Stoic Philosophy

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Stoic Philosophy

Post by Bogdan » Tue Feb 21, 2017 7:50 pm

1. Introduction

Stoicism arose in the Hellenistic period, the period after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and became the philosophical preference of many Greeks and non-Greeks. Although there were differences among them, Stoic philosophers shared a common philosophical outlook. The beginnings of Stoicism lie with Zeno of Citium, who came to Athens from Cyprus. For many years a student of the Cynic philosophy Crates, Zeno eventually founded his own philosophical school in 300 BCE. Because he taught his students in a stoa (portico) in Athens, Zeno's philosophy came to be known as Stoicism, or the philosophy of the stoa. Zeno was succeeded as head of the school by Cleanthes and Cleanthes by Chrysippus. According to Diogenes Laertius, these three early Stoics wrote many works, but nothing except fragments of these have survived. Their works were still available, however, to Diogenes in the third century, who synthesizes the contents of these works in his attempt to provide a brief outline of Stoic philosophy; occasionally he quotes from their works. (Diogenes also quotes from even later Stoic texts.) Thus, Diogenes's summary of Stoic philosophy in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers is the best source of information for early Stoicism. Some information about Stoic philosophy also derives from their critics, such as Plutarch or Sextus Empiricus. Also Cicero cites from Stoic sources in his On the Nature of the Gods. In addition, the works of later Roman Stoics have survived, and these provide insight into the principles of Stoic philosophy; the Roman Stoics, however, tended to stress the ethical and practical side of Stoicism.

The Stoics divided their philosophy into three parts. Diogenes writes, "Philosophical doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical" (Lives, 7.39). According to Diogenes, Zeno was the first to make this tripartate division, and was followed by other Stoic philosophers, including Chrysippus (Lives, 7.39). The Stoics stressed, however, that these three divisions of philosophy are interdependent; one cannot study one without touching upon the others. It was the ethics, however, that was so greatly valued among the later Stoics; Stoic ethical teaching provided its adherents with a theoretical framework with which to protect oneself psychologically against the vicissitudes of life.

2. Stoic Philosophy
2.1. Logic

The Stoics wrote numerous works on logic, but, unfortunately, none of these has survived; thus one must rely on summaries of their works and the occasional quotation from them. For this reason, it is impossible to formulate a complete "Stoic logic" even for individual Stoics. Stoic logic is broken into sub-categories. Diogenes explains, "Some divide the logical part of the system into the two sciences of rhetoric and dialectic; while some would add that which deals with definitions and another part concerning canons or criteria" (Lives, 7.41). Rhetoric concerns "invention of arguments, their expression into words, their arrangement, and delivery," among other things. The other parts of logic, which some Stoics subsumed under the single heading of dialectic, concern formal logic, epistemology and theory of language, to use modern terminology. From the available sources, the Stoics contributed little that was new to the study of formal logic; they merely modified Aristotle's contribution.

2.1.1. Epistemology

As most Greeks, the Stoics believed that a human being had a soul. For the Stoics, the soul was corporeal, and was diffused throughout the body. (The individual soul was actually a part of the world-soul.) Diogenes says, "And the soul is a nature capable of perception. And they regard it as a breath of life, congenital with us; from which they infer that it is a body and secondly that it survives death" (Lives, 156). The soul is that which comes into contact with objects outside the perceiver by means of the five senses, which are called parts [or, better, "functions"] of the soul. The perception of an object by the soul through one of the five senses the Stoics called "presentation" (phantasia). Diogenes explains, "A presentation is an imprint on the soul; the name having been appropriately borrowed from the imprint made by the seal upon the wax" (Lives, 7.45). The soul is like a wax tablet and the object perceived is like a seal that impresses a copy of itself into the wax. (Chrysippus warns, however, that one should not think that literally an object impresses itself upon the soul [Lives, 7.50].) Diogenes quotes Diocles the Magnesian concerning the importance of "presentation" in Stoic philosophy:

