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Stoicism: eventually for Christians

Zeno was born in Citium, on the island of Cyprus. According to legend he was shipwrecked off the coast of Greece at the age of 22 in 313 BCE (ten years after the death of Alexander the Great). Zeno embraced the notion of brotherhood of man that came with Alexander's attempt to unite a great variety of people into a single empire.

In Athens, Zeno led an ascetic life, focusing on philosophical debates, especially at a public place in Athens, an agora called the Stoa Poikile – hence the term Stoicism. His philosophy would influence the Romans, and it would influence those early Christians in the Roman Empire who wanted an organized system of ideas beyond the story of Jesus Christ.

Zeno viewed the universe as God. The Stoics tried to explain various gods as one god and the myths of various religions as representations of universal truths. According to Zeno, God was like the major god of the Greeks: divine fire. The original and preeminent element of the universe was fire. For Zeno, from God came all that exists in heaven and earth. God was the maker, the father of all, and all men therefore were brothers.

Zeno believed that all humanity had a soul – a divine spark – that eventually returned to divine eternity. Fire related to the soul was evident in the heat contained in the human body.

Argument was big among people attracted to philosophy, and Zeno urged people to be logical in order to avoid deception – nevermind deception's existence in what was supposed to be God's perfect creation. Stoics believed that God worked in mysterious ways, that humanity was able to see only a tiny portion of God's plan. They explained the existence of evil within this master plan as God exercising people for virtue.

Zeno was influenced by the dissatisfactions expressed by Cynics, but rather than seek withdrawal, Zeno imagined social change toward God's order, God's plan. The Stoics took issue with a competing philosophy, Epicureanism, which agreed with Aristotle's belief that one's purpose in life should be to seek happiness. Zeno saw purpose in life as serving God's plan – expressed in the phrase "thy will be done."

Borrowing a title from Plato, Zeno wrote his own utopia titled The Republic, describing a society of people joined voluntarily under divine laws to which everyone conformed. In his republic there would be no need for courts of law. Love and sharing would make money unnecessary. In the place of separate and independent societies, his utopia was one great nation bound together by love.

The Stoics believed that people exercised virtue by freeing themselves from conceit, by adhering to a humility that would better open them to follow what God had destined for them. This included indifference toward success in rank or status.

Seeing life as planned by God, Zeno and his followers believed in facing all circumstances with resignation. As fatalists they believed that one should accept and compose oneself for whatever came one's way.

They believed an individual could be free from whatever his circumstances – including imprisonment – if he contemplated God. For the Stoics, poverty and slavery affected only the body, and what affected only the body was a matter of lesser importance than that of attitude. The poorest slave, they held, could be king of his own soul.

Some Stoics actively opposed slavery, and some opposed the power of the wealthy, while others were advisors to kings and saw monarchs as noble servants and as a part of God's Divine Plan. In keeping with their belief in brotherhood, some favored change toward God's Plan through reason and agreement – as if conflicting interests and conflicting views could be overcome by education or collective revelation.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.