Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The death of Aristotle marks the end of the Golden Age of Greek philosophy. From Thales to Socrates was the period of beginnings; from Socrates to Aristotle, the period of highest perfection; with the opening of the post-Aristotelian period begins the age of decay and dissolution. To this third period belong the pantheism of the Stoics, the materialism of the Epicureans, and the final relaxation of all earnest philosophical thought, culminating in the absolute scepticism of the Pyrrhonists. The period of highest perfection in philosophy was also the period of the political greatness of Greece, and the causes which brought about the political downfall of Greece are in part accountable for the decay of Greek philosophy.

Sixteen years before the death of Aristotle, the battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.) was fought, -- the battle in which the doom of Greece was sealed. There followed a series of unsuccessful attempts to shake off the Macedonian yoke. In vain did Demosthenes strive to arouse in the breasts of the Athenians the spirit of the days of Marathon and Thermopylae; the iron hand of military despotism crushed the last manifestations of patriotism. Then the Roman came, to succeed the Macedonian, and Greece, the fair home of philosophy in the West, was made a province of a vast military and commercial empire.

The loss of political freedom was followed by a period of torpor of the creative energies of the Greek mind.{1} Speculation, in the highest sense of constructive effort, was no longer possible and philosophy became wholly practical in its aims. Theoretical knowledge was valued not at all, or only in so far as it contributed to that bracing and strengthening of the moral fiber which men began to seek in philosophy, and for which alone philosophy began to be studied. Philosophy thus came to occupy itself with ethical problems, and to be regarded as a refuge from the miseries of life. When men ceased to count it an honor to be a citizen of Hellas, they turned to philosophy in order to become citizens of the world; and so philosophy assumed a more cosmopolitan character. Imported into the Roman Empire, it failed at first to take root on Roman soil because in the Latin contempt of the Graeculus was included a contempt for all things Greek. Gradually, however, philosophy gained ascendency over the Roman mind, while in turn the Roman love of the practical asserted its influence on Greek philosophy.

All these influences resulted in (1) a disintegration of the distinctively Greek spirit of philosophy and the substitution of a cosmopolitan spirit of eclecticism; (2) a centering of philosophical thought around the problems of human life and human destiny; and (3) the final absorption of Greek philosophy in the reconstructive efforts of the Greco-Oriental philosophers of Alexandria.

But, while metaphysics and physics were neglected in this anthropocentric movement of thought, the mathematical sciences, emancipating themselves from philosophy, began to flourish with new vigor. The astronomers of Sicily and later those of Alexandria stand out of the general gloom of the period as worthy representatives of the Greek spirit of scientific inquiry.

The principal schools of this period are: (1) the Stoics, (2) the Epicureans, (3) the Sceptics, (4) the Eclectics, (5) the mathematicians and astronomers. A separate chapter will be devoted to The Philosophy of the Romans.


Sources. All the writings of the earlier Stoics, with the exception of a few fragments, have been lost. We possess, indeed, the complete works of the later Stoics, -- Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Heraclitus, and Cornutus; but these philosophers lived under the Roman Empire, at a time when foreign influences had substituted new elements for the doctrines which had been characteristic of the school at the beginning of its existence. We are obliged, therefore, to rely for our knowledge of early Stoicism on writers like Cicero, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus , and the Aristotelian commentators, who, however, do not always distinguish between the earlier and the later forms of Stoicism. Consequently, it will be found more satisfactory first to give a history of the Stoic school, and then to describe the Stoic doctrine as a whole, without attempting to determine the contributions made by individual members of the school.

History of the Stoic School. (a) Greek Stoics. Zeno of Cittium (350-258 B.C.), the founder of the Stoic school, was born at Cittium in Cyprus in the year 350 B.C. He was at first a merchant, but owing, it is said, to a shipwreck in which he lost a considerable part of his wealth, he repaired to Athens with the intention of pursuing the study of philosophy. On reading the Memorabilia of Xenophon and the Apology of Plato, he was impressed with the remarkable character of Socrates, and was led to attach himself to the school of Crates, the Cynic, who appeared to reproduce in his own life and manners the character of the sage. Later on, repelled, no doubt, by the coarseness and vulgarity of the Cynics, he became successively disciple of Stilpo, the Megarian, and of Xenocrates, the ruler of the Academy. About the year 310 B.C. he founded a school of his own, which reason of his habit of teaching in the Painted Porch (Stoa) came to be known as the Stoic school. He reached an advanced age and, according to account given by Diogenes and others, ended his life by suicide. His writings have all been lost.

