I’m almost at the end of Irvine’s delightful book, A Guide to the Good Life, and the following notes are about chapter 20, “The Decline of Stoicism.”
There are several possible explanations — not necessarily mutually exclusive — for why Stoicism fell out of favor after Marcus Aurelius (unlike, say, the continued expansion and vibrancy of Buddhism, a few thousand miles to the east). They include the idea that Roman society had changed in a way that stern calls to virtue didn’t resonate any longer, as well as the lack of charismatic teachers that would equal Musonius or Epictetus (in this respect, it is interesting to note that Stoicism had already experienced an early decline immediately after its founding, when Zeno was succeeded by the lacklusting Cleanthes; it was only because of the energy and charisma of the latter’s successor, Chrysippus, that the whole thing survived anyway). And of course there was the rise of Christianity, which actually absorbed significant portions of Stoic thought and practice.
Chapter 2 of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics is by Christopher Gill, and it covers the post-Republican Roman period of the Stoa. Gill does much to undo the stereotype that nothing novel happened to Stoicism during this period, and that people like Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus were simply rehashing stuff they got from the earlier, Greek period, or else bringing Stoicism to the masses, but with no further elaboration.
One of the nice things to learn from this chapter is that Marcus Aurelius actually set up four chairs of philosophy in Athens, one each for the four major schools vying for prominence at the time: Stoicism (of course), but also Epicureanism, Aristotelianism and Platonism.
I’ve started going carefully through the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics edited by Brad Inwood. The first chapter deals with the early to middle Stoa, and it’s a nice introduction to the historical and philosophical background of Stoicism. Here are some tidbits to wet your appetite:
“Polemo, the head of the Platonic Academy, and the Megaric philosopher Stilpo, both of them known above all for their ethical stances, were among Zeno’s other teachers, and both will have helped him develop his own distinctive ethical orientation.
As I mentioned before, I’m re-reading William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, together with the New York City Stoics meetup group. While I may keep posting about individual chapters, we are now through parts I and II of the book, and this seems a good time to summarize some of the major insights I took from each chapter comprising those two sections. I will limit myself to just one principal point per chapter, beginning in this post with the three chapters that belong to part I: The Rise of Stoicism.
Chapter 1: Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life. An important idea to take away from this chapter is that – given that people of different faiths have many of the same wants, aspirations, and fears – those can be addressed by developing a philosophical system that transcends individual religious positions (including, of course, atheism).
Here is my Amazon review of this book: James Romm’s book is a fascinating insight into Imperial Rome under Nero, and particularly, of course, of the complex role played in those times by the Stoic philosopher Seneca. Romm is more sympathetic to Stoicism than to Seneca himself, it must be said, and I do not have sufficient familiarity with the available historical record to judge the degree to which his attitude is fair.