As positively as Stoicism was viewed by the educated middle class of nineteenth century Britain, that culture was nevertheless a deeply Christian one, and it was quite usual for Christian ideas to insinuate themselves into Victorian endorsements of the ancient philosophy. Bronte¨ does an excellent job of avoiding this temptation, but she moves in that direction in her apparent conception of Stoic salvation when she speaks about death. Her narrator prays for the same indifference to circumstance he knew in life to persist in death. If the moment of death is meant, so that the end of life can be met fearlessly, that is not incompatible with Stoicism. But some contemporary readers may not resist the temptation to read the contrast drawn between life and death as being between life and death as the afterlife (which is not a factor in Stoicism). The passionless existence of the Stoic sage was often taken as the model of the existence of the saved Christian in the world to come, as though salvation consists of becoming like a Stoic sage. But the degree to which Bronte¨ herself intended this is debatable.
Bronte¨’s ‘‘The Old Stoic’’ gives a series of private thoughts and mental prayers in the voice of a character devoted to Stoicism and meant to be typical of that philosophy. Stoicism is a system of philosophy devised in the years after 300 BCE by the Greek philosopher Zeno. He was certainly Greek by culture but he came from Citium on Cyprus where much of the population was Phoenician, and sources, which are about 500 years later than his period, suggest he may have been of Phoenician descent. Zeno came to Athens to study philosophy, desiring to live according to the same manner of life as the great Greek philosopher Socrates. Zeno did not study at the Platonic Academy, however, or with the students of Aristotle at the Lyceum, either of which might have been viewed as successors to Socrates, but with the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes. The Cynics were concerned exclusively with human behavior and felt that men ought to live in accord with their essentially animal character, hence the name Cynic, which means canine. After a decade of study, Zeno began to teach his own new philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (the porch of the paintings), an Athenian public art gallery from which his school took its name. Zeno’s students and immediate successors were Cleanthes and Chrysippus. Stoicism eventually became the dominant form of philosophy in the early Roman Empire. The first-century Greek Stoic teacher Epictetus and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the following generation are responsible for the only surviving extended treatises of the school, but the thought of the original Stoics are preserved in numerous quotations by later authors such as the Roman orator Cicero.
Stoic philosophy differed from Platonism and Aristotelianism in being entirely materialistic, believing that nothing existed apart from physical matter. The Stoics rejected the idea that whatever faculty of a human being is responsible for thoughts and feelings was some type of nonmaterial entity of a different character than the rest of the world, such as a soul, spirit, or divine spark, but rather were the results of a material process just like anything else that can be observed. Stoics by no means rejected the idea of god, but they held that god was simply the totality of the universe and, in particular, the cause of the universe existing in the best possible way. Just as human beings have reason, god is the reasoning power (logos) that arises from the body of the universe. Cleanthes praised this being in his poetic Hymn to Zeus, though he insisted that all divine names, not just Zeus, rightly apply to this god.
The Stoics insisted that the universe as a whole was perfect, and that if some condition or event, such as a storm that destroyed farmers’ crops or the death of a child, seemed imperfect to the human beings it affected, that was because their limited perspective was incapable of seeing the whole. Cleanthes expressed the idea in his hymn by saying that even what is hated by human beings is lovely in the eyes of god. Accepting the traditional Greek view that matter is composed of the four elements—fire, air, water, and earth—the Stoics held that the universe must exist as part of a greater cosmic cycle. Since fire is the most perfect element, the universe must originally have been all fire. The other elements are produced by the life process of fire, and their creation and recombination brought into being the universe as we experience it. But, since it is necessary for the universe to be as perfect as possible, it will strive to return to the condition of being all fire after many long ages. Then the process will repeat infinitely. Since, according to the Stoics, the universe is perfect, any deviation would be less than perfect, so each universe created between the periods of fire (ekpyrosis) will be identical, down to every individual person such as Socrates or Thomas Jefferson living again in exactly the same way they were known to have lived their lives. Thus, everything that happens is preordained and outside of human control. While Stoics did not conceive of any form of human survival after the dissolution of the physical body (since they believed nothing existed that was not material), every human being, would, nevertheless, live again, as it were, in each successive age.
Since according to the Stoic view it is impossible to change the state of the natural world, it follows that the best way to live is in accord with nature as it actually exists. A human being must learn to distinguish what he cannot control (external circumstances) from what he can control (his reactions and feelings about external circumstances). Suffering is caused by wishing things to be different than they are and wishing to change what one is powerless to change. The Stoic sage, who has perfected his ethical training, wishes things to be just as they are and completely frees himself from suffering by perfecting his interior psychological composition. He is not emotionless, as is popularly conceived, but rejects those emotions (strong passions) that are not subordinate to reason as though they were a sort of mental illness. In this way, he becomes a god since his reason becomes identical to the right reason that regulates the universe in the best possible way. The sage does not feel any desire to obtain fame, wealth, power, or any of the other things that ordinary human beings are constantly making themselves miserable over.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Emily Bronte, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010