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Some notes on hedonism and the ancient criticisms made of it by Stoics and others.
NB: This is a draft. I’ll add more detail over time and in response to comments.
Hellenistic schools of philosophy were often distinguished from each other in terms of their definition of the supreme good. The Stoics defined the goal of life as the attainment of wisdom and virtue. They frequently contrasted this with the common notion that pleasure (hedone) is the most important thing in life. Indeed, Chrysippus wrote one book entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and another on Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, i.e., pleasure is not intrinsically good at all let alone the supreme goal of life.
Hedonistic philosophies of life can actually take different forms.
- The naive assumption that pleasure, and avoidance of pain, is the most important thing in life, which is commonly taken for granted by non-philosophers.
- The Cyrenaic philosophy, founded in the early 4th century BC, which proposed an ethical system based on the premise that the goal of life is to experience bodily pleasure in the present moment.
- The Epicurean philosophy, founded in the late 4th century BC, which developed a more subtle ethical system, also claiming that pleasure is the goal of life, but distinguishing between different types of pleasure and placing most value on the absence of emotional suffering (ataraxia).
However, the writings of Epicurus and his followers are notoriously ambiguous in this regard and different people tend to interpret his meaning in different ways. Cicero, for example, insists that Epicureanism endorses the pursuit both of ataraxia and of bodily pleasures of the Cyrenaic kind, citing Epicurus’ own writings in support of this interpretation.
The Stoics mainly focused their criticisms on naive hedonism, which they believed was a common vice. However, they also frequently attacked the more philosophical doctrines of their rivals, the Epicurean school. You can read detailed accounts of the various Stoic criticisms of Epicureanism in Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero’s De Finibus.
This article will explore the basic criticisms of hedonism found in the Stoic literature. The Stoics typically attacked hedonism using the Socratic method, by exposing contradictions in their opponent’s position through questioning. For example, there are often apparent conflicts between the claim that pleasure is the goal of life and some of their actions, or other moral assumptions held by them.
Socrates was the original source for criticisms of hedonism found in the Cynic-Stoic tradition. His student Antisthenes reputedly said that pleasure is bad, and that he would rather go insane than experience pleasure. However, the Stoics adopted a more moderate position, arguing that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, with regard to the good life. It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that unlike Antisthenes, the Stoics were not saying that pleasure is bad. However, they did believe that hedonism, the assumption that “pleasure is (intrinsically) good”, was a vice, and the basis of an irrational passion.
One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating. There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy. We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance” is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety. The more strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will tend to try to suppress or avoid them. This has been repeatedly shown to backfire in psychological studies, e.g., because when we judge something to be extremely bad we automatically tend to focus more attention on it. In the case of subjective experiences, such as feelings, this backfires because it actually tends to evoke and amplifies the very thing we’re trying to avoid. One study actually found that people who strongly endorse the belief “anxiety is bad” are more predisposed to developing mental health problems in the future. That’s strikingly similar to the Epicurean doctrine that pain (which would include anxiety) is bad – it’s virtually direct evidence that holding that value judgement tends to be psychologically harmful. It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly in conflict with modern psychological research in general.
The Cynics, in particular, were known for arguing that the best way to overcome pain and suffering is, paradoxically, by “voluntary hardship“, or training ourselves to accept unpleasant feelings. They use a variety of analogies to express this notion. Someone being chased by wild dogs who tries to run in panic will probably be taken down and savaged by them but if he is brave enough to turn and face them with confidence, they will often back away. Someone who tentatively grabs a snake by the tail or the middle will get bitten, but someone who firmly grasps it behind the head will be safer. Someone who hesitantly tries to stamp out a blazing fire may be more likely to get burned than someone who tramples it confidently. A boxer who keeps backing down and nervously tries to protect himself too fearfully is more likely to be overwhelmed than one who faces his opponent unafraid of taking blows. Today it’s become a cliche to speak of “grasping the nettle” because someone who grasps a nettle quickly and firmly is less likely to be stung than someone who does it hesitantly.
All of these analogies refer to the paradox of acceptance, which has become a staple of modern chronic pain management and increasingly central to modern behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression. The more we try to control or suppress unpleasant feelings, the worse they tend to get over the long term. Whereas the more we can train ourselves to relax into and actively accept unpleasant feelings, as indifferent, the more they tend to naturally abate, to some extent, and the less secondary problems are associated with experiencing them. That presupposes the attitude that painful or unpleasant feelings are totally “indifferent” (Stoicism) as opposed to the view that they are bad (hedonism).
