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date: 28 June 2022



  • Julia Annas


  • Philosophy

Stoicism, philosophical movement, founded by Zeno (2) of Citium, who came to Athens in 313 bce, and, after studying with various philosophers, taught in his own right in the Stoa Poecile (Painted Porch). We know little of the institutional organization of the school, except that at Zeno's death one of his pupils, Cleanthes, took over the ‘headship’ of the school. He was not, however, the most famous of Zeno's pupils, and the original position got developed in different directions. Ariston (1) of Chios stressed ethics to the exclusion of physics and logic; Herillus emphasized knowledge at the expense of moral action. Cleanthes stressed a religious view of the world, interpreting Stoic ideas in works like his Hymn to Zeus. Stoicism was in danger of dissolving into a number of different positions, but was rescued by Cleanthes' pupil Chrysippus of Soli. He restated and recast Zeno's position in his voluminous writings, defending it with powerful arguments. It was correctly thought later that ‘if there had been no Chrysippus there would have been no Stoa’; the work of Zeno's earlier pupils came to be seen as unorthodox, and Chrysippus' works became the standard formulation of Stoicism. Although Chrysippus claimed to adhere to Zeno's ideas, modern scholars have often held that there are divergences between them; but this is hazardous given the fragmentary state of our sources. Chrysippus' own innovations were mainly in the technical area of logic.

Following Zeno, Stoicism divided philosophy into three parts, logic, physics, and ethics, but the methodology remains holistic: there is no foundational part which supports the others. Different Stoics disagreed both over the correct structure of their position and the correct order of teaching it. Thus the theory can be fully understood only as a whole, one of the respects in which it is markedly ‘ideal’ and makes high demands on the student. However, logic, physics, and ethics are distinguishable at a preliminary stage, and in fact the Stoics developed them with great sophistication. Logic includes logic in the technical sense, in which the Stoics made great advances in what is now called the logic of propositions. It also includes philosophy of language, including grammar and rhetoric, and epistemology. The Stoics are radically empiricist; they give an account of knowledge which traces it from the impact made on the human mind by ‘appearances’ from the outside world. Some of these appearances, they claim, are such that they could not be wrong; this gave rise to a debate with the Academic Sceptics. Knowledge proper, however, requires understanding of the principles which define the area in question.

Stoic physics gives an account of the world which is strongly materialist. It is also determinist; the world as a whole is made up of material objects and their interactions, which occur according to exceptionless laws, which are called ‘fate’. However, their account is also strongly teleological; everything happens according to providence, which is identified with fate. Further, they are compatibilists; human action is free and morally responsible despite fate. The Stoics defended this problematic set of ideas with sophistication and power. The details of their physical account are more naïve: they take fire to be the basic substrate from which things are produced, though Chrysippus, possibly influenced by contemporary medicine, used the mechanism of differing degrees of tension of pneuma or ‘breath’.

Stoic ethics is marked by a set of uncompromising theses: virtue is sufficient for happiness; nothing except virtue is good; emotions are always bad. Easily ridiculed in isolation, these theses can be defended when seen as contributing to an overall theory in which what is most important is the difference in kind between the value of virtue and other, ‘non-moral’ value, virtue being conceived of as the skill of putting other things to correct use. The Stoics give the most demanding account of virtue in ancient ethics, and put the most strain on their account of the happiness which is the virtuous person's aim.

In all areas of philosophy there is appeal to the notions of nature and of reason, which have two roles, in the world as a whole and in us humans. Humans should live in accordance with human nature, which is, for them, to live in accordance with human reason, humans being rational animals. Properly used, human reason will enable us to understand the role of reason in the world, and thus of the world's nature. Nature and reason are in Stoicism objective notions: for us to think rationally is for us to think in ways which converge with other rational thinkers and reach the truth. Those who use their reason form a kind of community of reason, which is sometimes characterized as the only true community, transcending mere earthly bonds.

Early Stoicism remained essentially unchanged until Diogenes (3) of Babylon, who, as is increasingly clear from the Herculaneum papyri, began changes of detail and presentation hitherto associated with his pupil Panaetius, and Posidonius (2) and Hecaton. The so-called ‘Middle Stoa’ attempted to make its views more accessible to educated Romans (successfully in the case of Panaetius) and was more receptive of ideas from other philosophers, particularly Plato (1) and Aristotle. Posidonius had independent interests in science and causality, and Panaetius and Hecaton developed a greater interest in ‘applied ethics’ than their predecessors.

In the later period Stoicism survived in its standard form, as we can see from a textbook like Hierocles, and continued to be an object of philosophical discussion; some of the Church Father, such as Tertullian, were influenced by it. We also find writers who, though orthodox Stoics, are most interested in presenting Stoicism as a way of life. The letters and essays of L. Annaeus Seneca (2), the essays of Musonius Rufus, the reported lectures of Epictetus and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius are examples of this. They tend to discuss practical implications of Stoicism without giving indications of the philosophical structure of their positions.


  • S. Sambursky, Physics of the Stoics (1959).
  • M. Frede, Die stoische Logik (1974).
  • B. Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (1985).
  • S. Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (1998).
  • B. Inwood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (2003).
  • M. R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (2007).