1. Morality and Aesthetics
2. Ethics as the Science of Morality
3. The Beginning of Ethics as Philosophy
4. From Socrates to Zeno the Stoic
5. Diversity and Development in Stoic Thought
6. From Chrysippus to Cicero
Before embarking on any discussion of ethics, the science of morality, with a modern audience, it is necessary to engage certain deep-rooted assumptions about the nature of morality. All too often, we hear that morality is a strictly personal concern, a matter of preference or opinion. This attitude effectively short-circuits any attempt to discuss morality dialectically, since the person who begins to debate about morality is seen as presumptuously imposing his preferences upon others. In this view, moral judgments are purely aesthetic judgments; each of us tries to do what we feel is right. The one who attempts to debate about morality, by contrast, assumes that there can exist real moral truths. As soon as we acknowledge that there can be moral truths that are independent of personal tastes, we effectively admit that this can be a subject of argumentation. As the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler stated: "We separated the sphere of truth from the sphere of taste. In the former, agreement is to be sought, and engaging in argument can serve this purpose. In the latter, the differences of opinion should be tolerated, and there is no point in arguing to overcome them." Clearly, the question of whether it is fruitful to argue about morality depends on whether or not morality is purely aesthetic.
All of us, whether we believe in the possibility of universal ethics or not, often make moral decisions on the basis of what "feels" right or wrong. This is true even of those intellectuals who presume to have found a rational basis for all moral behavior; in day-to-day practice, we often go with our gut. We can invent some plausible-sounding biological rationale for the basis of such feelings, but this does not account for why we, as rational beings, should continue to defer to them. What is more, though some of these feelings are innate, many of them are inculcated from our upbringing. How, then, do we know that our upbringing is correct? If we were raised by depraved parents or in a depraved society, our aesthetic sensibilities could be correspondingly perverse. Or are we to say that no society is depraved, since all moral judgments are purely aesthetic?
While we refuse to affirm without proof that morality is purely aesthetic, we must acknowledge that aesthetics plays an essential role in morality. For example, if someone abstained from murder solely because he was aware of some rational ethical imperative not to do so, not because he also felt that murder was wrong, we would rightly think this person was a psychopath, a heartless monster. A truly ethical person endeavors to sincerely conform his aesthetic sensibilities to objective ethical principles, so that doing right will also feel right to him. We may find some people, with little education or proper upbringing, to be "naturally ethical," in the sense that their natural aesthetic sensibilities already conform to the ethical. We recall that the aesthetic deals with the sphere of taste, while ethics pertains to the sphere of truth. A naturally ethical person, therefore, is one whose tastes are consonant with the truth.
Modern society has not completely reduced the ethical to aesthetics, as can be seen by our countless laws which impose norms for behavior upon everyone, regardless of preference. Some of these laws hearken back to the mores or customs of our ancestors; others appeal to rational principles; yet still others have no higher authority the collective aesthetic preferences of the electorate. Modern democracy, with its emphasis on the sovereignty of the people, without regard for any higher being, facilitates a gradual reduction of the ethical to the aesthetic. We may see an example of this in the near-universal abolition of corporal punishments. We regard flogging a criminal as barbaric, yet we consider long-term imprisonment, a much more severe punishment, to be perfectly acceptable. This makes little rational sense, but it makes perfect aesthetic sense. Imprisonment, unlike flogging, is antiseptic. We do not have to see or hear the agony of the punished, so we can continue in our bourgeois comforts, untroubled by anything unsightly. The agony of the prisoner is no less real, yet it does not trouble our aesthetic sensibility.
A truly ethical person does not allow his aesthetic reaction to the criminal's agony to influence his judgment. A flogged criminal will cry out just as heart-wrenchingly as an innocent man, but the two situations are not ethically equivalent. It is no ethical incongruity to declare flogging a criminal to be just while flogging an innocent man to be unjust; there is only an aesthetic tension. Similarly, there is nothing ethically inconsistent in forbidding murder while demanding the execution of criminals, for it is not ethically the same to kill the guilty as to kill the innocent. There is an aesthetic similarity, of course, since the convicted criminal may plead for his life and cry in agony just as pitiably as an innocent man would. Our aesthetic revulsion toward killing may evoke pity for the criminal, for our feelings direct our attention to the agony of the moment, rather than the full ethical context that inexorably led to the criminal's execution. Often, defenders of the death penalty will counter aesthetics with aesthetics, asking us to remember the agony of the victims, but this does not take us to the ethical plane, as it leads only to emotional vengeance.
One can certainly produce higher ethical reasons for diminishing or abolishing capital punishment, but such abstract philosophical or theological considerations hardly figure prominently in the minds of most of the electorate. No single philosophical or theological argument against capital punishment holds sway over the diverse sects and nations of the earth, but an aesthetic revulsion toward capital punishment transcends most divisions of religion and nationality.