So much for judging unpleasant feelings too negatively (“pain is bad”). What about judging pleasant feelings too positively (“pleasure is good”)? There’s less research on the negative effect of placing too much value on positive subjective feelings. However, many philosophers and psychologists in the past have observed that trying too hard to feel happy is often a surefire way to make life miserable. Feelings of pleasure and happiness seem to occur most reliably, over the long-term, when we do healthy and fulfilling things in life, without being too directly preoccupied with our feelings. For example, it’s long been established that introspection is associated with anxiety and depression. People who are happy and fulfilled tend to be more focused on outward things, on other people, on activity, rather than morbidly preoccupied with their own inner world. Feelings of happiness are best achieved by an indirect approach, that allows them to arise as a byproduct of healthy and constructive activity, rather than by trying to exert too much direct control over our inner thoughts and feelings. However, as modern behaviour therapists have consistently noted, when we place too much value on feelings of pleasure and happiness, it’s difficult not to end up being preoccupied with exerting internal control in this way because our attention automatically tends to follow our value judgments in this way. Placing more value on the character of our actions (Stoicism), and focusing attention on them, is more likely to generate positive feelings, ironically, than placing supreme value on the feelings themselves.
2. Not Natural
Some ancient hedonists, starting with the Cyrenaics, tried to argue that it is natural for animals, and human infants, to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Those are the instincts adult humans inherent, they argued, and we should develop an ethic on that basis. It tended to be assumed by ancient philosophers that what is natural, or instinctive, is also good and healthy.
However, the Stoics directly attacked this claim. They argued that animals frequently expose themselves voluntarily to pain or discomfort, and also forego pleasure, under certain circumstances. That appears to prove that the natural instincts, even of certain species of animals, do not posit pleasure as the supreme goal of life. For example, many animals will instinctively endure danger and painful injury for the sake of protecting their own offspring from attack. The Stoics like to refer to the example of a bull who will risk being clawed and bitten by a lion while defending the weaker members of his herd, an example probably drawn from Zeno’s Republic. Incidentally, I think it’s irrelevant here to question the Stoics’ claims about specific examples of animal behaviour, what matters is that their general point is correct: many animals will definitely risk death or injury to protect their offspring. (In fact, certain species of cattle are quite skilled at taking down a lion.)
Sometimes people assume that modern behavioural psychology endorses this assumption about animals and humans being primarily motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, this is not the case. B.F. Skinner the leading pioneer of American behavioural analysis was at pains to stress that sensations of pain and pleasure are merely common side-effects of reinforcement.
3. Contradicts Common Moral Intuitions
The ancient philosophers provide many examples of situations in which seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the supreme good would potentially lead us to act in ways that conflict with common moral intuitions, about what is right and wrong. Some hedonists argue that it’s the fear of punishment or being reprimanded that ensures that they will not break the law, harm others, etc. However, it turns out that’s a very weak argument because it’s easy to think of situations in which it becomes problematic.
For example, Cicero gives the example of someone who notices that an enemy or rival is about to sit on a woodpile in which a poisonous snake is concealed. The observer could simply say nothing and nobody would know that he’d allowed his rival to do something dangerous, and possibly die as a result. With no risk of being caught or punished, arguably the hedonist has no reason to act in a way we’d normally consider ethical.
Hedonists will tend to respond by arguing that their moral conscience would cause them pain even if they were to harm others, etc., under cover of darkness, without any risk of being caught. However, that’s also a weak argument. Feelings of conscience are variable and it’s possible to suppress them, e.g., by using certain drugs or suppressing feelings of guilt. Moreover, it’s well-established that many individuals simply do not experience the painful sting of conscience to a significant degree, e.g., people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, or even sociopaths. So feelings of conscience are not a reliable guide to action in general, and in some cases they’re negligible or even completely absent.
As always, it may be that some people would accept the conclusion that as hedonists they can justify acting in ways most people would consider unethical, as long as there’s no risk of being caught and their conscience does not disturb them. However, for the majority of people this will create a conflict with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.