The Stoics agree to put in the forefront the doctrine of presentation and sensation, inasmuch as the standard by which the truth of things is tested is generically a presentation, and again the theory of assent and that of apprehension and thought, which precedes all the rest, cannot be stated apart from presentation. For presentation comes first; then thought, which is capable of expressing itself, puts into the form of a propositions that which the subject receives from a presentation (Lives, 7. 49)
The Stoics, however, made a distinction between two types of presentation; the one is a sensation (aisthêtikê) that corresponds to an external object, while the other is that conveyed by the mind itself (Lives, 7.51). Diogenes explains,
According to them some presentations are data of sense (aisthêtikai) and others are not: the former are the impressions conveyed through one or more sense-organs; while the latter, which are not data of sense, are those received through the mind itself, as is the case with incorporeal things and all other presentations which are received by reason" (Lives, 7.51).
The distinction is between presentations that originate from external objects and those that are the result of the operations of the soul or mind, usually connected to the perception of an external object. When, for example, a person desires or fears an object, being aware of the desire or fear is a presentation, which, although not originating from the external object, is yet inseparable from it. Thus the Stoics distinguish between awareness of external, corporeal objects and awareness of interior states or rational processes, which are incorporeal, but connected usually with corporeal things.
Do you agree that "presentations" that originate from external objects are such that they can be compared to an object leaving its imprint in wax? If not, what is the nature of perception and how do perceptions relate to the hypothethical external objects from which they originate?
From individual sensible objects "impressing" themselves on the soul originate all general or abstract concepts. Past presentations are stored as memories of presentations, which can be compared to other memories and presentations received in the present. Thus arises the possibility of general concepts or abstractions. Diogenes reports that the Stoics identify six ways in which general ideas (nooumena) arise in minds: "General ideas, indeed, are gained in the following ways: some by direct contact, some by resemblance, some by analogy, some by transposition, some by composition, and some by contrariety" (Lives, 7.53). In actuality, there is one primary way in which general ideas arise—by direct contact—and five secondary ways, insofar as when one must come into direct contact with sensible objects before one can do anything else with them. To say that general ideas arise by direct contact is to say that they arise by multiple presentations (held in memory) that have been combined into one experience, which has for its object an entity that is assumed to exist as sensible and independent of the perceiver. One can compare two or more general ideas that arise from direct contact and determine to what extent they resemble one another; it is also possible to analogies between general ideas. It is possible to take one or more general ideas and rearrange their parts, which is what is meant by transposition. One can also compose or construct a new general idea from the parts of other general ideas that arise from direct contact. Finally, it is possible to form a general idea that is the negation, or contrariety, of a general idea that arises from direct contact. Diogenes adds that the Stoics also assert that general or abstract concepts arise from "a sort of transition to the realm of the imperceptible" (Lives, 7.53). He gives as examples of this "meanings of terms" (lekta), by which is meant definitions of non-sensible things, and "space" (topos). What he seems to be describing is a higher level of induction by which one formulates concepts by means of abstraction (or dialectic) that do not have corresponding sensible manifestations. It is clear that the Stoics must reject both the Platonic understanding of universals (Ideas) and even the Aristotelean concrete universal; for the Stoics, the general concepts that human beings possess are derivative of presentations, and do not exist in a primary sense.

Do you agree with the Stoic view of the origin of generalizations or abstract ideas?

It should be pointed out that, in spite of their empiricist and nominalist tendencies, the Stoics believe that there exist preconceptions or intuitions (koinai ennoia or prolêpseis), which develop necessarily in all human beings, presumably from presentations. It is as if, latent in human beings, are certain general concepts that will emerge when enough sense data have been received. These are the functional equivalents of Plato's Ideas or Aristotle's concrete universals; as such they give unity to human cognitional processes. The first-century, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says,

Precognitions are common to all men, and precognition is not contradictory to precognition. For who of us does not assume that Good is useful and eligible, and in all circumstances that we ought to follow and pursue it? And who of us does not assume that justice is beautiful and becoming? When, then, does the contradiction arise? It arises in the adaptation of the precognitions to the particular cases. (Discourses,1.22)
All human beings have a common set of general conceptions; one person's precognitions will not be found to contradict another. Rather, only their "adaptation" or application to particular cases will differ. For Epictetus, education is training in how to recognize particular instances of precognitions. Diogenes says, somewhat obliquely, that the Stoics also believe that general ideas, such as the just and the good, arise "by nature" (phusikos); these are no doubt the precogntions or intuitions (Lives, 7.53). Functionally, it would seem that the Stoics have the equivalent of the Platonic Ideas.
Perplexingly, the Stoics hold that it is possible for a presentation to be false, by which is meant that it does not correspond to an external object. For them, an apprehensive presentation (phantasia kataleptikê), one apprehends an object, becomes the criterion of truth, whereas the non-apprehensive presentation is an error. Diogenes explains that, according to the Stoics,

