restricted access "The Beautiful Necessity": Emerson and the Stoic Tradition
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"The Beautiful Necessity":
Emerson and the Stoic Tradition

Ralph Waldo Emerson's appropriation of the Stoic tradition occupied a central and enduring place in his worldview, as is abundantly clear from his essays, poems, and journals. Just as clearly, like other modern thinkers and writers influenced by Stoicism as "perennial philosophy," Emerson interpreted what he learned within a historical framework shaped by Christianity, liberalism, and democracy as well as by influences particular to his own thought and his personal experience. In my paper I will briefly review the main ideas of ancient Stoicism, consider the changes introduced by modern versions of the Stoic tradition, and then indicate what ideas Emerson specifically appropriated and what role they played in his overall approach to things. Finally, I will focus specifically on Emerson's increasing preoccupation, beginning in the 1840s, with the stubborn problem of freedom and necessity, and his Stoic resolution of the problem.

I. Ancient Stoicism

I want to begin with a brief "refresher" on the main ideas of ancient Stoicism and then discuss the modern appropriation and reinterpretation of the Stoic tradition. The founder, Zeno of Citium (Cyprus), taught in Athens in the late fourth century BCE. His ideas, and those of his successors, would have the single greatest impact on Roman thought of any of the Greek schools of philosophy. The Greek Panaetius introduced Stoic thought to Rome in the latter part of the second century BCE, and in the following centuries some of the greatest figures in Roman literature and public life would come to be associated with Stoicism, among them Cicero, Seneca, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Always named together with them is Epictetus, a Greek slave in first-century CE Rome who won his freedom and founded a school in Nicopolis in Greece.


The central metaphysical doctrine of the ancient Stoics was monism. They combined monism with a kind of materialism. Everything, including the ultimate source of the universe, consists of one of two kinds of matter: the grosser matter, physical realities that are seen and touched, and the finer matter, [End Page 122] called breath or spirit (pneuma), that holds everything together. We can quickly dispense with this aspect of Stoicism, which it curiously shares with its main philosophical rival, Epicureanism, since after the close of the ancient period those who appropriated the Stoic tradition, influenced by Platonic and Christian teaching, dropped the materialism in favor of the idea of ultimate reality as "spirit" in the more familiar sense of that which is nonmaterial.

Monism refers of course to the belief that everything is the manifestation or emanation of one ultimate or supreme reality. In ancient Stoic monism, the source of all being is characterized by consciousness, purpose, and will. The Stoics quite flexibly referred to this divine source by a variety of names: "Spirit" (pneuma), "Mind-Fire" (fire was the natural element that symbolized reason), God, Zeus, Nature, Reason (Logos), Providence, and even Fate. Stoic monism, like monisms generally when categorized as to their idea of God, is a version of pantheism: God is to the universe as the human soul or mind is to the human body. The universe is like a great living body in which all the parts are interrelated so that what happens in one part affects what happens elsewhere, and the divine Reason unifies, pervades, animates, and directs the whole.

The human microcosm

In the ancient Stoic worldview, the individual human soul or reason is a manifestation of God, a "god within." The human being is a microcosm of the cosmos, a reasoning mind united with a physical body. As Seneca writes, "the place which in this universe is occupied by God is in man the place of the spirit. What matter is in the universe the body is in us." 1 From this flow Stoic anthropology and ethics.

Philosophy as guidance for life

All the ancient schools of philosophy saw themselves as ways of life and not simply as systems of knowledge, and Stoicism, certainly in its Roman form, strongly emphasized that the real business of philosophy is to be a guide to human conduct and the cultivation of character. We even find among...