Cleanthes succeeded Zeno as master of the Stoa. He is said to have been originally a pugilist. Zeno characterized the mental temperament of Cleathes by comparing him to a hard slab on which it is difficult to write, but which retains indefinitely whatever is written on it. True to this description, Cleanthes preserved the teachings of his master, but showed himself incapable of expanding them into a more complete system. He is the reputed author of a Hymn to the Most High, preserved by Stobaeus.{2}

Chrysippus, who succeeded Cleanthes, was born at Soli, in Cilicia, in the year 280 B.C. He was more original than Cleanthes, and under his direction the Stoic school reached its full development. Among his disciples were Zeno of Tarsus, Diogenes of Seleucia, and Antipater of Tarsus, whose pupil, Panaetius (180-111 B.C.), introduced Stoicism into the Roman world.

(b) Roman Stoics. Among the Roman Stoics the best known are L. Annaeus Cornutus (A.D. 20-66), M. Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65), Seneca the younger (A.D. 3-65), Persius, the satirist (A.D. 34-62), Epictetus, the philosopher-slave (flourished A.D. 90), and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180).

It is a fact worthy of note that Cleanthes, Seneca, and Lucan committed suicide in accordance with what as we shall see was one of the ethical doctrines of the school, imitating in this the example of the founder.


General Idea of Stoic Philosophy. The Stoics evidently considered themselves the true disciples of Socrates, and it was, without doubt, from Socratic principles that they deduced their idea of the aim and scope of philosophy. We have seen that Zeno was first led to philosophy by the hope of finding in it consolation for the loss of his temporal goods, and when he came to establish his school he took for his starting point the Socratic doctrine that knowledge is virtue, making the pursuit of knowledge (philosophy) and the cultivation of virtue synonymous. When, however, the Stoics set about discovering a systematic basis for their ethical teachings, they went back to pre-Socratic systems, and drew largely from the physical doctrines of Heraclitus. Now, there were two tenets in the Heraclitean philosophy which recommended themselves in a special manner to the Stoics: (1) that all individual things are but the ever-changing manifestations, or apparitions, of the ever-enduring fire, and (2) that there is but one law, which governs the actions of men, as well as the processes of nature. Consequently, the Stoics made these principles the foundation of the science of human conduct. At the same time they did not hesitate to supplement the physics of Heraclitus by borrowing from Aristotle's physical doctrines. They were influenced, too, by Antisthenes' nominalism and by his opposition to the Platonic theory of Ideas, and in their theological doctrines they made use of the Socratic and Platonic teleology. All these elements they amalgamated into a consistent system. Logic and physics they made subservient to ethics, on the principle that the theoretical should be subordinated to the practical.

We have, therefore, three divisions of Stoic Philosophy. (1) Logic, including the theory of knowledge; (2) Physics, including theology; and (3) Ethics, the hegemonic science.

Stoic Logic. It was probably Zeno who first gave to logic the name by which it is now known, though this is by no means certain. The logic of the Stoics was simply the Analytic of Aristotle supplemented by a more adequate treatment of the hypothetical syllogism and by the addition of the problem of the criterion of truth. To the latter question they devoted special attention, and, in their solution of it, developed the Stoic theory of knowledge.

Theory of knowledge. 1. The Stoics start with the Aristotelian principle that all intellectual knowledge arises from sense perception. Sense-perception (aisthêsis) becomes representation, or imagination (phantasia), as soon as it rises into consciousness.{3} During the process of sense-perception the soul remains passive, the object producing its image on the mind, just as the seal produces its impression on wax. The process was, therefore, called tupôsis, although Chrysippus is said to have substituted the word heteroiôsis, alteration of the soul.{4} When the object of knowledge is removed from the presence of the senses, we retain a memory of it, and a large number of memories constitutes experience (empeiria).