There are two species of presentation, the one apprehending a real object, the other not. The former, which they take to be the test of reality, is defined as that which proceeds from a real object, agrees with that object itself, and has been imprinted and stamped upon the mind: the latter, or non-apprehending, that which does not proceed from any real object, or, if it does, fails to agree with the reality itself, not being clear or distinct. (Lives, 7.45; see also 7.54)
The Stoics believe that it is possible to receive a presentation, to have it impressed upon the soul, but for this presentation not to correspond to a real object. Somehow the apprehensive presentation will differ from the non-apprehensive type, so that the perceiver will be able to distinguish the one from the other. How exactly an apprehensive presentation differs experientially from its counterpart and indeed how a presentation can arise at all if there is no real object imprinting itself of the soul are questions that are not answered. Thus the Stoics make a distinction between the external object that is real and the incorporeal thought or idea of it; the latter is the effect of the former as it comes into contact with one or more sense organ. The Roman Stoic Seneca summarizes the cognitive process as follows:
There are corporeal things, such as this man, this horse. Next follow movements of thought conveying an assertion respecting bodies. These movements of thought have a sort of content peculiar to themselves and incorporeal. For instance, I see Cato walking. Sense has shown this; my mind has believed it. That which I see, that to which I have directed my eyes and my mind is a body. Thereupon I say: "Cato is walking." The thought which I express in these words is not corporeal, but by it an assertion is made respecting body, and some call it a judgment, others an assertion, others a predicate. (Epist. Mor., 117, 13.
In some cases, there are incorporeal ideas that correspond to no external, corporeal objects; how these ideas emerge is not explained, and may be inexplicable.
Do you find the criterion of "apprehensive presentations" to be acceptable? If not, why not? What is your criterion for distinguishing "true" from false presentations?

2.1.2. Theory of Language

Part of Stoic logic includes a theory of language. For the early Stoics the basic unit of language is the proposition (axiôma), which consists of a subject and a predicate. Diogenes explains,

A proposition (axiôma) is that which is either true or false, or a thing complete in itself, capable of being denied in and by itself, as Chrysippus says in his Dialectical Definitions: 'A proposition is that which in and by itself can be denied or affirmed, e.g., "It is day," "Dion is walking."' The Greek word for proposition (axiôma) is derived from the verb axioun as signifying acceptance or rejection; for when you say 'It is day," you seem to accept the fact that it is day. Now, if it really is day, the judgment before us is true, but if not, it is false" (Lives, 7.65-66)
A proposition is the expression of a presentation, which, when put in speech, becomes an assertion (legontes): "For a proposition is that which, when we set it forth in speech, becomes an assertion, and is either true or false" (Lives, 7.66). Some Stoics, including Chrysippus, classify propositions as simple or non-simple. Diogenes explains, "Simple propositions are those that consist of one or more propositions that are not ambiguous, as 'It is day'. Not simple are those that consist of one or more ambiguous propositions" (Lives, 7.68). It seems that by an "ambiguous" (diaphoroumenos) proposition is meant a proposition that is dependent upon other propositons for its meaning, as a subordinate clause is dependent on its corresponding main clause for its meanings. If this is true, then simple propositions are unambiguous because they depend on no other clause for their meaning. The simple and non-simple propositions are then further classified by the Stoics.

It is significant that for the Stoics the human being has the capacity to assent or not assent to a presentation. The fact that a presentation is apprehensive is not sufficient to admit it as true; the process of the acceptance of apprehensive presentations is not automatic. Rather, the mind is required to decide to assent to the apprehensive presentation formulated as a proposition and expressed as an assertion. How the mind can recognize an apprehensive presentation, however, remains an unanswered question.

Do you have the capacity to judge whether a "presentation" is true or false? If so, why is it not the case the "presentations" are admitted as true without this intermediate step of judging their truth?

2.2. God and the Cosmos (Physics)

2.2.1. The Two Principles

According to the Stoics, there are two principles constituting reality: the active (to poioun) and the passive (to paschon). The interaction of these two corporeal principles gives rise to everything else. The passive principle is "substance," by which is meant "matter," that is devoid of all qualities, while the active principle is identified with Reason (logos) and God. Diogenes explains,

