Reflections on the Christ Myth, part 7: Stoicism
by Revilo P. Oliver
THE MOST IMPORTANT fact about Stoicism is that it was not a product of the Greek mind and was therefore an alien doctrine foisted onto the Aryan peoples of Antiquity. (A1)
Stoicism was founded in the last years of the fourth century B.C. by Zeno, a Semite (‘Phoenician’), who was a native of Citium on the eastern shore of the island of Cyprus. He had a very swarthy complexion and an ungainly body, squat, disproportionately obese in places, and flabby. Since Jews often took cover as ‘Phoenicians’ or ‘Syrians,’ it is not impossible that he was a Jew. (A2)
He was a merchant engaged in the export trade, and when he was more than thirty years of age, he brought a cargo of dye-stuffs to Greece, but was ruined when his ship was wrecked in or near the Piraeus, the harbor of Athens. He walked to the city, where he listened to the lectures of philosophers, doubtless trying to become fluent in Greek, a language which he seems to have spoken with a heavy accent and of which he evidently knew only enough for bargaining in commercial transactions.
Zeno soon decided to become a philosopher himself and impudently suggested that he was the new Plato by giving to his book (probably written with the help of someone at home in Greek) the title of Plato’s most famous work, Politea (Latin, De republica, whence English ‘The Republic,’ meaning ‘Concerning the constitution of an independent state,’ without implying any particular form of government). The later Stoics tried very hard to sweep this book under the rug and then nail the rug down, but a description of its contents has come down to us.
Zeno’s book was pure Communism — not the practical Communism of Lenin and Stalin, but the Utopian communism that was so successfully used as sucker-bait in the later Nineteenth Century and was scarcely distinguished from anarchism before Marx’s quarrel with Bakunin, which promised that after the Revolution the state would “wither away” and mankind would become one glorious mass of raceless proletarians. We do not know whether Zeno candidly faced the problem of how a nationless and raceless world was to be created and admitted that it would be necessary to slaughter the better part of every civilized society, but he taught that men would somehow become so reasonable that states, governments, courts, police, religion, money, private property, and marriage would be abolished, and the world would be filled with a mass of raceless proletarians, all cuddling one another, freely exchanging the products of their labor, and having all women in common. (A3)
This absurd farrago apparently found some response in the demoralized society of Athens, racked by economic and political crises, familiar with all the vices of democracy, and accustomed to romantically unrealistic social theories. (A4) But after Stoicism became respectable and accepted by the upper classes, it was a perennial embarrassment to Stoics, who did not want to be reminded of their Semitic founder’s folly.
The next Stoic of any importance was also a man of little culture. Cleanthes was a native of Assos, a town in the Troad, opposite the isle of Lesbos, now the Turkish town of Behra. The town was a Greek foundation, and it is likely that Cleanthes was at least partly a Greek, but his father must have been poor, for he became a professional boxer, until, evidently down on his luck, he came to Athens with the equivalent of four present-day dollars in his pocket. He attached himself to Zeno, and supported himself by serving as a porter during the day and watering the plants in gardens at night. He is remembered for his famous Hymn to Zeus, one of the noblest prayers ever addressed to a deity. Zeus is the Universal Mind, but yet a personal god, whom Cleanthes exhorts “Lead me on,” promising to follow willingly whithersoever the god leads, but adding that if he were unwilling, it would make no difference, for he would be compelled to follow. Zeus thus becomes destiny, and the idea is restated in Seneca’s oft-quoted line, Ducunt fata volentem, nolentem trahunt, with which, by the way, Spengler appropriately concluded his Untergang des Abendlandes.
Chrysippus was a native of Soli in Cilicia, a city of which the ruins were plundered to build the modern Turkish town of Mersin. Soli was a Greek foundation, but its inhabitants so deteriorated that their many errors in Greek gave us the word ‘solecism.’ He is said to have become a long-distance runner, evidently as a professional, which suggests that he, like Cleanthes, came from a low-class and impoverished family. Coming to Athens after some reverse of fortune, he took over the leadership of Stoicism, which had become a recognized philosophy, but he drastically revised it, discarding most of the teachings of Zeno and Cleanthes and elaborating in their stead an elaborate system of dialectics, which he expounded in a series of seventy-five books, all now lost. He was the real creator of subsequent Stoicism. He evidently prospered from the philosophy, for it is recorded as remarkable that he was content with one slave girl as a concubine.
