It’s always a good thing to have a sense of the development of ideas, so as to be able to put them in a broader historical and cultural context. This is true, of course, also for philosophies, such as Buddhism or Stoicism. Fortunately, the history of Stoicism is far less complex than that of Buddhism, since it has been “interrupted” during the late Roman Empire, precluding the diversification of schools and approaches that is characteristic of Buddhism. Still, it may be of service to the Stoic community, as well as to curious onlookers, to have available a handy timeline highlighting what I think are the major events and people that have shaped Stoicism throughout the past 23 centuries. That’s what this post, and the two accompanying slides, aim at accomplishing.
The trace origins of what later became Stoicism can be found in the figure of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the pre-Socratic philosopher most famous for his discussions of the Logos (a crucial Stoic concept) and his “process metaphysics,” summarized in the phrase “panta rhei” (everything flows). He is referred to by all the major late Stoics, including Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus.
A crucial historical event occurred in 399 BCE, with the death of Socrates. The Stoics explicitly referred to their philosophy as Socratic in nature, and their idea that virtue is the chief good is articulated by Socrates in the Euthydemus.
The Stoics were also influenced by the Cynics, whose philosophy was inspired by Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), and most famously epitomized by Diogenes of Sinope, mentioned with admiration by Epictetus.
In 323 BCE the Greek world is shaken by the death of Alexander (“the Great”), which is followed by the disintegration of his empire and the beginning of the Hellenistic period, during which a number of philosophies, including Stoicism, arise and flourish.
Around 300 BCE Zeno of Citium, a former Phoenician merchant who had studied with the Cynic Crates and several others, begins to teach his own philosophy in the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), an open market in Athens. His followers are initially called Zenonians, but the word Stoics is the one that sticks.
Chrysippus (279-206 BCE) becomes the third head of the Stoa. He makes huge contributions to logic, among other things, writing a large number of books, listed by Diogenes Laertius, who comments that “but for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.183)
In 155 BCE another crucial event occurs that likely affected the successive history of philosophy in the ancient world, not just Stoicism: a delegation of three philosophers, including Diogenes of Babylon, the head of the Stoa, arrives in Rome on a diplomatic mission. While there, the philosophers lecture to the public, introducing the Romans to philosophy for the very first time. Reportedly, they enjoy great success and piss off Roman conservative aristocrats, like Cato the Elder.
About seven decades later, in 86 BCE, Athens is sacked by the Roman General Sulla, and it ceases to be the cultural center of reference of the Mediterranean world. This begins a diaspora of philosophers, who transfer their schools to Rhodes, Alexandria of Egypt, and, of course, Rome.
The next important figure is Posidonius (135-151 BCE), a major exponent of the so-called middle Stoa, and teacher of Cicero. I hope to be writing quite a bit more about him eventually, as I’m slowly making my way through his extant fragments.
Cicero (106-43 BCE) himself is a major contributor to the history of Stoicism, even though his allegiance is formally for the Academic Skeptics. He writes abundantly, and generally sympathetically, about Stoicism, including in book III of De Finibus, the Paradoxa Stoicorum, and the Tusculan Disputations.
In 31 BCE Octavian, adoptive son of Julius Caesar, defeats Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium, which marks the end of the Hellenistic period, the beginning of the Roman Empire, and the onset of the late Stoa.
Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE) writes by far most of the extant literature on Stoicism, including his famous philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius, the landmark treaties On Anger, and a number of other books.
Several Stoic philosophers are persecuted by Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, because of their criticisms of the tyranny exercised by these emperors (the so-called Stoic opposition). Twice, in 88/9 and 93/4 CE, Domitian expels all philosophers (not just the Stoics) from Italy.
One of those expelled by Domitian is Epictetus (55-135 CE), a brilliant former slave and student of Musonius Rufus. His most famous student, Arrian of Nicomedia, transcribes Epictetus’ dialogues with his students and visitors, producing what we know as the Discourses and the Enchiridion.
The last great ancient Stoic we know of is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who near the end of his life writes a personal diary of philosophical reflections that is referred to today as The Meditations.
At this point we have the first great hiatus (indicated in the second slide by the sundial), as Stoicism declines together with the other Hellenistic schools, replaced by Christianity during the last part of the history of Rome and beyond.
The first resurgence of Stoicism is the result of the efforts of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who explicitly forges his Neo-Stoicism as an attempt at reconciling the ancient philosophy with the tenets of Christianity. It does not last long, though it probably influences some major modern philosophers, like Descartes and especially Spinoza.
We then have a second hiatus, until the publication, in 1995, of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. That book is not specifically about Stoicism (though his The Inner Citadel, centered on Marcus Aurelius, certainly is), but puts back on the map the idea that philosophy can, and should, be practical, a sort of therapy for the sane, so to speak. (It is also relevant that some modern psychotherapies, like REBT and CBT, taking holds in the 1960s and ‘70s, are loosely inspired by Stoic teachings.)
In 1998 Larry Becker publishes A New Stoicism, the first serious attempt by a modern scholar to update Stoic philosophy for contemporary life. It is not a “how to” manual, but rather a conceptual analysis and discussion of what form Stoicism might take in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Finally, beginning in 2012, a diverse group of philosophers, cognitive therapists, and others, launches Stoic Week and the associated annual Stoicon, which — together with the publication of accessible books by the likes of Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, John Sellars, and others (including, eventually, yours truly), sets the stage for, and continues to define and reshape, what I call the Fifth Stoa (after the early, middle, late ones, and Neo-Stoicism). And the story continues, Fate permitting…
Categories: History & Biographies