The primacy of aesthetic considerations can be seen in the ridiculous lengths to which industrialized countries go to make sure the few executions that do take place are painless. You find a man fit to be killed for his crimes, but he is not to experience pain or serious discomfort? Can anything be more absurd? If he does not deserve to feel pain, how can he deserve to be killed? It would seem that the deepest cause of our revulsion is not the severity of a punishment, but an aesthetic aversion to corporal pain that is independent of ethical context.
An ethical society, without contradiction, could execute all murderers, save those relatively few cases who are too insane to have moral responsibility for their actions. The industrialized nations of the world decline to do so not because of some new, higher ethics - observation demonstrates that a vengeful spirit is far from dead among humanity - but because of aesthetic considerations, a poorly defined sentiment that it is "barbaric" to kill people for any reason.
In democracies, changes in ethics usually follow shifts in aesthetics. It is difficult to convey a persuasive rational argument to millions of people of diverse ideologies, but it is practicable to slowly change people's tastes by social conditioning. As we live in an increasingly sanitized, comfortable society, witnessing physical pain becomes distasteful to us. Our aesthetic revulsion trumps any ethical context that would justify inflicting corporal punishment on a criminal. Bourgeois democrats, nonetheless, have no problem with imprisonment, precisely because it removes the blight of crime from our sight. Naturally, we try not to worry too much about what goes on in prisons.
Modern liberal democracy frequently tries to reduce the ethical to the aesthetic, leading to the common belief that morality is a matter of opinion, as though it were simply a thing of personal preference or taste. This development is due not so much to democracy as such, but to liberalism: namely, the belief that freedom is a categorical imperative. When all ethics is referred back to the principle of individual freedom, the logical conclusion is that aesthetics (what one prefers) should be more fundamental than ethics (what one ought to do). It has taken more than two hundred years to gradually realize this in practice. As freedom becomes recognized as more of an imperative, all sorts of ethical norms are stripped of legal enforcement by the courts, thereby altering social conditions. In time, even those initially opposed to this permissiveness will come to accept it aesthetically ("that's just the way things are now") and we will have the desired shift.
This essay is focused not on the aesthetic, but on the ethical, which is concerned with what one "ought" or "ought not" do in a given circumstance. 'Ought' signifies a peculiar sort of imperative. It is not the 'must' of physical or metaphysical necessity, for we have a freedom to choose among actions with varying ethical implications. Attempts to reduce ethics to biological determinism fail to be ethical, since they convert the 'ought' into a 'must'. 'Ought' qualifies an action that is preferred not on an account of its greater probability, but on account of its congruence with some principle that is considered to be "good." An ethically correct action may lead to some good, or the act itself may be the manifestation of good. The question of whether ethics is reducible to aesthetics, then, depends on whether the "good" is just a matter of taste.
If ethics really were reducible to aesthetics, certain ethical concepts would be rendered meaningless. For example, the essence of justice is to do what is ius, that is, what is right or deserved or fitting to the circumstance. If the good is simply a matter of preference, how can we decide with any impartiality what one deserves? Justice is distinct from vengeance because it is imposed by a disinterested party, who is not concerned with restoring what he himself has lost, but in seeing that what is right is done. Yet having justice administered by a third party only makes sense if there is some sense of what is "right" that can be abstracted from the preferences of the two parties. If the ethical is purely aesthetic, we would simply have to accept that two parties have different preferred outcomes, without any objective means of resolving them. Each would be free to pursue private vengeance if he saw fit to do so.
This is not an abstract consideration, but the actual state of affairs in the early Roman republic, where families settled their differences by taking the law into their own hands, abducting sons as ransom so demands were met. These families, however, were not guided solely by aesthetic considerations, but often by a belief that they were objectively wronged. Parties might agree on the facts of the case, yet disagree on who was in the right. Private ethical judgments gradually yielded to appeals to adjudication by a third party, esteemed as wise and fair by both parties. Such a judge effectively imposed his sense of what was ethically right on both parties, which would be intolerable if the ethical was merely the aesthetic. If two people disagreed on whether a certain food tasted good, would they appeal to their friend the gourmet, and submit to his opinion, so that henceforth the one who thought it tasted awful should admit it tastes good?
Settling cases with judges was an important development in both Greek and Roman society, as it necessarily raised questions about what is objectively right or wrong in a given circumstance. Since the same judge would hear many cases, he would develop principles of adjudication to apply to cases with similar circumstances. An impartial judge was not concerned with outcomes insofar as which party came out the victor, but only that the principles of justice he recognized should be done. Thus public justice raised the ethical consciousness of society, for unlike private retribution, it was concerned with justice for justice's sake. It is no surprise, then, that at this time we see the first attempts to articulate systematically what makes an action right or wrong. Similar developments would occur in ancient China, to which we will make occasional reference.