They hold that there are two principles in the cosmos, the active principle and the passive. The passive principle, then, is a substance without quality (apoion ousian), i.e., matter (hulê), whereas the active principle is the reason inherent in the substance, that is God. For he is everlasting and the artificer of each several thing throughout the whole extent of matter (Lives, 7. 134).
On this cosmological theory, God is the active principle, which acts upon pre-existing, unformed matter, the passive principle, bringing into existence all things in an ordered or rational Whole. God is not the passive principle, but that which forms it into the cosmos, an ordered whole. Another account of the two principles is found in Seneca's letters. He explains that the Stoics believe that there are two principles, cause—identical with reason—and matter: "And it is cause (this meaning the same as reason) which turns matter to whatever end it wishes and fashions it into a variety of different products" (Epist. Mor., 65). Later in the letter, he makes it clear that the cause is God; in reaction to Aristotle's multiple-causation theory, Seneca insists that there is one ultimate cause: "What we are looking for at the moment is a primary and general cause. And this must be something elementary, since matter too is elementary. If we ask what cause is, surely the answer is creative reason, that is to say God" (Epist. Mor., 65). The first differentiations of matter, the passive principle, are the four elements (stoicheia); these four elements then intermingle in various ways to become all things, as ordered by Reason inherent in the cosmos (Lives, 136-37).
Prime matter (protê hulê) is a synonym for the passive principle; it denotes the substance (ousia) of all things, in the sense that all things are made of this undifferentiated material: "By matter is meant that out of which anything whatsoever is produced" (Lives, 7.150). Prime matter neither increases nor decreases, and is infinitely divisible. In addition, Chrysippus says that the active and passive principles so interpenetrate as to become indistinguishable: "They permeate each other through and through...the particles of the one do not merely surround those of the other or lie beside them" (Lives, 7.151). He likens the mixture of the active and passive principles as the putting of a drop of wine into the sea: the wine will be thoroughly blended with the water. The active principle clearly is as corporeal as the passive principle; it is not prime matter, but is nonetheless material. How this can be is not explained.

Is it correct to interpret the cosmos in terms of matter and form, two opposing principles?

2.2.2. God as Soul of the Cosmos and as Nature

A variation on God as active principle is the idea of God as the soul of the cosmos. According to Cicero, Chrysippus presents a type of argument from design for the existence of God (or the gods). He concludes, "And yet...we ought to consider that there exists some mind of the cosmos, one that is more powerful than his and divine." It is then argued further if human beings have intelligence, it cannot be denied that God has even greater intelligence (Cicero, Nature, 2.6). In fact, the Stoics can say at times that God is the soul or intelligence of the cosmos. The cosmos is conceived as being composed of body and soul; God is the soul of the cosmos, the active, rational principle, whereas the body is the unformed or prime matter, the passive principle. According to Plutarch, Chrysippus said, "The cosmos is then its own soul and its own controlling mind" (De stoicorum repugnantiis, 41). The assertion that God is the soul of the cosmos leads to the conclusion that the cosmos is a living being, endowed with intelligence: "Thus, then, the whole cosmos is a living being, endowed with soul and reason, and having aither as its ruling principle" (Lives, 7.139). It is axiomatic that whatever has a soul is a living thing, since the soul is the principle of life. To say that aither is the ruling principle of the cosmos means that aither, identical to fire, is the soul that permeated the rest of cosmos consisting of the other elements. Moreover, it is reasoned that, since animal is better than non-animal, and nothing is better than the cosmos, the cosmos must be an animal, in the sense of being a living thing endowed with soul (Lives, 7.142).

Along the sames lines, the Stoics identify God with nature (phusis):

Now the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the cosmos together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal reasons (spermatikoi logoi) within different periods, and effecting results homogenous with their sources (Lives, 7;148-49)
In this passage, nature is defined as the force at work to hold the cosmos together and to bring things into existence, which seems to bear an Aristotelian influence. Nature brings things into existence, according to the seminal reasons or principles (spermatikoi logoi); there are certain "seeds" or patterns according to which matter is differentiated or informed. (Functionally, the seminal reasons or principles are identical to Plato's Forms or Ideas.) Nature, in other words, is a synonym for God.
Is it appropriate to identify God with Nature or to call God the soul of the cosmos?

2.2.3. God as Identical to the Cosmos

The Stoics also conceive God as identical with the cosmos. They conceive of the cosmos, defined as the totality of all entities, as if it were a single entity or subject that has predicates. This ultimately allows the Stoics to deify the cosmos, a view that is commonly known as pantheism. As the totality of all things, the cosmos is perfect since it lacks nothing—what else could it have since it includes everything? Zeno is said to have argued further that, since it is the greatest of all things, since it is inclusive of all things, the cosmos cannot be denied the greatest attribute, which is reason: "That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the cosmos, therefore the cosmos exercises reason” (Cicero, Nature, 2.8). Moreover, using the same type of argument, Zeno argues that the cosmos is sentient or has consciousness: "No part can be sentient where the whole is not sentient; parts of the cosmos are sentient, therefore the cosmos is sentient." (2.8) Chrysippus offers a similar argument for the consciousness of the cosmos: "For it is only the cosmos to which nothing is wanting, and which is knit together on every side, and is perfect and complete in all its numbers and parts. Now since the cosmos embraces all things, and there is nothing that is not contained within it, it is perfect at every point. How, then, can that which is of most excellence be lacking to it? There is nothing more excellent than mind and reason, so it is impossible that these should be lacking to the cosmos" (Cicero, Nature, 2.14). In this way, the cosmos is conceived as not simply the aggregate of all material things but also a type of collective, all-inclusive consciousness. The cosmos as the single conscious and rational entity, inclusive of all things, is then identified with God, which is the inevitable consequence of this line of reasoning.

