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Stoics – Precursors to Christianity

The founder of Stoicism was Zeno of Citium. On a business trip from his native Cyprus, Zeno arrived in Athens at the age of twenty-two, ten years after the death of Alexander, and there he became involved in philosophical debates and stayed. He embraced the notion of brotherhood of man that came with Alexander's attempt to unite a great variety of people into a single empire. He believed that God was the father to all and that all men were therefore brothers. He was influenced by the dissatisfactions expressed by Cynics, but rather than seek withdrawal he dreamed of social change. 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 consented. In his republic there would be no need for courts of law, and 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.

Stoics tried to explain various gods as one god. And they attempted to explain the myths of various religions as representations of universal truths. The god of Zeno and the Stoics, Zeus, was a divine fire from which came all that exists in heaven and earth. 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. The original and preeminent element of the universe was fire. The Stoics believed that the universe burns itself up periodically – a conflagration followed by the world beginning anew.

All this, according to Zeno, was a manifestation of godly reason. Zeno believed in reason. He saw passion as detrimental to reason and therefore ungodly.

At the heart of Stoicism was the phrase "thy will be done." The 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.

Central to their ethics was the belief that people had to choose between God's purpose and error. 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 worldly success, rank or status.

Seeing life as planned by God, Zeno and his followers believed in facing all circumstances with resignation. They believed that one should accept and compose oneself for whatever came one’s way. The Stoics believed that self-discipline was the starting point of virtue and necessary in their contemplation of God. They saw freedom as a state of mind. An individual, they believed, 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 Zeus' Divine Plan. Most Stoics believed that the violence that would be involved in overthrowing existing institutions would be worse than existing injustices, and some of them believed that society would improve if people would only obey their rulers. And, in keeping with their belief in brotherhood, some favored change through reason and agreement – as if conflicting interests and conflicting views could be overcome by education or collective revelation.

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. The purpose in life, the Stoics held, was to serve God's plan.

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