Taken in their original linguistic roots, the terms 'morality' and 'ethics' effectively mean the same thing. 'Morality' comes from the Latin mores, which means "moods; manners; customs." 'Ethics' comes from the Greek ethos, which means "disposition; custom; temperament." Both terms signify the habitual behavior of an individual or a society. In both Latin and Greek, the terms came to signify something more than a statement of how things are habitually done, but also how they ought to be done, especially as social customs reflected established norms of behavior.
In modern usage, we often distinguish ethics from morality, using the former term to signify the science of morality, so that mores or customs are the subject of the study called ethics. Ethikos is a derivative of ethos, meaning "of or for ethos." It is that which pertains to mores or customs. Accordingly, Aristotle's famous treatises on morals bore the term ethikos in their title, and so 'ethics' has come to mean the study or science of morals. In similar fashion, politikos ("of or for polites, a citizen") or 'politics' has come to mean the study of things related to citizenship and the polity. Ethics is the study of customs or morality.
In Roman antiquity, right and wrong had long been defined by customs (mores), which preceded formal written law (lex). The Greeks similarly recognized ancient, unwritten normative principles (nomoi) that took precedent over written law, forming its background or moral foundation. Both Greek and Roman cultures had a sense that there were received traditions of right and wrong that could not be changed even by the highest written law. How were right and wrong to be defined? The ancients seemed to have no better answer than "custom." Somehow, man had preserved a sense of right and wrong, handed down from time immemorial. Yet men realized that not all customs were good; they recognized abhorrent customs among foreigners, even if they were reluctant to identify their own traditions as evil. How, then, could one know which customs were good and which were bad?
To answer such a question, one would need to invoke an authority higher than custom. In the early Greco-Roman period, this could only mean appeal to the heavens, but even the gods did not always behave well. Often, their "right" was merely might, and humans were in the unenviable position of having to serve their whims. Yet if humans could recognize when the gods misbehaved, surely their sense of right and wrong was not derived from the gods? As Plato would poignantly ask, is something good because the gods will it, or do the gods will it because it is good?
Perhaps some mysterious intuition or faculty of human nature gives us direct insight into right and wrong. Such a supposition is only intelligible if man is of heavenly origin or has access to heavenly knowledge, for knowledge of the earthly cannot give us knowledge of the highest good. To cast this in modern terms, even if we knew everything there is to know about physical science, we could not validly infer from this knowledge a single "ought to" statement. Earthly knowledge can only tell us how physical things work and which processes yield which results. We cannot infer from such knowledge which results we ought to prefer. This is why attempts to find a "scientific basis" for ethics ultimately lead to crude utilitarianism. Science can only tell us the most efficient way to achieve a certain end, but it cannot teach us which end we ought to prefer.
Still, it would seem that the noble faculty of reason might help us at least bring some order to our conception of morality. With reason, one may at least categorize moral behaviors under common principles, enabling us to contemplate the fundamental elements of what is widely perceived as morally good or bad.
The pursuit of wisdom in ethical matters is as old as mankind itself, as far as we can tell. The priests of Egypt, the Chaldeans of Babylonia, the Magi of Persia, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts, and their counterparts in other cultures sought knowledge of the most fundamental principles of the cosmos. What we would distinguish as physics, ethics and theology were all intertwined. We can see this in the Egyptians, who taught that the sun and the moon were gods, yet considered matter to be the first principle from which the elements and living things were derived, and explained eclipses as caused by the moon being in the earth's shadow. They held that the stars were made of fire, yet could affect events on earth depending on how the fire was mixed. The soul was held to survive death and pass into other bodies, yet this was explained in physical terms. The distinctions between natural and supernatural, physical and moral, had not yet been clearly articulated.
Nor was there a clear distinction between religious and moral laws. This is obvious, for example, in the Law of Moses, which resists modern attempts to impose such a distinction anachronistically. The Egyptians, for their part, ascribed the laws of justice to the god Thoth. The example of the Egyptians is particularly relevant, since it is from them that the Greeks learned to begin the systematic pursuit of wisdom.
The rudiments of Greek philosophy are seen in the Seven Sages, who are variously enumerated; Thales, Solon, Pittacus, Bias, Cleobulus, Anacharsis, and Myson are included in most lists. Most of these sages lived around 600 BC or shortly thereafter. Thales and Solon, at least, definitely traveled to Egypt and studied the wisdom of their priests, ranging from astronomy and mathematics to religion and justice. Thales was concerned primarily with physical matters, and, seeing animate behavior even in non-living things like magnets, he held that everything was filled with divinities. Solon was concerned more with morality, and he became the eminent lawgiver of Athens. His insistence that men should be free, ruled by laws rather than the arbitrary whim of a tyrant, was obviously grounded in a particular ethic, but he never, as far as we know, systematically expounded the basis of that ethic. Of the other sages, we know only some of their aphorisms and sayings, but nothing that forms a coherent theory of ethics. In this they were no different than their predecessors in the ancient Near East, who produced a wealth of moral proverbs, rules, and laws, but nothing resembling a theory of how we could systematically identify the right course of moral action.