According to the Stoics, from the one God, whose original nature is fire or aither, come the other elements, and from these originate all things. In a sense, all things are God as modification of his original nature. No longer does God (or Nature) act upon pre-existent matter, but transforms his original nature to produce the cosmos. Diogenes says,

God is one and the same with Reason, Fate, and Zeus; he is also called by other names. In the beginning he was by himself; he transformed the whole of substance (pasan ousia) through air into water, and just as in animal generation the seed has a moist vehicle, so in cosmic moisture God, who is the seminal reason (spermatikon logon) of the cosmos, remains behind in the moisture as an agent, adapting matter to himself with a view to the next stage of creation. (Lives, 7.135-36)
God is the whole of substance, who then modifies his original nature to become air and then water; but he leaves himself behind as seminal reason, which functions to direct the adaptation of matter in the next stages of creation. It is seminal reason, because it is the seed of all things. (Seminal reason is more or less synonymous with seminal reasons; the former seems to be a collective noun.) Diogenes gives another account of the Stoic view of God as identical to the Whole:
The cosmos, they hold, comes into being when its substance (ousia) has first been converted from fire through air into moisture and then the coarser part of the moisture has condensed as earth, while that whose particles are fine has been turned into air, and this process of rarefaction goes on increasingly till it generates fire. Thereupon out of these elements animals and plants and all other natural kinds are formed by their mixture. (Lives, 7.142)
It is said that the cosmos emerges from its substance, which is identical to fire. In other words, from fire comes the other elements, of which all things are composed; the process by which this occurs is condensation. But it must be stressed that the substance or fire is also God. According to Cicero, Cleanthes connects heat (fire) and life:

There remains the fourth division of the cosmos, which is both by nature altogether fiery itself, and bestows a healthful and lifegiving heat upon all other substances. In this way the conclusion is reached that, since all the divisions of the cosmos are maintained by heat, the long-continued preservation of the cosmos itself is also due to a like and equivalent principle, all the more so as we are to understand that in the intermingling of this hot and fiery element with every organism, the power to generate, and the cause of production, are resident in that element from which all animate things, and things whose roots are contained in the earth, necessarily derive their birth and increase" (Nature, 2.10).
Heat or fire is that which gives life to everything else by mixing with the other things. This conclusion apparently is reached in part owing to the fact that living things are warm. (It must be recalled that fire is thought to be identical to aither, which is the ruling principle of the cosmos [Lives, 7. 137, 139].) If fire or heat is identified with God then it follows that God is the life that is in all living things. The Heraclitean influence on Stoicism is obvious. Diogenes also reports that, according to Zeno, "The substance of God is the whole cosmos and the heaven" (Lives, 7.148). This would mean that fire (or aither) is everything, and preserves everything.

In his discourse "That the Deity Oversees All Things" (Discourses, 1.14), Epictetus explains that the reason that God is able so easily to oversee all things is that God is identified with all things:

But are plants and our bodies so bound up and united with the whole, and are not our souls much more? and our souls so bound up and in contact with God as parts of Him and portions of Him; and does not God perceive every motion of these parts as being His own motion connate with Himself? Now are you able to think of the divine administration, and about all things divine, and at the same time also about human affairs, and to be moved by ten thousand things at the same time in your senses and in your understanding, and to assent to some, and to dissent from others, and again as to some things to suspend your judgment; and do you retain in your soul so many impressions from so many and various things, and being moved by them, do you fall upon notions similar to those first impressed, and do you retain numerous arts and the memories of ten thousand things; and is not God able to oversee all things, and to be present with all, and to receive from all a certain communication? And is the sun able to illuminate so large a part of the All, and to leave so little not illuminated, that part only which is occupied by the earth's shadow; and He who made the sun itself and makes it go round, being a small part of Himself compared with the whole, cannot He perceive all things?
God not only made all things but is or is in all things. Plants and bodies are "bound up and united with the whole." Since the human soul is really a portion of God as soul of the cosmos, it follows that whatever human beings know, God also knows. God does not simply oversee all things, but is said "to be present with all," and is thereby identified with the all. The sun that illuminates all things, except that part on which the shadow of the earth falls, is likewise a small part of God, so that one must conclude that God is even more illuminating.
Since all things are God and come from God the Stoics taught that cyclically the whole cosmos was resolved back into God, thus producing a cosmic conflagration. At such a time all things no matter how long lived are destroyed; thus there cannot be any immortality, except for God (Lives, 7.157; Epictetus, Discourses, 3.14). The Christian theologian Origen explains the Stoic view, "The disciples of the Portico assert, that after a period of years there will be a conflagration of the world, and after that an arrangement of things in which everything will be unchanged, as compared with the former arrangement of the world. Those of them, however, who evinced their respect for this doctrine have said that there will be a change, although exceedingly slight, at the end of the cycle, from what prevailed during the preceding. And these men maintain, that in the succeeding cycle the same things will occur" (c. Cel. 5.20). Origen also remarks that the Stoics responded to the criticism that an eternal cyclical process impossible since it makes no sense to assert that an individual in one cycle to exist again in another cycle by saying that such individuals are not identical just similar: "The Stoics...allege that as cycle after cycle returns, all men will be altogether unchanged from those who lived in former cycles; so that Socrates will not live again, but one altogether like to Socrates, who will marry a wife exactly like Xanthippe, and will be accused by men exactly like Anytus and Melitus" (c. Cel. 4.68).

