chapter  4
13 Pages

The Fall in ancient stoic thought

ByERLEND MACGILLIVRAY

The broadly held presumption in antiquity that in its earliest epoch humans lived in a more harmonious and virtuous state than subsequent generations have managed to achieve has long been recognised by scholarship, 1 as has the impact this understanding had upon the thought of ancient philosophical schools. 2 In Stoicism in particular we can note that confidence in primitivism was augmented and informed by the conviction that the world has been providentially fashioned by nature/god, 3 and that every individual has the capacity to obtain moral perfection. We can, for instance, witness these two presumptions being clearly expressed in the writings of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who reminds himself of god’s organisation of early human society: 4

Do not suppose that if you personally find that something is hard to achieve, it is therefore beyond human capacity; rather, if something is possible and appropriate for human beings, assume that it must also be within your own reach. 5

Utilising the paths that had already been tracked by primitivistic thought, some Stoics sought to understand the pervasive presence of vice that they believe scars contemporary society by positing that humanity must have fallen from an original state where conformity to moral excellence was more uniform and perhaps an easier quality to obtain. 6 With, however, no extended or systematic treatise that outlines the Stoics’ position on the features of early human society being extant, gaining a robust appreciation of their stance on the Fall is challenging. 7 A profitable resource though can be found in Seneca’s (4 BCE-65 CE) Epistles 90, where he interacts at length with the otherwise lost Golden Age myth that the Stoic philosopher Posidonius (135 – ca. 51 BCE) outlined. 8 Although focused upon countering Posidonius’s assertion that the various technologies which humanity enjoys owe their existence to the ingenuity of philosophers/sages, 9 throughout the letter, and especially in the introduction (§3-5), an excursus (§37-39) and the conclusion (§44-46), numerous insights into the circumstances that they both believe enabled the Golden Age to exist and the processes that led to its cessation are relayed.