Entering the Stoic World Pt.1- Cynicism 2.0

Epictetus on Stoicism's fundamental principle.

Epictetus on Stoicism’s fundamental principle.

This article of mine was written for The Partially Examined Life.

This week, Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November 2015, is the fourth annual international Live Like A Stoic Week. The organisers, Stoicism Today, have provided lots of resources on mental exercises and principles of virtue to assist you in the endeavor, along with psychological reasons for aspiring to this practice in the modern world. So why I am here? To provide some less practical, historical and philosophical background to the deeply inspiring, pragmatic tradition of Stoicism. The Partially Examined Life’s recent podcast focused on the Enchiridion, the popular handbook from the later Roman Stoic Epictetus (55-135 CE). This was wise because about half of Epictetus’ work survives, whereas as they noted, sadly very little survives from the earlier Greek tradition.

The Stoic movement was founded c.300 BCE by Zeno of Citium, not to be confused with Zeno of Elea (c.490-430 BCE) who is famous for his paradoxes and was a follower of Parmenides (c.515-c.460). Remarkably for the history of philosophy, the Stoic Zeno (c.334-262), Plato (c.425-c.348), Aristotle (384-322), and Epicurus (341-270) in Greece, along with Chuang Tzu (370-278) in China, were all active within the space of a few decades. Zeno was first inspired by the ascetic philosophical lifestyle of Socrates (c.469-399) of whom he learned through the writings of Socrates’ less famous pupil, Xenophon (430-354 BCE), rather than Plato, which is a reminder that when people say “Socrates is only known of through Plato’s writings” you can tell them they are wrong. Socrates had highlighted that the great mass of people ‘sleepwalk’ through life without questioning whether they are correct to think and feel what they think and feel, and Zeno took it upon himself to address this.

The podcast team referred to Epictetus’ remark that wealthy people are good when they fund amenities such as porticoes for the community, but I think they missed the significance of this, because the Greek word for portico was stoa, from which Stoicism derives its name. This came out of Zeno having established his school at a place called “the Painted Portico” [Clark, 39] when he had eventually quit his day job as a merchant. It is probable therefore, that Epictetus’ remark was recommending the provision of spaces where philosophy could be done outdoors in public, as it then was. So whereas their Hellenistic cousins, the Epicureans, were known as ‘garden philosophers’, the Stoics could have been called ‘porch philosophers’. But it is a different Hellenistic school, Cynicism, to which we now turn.

Entering with Cynicism

At the start, a bookseller had directed Zeno to the Cynic philosopher, Crates of Thebes (c. 365-c.285; a follower of Diogenes of Sinope c.408-323 BCE), as an example of a contemporary man living like Socrates. [Clark, 39] The Cynic school was popular at the time, and this was the second and biggest influence upon Stoicism. This school, founded by Antisthenes in Athens c.400 BCE, was also inspired by Socrates’ own asceticism, rather than the Platonic philosophy Socrates is known for today. The Cynics followed Socrates in holding that true happiness was not to be found in external pleasures, since these are fleeting and could thereby be considered unreal. But they went further. Disillusioned with the world after “the collapse of the Greek city states and [later] the Alexandrian Empire”, the Cynics regarded everything external, “all the fruits of civilization [as] worthless- government, private property, marriage, religion”. [P. & S., 21 & 19]

These beliefs led to behaviour that was considered dog-like, giving rise to the name ‘cynic’ which meant ‘canine’. [Russell, 241] But the crucial corollary of these beliefs was the principle of indifference: if one is not dependent on anything external to oneself, then one can be happy all the time, no matter one’s situation. [Gaarder, 109] As part of the tradition of eudaimonic philosophy, happiness here is inextricably linked with moral virtue: to be happy one also has to be good, and vice versa. The Stoics did not absolutely agree with the Cynic principle of indifference, as we will see later. But they did agree that because wealth and power are not necessary, happiness is available everyone no matter their material condition or status- as is emphasised by the legend of Diogenes and Alexander. [1]

In what ways did the Stoics differ from the Cynics? One distinctive teaching of the Cynic school was indifference towards the state of one’s own health, which meant the Cynics often had poor diet and personal hygiene- a tradition that lives on in some philosophers I know today. But it is possibly because they also strived to be indifferent to the concerns of others –particularly, it seems, when they owed them money [P. & S., 19]– that “nowadays the terms ‘cynical’ and ‘cynicism’ have come to mean a sneering disbelief in human sincerity”. [Gaarder, 110]

As the Buddha’s teachings were a more moderate response to the some of the harsher ascetic practices he encountered within Hinduism, Stoicism could be seen as a more moderate expression of the Cynic movement and its concerns. Some early Stoics were as radical and as sceptical of social norms as the Cynics. They argued for disrespecting private property, fornicating in temples, and eating one’s parents when they died [Clark, 39] –and given their generally austere diets, I am not surprised they would enjoy a feast on a special occasion. The lasting significance of this youthful radicalism was that its rejection of the norms and laws of particular societies led to an alternative belief in a universal, eternal, Natural Law. This ‘law’, which has to be reasoned out through philosophical intuition, was also to become one of the most important of the many aspects of Stoicism that influenced Christianity.