Plutarch notices the tension produced by the Stoics' identification of God with matter and their assertion that God is reason that acts upon matter: "If God is identified with matter, why is matter called irrational? If, again, they are ultimately distinct, if matter and reason separately exist, God is no supreme principle, but a composite being, reason in matter" (De communibus notitiis, 48). His point is that one cannot both identify God with matter by saying that God is substance or fire (aither) and also say that God is reason in irrational, i.e., unordered, matter. In the former case, matter cannot be said to be irrational, if God is matter. In the latter case, God cannot be the first principle; rather, the first principle is two-fold: Reason or God in matter. Plutarch has a point.

Is there any sense in which it is true that God is the cosmos? How could one know that the cyclical conflagration of the cosmos was true?

2.2.4. God as a Being

There is a another depiction of God in Stoic philosophical writings. Often implicit in discussion of other issues is the description of God as a supreme being over against the cosmos and as distinct from it; God is depicted as one who rules the cosmos and to whom human beings owe obedience. This depiction of God is more traditional, and is consistent with the more noble portrayals of Zeus in Greek mythology. The first few stanzas of Cleanthes's hymn to Zeus, for example, are as follows:

O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature's great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by thy just decree
Controls all, hail, Zeus, for unto thee
Behoves thy creatures in all lands to call.
We are thy children, we alone, of all
On earth's broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing thine image wheresoe'er we go.

(From Hicks, Stoic and Epicurean, 14.)
Although in it there are hints of a more pantheistic view, nonetheless, in Cleanthes's hymn the predominant conception of God is that of an omnipotent and eternal being who rules Nature (not is Nature), whose image human beings bear. Likewise, Diogenes says about Stoic theology: "God, they say, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil, taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape" (Lives, 7.147). Except for the fact that God is not of human shape, this description of God sounds much like the Zeus of Greek mythology. Likewise, in the writings of the Roman Stoics, God is often viewed as a being who is distinct from the cosmos. Apparently, Stoics saw no inconsistency in speaking about God in diverse ways, although not everyone agreed. In his On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero has Velleius criticize Balbus the Stoic for his perplexing views on God. Citing the works of Zeno, Velleius says that the Stoic confusingly attributes divinity to the "law of nature" but in another place Zeno identifies the aether with God (Cicero, Nature, 1.14). This is judged to be inconsistent. Cleanthes, a student of Zeno, is also said to hold contradictory views about God: "Cleanthes...asserts at one moment that the world itself is God, at another bestows that title upon the mind and intelligence of nature as a whole, and at another finds an undoubted God in the farthest and highest fiery element, called by him æther, which extends in a circle on every hand, surrounding and enclosing the cosmos on the outside that the whole cosmos is God" (Cicero, Nature, 1.14). These three depictions of God are thought to be incompatible: God cannot at the same time be conceived of as the whole, as part of the whole and as over and against the whole. The most ingenious interpreter of Stoicism, Chrysippus, likewise says different things about God: "For he tells us that divine power resides in reason and in the soul and mind of nature taken as a whole, and then again he declares that the world itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul, then that it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality which embraces all existence" (Cicero, Nature, 1.15). Probably, a Stoic would not consider his views to be contradictory, just complicated and subtle. It should be noted that the Stoics also believed that, in addition to God, there were daimones (daemons or gods): "And they also hold that there are daemons who arein sympathy with mankind and watch over human affairs" (Lives, 7.151). They also believed in heroes, deified human beings. Thus, at this level they were in agreement with popular opinion (Lives, 7.151).