2. The next step is the formation of concepts. Concepts are formed either (a) spontaneously, that is, when, without our conscious cooperation, several like representations fuse into universal notions (prolêpseis, or koinai ennoiai); or (b) consciously, that is, by the reflex activity of the mind, which detects resemblances and analogies between our representations, and combines these into reflex concepts, or knowledge (epistêmê). Neither spontaneous nor reflex concepts are, however, innate; spontaneity does not imply innateness.

3. As, therefore, all our knowledge arises from sense-perception, the value to be attached to knowledge depends on the value to be attached to sense-perception. Consequently, the Stoics decided that apprehension (katalêpsis) is the criterion of truth. That is true which is apprehended to be true, and it is apprehended to be true when it is represented in the mind with such force, clearness, and energy of conviction that the truth of the representation cannot be denied.{5} The saying attributed to Zeno by Cicero{6} that Perception is like the fingers extended, that Assent is like the half-closed hand, that Apprehension is like the hand fully closed, and that Knowledge (Scientia) is like the closed hand firmly grasped by the other hand, would seem to attribute to knowledge a superiority over sense-perception. On closer examination, however, it is seen that the difference is only a difference of degree.{7}

4. The question, What is the value of concepts? was answered by the Stoics in accordance with nominalistic principles borrowed from Antisthenes, who, in opposition to Plato, taught that no universality exists outside the mind, the individual alone being real.{8}

5. In their classification of concepts the Stoics reduced the ten Aristotelian categories to four: (1) substance (hupokeimenon), (2) essential quality (to poion), (3) accidental quality (pôs echon), and (4) relation (pros ti pô s echon).{9} This enumeration, as will be readily perceived, does not retain the Aristotelian distinction between predicables and categories. All the Stoic categories, except the first, are modes of predication rather than modes of being.

Stoic Physics and Theology. The physics of the Stoa is a system of materialistic monism, while the theology of the Stoa may be described as a compromise between theism and pantheism.

The Stoics maintained that the material alone is real. They would not admit, for example, that the soul, or virtue, is real except in so far as it is material. God Himself they believed to be material. Above all the categories, therefore, they would place not on, Being, but ti, something, a transcendental notion including not-Being as well as Being, the incorporeal as well as the corporeal. Thus did they identify the incorporeal with the unreal, and include all real being under the generic concept of matter.{10}

Consistently with these principles the Stoics teach that all attributes are air currents: emotions, concepts, judgments, virtues, and vices are air currents which either pass into the soul or come out from it.{11} In extenuation of this crude materialism, it must be remarked that the Stoics distinguish between a finer and a coarser matter, attributing to the former an active and to the latter a passive character. The air currents are in substance material; in function, however, they are active, and may be said to play a rôle similar to that which the form plays in Aristotelian philosophy.{12}

Everything, therefore, is material: the common distinction between corporeal and incorporeal is merely a distinction between coarser and finer matter. We may, indeed, distinguish two principles, or sources, of reality, -- matter and force, -- but we shall find that in ultimate analysis force, too, is material.

God is, at once, the Author of the universe and its Soul, -- the immanent principle of its life; for every kind of action ultimately proceeds from one source, which, whether it resides in the heavens or in the sun or in the center of the world (on this point the Stoics were not agreed), diffuses itself throughout every part of the universe, as the cause of heat and growth and life and motion.

God is at one time described as Fire, Ether, Air, Atmospheric Current (pneuma); at another time as Soul, Mind, Reason-containing-the-germs-of-all-things (logos spermatikos); while sometimes both styles of phraseology are combined, and He is called the Fiery Reason of the World, Mind in Matter, Reasonable Pneuma. The language of compromise is never wholly consistent, and the Stoic theology is an attempt to compromise between theism and pantheism. It is, however, certain that the Stoics conceived God to be something material; for in their explanation of the presence of God in the universe they assume that the universal intermingling (krasis di holôn) implies the impenetrability of matter, so that even when they call Him Mind, Law, Providence, Destiny, they understand by these terms something corporeal.{13}

