Around 2,300 years ago, the Hellenistic philosopher Zeno of Citium in Cyprus, began teaching at the Stoa poikilē, or ‘Painted Porch’ in Athens, and the philosophical tradition of Stoicism, taking its name from the city colonnade, was born.
And the authors of a book that recently came my way, Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, who have written Being Better: Stoicism for a world worth living in (New World Library, 2021), say that, in many ways, their undertaking is ‘a contemporary version of Zeno’s presence at the Painted Porch’, claiming that his wisdom is ‘as powerful as ever’ today as a philosophical foundation for a way of life.
Stoicism was developed in Athens by Zeno’s successor Cleanthes of Assos (b c330BCE), originally a boxer, and Cleanthes’ pupil Chrysippus (b c279BCE), who became the third head of the school after Cleanthes’ death. They, too, taught at the Painted Porch. Calling the school ‘Zenoism’ was dropped early for fear it could suggest a cult of personality.
Stoic ideas flourished in the Greek and Roman world until the third century CE, the last major figure in antiquity to give primary allegiance to them being the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century. As Neoplatonism developed and Christianity spread, so Stoicism declined, but its influence lived on, with ‘stoical’ eventually becoming a common expression indicating a person’s endurance and fortitude, their acceptance of misfortune without complaint, and indifference to joy or grief.
But, as Being Better demonstrates, there’s more to Stoicism than the everyday definition with which most of us are familiar, Whiting and Konstantakos having provided a forthright, accessible and lively introduction to the wider attributes of the philosophy, through both historical and contemporary perspectives, which evidently has been welcomed by the Stoic community.
In applying Stoic principles to pressing issues of today, such as climate catastrophe, rampant capitalism, sustainability and socio-economic justice, the authors show how the tradition retains relevance to the human condition.