Origin and Meaning of Stoics

After reading this article you will learn about Stoics:

1. Origin and Meaning of Stoics

2. Political Philosophy of Stoics

3. Transition From Stoicism to Roman Political Ideas.

Origin and Meaning of Stoics:

The most representative and influential philosophical school of the five centuries from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 200 was Stoicism, and the founder of this school was Zeno (336-264 BC). Zeno settled in Athens and opened a school to deliver lectures on philosophy and related subjects.

The term Stoics is derived from Stoa poikile the meaning of which is “painted porch” adorned with frescoes. Zeno was a native of Cyprus and most of the members of the Stoic School were non-Greeks and two of the representative figures were slaves.

The history of Stoicism is divided into three periods. Early Stoicism, Middle Stoicism and Late or Roman Stoicism. Zeno was the leader of early Stoicism. Middle Stoicism was represented by Panaetius.

The most important figurers of the Roman Stoicism were Epictetus and Aurelius. The Stoic philosophers did not discuss the political matters directly and they never tried to build up consistent theories of state or political science like Plato and Aristotle.

The philosophy propagated by the Stoics can be divided into Logic, Physics and Ethics. Analysis of political issues contained all these three subjects. In this connection it may also be noted that Stoicism cannot be regarded as a theory of state.

In spite of this the Stoic philosophers exercised considerable influence upon the functioning of the government, because many kings and officials of Hellenistic and Roman periods were professing Stoics. However, they were not interested in the application of Stoic philosophy.

The Stoic philosophers in their physical theory posited two principles in the universe—the active and the passive principles. The passive principle is a substance without quality that is matter, whereas the active is the reason inherent in this substance that is God. In the ethical and political philosophy of Stoics we find the notion of cosmos.

The cosmos is god who is the creator of the whole universe or nature. So both heaven and earth are assimilated or combined in the cosmos. Hence the cosmos is a totality and gods and men are the integral parts of the cosmos.

Political Philosophy of Stoics:

The nature, that is the whole cosmos, constitutes the central theme of Stoic philosophy including political philosophy. Nature is pervaded by goal and purpose and to live according to nature means to work with it towards the harmony and orderliness that is inherent in it. Only one principle governs all things. Everything is with nature and nothing happens against nature. Nature determines all happenings in the world.

Like nature, human beings are also subject to an all-pervading harmonious and rational ordering. Man and nature are not opposites. Both are parts of reason and harmony. Stoic view of morality presents the following notion.

Man must act according to reason, that is, according to the principle of nature. The conduct and behaviour of man are determined by the law of the universe and all other creatures are subject to the same law.

If man learns to guide his life by reason or rationality and everyone follows the same principle a harmonious relationship among all men is established. Reason dictates that man should pursue virtue and should not be guided by narrow self-interests.

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In this way, a unity is set up in the civil society. Civil society, according to the Stoics, is based on the natural bonds of men, their natural attraction to one another. The state is a natural coalescence and not an artificial formation based upon contract. Gregarious nature of man led to the foundation of human society.

In the Stoic form of political ideas we find a peculiar position of man. He is regarded by the Stoic thinkers as a part of single group or “herd”. That is, one man is indistinguishable from another. Property, race or rank cannot make any distinc­tion among different individuals.

Since all men are same, there cannot be separate law or principle. This is no doubt a Utopian thought. But in the Utopian way the Stoics have built up a theory of concord. By abolishing all distinctions, the stoics wanted to set up a united and unified human society.

At the head of the civil society or state there is a king who possesses absolute power and his absolute authority is bestowed by God. The king is not only the head of the state; he is practically identical with it.

The Stoics further have held that the kingship is the only cohesive force in the state. A true king is divine and he brings harmony in his kingdom.

The order of the king is law and to defy his law is to defy God and to go against nature and disturb the harmony. The Stoics further held that the defiance of king is tantamount to immorality. The king as representative of God represents morality, ethics and religion. Thus, a king is the spokesman of earthly and heavenly matters.

The idealization and deification of kingship created a notion of world city and some of the Stoic philosophers propagated it. This comes from the fact that the Stoic philosophers did not give any importance to the various differences between the nations or cities. All were the parts of the universe and were subject to the same laws of nature.

The main feature of the world state is it is ruled or guided by the dictum of God and there cannot be any scope of separate opinion or conduct. Gods and men are the denizens of the world-state.

The right reason prevails upon them all. The right reason is just and standard and one cannot change it whimsically.

A Stoic philosopher has made the following comment:

“Law is the ruler over all acts both of gods and men. It must be the director and governor and the guide in respect to what is honourable and base and hence the standard of what is just and unjust. For all beings that are social by nature the law directs what must be done and forbids what must not be done”

On the one hand Stoicism abolished the differences among the individuals and on the other hand established the harmony between the states. Let us quote Sabine— “If Stoicism diminished the importance of social distinctions between individuals, it tended also to promote harmony between states. There are for everyman two sets law—the law of his city and the law of the world-city; the law of custom and the law of reason. Of the two the second must have the authority and must provide a form to which the statutes and customs of the cities should conform. Customs are various but reason is one…Stoicism tended to conceive a worldwide system of law having endless local branches.”

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Stoic philosophers admitted that there might be differences, but all these must be ignored. Reason and principle of nature must always be given priority. If differences were recognized, fissiparous tendencies would develop which would be harmful for a harmonious society.