God and the world are the same reality, although there exists a relative difference between God, or reality regarded as a whole, and the world, or reality considered in some one or other of its aspects. This pantheism is the central doctrine of the Stoic physics; indeed, it may be said to be the inspiring thought which justified to the Stoic mind the study of natural phenomena. For the Stoics, as has been said, looked upon philosophy as primarily a matter of practical import, and studied physics only in order to find a basis for their ethical speculations. Such a basis they found in the doctrine of pantheism. This doctrine may, therefore, be said to have been their religion as well as their philosophy. Accordingly, they criticised the popular beliefs of their time, being careful, however, to admit whatever elements of truth they found in polytheistic religion, and making free use of allegory as a means of bridging over the chasm between polytheism and pantheism.{14}

We may, therefore, speak of the world as the body, and of the Deity as the soul of the universe, if we are careful to bear in mind that the distinction is merely a relative one. The world arose in the following manner. The primal fire was condensed into air and water; water in turn was condensed into earth The derived elements are constantly tending to return by rarefaction to the primal fire;{15} but no sooner will this destruction by conflagration have taken place than the primal fire will issue forth in another series of condensations, thus beginning another cosmic period, which will end like its predecessor in conflagration. Here the influence of Heraclitus is apparent.

The Deity, regarded as the origin of these processes of condensation and returning rarefaction, -- the primal fire, -- is logos spermatikos regarded as the ruling or guiding principle of these processes, He is Providence (pronoia) and Destiny (eimarmenê). For all things come forth from the primal fire according to law, and all the subsequent changes in the world, all the events of human history, take place according to the necessary sequence of cause and effect. When we think of the order and intelligent arrangement of the divine government, we name the Divine Ruler Providence; when we think of the necessary dependence of effect on cause, we name Him Destiny or Fate.{16} According to the Stoic conception, Providence is directed immediately to the processes of the universe in general and only mediately to the individual and his actions.

In support of their doctrine of Providence, the Stoics appeal to the universal consent of mankind,{17} being, apparently, the first to use this argument.

The human soul is material. This not only follows from the general principles of Stoic philosophy but is also expressly taught by the Stoics and proved with the aid of many arguments.{18} The soul is conceived as fiery breath (pneuma) diffused throughout the body; in fact, the relation of the soul to the body is the same as that of the Deity to the world. It is, in a special sense, part of the Deity, partaking more and more of the nature of the Deity according as we allow greater play to the divine, or reasonable, in us.{19} Now, it is precisely on account of this special proximity of the soul to the divine that it cannot escape the necessity which divine law imposes on all things. The soul is in no sense free, unless it be said to be free because the necessity by which it is ruled comes from its own nature rather than from anything external to it. Merit and reward follow the action which, although it must be performed, is performed voluntarily, that is, with perfect acquiescence in the rule of divine destiny. "Volentem fata ducunt; nolentem trahunt."{20}

The Stoic idea of the soul is as incompatible with immortality as it is with the freedom of the will. The soul, being material, is destined to destruction. The time, however, at which the soul is to be dissolved into the primal fire is not the moment of death, but the end of the cosmic period, when all matter is to be destroyed by conflagration. The Stoics were divided as to whether the souls of all men, or only those of the wise, will last until that time.{21} Seneca's reference{22} to death as the birth of a future life, and his description of the peace that awaits the soul beyond the grave, suggestive as they are of Platonic and, possibly, Christian influences, contain nothing that is at variance with what the Stoics taught about the destiny of the human soul.

Stoic Ethics. The Stoics regarded ethics as the "divine part" of philosophy, from which, as from a center, all their logical and physical inquiries radiate. Questions of logic and physics were of interest merely in so far as their solution threw light on the paramount problem of philosophy, the problem of human destiny and human happiness. Thus, at the very outset of the ethical inquiry concerning happiness, the Stoics applied the most characteristic of their physical doctrines, -- that everything in the world of reality obeys and must obey inevitable law. Man, it is true, is endowed with reason, and is thereby enabled to know the law which he obeys; he is none the less obliged to obey it. Nay, more, since he is in a special sense divine, he is under greater necessity to obey than other manifestations of the Divine. The supreme canon of conduct is, therefore, to live conformably to nature (homologoumenôs tê phusei zên), or, as Zeno is said to have formulated the maxim, to live a consistent life, homologoumenos zên. This is man's happiness (eudaimonia), his chief good (agathon), the end of his existence (telos).{23}

The highest purpose of human life is not, therefore, contemplation, but action in accordance with the laws of universal nature, with the will of the Deity. A hint of this purpose is contained in the instinct of self-preservation which is the primary impulse in every being.

