'What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections' by John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections

by John Sellars

John Sellars

What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). Some scholars have tried to downplay this remark, suggesting that as a rule members of all the Hellenistic schools had a strong sense of loyalty to the school’s founder, in this case Zeno of Citium.

Zeno founded the “school” in Athens around 300 BCE, after having studied with the Cynic Crates, the Megarian Stilpo, and Polemo in Plato’s Academy (Diog. Laert. 7.2). It was not Zeno but, so the story goes, the school’s third head Chrysippus of Soli who really developed Stoicism into a systematic body of thought. Chrysippus is reported to have written some 705 books (7.180). As Diogenes Laertius put it, “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa” (7.183). However the idea of a philosophy as an abstract system of thought is very much a modern one, gaining currency in the eighteenth century, even if the Stoics did emphasize the unity of their own philosophy (see e.g. Diog. Laert. 7.41-3). How unified Chrysippus’s “philosophy” was remains an open question. One of our most important sources is the later Platonist Plutarch who quotes seemingly contradictory passages from works by Chrysippus in order to show the contradictions inherent in Stoicism. Yet it is almost impossible to judge Plutarch’s claims when the quotations are all out of their original context. Contradictory passages might come from works written decades apart, for instance. If Chrysippus was the great philosopher many in antiquity claimed him to be then surely he could have developed his views and changed his mind over time. There may never have been a single unified thing that we could call “Chrysippus’s philosophy” consistently maintained over 705 books, even if some subsequent Stoics may have tried to summarize that vast output.

In the ancient world and for a long time after, histories of philosophy were written as histories made up of philosophers, not philosophies, with those philosophers grouped into schools. The story of the Hellenistic Stoa is above all a story about a series of individual philosophers who self-identified as “Stoics”. Initially this reflected the fact that the founding members of the school met at a particular place, the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in Athens, but over time came to reflect a commitment to a shared set of philosophical views. (It is worth noting that Zeno’s earliest followers called themselves “Zenonians”, only adopting the name “Stoics” later on (see Diog. Laert. 7.5). The change perhaps reflected a desire not to be bound by the doctrines of the founder.) Even so, as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another. Well-known examples include Aristo of Chios on the distinction between different types of “indifferents” (Diog. Laert. 7.160) and Boethus of Sidon on the cosmos being a living being (7.143). These both look like central Stoic doctrines, yet neither of these Stoics felt compelled to leave the school and they were not forced out by those they disagreed with either. Aristo is forever labelled a “heterodox Stoic” but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.

We might wonder whether there was indeed a core set of philosophical views to which all Stoics subscribed, or simply a set of philosophical family resemblances that meant no one doctrine was sacrosanct, or perhaps just an ever-developing tradition of thought that happened to be able to trace a line of succession back to Zeno’s gatherings at the Painted Stoa. However one might try to answer that question, the point I would like to make here is that the Hellenistic Stoa was itself a developing tradition of thought, founded by Zeno, strongly identified with Chrysippus, but embracing a wide range of other philosophers too, from Aristo and Cleanthes to Panaetius and Posidonius. In traditional accounts Panaetius and Posidonius are presented as so-called “Middle Stoics”, heterodox and eclectic when compared with their predecessors. The extent to which Posidonius, for instance, was heterodox has been challenged in recent years, but even if he were, the preceding variety and dispute within the school would not make him out of place. (To repeat: this is what philosophers do, they argue among themselves!) Even in the Hellenistic period, then, Stoicism was a rich and diverse movement, a complex living tradition.

The living tradition of masters and pupils who could trace their lineage back to Zeno was over by the end of the Hellenistic period. The last recorded heads of the school were Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Cicero, Acad. 2.69). Cicero, who wrote our earliest and in some ways most important accounts of Stoicism, visited Athens at a time when the Athenian schools were more or less at an end, but he did manage to attend the lectures of Posidonius in Rhodes, making him one of the last people to have first hand knowledge of the Athenian Stoic tradition. The first few centuries of our era saw many philosophers who explicitly identified themselves as Stoics but they now depended on texts for their knowledge of Athenian Stoic philosophy.