While the study of ethics remained a collection of fragmentary insights, more systematic thinking developed in physics and mathematics. The aforementioned Thales of Miletus (c. 640-562 BC) was succeeded by his fellow Ionians Anaximander (611-546 BC) and Anaximenes (flourished c. 546 BC). This latter was a contemporary of Pythagoras (c. 570-490 BC), who established his own school in Italy, creating a strange fusion of mysticism and mathematics. The Ionian school continued its study of nature under Anaxagoras (500-428 BC), who was the first to propose that mind (nous) was prior to matter, a notion that would be developed more profoundly by Plato. His pupil Archelaus would bring Ionian philosophy to Athens.
A systematic philosophical examination of ethics would begin with Socrates (469-399 BC), who had studied mathematics and Ionian physics under Archelaus, before striking out on his own. Socrates was so deeply concerned with ethics that he is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for the widespread classical belief that the purpose of philosophy is to learn to live well. There were already tendencies in this direction among the Sages and among the Pythagoreans, but for Socrates this was a programme with a definite form. Although it is difficult to determine how much of the Socratic dialogues written by Plato and Xenophon express the thought of Socrates rather than his pupils, the character of the man shines through unmistakably. While professing that he himself knew nothing, he was a skilled controversialist, and asked probing questions designed to make one realize one's own ignorance and start afresh.
A central feature of Socratic ethics was self-discipline, the ability to control one's appetites rather than be ruled by them. Socrates himself lived austerely, walking barefoot in simple clothes, eating plain food and drink, and spurning excess in sexual pleasure. He claimed that by eating only when he was hungry, he was able to derive great enjoyment from simple, nourishing food, rather than seek luxurious qualities to make food pleasurable. He thus rationalized his denial of pleasures in terms of pursuing a higher order of pleasure or happiness - it is not always clear if these were distinct - that was centered on the cultivation of virtue and friendship. Socrates recognized traditional notions of virtue, such as honesty, justice, gratitude, piety, and the like, but he differed from previous thinkers in his method of expounding reasons for preferring virtue to wealth and sensual pleasure. Often, traditional moral exhortations would promise that the virtuous man will be rewarded with material prosperity, but Socrates, by contemplating virtue itself, seemed to regard virtue as its own reward to an extent. The practice of self-discipline made a man more efficient in body and mind, so the reward of virtue was not in the accumulation of material possessions, but in cultivating a man's most prized possessions of body and soul. Further, a virtuous man will be comforted in his old age, when sensual pleasure is less accessible, as his beauty and health fade. Socrates did acknowledge a practical aspect to virtue as well, preventing a man from squandering his wealth, and securing the acclaim of his friends, his countrymen, and his posterity. While we cannot discern a well-defined ethical system from the conflicting reports we have of Socrates, it is clear that he was not a mere skeptic, but actually did hold positive ethical doctrines.
As to the source of Socratic ethics, the philosopher himself repeatedly referred to the daimon that guided him. A devoutly religious man who offered traditional sacrifices and recommended the practice of divination, Socrates nonetheless had a conception of the divine that was to some extent independent of received tradition, as embodied in the poets Hesiod and Homer. Setting aside the sometimes undignified and ignoble poetic depictions of the gods, Socrates instead believed that heavenly beings could directly inspire him with notions of what is good and virtue. This belief may have motivated the Socratic doctrine that virtue is a kind of knowledge, a knowledge that cannot be taught. In his Meno dialogue, Plato derives from this thesis his own doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul.
Socrates' appeals to his daimon, as well as his neglect of the poets, led to the false charge that he denied the traditional gods. The condemnation of Socrates, to modern eyes, may seem like religious suppression of philosophy, but it must be remembered that the earliest moral philosophers did indeed act like prophets. The distinction between theology and ethics had yet to be developed, and it is not altogether clear that they can be entirely separated, unless man is to make himself a god.
Socrates found the study of physics to be mostly useless and unreliable, judging from the innumerable contradictions and disagreements among the Ionian and Pythagorean philosophers. His pupils, nevertheless, resumed the study of physics, and often sought to rationalize ethics in the context of their preferred physical or metaphysical scheme. This led to a diversification of philosophical ethics, often leading to conclusions far afield from anything Socrates would have envisioned regarding virtue. Four of the most important and long-lasting schools that would eventually develop were the Academics, the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics.