According to Diogenes, the Stoics believe that the cosmos is one and finite, and has a spherical shape. Beyond the cosmos there exists infinite void or empty space; the void is said to be incorporeal, by which is meant that it is potentially occupied by a body, but is not actually. The cosmos has no empty space, but forms one unified whole (Lives, 7.140). Diogenes explains, "This is a necessary result of the sympathy and tension which binds together things in heaven and earth" (Lives, 7.140). That which binds all things is a forced called sympathy; there is also tension within the Whole forcing things apart. The balance of these forces no doubt is attributable to imminent Reason or God.

2.3. Ethics

Stoic ethics is an outflow of Stoic cosmology: the ethical goal is to live in a way that is consistent with the way that the cosmos is. According to the Stoics, since the active principle is Reason, then all things unfold according to Reason, which is called providence (pronoia) or fate (heimarmenê). The fact that all things take place according to providence or fate means that there is no real evil in the world; if there were, then, of course, God would be the author of evil, which the Stoics are not willing to admit. This is the premise on which Stoic ethics is based.

2.3.1. The Natural and the Rational

Diogenes says that the Stoics hold that the instinct for self-preservation is natural for non-human organisms. For human beings, those who are rational, however, it is natural to follow reason: "But when Reason by a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to Reason rightly becomes the natural life" (Lives, 7. 86). Non-human species naturally seek their own good; so likewise, rational beings naturally seek their own good, which is to be rational. In his work De finibus, Chrysippus explains:

For our individual natures are parts of the whole cosmos. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or in other words, according to our own human nature as well as that of the cosmos, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is (Lives, 7. 87-88)
All non-human things follow nature instinctively; there is a necessity to their way of being. It seems, however, that human beings as rational are aware of themselves as being part of nature and paradoxically must choose to be what they are already, i.e., "natural." The Stoics speak of an eight-part soul, consisting of the five senses, the generative power, speech and the reasoning part (to logistikon or to dianoetikon) (Lives, 7.110, 157). The intellectual or reasoning part of the soul is the ruling part of the soul (hêgemenikon), responsible for making judgments about true and false, good and evil. It is this part of the soul that chooses to live according to nature. (The human soul is actually a part of the cosmic soul [Lives, 7.143].) Along these same lines, Cicero quotes an unidentified Stoic philosopher who explains that there are five stages of development towards full ethical existence:
The primary duty is that the creature should maintain itself in its natural constitution; next, that it should cleave to all that is in harmony with nature and spurn all that is not; and when once this principle of choice and rejection has been arrived at, the next stage is choice, conditioned by inchoate duty; next such a choice is exercised continuously; finally, it is rendered unwavering and in thorough agreement with nature; and at that stage the conception of what good really is begins to dawn within us and be understood. Man's earliest attraction is to those things which are conformable to nature, but as soon as he has laid hold of general ideas or notions and has seen the regular order and harmony of conduct, he then values that harmony far higher than all the objects for which he felt the earliest affection and he is led to the reasoned conclusion that herein consists the supreme human good. In this harmony consists the good, which is the standard of action; from which it follows that all moral action, nay morality itself, which alone is good, though of later origin in time, has the inherent value and worth to make it the sole object of choice, for none of the objects to which earlier inpulses are directed is choiceworthy in and of itself. (De Finibus, III, 20-21)
According to Stoic ethical theory, the stage in which a human being merely keeps himself alive leads to the next stage in which he chooses the good and rejects the bad; this leads to the third stage of the exercise of choice out of a sense of duty of which he is not fully conscious. The fourth stage is the state of continuously making the correct choice. The final stage of ethical development sees the individual abstracting from experience and forming general ideas about good and evil. This results in an understanding of the natural order of the cosmos to which choices are to be made to conform. In other words, he sees the harmony of the Whole, which is the good, because the harmony is nature and rational. He then chooses to conform to the harmonious Whole, being fully conscious of its nature through abstraction.
2.3.2. Virtue

For Stoicism, the state of being in conformity to or in harmony with nature is virtue (aretê); according to Chrysippus, virtue "is a harmonious disposition, choiceworthy for its own sake, and not from hope or fear or any external motive" (Lives, 7.89). To be virtuous is to be in harmony with oneself and the cosmos, which is the same thing; this goal is intrinsically valuable, and should be pursued for its own sake. Thus, for the Stoic, happiness is not the goal of the exercise of the human will, but it is, nonetheless, a by-product of living according to nature and being harmonious (Lives, 7.86, 88-89).