Action in accordance with nature's laws is virtue, which Cicero translates recta ratio. Virtue is not merely a good; it is the only good. Consequently, riches and pleasure and health and honors are not goods in any true sense of the word; and the Stoics persistently combated the teaching of Plato and Aristotle, who considered that the external goods of life are worthy of being desired, although they are subservient to the chief good, which is virtue. Stoicism was still more decided in its opposition to the Hedonist doctrine which made virtue itself to be a good subordinate to pleasure.{24}

Tf, then, virtue is the only good, it must be sought for its own sake; it contains all the conditions of happiness; virtue is virtue's own reward.{25} Everything else is indifferent (adiaphoron).

The Stoics adhered to the Socratic doctrine that virtue is one, and yet, since virtue, while one, may have a plurality of objects, they considered that there are different manifestations of virtue, such as prudence, courage, temperance, and justice (which Plato regarded as four kinds of virtue), and patience, magnanimity, etc., which may be regarded as derivations from one or other of the cardinal virtues.{26} Accordingly, a man who is prudent must of necessity be courageous; for he who possesses one virtue must possess all.{27} Now, he who has a right appreciation of good and evil, and who consequently intends to do good, is virtuous. From which it follows that no act is in itself praiseworthy or reprehensible; the morality of the act is determined by the disposition: "Non quid fiat, aut quid detur refert, sed qua mente."{28}

Vice, the opposite of virtue, consists in living out of harmony with the laws of nature. Like virtue, it is essentially one. He who is guilty of one vice is guilty of all; there is no distinction of degree in vice. ("Omnia peccata paria.")

The Stoics, however, although they seemed to identify moral excellence with intellectual or rational insight, and spoke of the virtuous man as the wise man, recognized that man is not wholly rational. From his irrational nature spring the emotions (pathê). The emotions -- perturbationes, as Cicero calls them -- are movements of the mind contrary to reason.{29} Now, there is a desire (hormê) which is according to law and reason, and this is the natural impulse towards what is good. The desire, on the contrary, which is according to emotion is intrinsically unreasonable and therefore bad; for all emotions are contrary to reason. It follows that the wise man should aim at eradicating all his emotions; he should strive to become absolutely emotionless.{30} This doctrine of apathy is one of the most characteristic of the doctrines of the Stoa.{31}

In their application of these ethical principles the Stoics developed a vast number of paradoxes referring to the wise man, that is, to the ideal Stoic philosopher. He alone is free, beautiful, rich, and happy. He alone knows how to govern as well as to obey. He is the orator, the poet, the prophet. The rest of the world is mad; the majority of men pass their lives in wickedness, slaves to custom, to pleasure, and to a multitude of desires. The wise man alone is indifferent to pain; for him death has no terrors, and when he is called upon to decide between death and dishonor he is true to his Stoic teaching if he prefers the former. Suicide, therefore, is sometimes a duty; it is always justified if impending misfortune is such as seriously to threaten peace of mind and tranquillity of soul. The wise man is independent of all ties of blood and kinship. He is at home everywhere. He is a citizen of the world, or, as Epictetus says,{32} he is a child of God and all men are his brethren.

