What is Traditional Stoicism?
So, what is traditional Stoicism? Ironically, “traditional Stoicism” is something new; it is used almost exclusively on social media to describe what was traditionally known simply as Stoicism. This new modifier became necessary with the recent advent of “modern Stoicism.” In a nutshell, traditional Stoics attempt to remain as close as possible to the path created by the founders, which includes three fields of study and practice—logic, physics, and ethics. Modern Stoics diverge from the Stoic’s original path because they find the teleology of Stoic physics incompatible with their worldview. Traditional Stoics accept the divine and providential cosmos, while modern Stoics, who are typically atheists or agnostics, find the divine and providential cosmos of Stoicism unacceptable. Modern versions of Stoicism are certainly not “wrong” per se. In fact, in time, they may prove quite effective. Nevertheless, modern Stoicism represents a major divergence from Stoicism as scholars understand it. To that extent it is prudent for moderns to keep in mind this simple caution: when you diverge from the traditional Stoic path with the hope of reaching the same goal promised by Stoicism—happiness—your mileage may vary.
In spite of the fact that only a small portion of the original Stoic writings survive, there is little disagreement among scholars over what doctrines were essential to Stoicism. Typically, the disagreements among scholars, like those among the ancients Stoics themselves, are over peripheral and often extremely technical matters. The textual evidence and scholarly consensus are clear: Stoicism is a historically distinct philosophical tradition, which is definable even with the minimal amount of surviving texts, fragments, and quotations, often from hostile sources. As John Cooper argues,
We are entitled to speak of a single tradition here, since, as it seems, these philosophers all (with the exception of Zeno himself, of course) grounded their own philosophizing on basic principles that (as they thought) had been first discovered, laid down, and argued for by the person they regarded as founder of their school, Zeno. They thought of themselves as working out in detail, and arguing in a comprehensive way for, a single, complete system of philosophical ideas that they traced back to basic principles and to a fundamental philosophical outlook laid down by Zeno.
David Sedley, a reputable scholar who has written extensively on Hellenistic philosophy, addressed the historical understanding of what it means to be a Stoic in a History of Philosophy Without any Gaps podcast. Sedley stated the following:
…there are certain features, which we think of as characteristic of the Stoics, which they, in fact, share with all the schools in their own day… Then, equally, and you were implying this in your question, there were some things on which the Stoics didn’t even agree with each other… But, there were defining points of agreement. There were points on which you really had to sign on the dotted line if you were going to be a Stoic.
In physics, to be a Stoic was to believe that the world is a supremely rational, good, and indeed divine organism…
In epistemology, all Stoics agreed that there is a kind of infallible grasp, which they call the cognitive or cataleptic impression…”
In ethics, you could not be a Stoic without holding that only one thing is good, namely virtue, and so-called goods—conventional goods—like wealth and health, are in fact morally indifferent…
According to Sedley, those fundamental points of agreement defined Stoicism. More importantly, as scholars assert, these doctrines affect the practice of Stoicism. Anthony Long, another scholar of Hellenistic philosophy and coauthor with David Sedley of a two-volume set of books on the subject, argues that any version of Stoic ethics which ignores divine providence “will be broken-backed” and further argues,
[I]t is a serious mistake, in my opinion, to interpret Stoicism, as some modern scholars have tried to do, in ways that tone down the cosmic dimension. For, whatever we may think of that, it was central to the Greek and Roman Stoics’ outlook on the world and the mainstay of the confidence this outlook engendered.
Additionally, Long and Sedley highlight the systematic nature of Stoicism,
Of all ancient philosophies, Stoicism makes the greatest claim to being utterly systematic. Arguably, the Stoics invented the notion of philosophy as ‘system’
As I mentioned in the previous post, the Stoics provided three similes—egg, animal, and orchard—to illustrate the necessary integrity of those three Stoic fields of study and practice. As numerous scholars point out, to fully understand each of the three topics of Stoicism requires an understanding of the whole system. John Sellars writes,
[E]ach of the three parts of Stoic philosophy depends upon the others and cannot be understood without them.
In an Oxford University lecture titled The Stoic Way of Life, John Cooper points out that an understanding of Stoic physical and metaphysical theory is essential for understanding how to practice Stoicism,
In order to understand properly the Stoic way of life and its philosophical basis, we’re going to have to learn a great deal about their metaphysical and physical theory into which, as I have said, their ethical theory is set as the centerpiece of their whole philosophical system.
These topics are more than mere theoretical doctrines. In Stoicism, theory and practice are interdependent, and an adequate understanding of theory is essential to one’s practice. As Julia Annas notes,
Becoming a good Stoic requires more, however, than mastering the ethical part. Stoic philosophy consists of all three parts strongly unified into a whole (a point indicated in two of our major sources for the ethical part of Stoicism).
The person who has studied ethics, then, needs to go on not only to study the other two parts but to integrate their results with ethics to produce a unified understanding from all three perspectives.
This explains why the implications of the Stoic ethical maxim “virtue is the only good” appear counterintuitive outside the context of the Stoic worldview (physics), which includes a divine, cosmic nature. It also calls into question attempts to redact Stoic physics from the system of Stoicism.
Traditional Stoics take the ancients at their word and attempt to maintain the integrity of the system as much as possible. Therefore, a little humility seems appropriate when attempting to practice Stoicism. Since we are seeking advice from the Stoics, it seems reasonable to hear them out before pronouncing judgment on elements of their system that, at first glance, appear untenable to our modern sensibilities. Some of those elements may only make sense within the context of their whole system.
If, after seeking medical attention for an ailment, a person decided to take only one of three medications prescribed by the physician, because the second gave him a headache and the third upset his stomach, it would be unreasonable for him to expect relief from his ailment. Nevertheless, modern Stoics expect Stoicism to heal their troubled soul while only taking one-third of Stoicism’s prescription.
Remember, if you venture off the path prescribed by the Stoics, your mileage may vary.
 Cooper, J. M. (2012). Pursuits of wisdom: Six ways of life in ancient philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 147
 Sedley, David. “64 – David Sedley on Stoicism.” History of Philosophy without any gaps. King’s College London, 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 Dec. 2013. <http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/stoics-sedley>.
 Long, A. (1996). Stoic Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 201)
 Long, A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic guide to life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p, p. 23
 Long, A.; Sedley, D. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 160
 Laertius, D. Lives of eminent Philosophers, 7.40
 Sellars (2006) pp. 43-4
 Cooper, J. “The Stoic Way of Life.” John Locke Lectures. University of Oxford, 25 May. 2011. Web. <http://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/mp3_file/0016/22084/Lecture_3.mp3> at 6:48 minutes
 Annas, J. (2007). ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52: 58-87, pp. 60-1)
 Ibid, p. 62
 Cooper, J. (1996) ‘Eudaimonism, the Appeal to Nature, and “Moral Duty” in Stoicism.’ In Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics. New York: Cambridge University Press.