chapter  4
10 Pages

Stoicism

Stoicism (the name derives from the Stoa, the colonnade at Athens where Zeno, the first Stoic philosopher, taught) went through three phases, Early, Middle and Late. Zeno and Chrysippus were the chief writers of the Early Stoa (third to second century BC), Panaetius and Posidonius of the Middle (second to first century BC), and Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius of the Late (first to second century AD). It is by historical accident that the Late Stoa is the most important. The writings of the Early and Middle Stoa survive only in fragments, and in the works of historians, critics and popularisers, such as Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Zeno and Plutarch’s essays against the Stoics in the Moralia. Our chief source for the Early and Middle Stoa is the philosophical works of Cicero, in particular Views of Good and Evil, Tusculan Disputations and Of Duties. Stoicism was first introduced to the Romans by Panaetius, in a form adapted to the Roman view of public life. In the mid-first century BC Cicero (himself a follower of the New Academy, or sceptic) undertook to transmit the Greek philosophical tradition to Rome by translating and popularising works of different Greek schools. He had to find or invent Latin equivalents for Greek philosophical terms, and thus created a philosophical vocabulary that is still in use. In Views of Good and Evil the Stoic point of view is argued by Cato and attacked by Cicero himself; in Tusculan Disputations Cicero’s treatment of Stoicism is comprehensive and extremely sympathetic. (For the importance of Cicero in the Renaissance see Chapter 9.) Although we know the works of the Greek Stoics only at second hand, those of the Romans of the Late Stoa survive: the treatises and epistles of Seneca (4, 5), politician and playwright, the Discourses and Manual (2, 3) of Epictetus, one-time slave, and the Meditations (1) of Marcus Aurelius, emperor. Of the three, only Seneca wrote in Latin (it was in Greek that Marcus Aurelius wrote and Epictetus’ lectures were taken down); hence Seneca, not the most interesting nor original Stoic author, has been historically the most influential.