The most illustrious student of Socrates was Plato (427-347 BC), whose school was known as the Academy. In ethics, Plato was the first philosopher to divide virtue into the four categories of wisdom, justice, bravery, and temperance, a scheme that would be adopted by philosophers of other schools, including the Peripatetics and the later Stoics. Plato's ethics was grounded in his tripartite conception of the soul, which held that the lower appetites should be made subject to the rational part. More profoundly, he grounded ethics and physics in his notion of the Good, which was so abstruse that even many of his contemporaries, to say nothing of later commentators, struggled to understand it. For present purposes, it suffices to note that Plato believed in a single, absolute good, which particular virtues or moral actions might exemplify. The sense of right and wrong was grounded in something extrinsic, not mere subjective preference. An exposition of the ethical thought of the Platonists will await another work.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) left Plato's Academy at an early age and established his own system of thought. His school, called the Peripatetics, accepted the Platonic division of four virtues, yet accounted for them differently, often applying the principle of the mean between excess and deficiency (e.g., courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice). Virtuous action led toward happiness (eudaimonia, "good spirits"), which was not sensual pleasure, yet neither was it detached from prosperity in this life. Aristotle identified happiness as the end or telos of a person, for it is pursued for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. Aristotle's ethics, like Plato's, is an extremely subtle and complex system, requiring lengthy treatment. For present purposes, it suffices to note that he attempted to give a commonsensical yet logical treatment of ethics, without pretending that mathematical certitude can be imposed on such matters. Accordingly, his identifications of virtue and vice did not lead to radical denials of contemporary mores. He was attentive to the fact that different circumstances can alter the moral status of an act, and his systematic approach would be adopted by some of the later Stoics.
Aristippus (c. 435-350 BC) was distinct from the other pupils of Socrates, for he unabashedly took delight in cultivating sensual pleasures, which he described as "smooth motions" in his physics. While he did not necessarily pursue luxurious excess, he looked for a life that was free from discomfort and distress. He defined pleasure to be the only good, yet unlike the later Epicureans, he emphasized bodily pleasure over mental pleasure, and unlike modern utilitarians, he considered that we should only maximize our own pleasure, not that of society in general. His school, called the Cyrenaics, professed an increasingly intemperate and extremely short-sighted form of hedonism, denying even that we might pursue pain in the short term in order to secure pleasure in the long term. It is perhaps no coincidence that this school, unique in its denial of an absolute good beyond personal utility, produced Theodorus, one of only two known atheists among the ancient Greek philosophers (the other being Diagoras of Melos, late 5th cent. BC). Even Epicurus acknowledged the existence of the gods, though he denied they were concerned with the affairs of men.
Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC) modified Cyrenaic hedonism, giving it more moral credibility by allowing that we should refuse a pleasure that leads to painful consequences, or endure pain in order to achieve a greater pleasure in the long term, or accept bodily discomfort for the sake of cultivating mental pleasures. Still, he maintained that there could be no real distinction between happiness and the pleasures of the senses, and that all mental pleasures were derived from bodily pleasures. The Epicurean notion of "mental pleasure" was broad enough that one could rationalize any higher satisfaction derived from virtue in purely hedonistic terms. Epicurus himself said that the highest pleasure is the complete absence of pain. Beyond this, pleasure varies in kind, but not degree. By this standard, the man who shuns sensual pleasures for the pursuit of virtue could be said to attain the "pleasure" of having a tranquil and dispassionate mind. Although Epicurean ethics was not as crassly hedonistic as the Cyrenaics, it remained profoundly egoistic, attempting to reduce all heroic displays of virtue to selfish utilitarian motives, such as the pursuit of acclaim or esteem. The virtues were not desired for their own sake, but only to attain a mental state that was "pleasurable" in the Epicurean sense, being harmonious and lacking distress. Thus, pleasure was the ultimate end or telos that was desired for its own sake.
Socially-minded Romans such as Cicero would reject Epicurean egoism, though he was quite familiar with the arguments in its favor. For Cicero, the Epicurean rationalization of justice as a mutual agreement not to harm each other would not suffice, because this did not recognize a positive duty to give every man his due. A sense of real duty to others is lacking in Epicureanism, which tries to explain everything in terms of self-interest. Yet historically morality arose in various civilizations in a social context, not an individualistic context. Having seen firsthand the disastrous consequences of untrammeled egoism in Roman politics, Cicero could have no respect for a system that glorified this vice.
The deathknell of Epicurean ethics was the ascent of Christianity, which proclaimed a charitable love for the sake of the beloved, not of oneself, just as God freely loved His creatures, though He had no need of anything they could offer. The Christian ethic of humility and self-denial was diametrically opposed to Epicurean egoism. As Christ denounced the Pharisees' external displays of piety, there could no longer be any question of pursuing virtue simply for fame and glory, as the pagans might have done, thereby denying the Epicureans any plausible egoistic rationalization of heroic acts. Selfishness would be considered a vice throughout the Christian era and even among many modern secular thinkers.
