Photo Courtesy: Elliana Esquivel
“Man is troubled not by events, but the meaning he gives them.” — Epictetus.
It is 304 B.C.
A 30-year-old, haggard, dark-skinned merchant is on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus when his ship is destroyed. Luckily, he survives the shipwreck and lands in Athens, Greece, which at the time was the epicenter of philosophical study.
A bookstore catches his attention as he enters the Polis. He walks in and happens to pick up Memorabilia by Xenophon, a student of Socrates. As he reads about the father of philosophy, a man whose intellect rose above his circumstances, he asks the bookseller excitedly, “Sir, where can I find men like Socrates in this town?”
Just then, Crates — a famous cynic living at the time in Greece — walks by the bookstore. The bookseller points to Crates, saying, “There’s your man! He’s the one. Go talk to him.”
Soon, he becomes a pupil of Crates, eager to absorb what his teacher has to say.
Cynicism was one of the schools of philosophy back then. The word cynic has nothing to do with the meaning we give it today. Cynicism is a way of living life in virtue and in agreement with nature. It’s about rejecting all conventional norms and desires for wealth, power, and fame. It’s about living a simple, ascetic life, sometimes in a derisive way in public.
To teach Cynicism, Crates gives the pupil a pot of lentil soup and says, “Here. Now, carry this around wherever you go. That’s your lesson number one.”
Overcome with bashfulness, the pupil tries to hide the soup under his cloak. But Crates, irked by his lack of respect, smashes the pot, leaving a trail of soup — dribbling like diarrhea — down his legs. “You must not feel ashamed of this. You must not care what anybody thinks.”
Eventually, though, the pupil leaves Crates to set up his own school of philosophy.
That is what we call today stoicism.
Who invented Stoicism?
The pupil from the story above is Zeno of Citium.
His dive into philosophy is supposed to have come from consulting the oracle, a name given to the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo. In his biography, Diogenes, another philosopher, writes that “Zeno’s interest in philosophy began when he consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god’s response was that he should take on the complexion of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors.” (Interestingly, Socrates’ quest for answers is also said to have come from consulting the oracle).
Zeno began learning the Cynic philosophy from Crates, but soon discovered that he was too conventional for it. Besides, he realized, there is a way to adopt the same Socratic value system — of placing knowledge above all desires — and still live a conventional life where you take part in the policies of your city and be a member of your society.
Zeno began teaching his new school of thought at the Stoa Poikile (meaning painted porch) in the Agora of Athens. At first, his disciples were called Zenonians, but soon, they came to be known as Stoics, a name previously given to poets who congregated at the Stoa Poikile.
Athens In 300 B.C.
The world looked very different when Zeno set up a school in 300 B.C. versus when Aristotle did, a hundred years ago. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the greek city-state polis went through many wars and was thoroughly destroyed by the Macedonian Empire. It was a time of utter chaos and confusion. People were feeling far more powerless than their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
So they turned to philosophy as a salve for their soul, slowly separating what they can’t control (everything on the outside) from what they can (everything on the inside). More specifically, Stoicism as a philosophy gave them solace in knowing that they were all part of something much greater, thus making the absorption of Polis into the Macedonian Empire more palatable.
Alongside Zeno, there were several other schools of philosophy that occupied Greece in 300 B.C.: including the schools set up by Aristotle, Diogenes, Plato, Epicurus. These schools were not diametrically opposite in what they taught. In fact, all of them promised to teach you how to lead a better life and become a better version of yourself.
As Jonathan Rée, philosopher and historian, says, “Choosing between these schools — which were all proximate to each other — was more like choosing between Cafe Narrow and Starbucks than choosing between rationalism and empiricism.”
The Three Pillars of Stoicism
The philosophy of stoicism really rests on three pillars (or three topois): Logic. Physics. Ethics.
As with the word cynic, the meaning of these three words was different back then from what they are perceived to be today.
Logic refers to the theory of knowledge, or epistemology, and is more expansive than the modern meaning it’s given today.
Physics refers to the structure of the physical world, a combination of what we today call metaphysics and natural sciences.
Ethics refers to the role we humans play in the physical world around us.
Said another way, ethics is the central pillar that guides you on how to live your life in virtue with nature. But to build strong ethics, you need a good understanding of the workings of the world (physics) and the capacity to reason correctly (logic).
I plan to continue appending my learnings here over the coming weeks and build a comprehensive guide on Stoicism, so if you’d like to join me on this intellectual journey, sign up for my weekly newsletter to get updated on future articles. 🙂