According to Cicero, virtue is sufficient for happiness, since to be happy is to be separated from evil; the avoidance of what people normally call "evils," such as poverty or illness, are actually irrelevant in making a person happy (Tusc. 5.10.29). The Stoics classify anything other than virtue as a matter of indifference. Diogenes explains that the Stoics used the term 'indifferent' (adiaphora) to mean, "the things which do not contribute either to happiness or to misery, as wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy without having these" (Lives, 7.104; see Cicero, Fin. 3.15.50). Happiness originates in virtue, not in externals, which are outside of the control of the individual.

The Stoics identify four primary virtues: moral insight (phronêsis), courage (andreia), justice (dikaiosunê) and self-control (sophrosunê). Moral insight is defined as "Knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil" (Lives, 7.92). In other words, it is an understanding of the proper objects of volition. All of these virtues hang together, meaning that one cannot have one without the other. Corresponding negatively to these four primary virtues are four primary vices: folly (aphrosunê), cowardice (deilia), injustice (adikia) and profligancy (akolasia) (Lives, 7.93).

Duty (kathêkon) is also an important concept for the Stoics; it denotes "an action in itself adapted to nature's arrangements (oikeion)" (Lives, 7.107). As part of nature, one's duty is to conform to nature. It is the function of moral insight (phronêsis) to know what truly is good and evil, i.e., natural and unnatural. It follows that dutiful acts are those in which reason prevails, such as honoring one's parents, brothers and country.

2.3.3. Indifference to Externals

It is within the control of all rational creatures (human beings) to control the will, i.e., what one chooses and what one rejects. Since what happens is, by definition, God's will, it is the duty of a man to accept what happens as God's will. This means to accept what is normally considered "evil" with equanimity. Insofar as they happen according to nature or Reason, all things are good; it is the duty of a man to recognize the goodness of all things and to respond accordingly. It is within one's power to do do so. Marcus Aurelius counsels,

47. If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in your own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion? And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing which seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain?—But some insuperable obstacle is in the way?—Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you.—But it is not worth while to live if this cannot be done.—Take your departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles.
48. Remember that the ruling faculty is invincible, when self-collected it is satisfied with itself, if it does nothing which it does not choose to do, even if it resist from mere obstinacy. What then will it be when it forms a judgment about anything aided by reason and deliberately? Therefore the mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for, refuge and for the future be inexpugnable. He then who has not seen this is an ignorant man; but he who has seen it and does not fly to this refuge is unhappy. (Meditations, 8)
The ideal is to align one's expectations with nature, wanting nothing beyond what is natural and accepting whatever happens as natural. To be natural is to be rational, to be rational is to be virtuous and to be virtuous is to be happy. Epictetus expresses the same outlook in more theological terms:
Whatever God wills, a man also shall will; and what God does not will, a man shall not will. How, then, shall this he done? In what other way than by examining the movements of God and his administration What has He given to me as my own and in my own power? what has He reserved to Himself? He has given to me the things which are in the power of the will: He has put them in my power free from impediment and hindrance. How was He able to make the earthly body free from hindrance? And accordingly He has subjected to the revolution of the whole, possessions, household things, house, children, wife. Why, then, do I fight against God? why do I will what does not depend on the will? why do I will to have absolutely what is not granted to man? But how ought I to will to have things? In the way in which they are given and as long as they are given. But He who has given takes away. Why then do I resist? I do not say that I shall be fool if I use force to one who is stronger, but I shall first be unjust. For whence had I things when I came into the world? My father gave them to me. And who gave them to him? and who made the sun? and who made the fruits of the earth? and who the seasons? and who made the connection of men with one another and their fellowship? (Discourses, 4.1)
According to Epictetus, a man should accept whatever befalls him as from the very hand of God, so that it would be the height of folly to resist. It must be remembered that a person will be truly happy by being virtuous; since virtue is always in the grasp of the human will, nothing external is necessary for happiness. Thus a person must rid himself of the illusion of the dependence upon externals for happiness; in fact, if it were necessary, then God, being good, would provide this for human beings. The Stoics differentiate four passions and affections that interfere with the goal of remaining independent and unaffected by externals, all of which results from not conforming one's will with the divine. These are pleasure (hêdonê); sorrow (lupê); desire (epithumia); fear (phobos) (Lives, 7.110-11). In each case, these passions have for their objects external objects to which a Stoic, as a rational person, should be indifferent.
Is the Stoic ethic feasible? Can a person really accept all things as from God and be indifferent to all things except the pursuit of virtue? If not, what is your preferred ethical theory?


Reposted under: Canadian Fair Dealing 29.1 and 29.2

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