometimes just called Wisdom (Sophia), which opposes the vice of “ignorance”
  2. Justice or Integrity (Dikaiosune), which opposes the vice of “injustice”
  3. Fortitude or Courage (Andreia), which opposes the vice of “cowardice”
  4. Temperance or Moderation (Sophrosune), which opposes the vice of “wantonness”

These are defined as forms of knowledge (q.v., Stobaeus in Early Stoics, p. 125-130):

  1. Prudence is knowledge of which things are good, bad, and neither; or “appropriate acts”.
  2. Temperance is knowledge of which things are to be chosen, avoided, and neither; or¬†stable “human impulses”.
  3. Justice is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person; or fair “distributions”.
  4. Courage is knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither; or “standing firm”.

The cardinal virtues are also sub-divided as follows:

  1. Prudence takes the form of deliberative excellence, good calculation, quick-wittedness, good sense, good sense of purpose, and resourcefulness.
  2. Temperance takes the form of organisation, orderliness, modesty, and self-control.
  3. Justice takes the form of piety, good-heartedness, public spiritedness, and fair dealing.
  4. Courage takes the form of endurance, confidence, great-heartedness, stout-heartedness, and love of work.

Diogenes Laertius also says that Chrysippus and others sub-divide the virtues as follows:

  1. Prudence primarily takes the form of good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis)
  2. Temperance primarily takes the form of good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês)
  3. Justice primarily takes the form of impartiality¬†(isot√™s) and¬†kindness/courtesy (eugn√īmosun√™)
  4. Courage primarily takes the form of constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia)

A famous slogan of Epictetus, anechou¬†kai apechou,¬†is usually translated as “bear and forbear” or “endure and renounce”.¬† According to Gellius:

The same Epictetus […] was in the habit of saying that there were two vices which are far more severe and atrocious than all others, want of endurance and want of self-control, when we do not endure or bear the wrongs¬†which we have to¬†bear, or do not abstain from, or forbear, those matters and pleasures which we out to forbear.¬† “And so,” he says, “if a man should take to heart these two words and observe them in controlling and keeping watch over himself, he will, for the most part, be free from wrongdoing, and will live a highly peaceful life.”¬† These two words, he used to say, were anechou and apechou.

This can perhaps be seen to correlate with the two virtues relating to self-control in the broad sense: courage and temperance.¬† It’s possible that these two complementary virtues both correspond somehow with the discipline of Stoic physics and with the passions, as follows:

  1. Endure (bear), through the virtue of courage, whatever irrational pain or suffering would otherwise be feared and avoided
  2. Renounce (forbear), through the virtue of temperance (or moderation), whatever irrational pleasures would otherwise be desired and pursued

Diogenes Laertius also mentions several additional Stoic virtues: magnanimity (megalopsuchia), self-control (enkrateia), patience/endurance (karteria), presence of mind (anchinoia), and good counsel (euboulia).

According to Chrysippus and other Stoics, the main examples of indifferent things, being neither good nor bad, are listed as pairs of opposites (Diogenes Laertius, 7.102):

  1. Life and death
  2. Health and disease
  3. Pleasure and pain
  4. Beauty and ugliness
  5. Strength and weakness
  6. Wealth and poverty
  7. Good reputation and bad reputation
  8. Noble birth and low birth
  9. …and other such things.

The Irrational Passions

According to Zeno, the passions are defined as essentially voluntary responses, which can be described as (Diogenes Laertius, 7.109):

  1. Irrational (alogos) judgements
  2. Unnatural (para phusin) movements of the soul
  3. Excessive impulses (hormê pleonazousa)

According to Zeno, the most general division of these irrational passions is into four categories:

  1. Pain or suffering (lup√™), an “irrational contraction” of the soul, over the failure to avoid something judged bad or to obtain something judged good
  2. Fear (phobos), the (irrational) “expectation of something bad”
  3. Craving (epithumia), an “irrational striving” for something judged to be good
  4. Pleasure (h√™don√™), an “irrational elation over what seems to be worth choosing”, i.e., what is judged¬†good

These can be subdivided as follows (following Diogenes Laertius but also Stobaeus, in Stoic Reader, pp. 138-139):

  1. Pain can take the form of pity, grudging, envy, resentment, heavyheartedness, congestion, sorrow, anguish, or confusion.  Or according to Stobaeus, envy, grudging, resentment, pity, grief, heavyheartedness, distress, sorrow, anguish, and vexation.
  2. Fear can take the form of dread, hesitation, shame, shock, panic, or agony.  Or according to Stobaeus, hesitation, agony, shock, shame, panic, superstition, fright, and dread.
  3. Craving can take the form of want, hatred, quarrelsomeness, anger, sexual love, wrath, or spiritedness.  Or according to Stobaeus, anger (e.g., spiritedness, irascibility, wrath, rancor, bitterness, etc.), vehement sexual desire, longings and yearnings, love of pleasure, love of wealth, love of reputation, etc.
  4. Pleasure can take the form of enchantment, mean-spirited satisfaction, enjoyment, or rapture.  Or according to Stobaeus, mean-spirited satisfaction, contentment, charms, etc.

The Good Passions

In addition to the irrational, excessive or unnatural (unhealthy) passions, there are also corresponding “good passions”.¬† Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking¬†virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, and he also describes them as being more transitory than virtues.¬† These fall into three categories, because no good state corresponds with emotional pain (suffering) or contraction of the soul (Diogenes Laertius, 7.116).