4. Not Up to Us
Sensations like pain and pleasure are not under our direct control. The most that we could do is will certain actions that appear likely to have pleasurable consequences. The Stoics believe, however, that this is contradictory. To judge something supremely “good”, good in the strong sense, is to desire to bring it about, and to judge something strongly “bad” is to desire to avoid it. However, it’s arguably irrational to strongly desire something that it is not within our power to attain. Strictly, speaking we can only wish to do what it is within our power to do, without endorsing two mutually incompatible opinions. This line of reasoning, that good = desirable = attainable, appears similar to Kant’s principle that “Ought implies can.” The majority of us certainly do typically desire many things that are unattainable in life, but the Stoics argue that this is contradictory and therefore irrational.
The Stoics argue that it’s more consistent and rational for adult humans to transfer supreme value to our own ability to make value judgments, i.e., reason. (The Stoics call this our “ruling faculty” or hegemonikon.) To reason well is to become wise, so moral wisdom (virtue) itself becomes the supreme good.
The Stoics also employed what cognitive therapists today call the “double standards” strategy to highlight contradictions in their interlocutors’ position. They ask us to consider what qualities we most admire in others and compare those to the values we set for our own life and actions. The majority of people don’t tend to praise or admire others who make pleasure their supreme goal in life. In fact, we actually praise people more when they act virtuously in the face of pain and suffering. However, it is arguably hypocritical to value different qualities in other people than we aspire to for ourselves. This can be seen as yet another form of self-contradiction, that comes to light through careful reflection on our values.
Of course, as always, some people may accept this but deny that it’s problematic. I’ve occasionally met people who say they feel strongly that it makes sense for them to want other people to have different values from their own. Nevertheless, most people are sensitive to the notion that this is a form of hypocrisy and that tends to be something that provokes the to reconsider their position. Another way of framing this criticism, employed by the Stoics, is to ask whether the hedonist would wish to live in a society of hedonists, to be surrounded by a community of other people whose supreme goal in life is to maximize their own pleasure. Many people find this, at first glance, an appealing goal for themselves but they often feel uncomfortable about the idea that other people might hold those values because, e.g., they notice that their own life, and rights, would potentially be of questionable value in the eyes of other hedonists. For instance, it’s often been pointed out that hedonists, especially in the ancient world, might plausibly conclude that they best way to maximize their own pleasure would be to own slaves. However, if you happened to be one of those unfortunate enough to be enslaved you might start to wish that your owners had placed more value on human dignity and freedom than on their own experience of pleasure and freedom from pain. The Stoics thought it was contradictory and irrational, though, for someone to endorse a set of values for themselves that they would potentially find objectionable if followed by other people.
Related to this are discussions of the hedonist view of friendship, which appear to reduce all friendships to “fairweather” ones, as Seneca puts it. The Stoics and other Socratics argue that we must treat our friends and loved ones as ends in themselves, in some sense, otherwise that falls short of anything we could call authentic friendship. Ancient hedonists, by contrast, typically argued that friendship was a kind of social contract in which both parties show affection for each other only insofar as they believe its in their interest to do so, because it offers more opportunity for pleasure, or protection from pain. However, that obviously makes friendship, or love for ones partner or children, problematic when it becomes a source of pain or distress. A hedonist may feel motivated to completely abandon a relationship (“cut someone off”) if they believe it’s no longer pleasurable but to the majority of people that can appear selfish. Again, it’s easier to see that as a tempting motive for one’s own actions but would you want your parents to love you, or your friends to care for you, only as long as they feel enough pleasure from doing so, and to potentially abandon you if the relationship caused them difficulty or pain. Would a hedonist abandon a spouse dying of a terminal illness, for example? For many people that would, at least prima facie, create a conflict with other moral intuitions.
6. Brain in Vat
If we assume that the most important thing in life is pleasure then try to imagine a situation in which that could be maximized, it often highlights the conflict with other common moral intuitions. Suppose, for example, that your brain could be removed from your body and preserved indefinitely, with complete safety, in a vat, fed by nutrient fluids and chemicals that were carefully maintained to maximize your sense of pleasure.
In this thought experiment, more or less everything else is sacrificed from a “normal” life, for the sake of achieving maximum ongoing pleasure, and avoidance of pain or suffering. This should be the naive hedonist’s ideal. However, most people feel there’s something unappealing about this as a goal in life. It clashes too much with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum. In conversations with modern Epicureans, I’ve often found that this thought-experiment appears problematic to them as well. Although, as always, there may be some individuals who would say they’re perfectly happy to accept this sort of hedonistic “brain in vat” situation as the goal of life.