By laying great emphasis upon natural law, reason, and world-state the Stoic philoso­phers threw individuals into most insignificance and obscurity. The universality and all- embracing character of natural law rules out the possibility of all disputes. People are dumb creatures and they obey the law ungrudgingly.

If this is reason of nature, we must say that it is absolutely unreasonable. Men cannot be beasts. Nature may have a reason, but people have their own reason. To follow reason and nature blindly is not ethics and justice. But to force a man to follow this or do that is, in our view, unethical and unjust.

The-Stoic thinkers contemplated of community of property, wives and other things in order to ensure harmony. Plato thought in this line and he was vehemently criticized by Aristotle. The Stoic criticism of political, social and cultural institutions is also unjustified.

The various institutions play very important role in the develop­ment of human personality. The individual cannot be asked to sacrifice himself at the altar of the state. The Stoics also imagined of the world-city where the separate states would not have any importance at all.

A recent critic has made the following comment:

“This cynic fervour of Stoicism, directed against cultural progress, enlightenment and being essentially conservative and even reactionary was graphic evidence of the crisis of contemporary slave-owning society and its values.”

Stoic philosophers’ advocacy of absolute monarchy and world-state is precursor to dictatorship and imperialism. The Stoic philosophy is the most important root of Divine Right Theory. The church in the middle Ages received inspiration from the Stoic ideas of the divinity of kingship.

The idea of divinity made the emperors of various European states not only autocrat but also cruel and heartless rulers. Roman emperors were also inspired by the doctrine of one world, one reason and one law. This left behind many a pernicious effect.

Democratic values and principles found no place in the lexicography of Stoic philosophers. Plato and Aristotle were not worshippers of democracy. But the worth of the individual was recognized by their philosophy.

It is not correct to hold that every aspect of Stoic philosophy is to be condemned. Ebenstein observes that the Stoic philosophy of secular law is the foundation of modern legal system both national and international.

These Stoics conceived of a world-city. Today the protagonists of internationalism are thinking of a world government, although it is yet to be achieved. The philosophy of French Revolu­tion—liberty, equality and fraternity is the truncated form of universal brotherhood propagated by Stoics. The Stoic idea of a “law above law” has become the fundamental principle of the American constitutional system.

Transition From Stoicism to Roman Political Ideas:

Notwithstanding the fact that Greece was the birthplace of Stoicism, it found Rome as a fertile field for its development. The 19th century historian, Mommsen, has said that Stoic philosophy perfectly filled the Roman character.

The same view has been shared by many other historians and political scientists. Berki says “Success of Stoicism was due to its being an appropriate kind of philosophy for an expanding and ambitious imperial power which Rome became in the last century before the demise of the Republic.”

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Records of history reveal that Romans were practical- minded people. They had very little respect for philosophy, idealism and ethics etc. But the Stoic doctrine of one world had enamoured them and they accepted it without any hesitation.

Guided by the philosophy of one world, and by applying it to practice, Rome became the most powerful imperial state in Europe and for the administration of the vast empire the Romans built up a comprehensive legal system based on stoic concept of law.

Stoic concepts of international law, national law and natural law found its application in the Roman philosophical idea.

Sabine has said that Stoicism in its original form has lost much of its rigour and enchantment, but the central idea appealed to the educated people. They were not concerned with the technicalities and subtleties of Stoic philosophy. Here lay the success of Stoic philosophy.

The educated Romans were heavily inclined to some of the aspects of Stoicism. No other Greek system was as well-qualified as Stoicism to appeal to the native virtues of self-control, devotion to duty and public spirit in which the Romans took special pride, and no political conception was so well-qualified as the Stoic world-state to introduce some measures of idealism into too sordid business of Roman conquest.

From the above analysis it is now obvious that three aspects of Stoic philosophy created a lasting impact upon the Romans. Theory of law with its three branches, devotion to duty and unconditional allegiance to the state sovereignty and, finally, the idea of world- state. In fact these three things constitute the kernel of Roman political thought.

The conception of the unity of mankind imbued the Roman rulers so much that by conquering the states and kingdoms they wanted to set up a unified empire and to remove all sorts of barriers such as race, sex and nationality. The Roman emperors with the help of military power translated the Stoic doctrines into reality.

It is to be mentioned that only the practical necessity and love for expansionism drove them to action. Dunning has observed that in the constructive work of Republic Stoicism played no part. Its doctrine found home only in the spirit of men like Cato the Younger, Cicero and Brutus, whose ideas were as impotent in the presence of Caesar as Aristotle’s had been in the presence of Alexander. But in the social adjustment during the stable days of the principle, Stoic doctrines exercised a positive and far-reaching influence.

Expansion of Roman Empire needed an intellectual justification and this was provided by Stoic cosmopolitanism and the belief in the basic human equality. To put it in other words, Roman conquerors wanted to conceal their real motive that is expansionism by propagating the philosophy of cosmopolitanism and unity of mankind.

The imperialist powers have always resorted to the same technique. Hitler used the philosophy of Hegel.

British imperialism preached the doctrine of white man’s burden. In fine, Stoic philosophy found a home in Rome and Roman Empire and Roman political thought may be regarded as its direct descendant.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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