Imagine a young man, 22 years of age, coming to Athens from Citium, on the island of Crete, during the Hellenistic Era of Greece. Catching a ride from his father, a merchant voyager, he arrives in Athens, home base of his favorite philosopher Socrates, whose ideas have long captivated him. The great philosophical discourse of Athens undoubtedly entranced the young man. He follows under wing of Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes. After a while, he formulates his own ideas, building on the constructs of others and creating a philosophy all his own. Having reached the age of 34, this man, Zeno of Citium began to formally lecture alongside such philosophers as Epicurus on the Painted Porch (Stoa pokile) of Athens in 300 B.C. From this Porch, his philosophy derives its name: Stoicism. Thus, Zeno laid the foundations for the Stoic school of philosophy in Athens, which would develop the most influential philosophy of the Hellenistic Age.
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The three divisions of Stoicism: reason, physics, and ethics, are complicated in theory, yet held together in a simple relationship. Here, the goal of life, according to Zeno, is to “live in agreement with nature, which is to live according to virtue.” This fundamental injunction to live at one with nature, the ‘harmonious logos' according to Zeno, still persists today. By living in harmony with nature, one gains peace of mind and the reward of virtue. Zeno believed that humans gravitate toward virtue in pursuit of self-preservation – i.e. to align with nature is the path to virtue.
Physics, or Nature in Stoic Philosophy, is the ordering principle of the universe constructed by Divine Reason, or God. Zeno promoted the idea of the universe functioning according to a preordained cyclic pattern of occurrences. Nothing that happens is new, and it all happens for a reason. The Divine Reason is set to cause into being natural laws or a morality of God's design. Zeno said to “grasp” them in their entirety is the path of knowledge. The degree of knowledge is therefore likened to the strength of defense an argument can hold without being shaken. Thus, the strength of argument is also an indicator of a virtuous mind in tune with the nuances of the universe.
The ethics that arise from Stoic thought result from Zeno's idea that all humans are subject to universal laws. Thus, we unite in the “brotherhood” of humankind. Certainty that God's providence is wholly good and that harmony is present in the whole of the universe is the goal of human rational thought. Accepting fate as ordained by the dictates of natural law leads to the ideal state of being – apathy, or absence of feeling. Zeno believed a life dedicated to duty would act against any resigned or deterministic outlook. Duty is defined by right reason; it is the appropriate reaction to a rationally explained universe. Thus, character is ultimately determined by involvement in public life. Stoicism flourished as a truly international expression of the Hellenistic Age, a time when the city-state was losing ground in its primacy in Greece. Zeno began in Stoicism a philosophy that united people in an age of growing alienation from the central powers of politics that defined the Hellenistic Age of Greece.
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©David W. Koeller 2003. All rights reserved.