Another version of this criticism would be to imagine that a drug or neurosurgical procedure might become available that would guarantee our long-term pleasure and freedom from pain, but would reduce our IQ to the level of a dumb animal. For the sake of argument, we can assume that for a fee our safety is ensured by caretakers. Perhaps this is an expensive form of retirement available only to the super-rich. For a fee, you can live out the rest of your life in total bliss, but you’d be rendered stupid at the same time. A happy pig rather than an unhappy wise man. Again, this tends to clash with people’s moral intuitions. The Stoics were aware that most people, on reflection, are not willing to sacrifice their sanity or intelligence, for virtually any price. They took this as support for their own claim that wisdom is the highest good, and goal of life.
7. Long-Term Hedonism
A common response from hedonists is to argue that some of those objections can be countered by qualifying the claim that pleasure is the goal of life by specifying that it’s about maximizing long-term pleasure, and minimizing pain or discomfort. However, the Stoics and other ancient critics of hedonism realized that this was a weak defence. It actually does nothing to answer any of the lines of criticism mentioned above, with the possible exception of the general point about hedonism being in conflict with other moral intuitions. A hedonist might argue that if we were pursuing short-term pleasure then we might be led to do things that are typically considered unethical but that the pursuit of long-term pleasure means we’re more likely to act in an ethically praiseworthy manner.
Seneca and others point out, first of all, that this way of qualifying hedonism appears to make absolutely no difference if we specifically consider situations where there simply is no “long-term” subjective experience for us to care about, i.e., where our death is imminent. A soldier fighting to protect the welfare of his wife and children, his friends and fellow countrymen, could not use his own “long-term” pleasure as a motive for acting courageously because if he dies then he’ll obviously be incapable of experiencing it. For the Stoics, and other Socratic philosophers, virtue is its own reward, so courage in such situations would not depend on some consequence, which is thrown into question precisely because of the risk of death involved. A Stoic should be motivated to act virtuously whether or not he faces death, whereas for most hedonists this situation is ethically problematic and would potentially cause him to reconsider his values.
8. Qualified Hedonism
The other typical defence of hedonism is to offer some qualification to the definition of pleasure as the supreme goal of life as a workaround. For example, we might want to add the caveat that pleasure is the highest good, as long as it’s healthy, or as long as it’s compatible with the welfare of other people, etc. That seems like an easy way to sidestep conflicts with other deep-seated moral convictions.
However, this solution is not quite so easy, on reflection. If I say that pleasure is only the highest good insofar as it’s healthy, doesn’t it imply that I actually value health more highly than pleasure? That pleasure isn’t really the highest good at all? If I had to choose between them, which one would I sacrifice? Once we qualify the definition of the supreme good in this way, it opens a whole can of worms. We have to begin carefully reconsidering our values to identify where the highest good actually lies. Again, different individuals will arrive at different conclusions but the point remains that this way of shoring up hedonism is problematic, and requires additional arguments to clarify and defend the revised position being proposed.
Information and schedule of speakers for Stoicon-x Toronto 2017, the conference on modern Stoicism, Sunday October 15th. The day following the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto.
Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our [tips and guidelines] for putting on your own events.
Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after Stoicon 2017. You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to this. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!
9.30am – 10am Registration and coffee
10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life
10.45am Morning break (15 min.)
11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism
12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)
12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship
12.45pm Closing Donald Robertson (15 min.)
1pm – 1.30pm Networking
NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.
The main conference venue for Stoicon is the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale hotel, who will provide accommodation at a discounted rate if you’re attending Stoicon 2017. We cannot guarantee that rooms for all delegates will be available at the Holiday Inn. However, there are several other hotels nearby where you can stay.
What were previous Stoicon conferences like?
You can watch this YouTube video about one of our previous conferences, and some of the previous talks are available online.
Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.
Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato. They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source. However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy. (See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.) For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine. Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order. All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though. Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical. My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.
- Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
- Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
- Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.
But to reverence and honour thy own mind will make thee content with thyself, and in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods, that is, praising all that they give and have ordered. (Meditations, 6.16)
The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine. By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom. Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics. I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by “living in agreement with Nature”. Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world. His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.
Living in Agreement with Nature
The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was “the life in agreement with nature” (to homologoumenos te phusei zen). Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man. It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou). The composite Greek word translated “agreement” literally means same-saying, or same-thinking. To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts. For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions. We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.
The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws. It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining. Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue. We’re told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we’re part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.
They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity. Diogenes writes: “By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.” This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.