The nineteenth-century liberal political philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill would revive the Epicurean notion of pleasure as the good. Their "utilitarianism" differed from Epicureanism in that it encompassed social virtues, saying we ought to maximize the pleasure of the greatest number of people, though without convincingly explaining why, in the absence of an absolute good, we should feel compelled to do so. Modern thinkers, especially in the biological sciences, often try to rationalize altruistic behavior in terms of some underlying calculation of utility, such as regarding the social whole as an extension of the self. Such argument is subject to the criticism that it broadens the definitions of egoism and utility into something quite contrary to their ordinary meanings, making utilitarianism more of an exercise in verbal manipulation than a real explanation of human morality.
The Stoic school, the indirect object of our study, has an intellectual heritage stretching back to Socrates' pupil Antisthenes (446-366 BC). Admiring the hardy lifestyle of his master, he took Socratic austerity to a new extreme, actively disdaining sensual pleasure and proudly asserting that pain can be a great good, as exemplified by the labors of Heracles. People should not delight in physical beauty, but in the virtues that no inanimate object can have. Most importantly - and this was the defining characteristic of his school - virtue of itself sufficed to attain happiness. Antisthenes thus conceived of a perhaps unintuitive notion of happiness, which was independent of success in one's endeavors or any other extrinsic condition. Since happiness consisted in the very exercise of virtue, rather than the results of virtuous acts, it was of no concern whether actions brought riches or poverty, fame or ignominy, pleasure or pain.
Antisthenes' philosophy of indifference to external fortunes was taken to its logical extreme by his pupil Diogenes (404-323 BC), who was called the Cynic because he seemed to live like a dog, owning nothing but his cloak and a pouch full of food, sleeping in a tub, and performing indecorous bodily functions in public. Diogenes was a persistent critic of all society, complaining that human beings had spoiled the natural gifts of the gods with their artifices. He is said to have carried a lamp in Athens to see if he could find an honest man, or simply "a man," as if to say that people in cities no longer lived as natural human beings. His contribution to the philosophy that would be called Cynicism was that man ought to live, quite literally, according to nature, by abandoning the trappings of civilization as much as possible. He did not think this meant living like a brute animal, but quite the contrary, he saw it as ennobling and strengthening the natural powers of man. Thus he deliberately exposed himself to extreme heat and cold in order to raise his power of endurance.
Amazingly, Diogenes was able to attract some followers to his radically spartan lifestyle. Most famous of these was Crates of Thebes (fl. 326 BC), who gave away all his money, desiring only the wealth of virtues. He mocked the courtesans and the military, who were responsible for the political turmoil in Athens at that time. He urged people to be content with a simple fare of lentils, being himself of good cheer in his frugal lifestyle. His example would impress upon Zeno of Citium the complete self-sufficiency of virtue in order to lead a good and happy life.
Zeno of Citium (333-261 BC), known as "Zeno the Stoic," would supplement Cynicism with an entire physical and metaphysical scheme, constructing a self-consistent and comprehensive philosophy that would be called Stoicism. He was a pupil of Crates, yet he also studied under other philosophers, such as Xenophanes and Stilpo, so that he was able to construct a physical system to combine with Cynic ethics. Zeno held that both ethics and physics were grounded in logic or abstract reasoning, and this tripartite division of philosophy (logic, ethics, physics) was adopted by many other thinkers in the classical era. An accomplished logician - though not to be confused with Zeno of Elea, he of the famous paradoxes - Zeno applied reasoning to ethics and physics in a systematic way. His school was called the Stoic, since he would lecture at the Portico (Stoa) of Pisianax in Athens.
Zeno held that the telos or end of man was "life in agreement with nature". Such a life was identical with the life of virtue. Here we see an inheritance of the Cynic view that man ought to live in accordance with nature, yet Zeno would develop his own distinct ideas about what man's nature is. His virtues were still the classical four: justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. Since virtue is the "end" of man, or the good that is pursued for its own sake, it follows that the accidents of fortune, such as wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, and the like, are not categorically good or evil, since they can occasion virtue or vice, depending on circumstances. In this sense, they are "things indifferent," for they do not necessarily lead to virtue or vice.
Zeno was the first Greek philosopher to introduce the term kathekon into ethics. This term literally meant "reaching [as far as]", but had acquired the figurative meaning of "incumbent upon". In a Stoic context, it is usually translated as "duty," but this should not be understood as some extrinsic obligation, as a soldier's duty to obey orders, but rather as a behavior whereby a being determines and pursues what is genuinely good for it. Thus even plants and animals could have "duty" in this sense, as they may act in a way that is fitting or proper to their nature. Duty is an act in harmony with nature, and nature is governed by reason (logos), so to do one's duty, one should act in accordance with what reason commands.
