Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Stoicism Inquiry

Mr. Steel


Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium (333 BCE - 264 BCE) in Athens, and which became popular throughout Greece and the Roman Empire.


Basic tenets

Stoicism teaches that self-control, fortitude and detachment from distracting emotions, sometimes interpreted as an indifference to pleasure or pain, allows one to become a clear thinker, level-headed and unbiased. A primary aspect of Stoicism would be described as improving the individual’s spiritual well-being. Virtue, reason, and natural law are prime directives. By mastering passions and emotions, Stoics believe it is possible to overcome the discord of the outside world and find peace within oneself. Stoicism holds that passion distorts truth, and that the pursuit of truth is virtuous. Greek philosophers such as Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and later Roman thinkers such as Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Dio Chrysostom, and Epictetus are associated with Stoicism. Stoic philosophy is usually contrasted with Epicureanism. Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Greco-Roman Empire, to the point where nearly all the successors of Alexander professed themselves Stoics.



Zeno of Citium

Zeno of Citium


Stoicism first appeared in Athens in the Hellenistic period around 301 BC and was introduced by Zeno of Citium. He taught in the famous stoa poikile (the painted porch) from which his philosophy got its name. Central to his teachings was the law of morality being the same as nature. During its initial phase, Stoicism was generally seen as a back-to-nature movement critical of superstitions and taboos. The philosophical detachment also encompassed pain and misfortune, good or bad experiences, as well as life or death. Zeno often challenged prohibitions, traditions and customs. Another tenet was the emphasis placed on love for all other beings. His ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. Zeno's most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for the molding of what we now call Stoicism.

The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, materialistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were to be of more interest for many later philosophers. Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.


Stoic ethics and virtues

The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. But the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgment and inner calm through diligent practice of logic, reflection, and concentration.

Borrowing from the Cynics, the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control. Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads." One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of passion was "anguish" or "suffering", that is, "passively" reacting to external events—somewhat different to the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural patheia) which is normally translated as "passion", propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g. turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings resulting from correct judgment in the same way as the passions result from incorrect judgment.

The idea was to be free of suffering (which the Stoics called passion) through apatheia (απαθεια) (Greek) or apathy, where apathy was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having "clear judgment"—rather than simple indifference, as apathy implies today. The Stoic concepts of passion and apatheia may be considered as analogous to the Buddhist noble truths; All life has suffering (Dukkha), suffering is rooted in passion and desire (Samudaya), meditation and virtue can free one from suffering (Nirodha and Marga). It is also analogous to the concepts in Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, which stresses rising above the dualities such as pleasure-pain, win-lose, to perform one's duties.

For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature—the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people. The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom (Sophia), courage (Andreia), justice (Dikaiosyne), and temperance (Sophrosyne), a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.

Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance. If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason. Likewise, if they are unhappy, it is because they have forgotten how nature actually functions. The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy—to examine one's own judgements and behaviour and determine where they have diverged from the universal reason of nature.


Spiritual exercise

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius


Philosophy for a Stoic is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims; it is a way of life involving constant practice and training. Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment (similar to some forms of Eastern meditation), daily reflection on everyday problems & possible solutions, and so on. Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 CE) defines several such practices. For example, in Book II, part 1:

"Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together..."



A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. In Discourses, Epictetus comments on man's relationship with the world: "Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy."

They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics recognized and advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Graeco–Roman world, and produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities, such as Cato the Younger (95 BCE–46 BCE) and Epictetus. In particular, they were noted for their urging of clemency toward slaves. Seneca exhorted, "Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies."



Below is a selection of quotations by major stoic philosophers illustrating major stoic beliefs :



"Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one's desires, but by the removal of desire."

"Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will."

"Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them."

"If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone."

"I am formed by nature for my own good: I am not formed for my own evil."

"Permit nothing to cleave to you that is not your own; nothing to grow to you that may give you agony when it is torn away."

"He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has."

"God is best worshipped in the shrine of the heart by the desire to know and obey him."


Marcus Aurelius:

"Get rid of the judgement, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself."

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."

"Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me which your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return."

"If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this."

"How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!"

"Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone."

"Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also"

"Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space - and most of it uninhabited."



"The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live."

"That which Fortune has not given, she cannot take away."

"Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes."

"Virtue is nothing else than right reason."


Your Assignment:


Find evidence in the play of Brutus’ Stoicism. What does he say and do that could be considered Stoic? Assess Brutus’ Stoicism. Is it real or pretended? Are there examples in the play of Brutus departing from his Stoicism, or of imperfections in his Stoicism? Is there any evidence that Brutus’ Stoicism is responsible for his downfall? Write 3 paragraphs minimum (good students will write more)!