The influence of Plato’s dialogues on the three parts of Stoic philosophy in the early period of Stoicism.

Plato’s influence on the early Stoa

There are different ways in which the early Stoics, namely Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, can be said to have been influenced by Plato’s dialogues. In some cases they introduced their own views as an opposition to Plato’s, whereas in others they seemed to have adopted Platonic dogmas. But even in the cases in which they followed Platonic doctrines, the Stoics’ stance is always characterized by a critical and reflective appropriation of Plato’s theories. The Stoics were not only intrigued by the philosophical questions raised in the Platonic dialogues; they obviously found in them ideas which were to their mind credible and which they decided to further develop, even if Plato himself set them aside in his dialogues.

Modern scholars have suggested that, from the mid-second century B.C.E. onward, the Stoic school’s philosophical orientation shows a new trend amounting to the overt recognition of its Platonic heritage. Some have traced this trend back to Diogenes of Babylon, but it seems more plausible that it was his successor Antipater of Tarsus who was its instigator. Our ancient sources report that, in his treatise On Plato’s doctrine that only what is virtuous is good, Antipater argued that many of the Stoic doctrines constituted common ground with Plato. Concerning now the motivation behind this new attitude towards Platonism, it was most likely due to Antipater’s disputes with Carneades, his contemporary sceptic philosopher and head of the Academy, who often questioned the coherence of the Stoic ethical end. It is plausible to think that Antipater believed he would be able to effectively rebut Carneades’ criticism, if he managed to prove that many of the Stoic doctrines, including the Stoic ethical theories, were in fact identical to the doctrines defended by the Academy’s own founder.

Plato’s influence on Stoic cosmology

There can be no doubt that the Stoics read Plato’s Timaeus and endorsed many of its cosmological theories. The Stoics, just like Plato, conceived of the universe as a living organism created by a rational and provident god. It seems that Chrysippus even borrowed from the Timaeus Plato’s explanation of apparent evils in nature as necessary concomitants of the providential aims of the creator. On the other hand, the Stoics posited in place of Plato’s transcendent demiurge an imminent god, eliminating in this way all extra-cosmic causes and replacing Plato’s chōra with matter. It has been argued, however, that even these diversions of Stoic physics from Plato’s cosmology were first introduced in the Academy by Polemo and then received by the Stoics as Platonic dogmas.

Plato’s influence on Stoic ontology

Stoic ontology also bears the marks of Plato’s influence. Although the Stoics were fervent materialists, there are aspects of their metaphysics which they certainly inherited from the Platonic tradition. For instance, the Stoics made ample use of Plato’s principle found in the Sophist (247d-e), according to which a being is characterized by the fact that it acts upon something else and can be acted upon by something else. What is also interesting is that they used this principle in order to prove their un-Platonic doctrine of the corporeality of the soul, virtue and wisdom. Furthermore, Antipater is said to have conceived of properties (hekta) as entities, which were very similar to Plato’s Forms.

Plato’s influence on Stoic ethics

In ethics the Stoics embraced the theory of the four cardinal virtues, as articulated in Book 4 of Plato’s Republic. But although Plato in his dialogues had explored a range of different responses to the ethical issues raised in them, the Stoics always advocated that virtue is knoweldge and rejected the Platonic view, according to which goodness can be found independently of virtue, for instance in health. Moreover, Chrysippus claimed that Plato had offered an inadequate defence of justice, because he had used arguments resorting to divine punishment, and he had misunderstood the notion of injustice, because he had confined it to the human soul and had ignored its essentially interpersonal character. It should be noted, though, that the Stoics often disagreed as to how they should interpret Socrates’ ethical doctrines; although Cleanthes seems to have been influenced by Xenophon’s and Antisthenes’ interpretation, Zeno and later Chrysippus endorsed the Platonic portrait of Socrates.

Plato’s influence on Stoic politics

But the Stoics’ opposition to Plato’s theories is most conspicuous in the area of politics. Zeno’s Republic and Chrysippus’ treatise On the Republic, which probably was a commentary on Zeno’s work, heavily criticised Plato’s Republic and advocated a different conception of a good society, that is an equal society in which virtuous men and women would live a life of simple asceticism. Plato’s Callipolis had, of course, posed a challenge to contemporary political systems, but Zeno’s condemnation seems to have been more open and radical.

Plato’s influence on Stoic epistemology

The notion of an impression (phantasia), which is central in Stoic epistemology, was defined by the Stoics in the exact way Plato had defined it in his Theaetetus (191c-d), namely as an imprint on the soul which was compared to a block of wax. Also, the faculty of memory was understood both by Plato and by the Stoics as the treasury or storehouse of impressions.

Author: Katerina Ierodiakonou
  • Betegh, G. "Cosmological ethics in the Timaeus and early Stoicism." Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24 (2003)
  • Bonazzi, M. , Helmig, C. eds. Platonic Stoicism – Stoic Platonism . Leuven 2007, 2007.
  • Brunschwig, J. "The Stoic theory of the supreme genus and Platonic ontology." Brunschwig, J. ed. Papers in Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge, 1994.
  • Sheppard, A., Sharples, R.W., McCabe, M.M., Harte, V. eds. Aristotle and the Stoics Reading Plato. 2011.
  • Long, A. ed. Plato and the Stoics . Cambridge, 2013.
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