One of the first and most famous of these “text-based Stoics” was Seneca. Seneca embraced the title “Stoic” but was happy to draw on ideas from Epicurus when he found them reasonable (again: he was a philosopher, not a religious convert). He also studied in the philosophical school of Sextius, via whom he adopted a number of Pythagorean ideas and practices (and many of the practical exercises that Seneca exhorts and people now think of as distinctively “Stoic” in fact had their origins in Pythagoreanism). So Seneca drew on ideas from a number of sources but chose to self-identify as a Stoic. He was also in close contact with a number of others who embraced Stoicism, including his nephew Lucan, Cornutus, and the poet Persius who is reported to have owned a collection of more or less all of Chrysippus’s works. This was a new, local Stoic community of friends.

Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome and his lectures were attended by a slave called Epictetus, who would go on to found his own school in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece after gaining his freedom. Students at Epictetus’s school studied works by Chrysippus, while continually being reminded to apply Stoicism to their daily lives. Reports of Epictetus’s lectures were recorded by one of his students, the historian Arrian, and these proved to be a decisive influence on the young Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own notes “to himself” towards the end of his life. Again we see a mix of what we might call “text-based Stoicism” and the creation of new Stoic communities.

The texts of Chrysippus were still readily available during this period, as we can see from the frequent quotations in authors such as Plutarch and Galen; by late antiquity these were seemingly all lost. Since then the reception of Stoic ideas has been closely bound up with the transmission of texts either by later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) or by other, often hostile, authors reporting Stoic views. In the Latin West the principal sources were always Seneca and Cicero.

The reception of Stoic ideas since antiquity has differed from Roman Stoicism in two ways: first, later readers have taken Roman authors as their main source of information rather than having access to works by the Hellenistic Stoics; and second, the vast majority of those readers were for a very long time sincerely or otherwise publically committed to Christian doctrine and so did not affirm every Stoic idea they encountered. They welcomed some doctrines but rejected or were silent about others. In this they were no different from the Roman Stoics themselves or even many of the Hellenistic Stoics, as I have tried to show.

What does all this mean for the question “What is a Stoic?”? Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

The phrase “modern Stoicism” is a perfectly good one for referring to the recent upsurge of interest in Stoicism as a source of practical guidance for everyday life. It indicates that people don’t claim to be resurrecting an ancient system of thought as a whole, but instead taking what they find useful and applying it in a modern context. However it would be a mistake to think that “modern Stoicism” might be defined as a set of doctrines, in some way abstracting the core ideas of ancient Stoicism and updating them for the modern world, against which individuals might in some way be judged as “Stoics” or not (and which itself might be judged as not properly “Stoic” enough). Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

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9 thoughts on “'What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections' by John Sellars”

  1. John offers a very good take on what is a Stoic. However for me it is a little too ‘politically correct’ and ignores a key aspect of Stoicism.

    He concludes “Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.”

    What John talks of is what I call the Fourth Stoa. The Fourth Stoa comprises people who borrow from what writings we have to supplement their other beliefs, be they a religion of just atheistic beliefs or the like. This has been going for as long as Stoicism has been around. The Fourth Stoa also includes those that just look to the Stoic training as a way to improve their ‘resilience’ or coping mechanisms. It is a selective view of the Stoicism passed down from the First, Second and third Stoas.

    What John’s post side steps is the belief in a single universal Deity seen as the active principle of the Divine Fire that is made manifest as the living Cosmos. This belief runs throughout the writings and is recognised in all unbiased professorial assessments of the nature of the Stoicism of old.

    Generally the Stoicism of the first three Stoas involved a belief in the Stoic view of the Deity, albeit that a few individuals of old did argue for moving towards the Epicurean take on such matters. As John states, the Stoics of old enjoyed the debate and each tried to put their own spin on matters.

    However from an overview, while the Stoic was expected to think for themselves, the core understanding as to what Stoicism was involved a belief in the God of all faiths. The Stoics went to a lot of trouble to work out a metaphysics whereby they could visualise how this ‘universal governor and organiser of all things’ related to how we ought to live life.

    There are now some that are attempting to return to the full spiritual nature of Stoicism and this can be done by looking to the whole of the writings, looking to how the Stoics of old developed their method of establishing what to believe and how they interlinked all the various Stoic principles and then extrapolating ideas as to how Stoicism would be if Zeno and his followers had been around today.

    We may need to look to the advancing levels of knowledge to adjust some of the explanations where some matters were based on the science of the day, but even where this may seem dramatically different, by using the Stoic method of investigation, it is to be seen that even though the ‘arguments’ based on modern science have changed, they do in fact lead to the same ideas and principles as those laid down by the Stoics of old.

