“A book is a word spoken into creation. Its message goes out into the world. It cannot be taken back,” Michael O’Brien warned as well as assured in his magisterial novel, Sophia House. Just as each word is a reflection of The Word (Logos), so each book is a reflection of The Book. While Christians have come to have a sort of monopoly on The Word and its greatest meaning and exemplar, others—such as the Stoics—embraced the Logos as well. And, while Christians have also come to have a sort of monopoly on The Book, others—such as the Stoics—embraced a variety of works. Here are ten books written by non-Stoics that greatly influenced Stoicism.
At the beginning of Stoic philosophy stands the first great work of philosophy itself, Heraclitus’ Fragments. In them, Heraclitus recognized and embraced (or perhaps even truly created) the notion of the Logos, the thing common to all. “For this reason it is necessary to follow what is common,” he lamented. “But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.” Further, he continued, “Those who speak with understanding must rely firmly on what is common to all as a city must rely on law, and much more firmly. For all human laws are nourished by one law, the divine law; for it has as much power as it wishes and is sufficient for all and is still left over.” These ideas form the basis of Stoicism.
Though Socrates would not be executed until 399BC, a full century after Heraclitus wrote his Fragments, he continued much of the tradition as first expressed by Heraclitus. In his final tragic days, his best friend, Crito (The Crito), argued in a variety of ways that Socrates should escape and evade his punishment. But Socrates famously rejected these pleas, seeing in them emotion rather than tradition or logic. While the Athens of his day might be wrong and unjust, Athens—overtime—was the common thing by which law and order, as well as culture and tradition, had been handed down, one generation to the next. Athens (at the very least, a reflection of the common thing) was, Socrates believed, the parent of order. As such, he accepted his punishment. Further, when questioned about truth and falsehood, Socrates offered what would become the basis of all Stoic ethics. That is, ethics can never be subject to time and place, but rather is universal and tied to all that is True, Good, and Beautiful. To do wrong is—in every time and every place—wrong, especially when one believes a wrong may lead to a good.
Soc. Then we must do no wrong?
Cr. Certainly not.
Soc. Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?
Cr. Clearly not.
Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?
Cr. Surely not, Socrates.
Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many—is that just or not?
Cr. Not just.
Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?
Cr. Very true.
Soc. Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. But I would have you consider, Crito, whether you really mean what you are saying. For this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another, when they see how widely they differ. Tell me, then, whether you agree with and assent to my first principle, that neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right.
When the Athenian polis demanded of Socrates a statement of justification and intent in response to their charges of his corrupting the youth, he, as revealed in The Apology, offered the defense that he was merely doing what the god had asked of him. Forced to choose between the will of the Athenian people of the moment and the god of the eternal, he chose—and always would choose—the latter. Again, it should be noted, Socrates believed in a truth, undivided and without a trace of malleability.
And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly. And that I am given to you by God is proved by this: that if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns, or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually, like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue; this I say, would not be like human nature. And had I gained anything, or if my exhortations had been paid, there would have been some sense in that: but now, as you will perceive, not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of anyone; they have no witness of that. And I have a witness of the truth of what I say; my poverty is a sufficient witness.
Though he openly rejected the label of Stoic, Cicero—the greatest of the Latins—also adopted and adapted much of Stoic ethics and theology for his own. In On Duties, Cicero explicitly praised Stoic ethics—as best articulated by Socrates implicitly—and recognized that no society could exist without a belief in absolute and objective beauty and truth. In On the Republic, Cicero lamented the loss of tradition, especially a manly tradition of virtue, as the cause of the death of the republic. Quite prophetically, he wrote:
Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But, though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ on which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.
In his On the Laws, Cicero argued that one might find the true res publica—though now missing in what was once the Republic of Rome—in the eternal Cosmopolis, the city of all good women and men, past, present, and future. Here, human beings spoke to one another and to the god in the universal language, Reason.
The closest we come to an actual Stoic who influenced the Stoics is Virgil, the great father of Latin poetry. Though Christians have long claimed Eclogue 4 as a prophetic utterance of the Incarnate Word, the Stoics, too, seem to have believed that God, in some way, would become real and tangible in this physical world.
Sicilian Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. Not everyone do orchards and the lowly tamarisks delight. If your song is of the woodland, let the woods be worthy of a consul.
Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!
And in your consulship, Pollio, yes, yours, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; under your sway any lingering traces of our guilt shall become void and release the earth from its continual dread. He shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world to which his father’s prowess brought peace.
But for you, child, the earth untilled will pour forth its first pretty gifts, gadding ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the laughing briar; unbidden it will pour forth for you a cradle of smiling flowers. Unbidden, the goats will bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the cattle will not fear huge lions. The serpent, too, will perish, and perish will the plant that hides its poison; Assyrian spice will spring up on every soil.
When the Eclogues end, Virgil assures us that “love conquers all.”
Dealing even more directly with the gods—in their virtues and their follies—is Virgil in his Aeneid. One sees the goodness of the gods, especially Venus, in her descent upon Aeneas.
Meantime the mother goddess, crown’d with charms,
Breaks thro’ the clouds, and brings the fated arms.
Within a winding vale she finds her son,
On the cool river’s banks, retir’d alone.
She shews her heav’nly form without disguise,
And gives herself to his desiring eyes.
“Behold,” she said, “perform’d in ev’ry part,
My promise made, and Vulcan’s labor’d art.
Now seek, secure, the Latian enemy,
And haughty Turnus to the field defy.”
She said; and, having first her son embrac’d,
The radiant arms beneath an oak she plac’d,
Proud of the gift, he roll’d his greedy sight
Around the work, and gaz’d with vast delight.
He lifts, he turns, he poises, and admires
The crested helm, that vomits radiant fires:
His hands the fatal sword and corslet hold,
One keen with temper’d steel, one stiff with gold:
Both ample, flaming both, and beamy bright;
So shines a cloud, when edg’d with adverse light.
He shakes the pointed spear, and longs to try
The plated cuishes on his manly thigh;
But most admires the shield’s mysterious mold,
And Roman triumphs rising on the gold:
For these, emboss’d, the heav’nly smith had wrought
(Not in the rolls of future fate untaught)
The wars in order, and the race divine
Of warriors issuing from the Julian line.
It would be difficult to find a more beautiful passage in Western civilization.
Though St. Paul would debate with the Stoics in Athens and, at times, quote from their poetry, the first great Christian-Stoic document—at least great in the sense of having immense influence—is the “Martyrdom of Perpetua.” In it, the heroine Perpetua, a classically-influenced young noblewoman, presents her story as an updated Antigone. But, like Socrates, she dies with honor.
For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.
First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.
There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: ‘When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?’
When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: ‘You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.’
Finally, as the ancient world drew to a close, there was St. Augustine’s City of God, a work that combined Cicero and Virgil with scripture. Throughout this great work, written after the barbarian invasion of Rome in 410, St. Augustine proclaims that Christianity does not overturn as much as it fulfills the Stoicism of the Pagans.
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The featured image is “The Young Cicero Reading” (c. 1464) by Vincenzo Foppa (1427–1515) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.