Classical Stoicism in a Nutshell

by Dr. Jan Garrett


I was trying to write up my arguments skeptical of the claim that classical Stoicism is the source of our modern notion of human rights, and I realized that the paper needed an introduction sketching what I take to be essential to classical Stoicism. The result is the following essay. I hope you find it informative. Feedback is welcome, although I am not trying to be especially controversial or innovative here. I am, however, being selective, given my interest in the remainder of the article (not included here).

The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. in Athens, drawing on insights from several prior philosophical schools. Over the next 480 years its influence expanded to the point where it was the pre-eminent philosophical influence among the Roman leadership, which is not to suggest that Roman leaders were always or even usually guided by philosophy. In spite of considerable varieties of emphasis and even some substantial philosophical differences among Stoics, the Stoic school retained a remarkable coherence and a high degree of agreement on key doctrines. For my present purposes, the following features of Stoicism are essential:

1. Like other philosophical positions during the Hellenistic period, classical Stoicism was a philosophy for life. Essential to it was an account of eudaimonia, the good or flourishing life, and a strategy for promoting it on the individual level. The Stoics identified eudaimonia with virtue, or, more accurately, with the virtuous life, for which moral and intellectual virtue was necessary and of which the “good feelings” (eupatheiai) were necessary consequences.

2. For this reason, classical Stoicism is perfectionist. “Perfectionism,” as I am using the term, is the view that the point of the moral life is to perfect one’s soul, in knowledge, the will, or both. I am borrowing the term from J. B. Schneewind, who used it in his study of early modern moral philosophy (The Invention of Autonomy). One of the primary expressions of this perfectionism is the ubiquitous contrast (Sharp Distinction #1), found in Stoic writings, between philosophical sages, who alone are good, wise, and happy, and everybody else, who are morally base, ignorant, and unhappy.

3. Stoic perfectionism cannot be properly understood without a few words on their theory of the passions: All passions are, physically described, violent movements of the soul, but, cognitively described, they are false judgments. The error involved in passions is thinking of “advantageous” things like health, wealth, and political power as true goods (essential to happiness) and their opposites as evils (destructive of happiness). But advantageous and disantageous things are neither good nor evil. (Sharp Distinction #2)

4. Equally important with perfectionism and the equation of the good life with the perfectly virtuous life is the Stoics’ peculiar theology of divine immanence. The supreme divinity, called by many names (e.g., Zeus) and uniquely applicable descriptions (e.g., Nature, Providence, Reason) pervades nature, understood as the system of all bodies, organizing and controlling its changes from within, and is especially present within human beings themselves, as in the universe as a whole, as reason. Reason in humans is an offshoot of Reason in the universe at large. This grounds a third contrast (Sharp Distinction #3) between humans, who share reason (generically) with the gods, and nonhuman life forms, who do not (although nonhuman life forms are surely subject to the plan of divine reason).

5. Closely linked with these points is the teleological framework of Stoicism. Unlike their rivals the Epicureans but like Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics were teleological thinkers. They view instances of natural kinds, such as human beings or oak trees, as having natures that correspond not so much to their factual state, which may be immature or defective, as to their perfected state, what they would be if fully realized. (Many perfectionist thinkers subscribe to teleology, but there are exceptions, e.g., Spinoza.)

6. The Stoics were natural law theorists, in the sense that they held that there was, in nature, a divinely based “law,” and that proper moral conduct required obedience to this law. Unlike Thomas Aquinas later, they directly equated this “law of nature” with the (right) reason of the supreme being. Although our texts are not always clear on this, the Stoics seem to have understood obedience to the natural law as equivalent leading the virtuous life of a sage. While not abandoning the emphasis on virtue and self-perfection found in Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics made obedience to law (at least to the law of nature) part of the vocabulary of moral philosophy.

7. A central part of Stoic thought had to do with moral development. They quickly added to the sharp distinction between sages and fools a new distinction, within the category of fools, between persons making progress and persons who were not. They wanted to explain how progress between the “unqualified” fool and the sage was possible. Here four ideas are important:

a. Natural values. This category has been introduced above under the label “advantageous” things. The corresponding Greek term is variously translated “preferred” or “promoted” things and often equated with “primary things in accord with nature.” It is normally appropriate to “select” such things (although they are not true goods).b. Oikeiosis, a hard to translate term sometimes rendered “appropriation.” Oikeiosis is something like an act (sometimes preconscious) by which a being identifies itself with an object, either its own body or beings beyond its own body. The first form of oikeiosis is the animal’s orientation to its own self-preservation. (Stoics did recognize oikeiosis at this level as common to humans and nonhuman animals.) But for humans oikeiosis can extend outward to other humans, even to concern for the whole human species.

c. Rudimentary insights into natural value. The classical Stoics seem to have been empiricists, holding that concepts are formed in the mind only as the result of experience. But early in life, they thought, we acquire (presumably through experience) elementary notions relating to the good. By Cicero’s time, these elementary notions are described as sparks (ignicula), which suggests the presence of seeds of divine reason (also identified with fire), which some writers (e.g., Cicero himself) began to regard as innate ideas (contrary to Stoic empiricism, which rules out the possibility of innate ideas).

d. Appropriate actions (kathekonta). Whatever the Stoic sage would do is what a human being should do, a right action (katorthoma), which is obedient to the law of nature. Right actions are appropriate actions, but non-sages may also perform externally similar appropriate actions. If one performs them consistently enough and with sufficient philosophical insight into what one is doing, one may make progress and even become a sage. Cicero’s De Officiis is modeled on, and probably borrows largely from, the otherwise lost work On Appropriate Actions by the Stoic Panaetius. (Many earlier Stoic writers had written similarly titled works, although most of these are lost.) Roughly, appropriate actions are defined as actions for which good reasons can be given. Essentially they have to do with selecting advantageous things for ourselves and others, according to patterns largely determined by social custom as associated with particular roles (citizen, parent, brother, business partner, etc.) But general precepts related to justice, generosity, and gratitude also figure in determining which actions are appropriate and often override self-interest considered narrowly. Such precepts seem to be logically supported by the Stoic view that sociability is essential to the fulfillment of human (rational) nature.


This essay originally featured in Dr. Garrett’s website, The Stoic Place.