I have thought it worthwhile to insist, as most writers on Stoicism do not, on the plebeian, lower-class, and mostly alien origins of the philosophy. As it attained some popularity, there were many Stoics, but almost all of them probably had little or no Greek blood, some coming from such remote places as Seleucia and Babylon. The philosophy was a product of Hellenistic Asia, and of the scores who attained some distinction as Stoic philosophers, we cannot find one whom we can recognize as probably of respectable Greek ancestry until we come to Panaetius of Rhodes. Unlike Epicureanism and the New Academy, which were philosophic products of the Greek mind and expounded by Greeks, Stoicism was an imported and essentially Asiatic doctrine, and, before Panaetius, appealed chiefly to non-Aryan aliens and hybrids.
Panaetius (c. 185-109 B.C.) made Stoicism respectable and partly naturalized it. The scion of a Greek family at Rhodes, at Athens he studied under the head of the Stoic school, a Semite (Jew?) known as Diogenes of Babylon, but he was strongly influenced by the more reasonable works of Aristotle. Going to Rome, he joined the circle of cultivated and young Romans around “the younger Scipio” (P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, Africanus, Numantinus), whose intimate friend and guest he became, accompanying him on his travels. Panaetius had the good sense to neglect the formidable dialectics of the Stoic school, a chain of rigidly logical deductions from false premises, and to adapt Stoic ethics to the creed of the Roman aristocracy, with its insistence on duty and patriotism. He could thus show that the heroes of the early Roman republic, celebrated for their stoicism (in the modern sense of that word) had really been Stoics without knowing it. After Scipio was murdered in 129, Panaetius went to Athens and became head of the Stoic school. His treatise on duty is paraphrased in the first two books of Cicero’s De officiis, but his other works are lost, except for a few fragments. His revision of Stoicism was continued by his distinguished pupil, Posidonius. (A5)
It is easy to see why Stoicism, which Panaetius had endowed with the great prestige of the Roman aristocracy, became established as a major philosophy. And it is easy to see what commended it to Romans and statesmen everywhere. I have often commented on the last paragraph of Cicero’s De natura deorum, in which Cicero, the statesman, overrules Cicero, the philosopher, with a raison d’état. Of the three major philosophic systems, Stoicism was the only one that enjoined patriotism and political action on men who had responsible positions in society. The Epicureans were interested only in the contentment and happiness of individuals, and they specifically counseled abstention from politics: Their most famous maxim was ‘live obscurely,’ variously translated as ‘avoid attracting public attention,’ or ‘stay out of the limelight.’ (A6)
The New Academy, founded by Carneades (214-128), who revised the radical scepticism of Arcesilaus, was philosophically the finest product of the Greek mind (A7), and was concerned with elaborating what is now known as the scientific method and establishing a valid epistemology. Its cold rationality and keen criticism thoroughly demolished the whole system of Stoicism, reducing it to the status of a religion. Like all true scholars and scientists, the members of the New Academy regarded politics, even political philosophy, as rather vulgar and tedious, an interest in merely contemporary and ephemeral matters that are trivial in comparison with the eternal truths of nature and human history.
The elements of Stoic doctrine which I think you should particularly notice are:
(1) The Stoics claimed to consider only the observed realities of the physical world and to reject all superstitions about the supernatural, but they began by assuming that the Universe (which, remember, was for them the Earth with its appurtenances, the Sun, Moon, and stars that circled about it), was single living organism of which the animus mundi was the brain. It followed, therefore, that we are all parts of that organism and so members of the same family and essentially equal, with an obligation to help one another, especially the unfortunate. (A8) But the Stoics were saved from sentimental slobber about “the brotherhood of man” by the next proposition.
(2) Since all things happen “according to Nature” (which is controlled by the Universal Mind), there can be no evil or injustice in the world. Whatever seems unjust or wrong to us is only part of a whole which we do not see and conforms to a purpose we cannot comprehend. The lungs or liver, considered by themselves, are ugly, but they may form necessary parts of a beautiful woman or wise man.
(3) Good and evil, pain and pleasure, are therefore only in the mind, and what makes the difference is your attitude toward events: It would be wrong as well as futile to resist the Divine Plan, no matter what it ordains for you. The only important thing is to maintain your moral integrity, and so long as you do that, events have no power over you. Thus a wise man, conscious of his moral integrity, would be perfectly happy, even if he were being boiled in oil. (I am sure that many intelligent men must have thought of popping a declaiming Stoic into a pot to ascertain whether the boiling oil would alter his opinion, but the experiment seems never to have been performed.)
There is much truth in the observation made by Professor Gilbert Murray in his well-known Five Stages of Greek Religion (3d ed., Boston, Beacon Press, 1951; reprinted, New York, Doubleday, 1955). Reporting the anecdote that an impressionable Greek, who had attended lectures by the Aristotelians and then heard the Stoics, said that his experience was like turning from men to gods, Murray remarks: “It was really turning from Greeks to Semites, from philosophy to religion.”