    I have called this form of Stoicism that tries to look to the first three Stoas for inspiration, and so is a spiritual and life philosophy, the Fifth Stoa.

    Because of the guidance to think for ourselves, no two of us will hold to exactly the same views, but we will all hold to the belief that the ‘Stoic philosophical system includes a Cosmos which is conscious and providential’, as it is put on the Society of Epictetus site.

    Because of its aims, the Stoicism Today project is squarely set within the Fourth Stoa.

    However it would be nice if the faith element of Stoicism was recognised as being what some follow and if it was not constantly presented as being irrelevant to a full understanding as to the nature of the first three Stoas and the Fifth Stoa.

    While I am not suggesting that John or others are intentionally doing this, there is no need to suppress or deride the Stoic teachings in this area, be it intentional or otherwise. If people want to follow the Fourth Stoa, good. Stoicism will have much to offer you.

    But please, allow those of the Fifth Stoa to follow and comment on their ‘version’ of it without having their beliefs derided as mere superstition. There is history, science and experience that backs up the belief in the Divine Fire element of Stoicism.

    John ends his post by saying, “That’s how it has been for a very long time.” Actually the inclusion of a faith in the Stoic view of the Deity has been around for even longer.

    So if the length of time a viewpoint has been around is anything to go by, it is time to recognise the two schools of the Fourth and the Fifth Stoas as being distinct schools each of which have their roots in the First, Second and Third Stoas.


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      The above statement of John Sellars’ just about sums up the situation whereas Nigel’s talk of “First” “Second” “Third” “Fourth” and “Fifth” “Stoas” is fatuous. There have been innumerable “sub-Stoas”, “Post-Stoics” and “Neo-Stoicisms”, but perhaps the only authentic Stoicism, certainly the one which was most vehemently attacked, was the Chrysippean. Zenonianism folded up after Cleanthes’ death but even before that splits had occurred. Aristo(n) had already set up his own Aristonian school which drew large crowds of listeners but Chrysippus was not among them. It was only when Chrysippus, clearly at a loose end as to what to do with his life, followed some oracle’s advice (which was the accepted method) and began to pick up the scattered pieces of the defunct Zenonian school in order to re-write them up into a system. Of course as with all system-builders he failed but his system provided the basis for all the various Stoicisms that followed and that was probably mostly to do with the fact that he was a prolific writer and compiler whose works were widely distributed.

      1. This is the statement of John Sellars’ I referred to in my previous post:

        Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

      2. Archie,

        It is easy to talk down Stoicism as you do. Anyone can do it for it requires very little intelligence a total lack of understanding. I am assuming that you are fairly intelligent, but from your comments it is obvious that your understanding as to what is behind the history and the words of old is greatly lacking.

        You look but you do not see.

        You offer nothing that is relevant to Stoicism. Mere negativity.

        I will respond to three misrepresentations of Stoicism.

        1. A careful study of Stoicism demonstrates that the Divine Fire is what the ‘perceivable body’ is manifested out of. It does not ‘interact with’ for it IS the ‘material’ that all is individualised out of.

        This ‘matter’, the Divine Fire, is what manifests the Cosmos moment by moment and so determines what is to be moment by moment. On a purely ‘mechanical’ basis we are faced with ‘cause and effect’ – but this does not take into account ‘the universal governor and organiser of all things’ aspect of the Divine Fire of which we are ‘sparks’. Cause and effect is part of the rational manifestation of the Cosmos, but so also is the conscious input that starts new lines of cause and effect or that tries to guide existing lines of cause and effect towards desired goals.

        2. If not acted on by any conscious input a given system will follow the strict rules of cause and effect. For instance, a cue ball in a game of snooker will stay still until the player decides to hit it with their cue. The conscious input by the player, and sometimes a little luck, will cause the cue ball to move and start off a new line of cause and effect whereby a red ball will hopefully drop into a pocket. The player could of course have chosen to play a different ball and so what happens in the game is not preordained – moment by moment the player has the free will to choose a course of action within the limits of the game. The future of the game is not settled before the game starts but unfolds as the player decides on their next action moment by moment.