Historical Position. Stoic philosophy, by reason of its systematic development, approaches more closely to the comprehensiveness of the Platonic and Aristotelian systems than does any other philosophy of this third period. Taking up the best principles of the Cynic morality, it advanced far beyond the Cynic philosophy, owing to the larger part which it assigned to mental culture in its scheme of life, and also to the broader and more systematic basis of logic and physics on which it built its ethical teaching. Nevertheless, Stoicism is not free from the dominant vice of the age to which it belonged. It is a one-sided development of philosophy. It subordinates the theoretical to the practical. In its theory of knowledge it is sensistic; in its physics it is materialistic and pantheistic; in the development of its moral principles it subordinates the individual to universal law, stamping out individual desire, and advocating the merging of domestic and political instincts in a far-off dream of the fellowship of cosmopolitan philosophers. It lacks that comprehensive sweep of contemplation which, in the golden age of Greek philosophy, set the theoretical by the side of the practical, placed the study of nature on a footing which gave it a value of its own, distinguished, without separating, matter and mind, and in ethics gave due importance to the individual emotions and to the social instincts as well as to the immutable moral law. This disintegration of the universal philosophical view, and the consequent isolation of separate aspects of speculative and practical problems, which is first seen in Stoicism, goes on increasing in the systems which come after the philosophy of the Stoa.

Of all the defects of Stoicism, that which contributed most to the downfall and dissolution of the school was the doctrine that the wise man is emancipated from all moral law. This doctrine is not the only tenet of the Stoics which recalls the philosophy of the Orient rather than that of Greece. The identity of God and the world, the emanation of the soul, the final reabsorption of all things in God, -- these and similar doctrines are peculiar to the Oriental form of speculation. We must remember that Zeno of Cyprus was not more than half Greek, and although his mental training and the logical derivation of his philosophy were entirely Greek, there was in him enough of the Oriental temperament to infuse into his philosophy a spirit more in accordance with the quietism of the East than with the Grecian sense of artistic completeness. This quietism, together with the exorbitant claims set up on behalf of the wise man, finally brought Stoicism down to so low a level of moral aims that it was scarcely to be distinguished from Epicureanism.

{1} This opinion of Zeller and others is controverted by Benn, The Greek Philosophers, Vol. 1, p. xi.

{2} Cf. Zeller's Stoics, etc., p. 41, n.; Ritter and Preller, op. cit., p. 394, note e.

{3} Placita, IV, 12; Diels, op. cit., p. 401.

{4} Sext., Mathem., VII, 228.

{5} Sext., Mathem., VII, 244.

{6} Acad., II, 47.

{7} Cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 399 ff.

{8} Placita, IV, xi ; Diels, op. cit., p.400.

{9} For authorities, cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., p. 407.

{10} Cf. Seneca, Ep. 58.

{11} For references, cf. Zeller, Stoics, etc., p. 127, n.; cf. als o Ritter and Preller, op. cit., p. 408, note e.

{12} Cf. Ritter, History of Ancient Philosophy, trans. by Morrison (Oxford, 1838), Vol III, p. 513; also Benn, The Greek Philosophers , Vol. II, p. 13. The latter says:" Virtues and vices were, according to the Stoics, so many gaseous currents by which the soul is penetrated and shaped -- a materialistic rendering of Plato's theory that qualities are distinct and independent substances."

{13} Cf. Cicero, De Nat. Deorum, II, 7 ff.; ibid., I, 14.

{14} Cicero, De Nat. Deodrum, III, 24ff.

{15} Stob., Ed., I, 444; Diels, op. cit., p. 465.

{16} Diog. Laer., VII, 149.

{17} Stob., Ecl., I, 100.

{18} Diog. Laer., VII, 157.

{19} Seneca, Ep. 31.

{20} Cf. Cicero, De Fato, XVIII.

{21} Diog. Laer., VII, 256.

{22} Ep. 102.

{23} Cf. Cicero, De Finibus, III, 5; Diog. Laer., VII, 88.

{24} Diog. Laer., VII, 30; Marcus Aurelius, IX, 16.

{25} Diog. Laer., VII, 102; Seneca, Ep. 85.

{26} Stob., Ed., II, 204.

{27} Cicero, Paradoxa, 3, 1.

{28} Seneca, De Beneficiis, VI, 6.

{29} Diog. Laer., VII, 120,

{30} Diog. Laer., VII, 117.

{31} For comparison of the Christian and the Stoic systems of morality, cf. Talamo, Le origini del Cristianesimo e il pensiero stoico (terza ed., Roma, 1902).

{32} Dissertations, I, 23, 3.

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