  1. Joy or delight (chara), a rational elation over the good, which is the alternative to irrational pleasure
  2. Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a rational avoidance of the bad, which is the alternative to irrational fear
  3. Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a rational striving for the good, which is the alternative to irrational desire

A.A. Long actually translates boul√™sis as “well-wishing”, which perhaps suggests a connection with “natural affection” (philostorgia). ¬†It’s sometimes unclear whether these healthy passions are directed toward externals or virtues. ¬†Marcus Aurelius refers to discerning which indifferent things are in accord with nature and taking delight in them (chara), while they last, but also to taking delight in his friend’s virtues. ¬†It’s possible that they are intended to refer both to virtues and also to the rational desire for preferred indifferents and avoidance of dispreferred ones, pursued lightly.

The good passions can be subdivided as follows:

  1. Joy can take the form of enjoyment/delight (terpsis), good spirits/cheer (euphrosunos), or tranquility/contentment (euthumia)
    • Translated as enjoyment, delight, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as¬†delight, sociability, and cheerfulness by Long and Sedley.
  2. Caution¬†can take the form of self-respect/modesty/dignity (aid√ī) or sanctity/purity/chastity (agneia)
    • Translated as respect and sanctity by Inwood and Gerson; as respect and cleanliness by Long and Sedley.
  3. Wishing can take the form of goodwill/benevolence (eunoia), kindness/graciousness (eumeneia, or sometimes eumenês), acceptance/welcoming (aspasmos) or contentment/affection (agapêsis)
    • Translated as goodwill, kindliness, acceptance, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as¬†kindness, generosity, warmth, and affection by Long and Sedley.

These are clearly important concepts in Stoicism.  The Sage is cheerful even in adversity, and contented in life.  However, the form of caution that seems most often mentioned is a kind of decency or modesty that makes the Sage averse to engaging in folly and vice.  (Perhaps also making him mildly averse to the company of bad men.)  The concept of wishing or willing seems focused mainly on goodwill toward other people, although it could also mean wishing oneself well, a kind of rational self-love.

The  distinction can be made between rational and irrational passions as follows:

  1. Elation (eparsis) can take the form of rational joy (chara) or irrational pleasure (hêdonê)
  2. Aversion (ekklisis), or the impulse to avoid something judged to be bad, can take the form of rational discretion (eulabeia) or irrational fear (phobos)
  3. Desire (orexis), or the impulse to get something judged to be good can take the form of rational willing (boulêsis) or irrational craving (epithumia)
  4. There is no rational form of pain or suffering (lupê), in the Stoic sense

The healthy passion of caution (or discretion) concerning the bad, and its subordinate passions of self-respect and chastity,¬†appears to particularly resemble the virtue of temperance.¬† The healthy passion of wishing (or willing) the good appears to mainly encompass love (agap√™sis), and related affects, such as goodwill, kindness, acceptance and affection.¬† This is the rational alternative to anger and sexual lust, or irrational desire.¬† It may be particularly¬†related to the most obviously “social” virtue: justice.¬† (A passage in Stobaeus appears to claim that for the Stoics, philia, love or friendship, was actually a species of the virtue justice.)

The Three Disciplines of Epictetus

In addition to the distinctions made in earlier Stoic writings, Epictetus seems to describe a tripartite distinction between three practical disciplines also called topoi, the same term used for the “parts” or “themes” of philosophical discourse.¬† Pierre Hadot, in The Inner Citadel, concludes that these probably correlate with the traditional Stoic parts of philosophical discourse, based on his careful analysis of the texts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.¬† These are the three “lived” versions of the more theoretical discourses found in Stoic logic, ethics, and physics.

  1. The Discipline of Assent (sunkatathesis).  The ability to assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgement toward uncertain ones.  This appears to be linked to the Stoic topic of logic, and perhaps also with the virtue of wisdom.
  2. The Discipline of Desire (orexis).¬† To have desire for and attain the good, to have aversion toward and¬†avoid the bad, and to feel indifference toward indifferent things.¬† The good is to be defined as¬† being solely in the domain of things under one’s control, one’s volitions or actions, making wisdom and other virtues the highest good.¬† This is the discipline of the passions and, perhaps surprisingly, may be linked to the Stoic topic of physics, as this encompasses the study of human nature and the passions, which are themselves primarily forms of desire and aversion, and it may also correspond with the virtues of courage and temperance, which relate to self-control over irrational desire (craving) and aversion (fear).¬† The study of Nature, and theology, are linked to the virtue of piety, and acceptance of the Cosmic order, which appears to be central to the discipline of desire: we must understand Nature and bring our desires and aversions into conformity with it.
  3. The Discipline of Action (horm√™).¬† To seek to act or not act, always in accord with one’s appropriate actions (kath√™konta) or duties, in terms primarily of natural and acquired social relationships.¬† This appears to perhaps be linked to the Stoic topic of ethics, and perhaps also with the virtue of justice.

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4 thoughts on “The System of Stoic Philosophy”

  1. Excellent Blog. I am currently writing on the impact of Stoicism on the analytical philosopher/psychologists W. James, who recommended Stoic treatments to his patients (and himself), and I found this (especially the references of Diogenes Laertius) very useful

  2. Dear Donald,

    At present, I know next to nothing about stoicism. However, I am absolutely ecstatic about stumbling upon your blog. Your material is clear, inclusive, rich, and grounded in ancient wisdom. I love it! I hope that you will not mind that I have posted some of your material on my blog (http://jonathandunnemann.blogspot.com/) and included your blog under the “My Blogs” section of my page.

    Frankly, I can’t drink in all that you have to share fast enough.

    Thank you and many blessings.
    Jonathan