Consistency and Elenchus
According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.” And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences. Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious. The good is defined as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions. They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues. However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of consistency. Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.
The Stoics admired the Socratic method of elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions of the another person by penetrating questioning. The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions. The connotation of the phrase “living in agreement”, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or consistently. It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles. Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus. In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role. Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly. However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life. When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.
The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature. The Sage is the same in every eventuality. His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent. His thoughts don’t “flutter” between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion. The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines. He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts. We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.
Oikeiôsis and Natural Affection
This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics. It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”. It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household. Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”. However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification. Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation. According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see. As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.
The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (philostorgia). The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates. Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture. The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social. (So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.) The bull identifies with, and has “familial affection”, for the rest of his herd. He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his “household”. (Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.) Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.
For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin. The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters. The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles. We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity. He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household. He even suggests we call friends “brother” or “sister” and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship. Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers “brother”. When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage. Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self. On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice. Even toward one’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection. As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another. Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions. Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.
However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis functions at two levels: self and social. The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology. The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning. At birth, we’re driven by our self-preservation instincts. Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body. If you were to ask someone whether they’d rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie. The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikeiôsis that operates within the individual. On the other hand, we’re to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue. As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine. We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.
When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikeiôsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings. For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness. For the Stoics, this means also that we’re akin to the gods, with whom we share reason. It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language. Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.
Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world. That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature. In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate. Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining. Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals. If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re averse. To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.
The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure
As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues. It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:
Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema. However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions. Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.
Summary of specific Stoic moral precepts from Diogenes Laertius, with commentary.
Stoic Ethics is often articulated in abstract terms as being based around the doctrine that virtue is the only true good. Indeed, some Stoics, such as Aristo, believed that grasping the true nature of the good was all that really mattered because individuals could then infer their own moral precepts from that insight.
However, in his summary of early Stoic philosophy, Diogenes Laertius does provide the following list of Stoic precepts that offer more specific guidance. In some cases, the context is obscure or there are puzzles over translation but this is what he says, with some minor editing for readability:
- “Now they say that the wise man is passionless [has apatheia], because he is not prone to fall into [passions]. But they add that in another sense the term apatheia is applied to the wretched man, when, that is, it means that he is hard and unrelenting.” Note: That this means we would have to be cautious in talking as if apatheia is the goal of life. These first three comments refer to three key qualities of the wise man having to be carefully distinguished from similar qualities in the bad man, viz., his aloofness from passions, the opinion of others, and pleasures.
- “Further, the wise man is said to be free from arrogance for he is indifferent to the good or bad opinions [of others]. However, he is not alone in this, there being another who is also free from arrogance, he who is ranged among the rash, and that is the wretched man.” Note: Stoics would therefore also have to be cautious in viewing their goal as indifference to opinions of others because that could as easily lead them into folly and vice.
- “Again, they tell us that all good men are austere or harsh [i.e., strict], because they neither have dealings with pleasure themselves nor tolerate those who have. The term harsh is applied, however, to others as well, and in much the same sense as a wine is said to be harsh when it is employed medicinally [bitter medicine] and not for drinking at all.” Note: Stoics are not harsh like bitter medicine but they are wary of pleasure-seeking.
- “Again, the good are genuinely in earnest and vigilant for their own improvement, using a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear.” Note: Zeno says that we should focus on what we can learn about virtue from others.
- “At the same time they are free from pretence; for they have stripped off all pretence or ‘make-up’ whether in voice or in look.” Note: Marcus particularly emphasises the value of honesty and plain-speaking, but this can be traced back to the Cynics.
- “Free too are they from all business cares, declining to do anything which conflicts with duty.” Note: They may make money, but are not entangled in business obligations that divert them from philosophy or virtue.
- “They will take wine, but not get drunk. Nay more, they will not be liable to madness either; not but there will at times occur to the good man strange impressions due to melancholy or delirium, ideas not determined by the principle of what is choiceworthy [i.e., healthy] but contrary to nature.” Note: Even the wise man may suffer from clinical depression or delirium.
- “Nor indeed will the wise man ever feel emotional suffering; seeing that such suffering is irrational contraction of the soul, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics.” Note: That is not to say that he will not experience emotional reactions that impinge on his mind from impressions.