To make sense of this ethic, one must understand that Zeno saw the universe as essentially rational. While some modern philosophers have tried to have things both ways - affirming natural moral imperatives while denying an inherent rationality in the natural order - Zeno perceived that duty was derived from the Logos or Reason that permeated all of nature. Happiness was nothing other than using "right reason" (orthos logos) to coincide with the Logos. The reason that is inherent in the substance of the universe as a whole is God (Theos), who is the same as Dia or Zeus. Substance without quality, like the Peripatetic "prime matter," is passive and inert. It is the Logos or God who is the active principle in the universe. This God is not considered to be a distinct substance from the Universe, so Zeno's theology has been characterized as pantheistic.
The activity of the Logos was described by Zeno as a divine fire or aether, a basic eternal principle, together with prime matter, that was not capable of being created or destroyed. The observable bodies made of elements (earth, air, water, fire), by contrast could be generated or destroyed. Since all these bodies had forms that could be corrupted, it stood to reason that eventually there would be a time when all were simultaneously corrupted and resolved once again into the primordial divine fire. This is the periodic conflagration of the Stoics, which is sometimes perceived as the whole world just burning up for no reason, but properly considered, it follows from the corruptibility of the elements, once we understand that the "fire" of the conflagration is not ordinary fire, but the primordial principle of activity that gave birth to the elements. Anything that is made entirely of corruptible substances must be corruptible as a whole, and eventually return to formlessness.
The individual souls of men were capable of rational understanding because they partook of the divine fire or aether by which the world was made. Indeed, individual souls were regarded by the Stoics as part of the divine world-soul, to which they would eventually return in the next great conflagration. The essential unity of our rational nature made it obvious to the Stoics that "Good" was one and the same for all rational beings. A God that was thoroughly immanent in every man, and indeed, in the whole universe, was necessarily concerned with every detail of nature, and so all was directed to a rational purpose. This is why, for the Stoics, Reason, Fate, and God were one and the same. Their conviction in a thoroughly rational universe implied a comprehensive causality to everything, so that the future might certainly be known from the present. Thus, like Socrates, they extolled the practice of divination, and saw the hand of Providence in everything. They were not in the least perturbed by the presence of pain and suffering in the world, for they perceived that Providence guided things to their proper good, which was not necessarily pleasure.
Stoicism has become synonymous in most people's minds with an attitude of indifference or impassiveness regarding emotions. Indeed, Zeno held that emotion was an irrational and unnatural (para phusin) movement in the soul, or an impulse in excess. It may seem strange to us to regard our animal emotions as unnatural, or literally, "beside nature" (as in "paranormal"). Yet the Stoics defined nature with respect to reason, and found that most emotions lead us to apparent goods rather than our true good apprehended by reason.
Zeno identified four classes of emotion: grief, fear, desire or craving, and pleasure. Grief was an irrational mental contraction (Stoic physics was based on the notion of tension and contraction), while fear was the expectation of evil. Desire or craving was any irrational appetite, including anger and love, while pleasure was an irrational elation at what seems choiceworthy. All these emotions are conceived as irrational, since they judge things according to physical appearances, and not according to what is really good. The wise man will not be subject to irrational emotions, and is therefore said to be passionless (apathe). In this negative assessment of ordinary human emotions, we again see the influence of Cynicism. The ideal of the wise men as apathetic and undisturbed by emotion is also found in the Cynics.
Still, like the Cynics, the Stoics did allow for rational good feelings (eupatheia), namely, joy, caution, and wishing. A wise man will not experience vulgar pleasures such as those that come from drunkenness and debauchery, but he will feel joy at having improved himself. He will not be subject to fear at what is painful, but will exercise caution in avoiding what is truly not good for him. He will not be subject to irrational desires for seeming good, but may rationally wish for true well-being in others. In all cases, what makes a feeling good is its grounding in rationality, which is the measure of true goodness. This emphasis on using reason rather than emotion to discern the good, so even our good feelings are consequent to reason, is naturally congruent with the old Socratic dictum that virtue is a kind of knowledge. For this reason, the Stoics insisted that a virtuous man, being wise, could not hold a mere opinion, since he could never give his assent to that which is false.
How, then, in specific applications, do we determine the right course of action? In some things, such as duties to the gods and to parents, the Stoics were in agreement with existing Greek custom. In other things, such as Zeno's proposal in his Republic that wives be held in common (similar to that made by Plato), they markedly opposed societal convention, much like Diogenes the Cynic. As we shall see, there were vastly different applications of Zeno's principles among the Stoics themselves.