As Stoic philosophers discussed their beliefs in objective morality, they identified more with traditional ideals of justice, so becoming less world-rejecting. [Clark, 39] Consequently, the Stoics sided with Plato and Aristotle against the Sophists (a contemporaneous school particularly popular with the establishment) who claimed that truth -including moral truth- was culturally relative. Moreover, this also posed the Stoics against the Cynics who rejected metaphysical enquiry -and in this respect it was they, rather than the Stoics who were more similar to the Buddha.

The Cynics’ rejection of more speculative philosophy was part of a wider rejection of the world outside the mind of the individual. In essence, “they just wanted to know how to live satisfying their needs as easily as possible.” [Clark, 40] Although the Cynics in principle agreed every bit as much with universal equality as did the Stoics, they did not share the Stoics’ commitment to expressing this fellowship in helping others out of filial love. Hence, Bertrand Russell notes that the Cynics’ teaching would have appealed to the rich who wanted to dismiss the suffering of the poor as well as to the poor who envied the rich. [Russell, 262] It is unsurprising then that the biggest difference between the consequences of the two doctrines was at the social level: Cynicism “does not attempt to describe how people can be happy as social beings” [P. & S., 19] and hence the Cynics tended to withdraw from society, while among Stoics there was a desire to take part in public life. Indeed, “many of them, notably the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), were active statesmen.” [Gaarder, 110-111]

As implied by the above, the reason the Stoics were motivated to improve society was because their ethics provided ideals against which the world could be held up, and they believed acting for a more just world was commended by the Natural Law. Progress with individual virtue, however, remained the essential means to this. But whereas Cynic virtue was static –one had it if and only if they had achieved disinterestedness (a state which then could not be lost) [Gaarder, 109]– Stoic virtue was a dynamic scale which had to be worked at, akin to the view of Aristotle. In Epictetus’ more sophisticated work, the Discourses, he says:

If a man who “turns to his own will to exercise it and to improve it by labour, so as to make it… faithful, modest”, “bathes as a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man; in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles… this is the man who truly makes progress”. [Bk. I, Ch. 4, quoted in P. & S., 21]

In other words, to become a better person is to bend one’s will to moral principles, and to do this one must practice this in small things, then in great, [Ch. 18] and in all areas of life. Evidently, the Stoics viewed public life as an effective arena for this, though not going as far as Aristotle who regarded political engagement as necessary for happiness. [2]

Stoicism's modern apologists claim these philosophers weren't really solemn and emotionless, but their statutory says otherwise.

Zeno of Citium. Stoicism’s modern apologists claim these philosophers weren’t really solemn and emotionless, but their statutory says otherwise.

This raises the question of how the Stoics could succeed as virtuous members of a community if they shunned sensitivity to emotions, extolling indifference? The answer is that the Stoics dispensed with these aspects of Cyncism. They subordinated the happiness of being unaffected by external events to the Natural Law, seeing such happiness as good only “when it accompanies the virtues of wisdom and justice”. [Robertson, (2012)] Accordingly, the principle of indifference was refined into a ‘principle of detachment’, whereby we should have a rational interest and emotional involvement in external things such as the health of our family and our country. But this is encouraged in so far as we can remain detached from the way events actually turn out, mindful that these are ultimately beyond our –or anyone’s– capacity to control, and hence such goods were termed “preferable indifferents”. [Clark, 40]

This has frequently been misunderstood due to issues with language. Just as ‘cynic’ has a different meaning today, ‘stoic’ (with a small ‘s’) is now often taken to imply ’emotionless’. But the problem goes back to the Stoic’s texts, because their goal of apatheia has often been translated as ‘freedom from passion’, when it actually meant the “absence of irrational, unhealthy, or excessive passions”. [Robertson, (2012)] Moreover, as Epictetus himself indicates, [Discourses, Bk. III, Ch. 2] Stoics should instead possess good passions known as eupatheiai. The ideal Stoic, therefore, is not one who has suppressed his or her emotions, but one who has trained his or her will to be stronger than them. [Roberston, (2012)]

Continue to Part 2 on Stoic metaphysics and the influences upon it.


[1] A famous legend about Diogenes the Cynic is that he was once visited by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) who asked if he could do anything for him. All that he asked was that the emperor moved away from the barrel (in which he lived) because he was blocking out his sunlight. This story illustrates that a poor ascetic following the Cynic philosophy need be no less satisfied or happy than a rich and powerful man who has ‘everything’.

Another story about Diogenes is that when he first approached Antisthenes for tutelage the latter tried to beat him away with a stick, but he would not leave.

[2] Another contrast with Aristotle is that while, in his view, material well-being is an essential component to eudaimonia (human flourishing), the Stoics conceived of happiness as being completely independent from how lucky one is in their life. 


Clark, Stephen R. L., (1994), ‘Ancient Philosophy’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy, Kenny, Anthony (ed.), Oxford University Press

Gaarder, Jostein, (1991), Sophie’s World, Phoenix, London

Popkin, Richard H., & Stroll, Avrum, [1969], (1993), Philosophy Made Simple, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford

Robertson, Donald, (2012), ‘Stoics Are Not Unemotional!’

Russell, Bertrand, [1946], (1984), A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin Hyman Ltd., London

Of course, there’s Stoic convention called Stoicon.


One response »

  1. Pingback: Entering the Stoic World Pt.2- Metaphysics | Vibrant Bliss

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