The Forgotten Virtue of the Stoics

“Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.”—Epictetus, Discourses (I.18)

Who still reads the Stoics? Apparently Stoicism went out of fashion sometime in the 18th century due, I imagine, to the new romanticist mood which rejected any sort of reasoned self-control in favor of sentiment and spontaneity. Prior to that, Stoicism enjoyed great favor, particularly in the Renaissance. But it would be wrong to think that Christendom had ever really neglected this school, particularly as reflected in the works of Seneca (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) and Epictetus (c.55–c.135). Early Christians like Jerome and Lactantius, for example, quote Seneca freely, and Augustine discusses the merits of Stoicism at length in the City of God. The great Medieval political philosopher, John of Salisbury, believed that of all the pre-Christian thinkers Seneca was one of the few whose “words and ideas can be readily applied” to human conduct.

St. George Stock’s admirable monograph, A Little Book of Stoicism, sums up the basis of Stoic ethics in this way:

Nature was at once the law of God and the law for man. For by the nature of anything was meant, not that which we actually find it to be, but that which in the eternal fitness of things it was obviously intended to become. To be happy then was to be virtuous, to be virtuous was to be rational, to be rational was to follow Nature, and to follow Nature was to obey God.

The Stoics were reacting to the perceived excesses of speculative philosophy in which common sense and right conduct were often abandoned in favor of intellectual smugness. They stressed the importance of the individual (as against the collective polis), the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God, the role of providence (rather than blind fate) and the development of natural law. The latter was a vast improvement on subjective views of rights and obligations that had dominated the Greco-Roman world hitherto.

Early Stoicism particularly stressed the idea of the sage whose development was so perfect as, frankly, to be impossible. Yet by Epictetus’ time this rigor had been partially relaxed: “Is it possible to be free from fault altogether? No, that cannot be achieved, but it is possible ever to be intent upon avoiding faults” (Discourses, IV.12). Meanwhile, Seneca urged continual self-betterment through a daily examination of conscience.

There is often a striking convergence with Christianity on basic assumptions, though in other areas Stoicism comes up woefully short. Still, as John of Salisbury says, the works of the Stoic writers can be a source of sympathetic and noble thought. An ideal starting place is Letters From a Stoic, a nice selection and translation of Seneca’s epistles by Robin Campbell.

Retire into yourself as much as you can. Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving (Seneca, Letter VII).

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