- “They are also, it is declared, godlike; for they have a something divine within them; whereas the bad man is godless. And yet of this word godless or ungodly- there are two senses, one in which it is the opposite of the term ‘godly,’ the other denoting the man who ignores the divine altogether: in this latter sense, as they note, the term does not apply to every bad man.” Note: The good man is divine himself, whereas the bad man is not. Although some bad men are religious, and worship the gods, they are nevertheless all alienated from the divine.
- “The good, it is added, are also worshippers of God for they have acquaintance with the rites of the gods, and piety is the knowledge of how to serve the gods. Further, they will sacrifice to the gods and they keep themselves pure; for they avoid all acts that are offences against the gods, and the gods think highly of them: for they are holy and just in what concerns the gods. The wise too are the only priests; for they have made sacrifices their study, as also the building of temples, purifications, and all the other matters appertaining to the gods.” Note: Only the wise can truly be pious, in other words, and they are the only true priests of Zeus. However, Stoics will typically observe the outward rituals of their society’s established religion.
- “The Stoics approve also of honouring parents and brothers in the second place next after the gods.” Note: This resembles The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, quoted by both Seneca and Epictetus.
- “They further maintain that parental affection for children is natural to the good, but not to the bad.” Note: Natural affection is the basis of Stoic Ethics, and part of our instinctive animal nature, but in the foolish and vicious it is presumably corrupted. Obviously, some parents do not love their children, though, and the Stoics want to say this is unnatural.
- “It is one of their tenets that sins are all equal: so Chrysippus in the fourth book of his Ethical Questions, as well as Persaeus and Zeno. For if one truth is not more true than another, neither is one falsehood more false than another, and in the same way one deceit is not more so than another, nor sin than sin. For he who is a hundred furlongs from Canopus and he who is only one furlong away are equally not in Canopus, and so too he who commits the greater sin and he who commits the less are equally not in the path of right conduct. But Heraclides of Tarsus, who was the disciple of Antipater of Tarsus, and Athenodorus both assert that sins are not equal.” Note: This doctrine is well-known from other sources. However, here we’re told Stoics were able to reject it, beginning with the scholarch Antipater. It’s notable that it’s here linked with the bivalent theory of truth.
- “Again, the Stoics say that the wise man will take part in politics, if nothing hinders him -so, for instance, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Various Types of Life– since thus he will restrain vice and promote virtue.” Note: The Stoic will engage in public life, Fate permitting, as he has a duty to restrain vice and promote virtue in his society. This was a well-known contrast with Epicureanism, which advised a life of relative seclusion. Zeno himself was a moral, and perhaps political, advisor to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia; he later sent two of his best students to advise him at court.
- “Also, they maintain, he will marry, as Zeno says in his Republic, and beget children.” Note: Again, this contrasts with Epicurus who reputedly said his students should typically avoid marrying and having children. Epicetus’ students also allude to this obligation and gently make fun of him for failing to marry himself. Though he never married, he reputedly later adopted a child.
- “Moreover, they say that the wise man will never form mere opinions, that is to say, he will never give assent to anything that is false…” Note: This is a well-known Stoic doctrine. He will however give assent to self-evident impressions, particularly the firmly-grasped nature of the good.
- “He will also play the Cynic, Cynicism being a short cut to virtue, as Apollodorus calls it in his Ethics.” Note: Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus seem particularly influenced by this reading of Stoicism but Seneca, by contrast, does not often mention Cynicism. By “playing the Cynic” he probably means sincerely adopting the Cynic lifestyle, while accepting Stoic doctrines.
- “He will even turn cannibal under stress of circumstances.” Note: This was used as a criticism of Stoicism. However, in this passage it seems clear that they’re talking about turning to cannibalism being acceptable under extreme circumstances. It’s probably also related to the Stoic interpretation of Greek tragedy, in this case Thyestes who was tricked into eating his children. Presumably Chrysippus said this act was not morally evil because it was unintentional on his part and that the “tragedy” is always due to the protagonist’s value judgments.
- “They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.” Note: This passage appears to distinguish between i) inner slavery (to passions), ii) being subordinated by another, iii) being owned as a slave and subordinated by a master. Remarkably, we’re told slave-ownership is morally bad, which appears to be a criticism of the institution of slavery.
- “Moreover, according to them not only are the wise free, they are also kings; kingship being rule unaccountable to others, which none but the wise can maintain: so Chrysippus in his treatise vindicating Zeno’s use of terminology. For he holds that knowledge of good and evil is a necessary attribute of the ruler, and that no bad man is acquainted with this science.” Note: As the Cynics said earlier, only the morally wise man truly has the mind of a king.
