A Brief History of Stoicism

by Massimo Pigliucci
See his original piece here

Stoicism is no ordinary philosophy, not as taught in stuffy college classrooms (even philosophy majors will go without learning about it) - nor is it a set of religious beliefs or stone-set dogma. It is a philosophy that became prominent way of thought at the height of the Imperial Roman empire, utilized by the poor, the wealthy, and even great leaders such as the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome.

Almost entirely since forgotten, and nearly all of its works lost and destroyed after the rise of Christianity, the philosophy set the way for a revolutionary way of life, utilized and appreciated by people such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Stockdale, who credits it with his enduring 5 years of torture by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, and in recent years by such popular figures as Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss (who refers to it as his OS - operating system).

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Cilium (modern Cyprus) around 301 BCE, and it takes its name from the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), a public market in Athens when the Stoics met and engaged in philosophical discussions with anyone who was interested. A second major figure of the so-called “early Stoa” was Chrysippus, who is actually credited with elaborating most of the doctrines that are still associated with Stoicism. The early Stoics were of course influenced by previous philosophical schools and thinkers, in particular by Socrates and the Cynics, but also the Academics (followers of Plato) and the Skeptics.

The second period of Stoic history, referred to as the “middle Stoa,” saw the philosophy introduced to Rome. Cicero (not himself a Stoic, but sympathetic to the idea) is one of our major sources for both the early and the middle Stoa, since otherwise we have only fragments of the writings of the Stoics up to that point. The third and last period is referred to as the “late Stoa,” and it took place during Imperial Rome; it included the famous Stoics whose writings have been preserved in sizable parts: Gaius Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Once Christianity became the official Roman religion Stoicism declined, together with a number of other schools of thought (e.g., Epicureanism). The idea, however, survived in a number of historical figures who were influenced by it (even though they were sometimes critical of it), including some of the early Church Fathers, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, Erasmus, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Montesquieu, and Spinoza. Modern Existentialism and neo-orthodox Protestant theology have also been influenced by Stoicism. The philosophy is currently seeing a rebirth, and has deeply influenced modern practices such as logo-therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. It also has a number of similarities and overlaps with modern philosophical approaches such as Buddhism and secular humanism.