Stoicism was founded by Zeno in the 3rd century BC, but would have a longer existence than contemporary Hellenistic doctrines. Its most famous following was the Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius who lived in the 2nd century AD. The Stoics believed in determinism, which says that the course of events is already determined by natural laws which are created by God. They believed that God created the world such that everything has a purpose that is connected to mankind (to give Russell’s example, even bed bugs are useful to us as they prevent us staying in bed too long). God is the soul of the world and is contained in everything, including people. The cosmos is naturally created and destroyed in never-ending cycles, such that everything that happens has already occurred many times.

Virtue & Happiness

The only important thing in life is to be ‘virtuous’, which means to live in harmony with nature. Determinism says that nature has already decided what will happen to us, but the virtuous person’s desires are consistent with nature and so will always be satisfied. The wicked will fight a constant losing battle with nature and be always unhappy. The Stoic Epictetus said that we are actors in a play in which God has assigned the parts. It is our duty to perform those parts, and if we are virtuous we will find happiness in that. Beyond acting virtuously nothing else is important, including possessions, health and freedom. As long as we eliminate our desires for such things we can always be happy, because we can always live virtuously. It is within our own control regardless of our circumstances and relies on no external factors. Indeed, suffering cruelty and injustice give good opportunities to exercise virtue. Socrates is the saint of the Stoic doctrine, having been indifferent to all bodily comforts and extremes of hot and cold, and in the way that he faced death calmly, safe in the knowledge that he would die virtuously.

The Problems with Stoicism

However, this ethical doctrine does present problems for the modern mind. If the world is completely deterministic, does that mean that some people are compelled to be wicked and unable to be virtuous? If virtue and sin alike are the inevitable result of previous causes then what is the point in trying to act morally? Further, if we can feel virtuous (and therefore content) when subjected to cruelty, is cruel behaviour to be accepted or even encouraged? What is the point in being virtuous other than a sense of serenity? Combined with determinism and the inevitable destruction of the world at the end of the current cycle, it is easy to feel a strong sense of futility in Stoicism. There is also a certain coldness to the doctrine. Passions good and bad are to be avoided, because they don’t contribute to virtue. Why should I feel sad if a friend or even family member dies, given that it is no obstacle to me living virtuously?

Russell highlights two contradictions within Stoicism. The first is that Stoics at various times believe in both free will and determinism. A Stoic might refute this apparent contradiction by saying that God is free and freely chose to create the laws of nature which determine all subsequent events. God exists in everything including us, and so the divine part of each of us would choose to act in line with Gods laws of nature if we were free, so effectively we are free when we act virtuously. This theory seems unsatisfactory when tested against specific cases, such as when one’s resilience is tested by tyranny and torture, or when we choose to intoxicate ourselves with drugs. The other contradiction is that the Stoics preached the importance of benevolence whilst also believing that there are no good or bad actions, because everything that happens is pre-determined by the will of God. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent his time administering the empire to promote the happiness of his subjects when according to Stoic philosophy he should have left them to it. It appears that Stoic philosophers had one standard for themselves, but did not expect others to be able to meet those standards. A Stoic might say that the result of acting virtuously is that others benefit in some way (e.g. in happiness, wealth or well-being), but this is a side effect which is ultimately worthless. However this is impossible for most people to accept.

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