Were Stoics stoical?


“She endured cancer in ‘A Wedding invitation,’ as well as amnesia and a brain tumor in ‘The Stolen Years,’ with stoical ebullience.” So reported Variety in a recent film review, using a commonly used and well-understood word that the OED defines as ‘enduring pain and hardship without showing one’s feelings or complaining.” There’s little ambiguity in stoicism‘s sense of calm, grim endurance. But does this stiff-upper-lip adjective retain any of the meaning of its origins — in an Ancient Greek school of thought born in the shade of an Athens portico?

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. The Greek thinker taught that the “logos” (a universal reason) was the greatest good in life, and that to live in accordance with such reason was the purpose of human life itself. Back then the Greek word stoa referred to a colonnade — the sort that was built in or around temples, dwelling-houses, gymnasia, and market-places. Zeno began teaching in one such portico in Athens known as the Stoa Poikile (“the painted porch”), and that place where his body of thought first took flight was what gave the philosophical movement its name: Stoicism.

Fast forward several centuries to the world after Christ, and the word stoic — which once described only the followers of Zeno’s popular movement (with a proper capital S) — came to mean a “person who represses feelings or endures patiently,” as first recorded in the 1570s. (The adjective is recorded from just a couple of decades later in the “repressing feelings” sense.) Were Zeno’s Stoics — in their studied pursuit of a wise, just, and virtuous life governed by a universal sense of reason — really men of repressed feelings and uncomplaining endurance? Perhaps it was their prescribed qualities of restraint and moderation, as well as a capacity for wise acceptance of matters beyond their control, that were retained and transformed as the meaning of stoic evolved. However, the connection between one of Zeno’s men and a stoic of our modern understanding seems pretty tenuous.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does point out that “the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is not utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins. The Stoics did, in fact, hold that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage—a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection—would not undergo them. The later Stoics of Roman Imperial times, Seneca and Epictetus, emphasise the doctrines (already central to the early Stoics’ teachings) that the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness.”

But here’s my question: if a modern sage or stoic is immune to misfortune, then what hardships can or must she endure in order to live up to her own definition and reputation?

Zeno of Citium – Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli, Wikimedia Commons

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