That criticism may make you uneasy. I understand. We all respect Stoicism because it was endowed with a glamorous prestige by the great men whose creed it was. We are Aryans, and by a racial imperative inherent in our blood, far stronger than ratiocination, we admire heroism and fortitude. Stoicism was in practice the creed of Cato of Utica and many another Roman aristocrat who lived bravely and died proudly, meeting his fate with unflinching resolution. We instinctively pay homage to such men, and we venerate even more women of exemplary courage, like Arria, the devoted wife of A. Caecina Paetus (“Paete, non dolet.”). Panaetius did make of an originally Semitic doctrine a creed that includes much that was consonant with the spirit and mentality of our race.
But much as we admire great Romans, we must remember that, as Gilbert Murray remarked, Stoicism retained from its origins a latent fanaticism and religiosity, professing to offer a kind of salvation to unhappy mankind. Despite its ostentatious appeal to reason, it was a kind of evangelism “whose professions dazzled the reason.” And it was fundamentally irrational when, for example, it claimed to deduce from Nature an asceticism that was inhuman, limiting sexual intercourse to the begetting of offspring. And it could too readily be turned into poisonous slop about “One World” and “brotherhood.” Although it was the creed of heroes, we cannot but feel that there was in it something sickly and deformed. It was, for our race, an intellectual disaster.
A1. You will find a fairly complete account of the evolution of Stoic doctrine in any history of ancient philosophy, and it has been the subject of innumerable books. The fullest account that I have read is by Max Pohlenz, Die Stoa (2 volumes, Göttingen, 1948). The modest little book by Professor Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics (London, 1913), may always be read with pleasure as well as profit. The works of most of the early Stoics are lost; the extant scraps of their many writings were collected and edited by J. von Arnim, Stoicorm veterum fragments (Leipzig, 1903-1905). Biographical information about them depends almost entirely on the seventh book of Diogenes Laërtius, who cites his now lost authorities; where there are variant accounts, I choose what seems most reasonable. I here undertake the hazardous task of trying to summarize what seem to me to be the minimum essentials for an understanding of a philosophy that would have been a religion, had it built churches and staffed them with swarms of holy men.A2. Cf. Note 3 below.
A3. It would be possible to argue persuasively that Zeno merely extended to the whole world the social organization that prevailed within the small, tightly organized, and exclusive groups of Essenes, with only a few needed modifications, e.g., he permitted sexual intercourse with females, as was obviously necessary if the planet was not to become uninhabited. The later Stoics claimed that Zeno’s book was written before he had worked out his philosophy.
A4. On communism and revolutionary socialism in the ancient world, see Robert von Pöhlmann, Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt (3d ed., 2 vols., Munich, Beck, 1925). This is a revised and greatly expanded edition of his Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus (1901), and is the only thorough treatment of the subject known to me. I have not heard of an English translation.
A5. Posidonius (c. 135-50) was born in Syria, at Apamea, which had been founded as a Greek city by Seleucus Nicator and named in honor of his wife. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Posidonius was of pure Greek ancestry; he seems to have come from a prosperous family, but how much Greek blood he had is anyone’s guess. He studied under Panaetius and at Rome became the teacher and friend of Cicero. He continued Panaetius’s Aristotelean interests and conducted research into such varied problems as the diameter of the earth, the distance and size of the Sun, the effect of the Moon on the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, ethnic and racial differences, and the cause of racial decline. He elaborated a theory that the Universal Mind had brought forth the Roman Empire, which was civilization. (This may have suggested to Christian propagandists the silly notion that Yahweh fostered the Roman Empire so that the Jesus-cult could become epidemic.) He wrote a long history (52 books) to continue the work of Polybius to his own time, the loss of which we must bitterly deplore.
A6. Of course, not all Epicureans were wise enough to heed their founder’s warning. C. Cassius Longinus, the famous tyrannicide, professed Epicurean principles, but was a brilliant military commander and tried to save the Roman Republic. He was also more perspicacious than Brutus, who was a Stoic, and whose scruples contributed to, and may have caused, the eventual defeat of the faction that tried to preserve the Republic.
A8. This was neatly stated by Seneca in his Epistulae morales, 95 (=XV,3), 52: ‘Omne hoc quod vides, quo divina atque humana conclusa sunt, unum est: membra sumus corporis magni; natum nos cognatos edidit. …Haec nobis amorem indidit mutuum et sociabiles fecit.” “Liberal intellectuals” are wont to sneer at Seneca, because he spoke of human equality while he was one of the wealthiest men in Rome and owned many slaves. One expects such “intellectuals” to be ignorant, but note that their cavillation is canceled by the proposition I list as (2).
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