        The same goes for life. What is determined is determined in the experiential moment, some by what has gone before and some by the input of the freewill of individuals and the will of the Divine Fire. This is what Stoicism tells us – you can believe it or not.

        3. Many misunderstand the Stoic training and see it as the Stoic practice.

        In practice, with proper training, a person will internalise the principles and so will act automatically in some cases, for they will then know without thinking where their duty and responsibilities lie. In other cases it may be necessary to stop and think as to what one’s various and sometimes conflicting roles in life are demanding of you. It is your free will that will decide which course to take (despite there being no guarantee of the success of such action).

        There have been many floods recently. How many people have had to choose between staying with their families to help them protect their individual house or going to their jobs in the emergency services to try to protect the whole town? In making such a decision there will be so many factors to consider, but if one does not stop to consider where one’s duty lies one could live to regret acting without thought.

        There is no point in being ‘a spark of the Divine Fire’ if we do not consciously use the free will we have been given.

        Stoicism in the whole offers much that many miss by looking at it as individual details.


        1. Nigel,

          It is even easier to embellish Stoicism with subjective opinion; _that_ requires no thought whatsoever merely obedience. I grant you this: you would definitely know more about that than I.

          You are clearly only interested in Stoicism because it affords you an opportunity to make a great display of your vanity. You have the notion that you are somehow making a positive contribution to Stoicism with your fanciful Stoic physics theories—you’re not.

          You talk glibly of “divine fire” but when it boils down to it you will never be able to explain what his “divine fire” actually is. Presumably you believe also in the ether, in the shining, in Apollo’s flaming chariot, and so on.

          Get real, Nigel. “Divine fire” may still have a place in bad poetry but not in science or philosophy.

          I know you think you have discovered something new and original and that you feel compelled to let the world know of your great discovery, but this “in the clouds” philosophy of yours, which was long ago successfully ridiculed by Aristophanes, is inappropriate for serious philosophical discussion. To talk of “divine fire” being “manifested out of” and that it “manifests the Cosmos moment by moment” is to jest for it is literally and metaphorically meaningless outside the jester’s court. It is so meaningless as to be up and away beyond the clouds and out of this world.

          Nigel, you really do go from the sublime to the ridiculous when you compare what happens in a game of snooker with what happens in life.

          I really do think that you should read up on the subject of determinism and free will: there is NO free will just as there is NO god, NO providence, NO fate, and NO destiny. There is only faith or belief in such superstitions.

          By the way, did you know that the Roman Stoics were big into astrology? How does that square with your theory? Perhaps you read your “stars” in the daily newspapers. Perhaps you worship household gods. Perhaps you keep a fire burning on your hearth day and night. Perhaps you even worship your ancestors—lots of people do.

          I recommend you read Samuel Dill’s “Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius”. It might help dispel some of the false ideas you currently espouse.

          Best wishes,

          1. Archie/Art

            Ah, let the insults abound. Ridicule is a sign of failed arguments. I rest content in my understanding of Stoicism and how it fits with modern science.

            As it is, have you seen me argue for half of what you suggest? Of course not. I do note that you have studied my views on Stoicism and modern science in full and so are fully aware of the Cosmology and metaphysics I talk of. I also note that you have not understood a word of it for otherwise you would not misrepresent it as you do.

            Do rest comfortable in your scepticism and if it makes you happy carry on trying to deride Stoicism. Nothing you can say will outdo what has been said over the years both by the ancients and the moderns. But despite all of its detractors Stoicism is still flourishing.

            Oh, and if you are going to insult a person you could at least come clean and identify yourself rather than hide behind some long dead identity. Or are you ashamed to be linked to your supposed beliefs?


        2. Nigel,

          You don’t think you’ve been insulting my intelligence?

          I’m not being facetious now but a thought occurred to me, (yes, such does happen now and then!) look, if you want to make your “divine fire” theory seem more plausible check out Pike, “Morals and Dogma”, which is obtainable at the archive.org site. Or maybe you’re already a Freemason and that’s where you got your theory from in the first place?

          Best wishes,

          1. Hi Archie/Art,

            Actually the theory is the same as Stoic theory just in different words. As to if some secretive people have a similar theory I have no idea but good luck to them if they have. I do note however that you are still being secretive yourself. 🙂 Still not disclosing who you really are?

            As to insulting your intelligence – all I have been doing is following the lead of your alter ego. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.