- “Similarly the wise and good alone are fit to be magistrates, judges, or orators, whereas among the bad there is not one so qualified.” Note: This naturally follows, but what implications does it have for Stoic attitudes toward legal institutions?
- “Furthermore, the wise are infallible, not being liable to error. They are also blameless; for they do no harm to others or to themselves.” Note: Although, no perfectly wise person actually exists – this is an ideal.
- “At the same time they are not pitying and make no allowance for anyone; they never relax the penalties fixed by the laws, since indulgence and pity and even equitable consideration are marks of a weak mind, which affects kindness in place of chastizing. Nor do they deem punishments too severe.” Note: The Stoics are supposed to be kind and fair but not pitying, because if the laws (derived from nature and reason) are applied fairly then there should be no need to be more lenient or bend the rules for individuals.
- “Again, they say that the wise man never wonders at any of the things which appear extraordinary, such as Charon’s mephitic [noxious] caverns, ebbings of the tide, hot springs or fiery eruptions.” Note: The wise man is not incredulous at unusual natural phenomena.
- “Nor yet, they go on to say, will the wise man live in solitude; for he is naturally made for society and action.” Note: He will not live in seclusion, like Epicurus in his Garden, and withdraw from public life.
- “He will, however, submit to training to augment his powers of bodily endurance.” Note: We have many examples of this from Cynicism, such as hugging bronze statues, naked, in winter, to become used to intense cold, but also the Stoics recommend moderate exercise, perhaps walking briskly or running, which Cynics traditionally did barefoot. Seneca mentions other forms of physical exercise such as athletic jumping and lifting weights.
- “And the wise man, they say, will offer prayers, and ask for good things from the gods: so Posidonius in the first book of his treatise On Duties, and Hecato in his third book On Paradoxes.” Note: However, Epictetus says that the good things we should prayer for help with are our own virtues rather than external “goods”.
- “Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves. They argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends. But among the bad there is, they hold, no such thing as friendship, and thus no bad man has a friend.” Note: This is another well-known doctrine, derived from Zeno’s Republic. Here friendship seems to imply common use and possibly ownership of external “goods”, i.e., possibly communal property. Zeno, like Aristotle, said a friend is another self (alter ego). Friends are worth having for their own sake, not because they help us achieve peace of mind, pace Epicureanism.
- “Another of their tenets is that the unwise are all mad, inasmuch as they are not wise but do what they do from that madness which is the equivalent of their folly.” Note: Another well-known Stoic doctrine, but as the wise man is exceedingly rare, that surely means everyone, even the founders of Stoicism, is technically classed as mad.
- “Furthermore, the wise man does all things well, just as we say that Ismenias [a famous Theban flautist] plays all airs on the flute well.” Note: This surely can’t mean that the wise man has every practical skill but that he does all things morally well.
- “Also everything belongs to the wise. For the law, they say, has conferred upon them a perfect right to all things. It is true that certain things are said to belong to the bad, just as what has been dishonestly acquired may be said, in one sense, to belong to the state, in another sense to those who are enjoying it.” Note: Again, this perhaps suggests a sense in which all property would be communal in the ideal Stoic Republic.
- It is a tenet of theirs that between virtue and vice there is nothing intermediate, whereas according to the Peripatetics there is, namely, the state of moral improvement. For, say the Stoics, just as a stick must be either straight or crooked, so a man must be either just or unjust. Nor again are there degrees of justice and injustice, and the same rule applies to the other virtues. Note: See above. This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.
- Further, while Chrysippus holds that virtue can be lost, Cleanthes maintains that it cannot. According to the former it may be lost in consequence of drunkenness or melancholy; the latter takes it to be inalienable owing to the certainty of our mental apprehension. Note: This seems to be a trivial disagreement. Presumably, Cleanthes meant that knowledge of important matters cannot be lost under normal conditions, unless our thinking is impaired – and Stoic virtue is a form of knowledge.
- And virtue in itself they hold to be worthy of choice for its own sake. At all events we are ashamed of bad conduct as if we knew that nothing is really good but the morally beautiful. Note: Virtue is its own reward, in other words. This is a central doctrine of Stoicism. We are typically ashamed of bad conduct regardless of its consequences, which implies that it is bad in itself, and by contrast, that the good is good in itself.
