Stoicism was a belief system founded by Zeno of Citium at the end of the fourth century b.c.e., at a time when the system of Greek city-states was coming to an end and apparent chaos was about to descend. Stoicism reflected this situation until the end of its period of influence, about the beginning of the fourth century c.e.

Important additions to the philosophy were made by Chrysippus and subsequently by the Romans Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The term stoicism was developed from the stoa, or column, alongside which Zeno customarily taught.

The early period of Stoicism is closely associated with Athens, where successive generations of philosophers had flourished and helped associate the city with the tradition of thought. However, influential early Stoics arrived in Athens from various parts of the eastern Mediterranean, showing how Greek culture had spread, most particularly as a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Zeno was born on Cyprus and traveled to Athens at the age of 22, where his early career was associated with the Cynics, and there is an undercurrent of cynicism in Stoic thought.

The Cynics believed that happiness, a suitable goal for humanity, can only be achieved by focusing the mind on what can be achieved and what is under the power of the individual. Since physical phenomena such as personal health and wealth are beyond the control of individuals, they should not be regarded as appropriate goals.

The only things that can be controlled are personal virtue and mental fortitude. To this, Stoics added the concept of logos, which is divine reason and the inspiration of the universe. The presence of logos divides matter into the passive and the active, all of which combines to make an integrated whole.

Logos, cognate with the fire aspect of the four elements, makes up the human soul and the reason of the soul, which is at one with the nature of the material of the universe, and can be fully expressed only when it fully comprehends its place in the universe.

As a result of the nature of the material that makes up the universe, it follows that people are formed with various desires and attributes that are entirely natural. In common with most forms of Greek philosophy, Stoicism aimed to find the ideal relationship between the individual and nature. Aiming to achieve the desires with which people are naturally endowed, for example, for security, comfort, wealth, was a perfectly acceptable form of behavior.

However, it was possible for the individual to approach these goals in the wrong way, owing to imperfections in personal perception, which is the method of seeking to understand the universe.

The true Stoic, therefore, should have a rigorous grasp of true perception and an understanding of the reality of the universe, and this tends to lead to a certain acerbity of character. Moral duty and personal virtue are inescapable characteristics of a properly Stoic individual.

The second period of Stoic thought occupied the first and second centuries b.c.e. and was dominated by the philosophers Panaetius and Posidonus. These men made some alterations to the nature of Stoic thought but did not signifi cantly change the basis of the philosophy.

They were more interested in restoring Stoicism to its Platonic and Aristotelian roots. This conflicted with the additions of Chrysippus, who had added an ethical component to Stoicism that had not been present in Zeno’s teaching.

Posidonus and Panaetius were largely responsible for the popularity of Stoicism in Rome, where it was seen as a moral corrective to the temptations of conquest and empire. This was recorded in the second book of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods).

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 b.c.e.–65 c.e.) achieved prominence both for his scholarly works, which adopted Stoicism for the Roman world, and for his tutelage of Nero and subsequent position as joint regent emperor of Rome. His works provided consolation to Boethius in prison, and he then later restated the philosophy as a means of escaping from the trials of the world by rejecting the importance of transitory events and phenomena.

The freed slave Epictetus (c. 55–135 c.e.) established his own school of Stoicism that focused on practical humanity and individual freedom. He favored universal justice and the cultivation of a calm indifference to the slings and arrows of fate.

Since failure was an inevitable part of human life, it was not to be condemned; only hypocrisy and falsehood was to be avoided. The thought of Epictetus had considerable impact upon subsequent Christian thought. It was warmly embraced by Marcus Aurelius (121–180 c.e.), emperor of Rome.

Marcus Aurelius maintained a personal journal in which he recorded his thoughts and moral injunctions, most of which were drawn directly from Epictetus’s statements of Stoic philosophy. His Meditations have subsequently become extremely influential in shaping subsequent thought of the Western world.

Stoicism has been one of the most enduring thought systems to emerge from ancient Greece. Its influence can be traced to numerous subsequent schools of thought, including various forms of Protestantism and Puritanism. In focusing on the separation between the attainable and the worthless and its concentration on the moral imperatives of the individual, Stoicism has proved useful in many contexts.