- Moreover, they hold that it is in itself sufficient to ensure well-being: thus Zeno, and Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Virtues, and Hecato in the second book of his treatise On Goods: “For if magnanimity by itself alone can raise us far above everything, and if magnanimity is but a part of virtue, then too virtue as a whole will be sufficient in itself for well-being -despising all things that seem troublesome.” Panaetius, however, and Posidonius deny that virtue is self-sufficing: on the contrary, health is necessary, and some means of living and strength. Note: This suggests that Panaetius and Posidonius shifted closer to the Platonist or Aristotelian position.
- Another tenet of theirs is the perpetual exercise of virtue, as held by Cleanthes and his followers. For virtue can never be lost, and the good man is always exercising his mind, which is perfect.
- Again, they say that justice, as well as law and right reason, exists by nature and not by convention: so Chrysippus in his work On the Morally Beautiful. Note: This is in contrast to the Epicureans, who held that justice is a social contract or convention.
- Neither do they think that the divergence of opinion between philosophers is any reason for abandoning the study of philosophy, since at that rate we should have to give up life altogether: so Posidonius in his Exhortations. Note: This is obviously in contrast to the Skeptics who held that contradictory opinions between philosophers is evidence of the impossibility of arriving at a firm conclusion.
- Chrysippus allows that the ordinary Greek education is serviceable. Note: This is notable because Zeno apparently denounced the ordinary Greek education, in rhetoric as opposed to philosophy, in the Republic, although that caused some controversy.
- It is their doctrine that there can be no question of right as between man and the lower animals, because of their unlikeness. Thus Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Justice, and Posidonius in the first book of his De officio. Note: Human rights are intrinsically more important than animal rights, presumably because we possess language and reason.
- Further, they say that the wise man will feel affection for the youths who by their countenance show a natural endowment for virtue. So Zeno in his Republic, Chrysippus in book i. of his work On Modes of Life, and Apollodorus in his Ethics. Note: The Stoics thought virtue showed itself in a person’s facial expression, movement and gestures, etc. True beauty is the inner beauty of virtue, which nevertheless we know through a person’s behaviour.
- Their definition of love is an effort toward friendliness due to visible beauty appearing, its sole end being friendship, not bodily enjoyment. At all events, they allege that Thrasonides, although he had his mistress in his power, abstained from her because she hated him. By which it is shown, they think, that love depends upon regard, as Chrysippus says in his treatise Of Love, and is not sent by the gods. And beauty they describe as the bloom or flower of virtue. Note: Some commentators take Thrasonides to be an otherwise unknown Stoic philosopher. Love is a judgement, like other passions in Stoicism, and not a form of divine madness or an irrational impulse. It’s the desire to be loved, reciprocally, by someone whom we judge to be good (equivalent to friendship), and whose physical appearance we find attractive, although physical pleasure is not its true aim.
- Of the three kinds of life, the contemplative, the practical, and the rational, they declare that we ought to choose the last, for that a rational being is expressly produced by nature for contemplation and for action. Note: This appears similar to the division between contemplation and action used by Aristotle, although here the conclusion is decidedly in favour of using reason to live for both contemplation and action.
- They tell us that the wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life, on his country’s behalf or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease. Note: Stoic euthanasia. A foolish man, which is the majority, though, is not justified in taking his own life, especially if driven by a passion like clinical depression.
- It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government [and not only they, but also Diogenes the Cynic and Plato]. Under such circumstances we shall feel paternal affection for all the children alike, and there will be an end of the jealousies arising from adultery. Note: It’s known Zeno said this in the Republic. Presumably he meant that both husbands and wives are shared in common. The Stoic ideal of oikeiosis, means bringing others into our family or household. Hierocles described ways of helping us imagine this by referring to cousins as “brother” or “sister” and picturing concentric circles representing our relationships, bringing them gradually closer to the centre of our concern. However, in Zeno’s Republic it sounds like everyone is actually part of the same household and family in a more literal sense, and this helps to illustrate the Stoic moral ideal.
- The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy (or the rule of the best). Note: Presumably this was not the utopian government of Zeno’s Republic, as it is populated by wise men, but rather a prescription for real-world government, among the imperfectly wise.
“Such, then, are the statements they make in their ethical doctrines, with much more besides, together with their proper proofs: let this, however, suffice for a statement of them in a summary and elementary form.”
Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.
This is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.
The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.
One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.
Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.
The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.
The bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”
Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.
So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life. And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:
The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.
As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.
Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.
So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.