Zeno's pupils did not all adopt the entirety of their master's scheme. This is most eminently the case among the so-called heterodox Stoics, Ariston, Herillus, and Dionysius. Even among the orthodox Stoics, from Cleanthes and Chrysippus to Panaetius, we will find considerable variety in thought, though there is agreement on basic principles.
Ariston of Chios (c. 320-250 BC) accepted the Stoic ethos of indifference to anything that does not pertain to virtue or vice, but he rejected the study of logic and physics as useless. He placed emphasis on the Stoic doctrine that a wise man does not hold mere opinions. He had no patience with those Academics who denied that there could be certainty in anything.
Herillus of Carthage (fl. c. 260 BC) held that knowledge in general was the telos or end of life, so that men ought to devote themselves entirely to study. In this, he was not unlike many modern scientists who identify intellectual virtue with moral virtue. He acknowledged that the unwise may pursue other ends, but these were all subordinate to the true end, knowledge, which is sought by the wise.
Dionysius the Renegade (c. 330-250 BC) was the most deviant Stoic of all. Plagued by the violent pains of an ophthalmic migraine, he could not persuade himself that pain was a matter of indifference. He therefore joined the Cyrenaics, saying that pleasure was the end of all action, and lapsed into a life of unbridled hedonism, frequenting houses of ill repute.
A better sense of the mainstream of Stoic thought can be found in the school that continued through Cleanthes (331-232 BC), a personal favorite of Zeno. Though ridiculed as dull-witted, he was an industrious man, and exemplified an unflappable Stoic character even in the face of mockery. His written works were mostly on ethics and logic. Cleanthes held that man's highest privilege was to praise Zeus, i.e., the rationality inherent in the universe.
The most illustrious pupil of Cleanthes was Chrysippus (c. 282-206 BC), who greatly expanded and elaborated Stoic thought, so that much of what is called Stoicism originates with him. He was a master dialectician, and could trip people up with paradoxes that we would recognize as sophistries. He explained ethics in a highly elaborate physics and psychology of which we have only fragmentary knowledge via Diogenes Laertius and through the thought of Panaetius as preserved by Cicero.
Chrysippus divided ethics into eight topics: (1) impulse, (2) things good and evil, (3) passions, (4) virtue, (5) telos, (6) primary value and actions, (7) duties or the befitting, and (8) inducements to act or refrain from acting. According to Chrysippus, an animal's first impulse is self-preservation, for, "The dearest thing to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof." Pleasure is not the first impulse of an animal, but a byproduct of when an animal actually finds the means of subsistence. We note that modern interpretations of biology, following Epicureanism and utilitarianism, often invert this order of priority, saying that an animal seeks its own pleasure or utility first, and survival is just a byproduct of this pursuit. They are not actually trying to survive or evolve. This interpretation of Darwinism comes into conflict with what we observe in higher animals, which seem genuinely concerned with their survival as such, as well as in plants, which are able to survive and evolve without any impetus of pleasure.
The Stoics themselves invoked the example of plants against the Epicureans, saying that there was originally no distinction between plants and animals, yet plants have a life regulated by nature even though they have no impulses or sensations. As soon as animals appear, with the added capacity of impulse, that impulse is immediately directed toward the pursuit of nourishment. Indeed, animals are not hedonists, as they will endure many travails to obtain food or care for their offspring, and this seems to be motivated more by fear than pleasure. Of course, Epicurus included the removal of fear in his definition of pleasure, so this observation alone does not defeat Epicureanism proper.
The existence of impulse in animals creates a different rule of nature for them than for plants, which are governed by extrinsic forces alone. The rule of action for animals is not to be swayed by the wind and rain, but to pursue their impulses, since these impulses are ordered toward the good of their constitution. Yet with human beings, a further capacity is added, that of reason, a more perfect rule that enables us to shape impulse wisely. For human beings, then, it is natural to follow reason rather than irrational impulse. Virtue is the goal to which nature guides us through reason, thus the end of man is virtue, which is the same as living in agreement with nature.
Chrysippus amplified Zeno's view of virtue as life in agreement with nature, claiming that our individual natures are part of the nature of the whole cosmos. Thus when we act in accordance with our rational nature, we act in accordance with the nature of the universe. Chrysippus, like Zeno, perceived rationality in the universe - indeed, the word cosmos signifies an ordered world - going so far as to claim that the world itself is a rational being. Yet rationality does not permeate every part of the universe in the same way, as shown by the different rules or ends for plants, animals, and humans. For plants, rationality is imposed by extrinsic forces favoring their nourishment, while animals have impulse that let them pursue their nourishment rather than passively awaiting it. Humans are constituted to partake of rationality in its purest form, and are able to shape their impulses in accordance with it. Virtue, therefore is a harmonious (homologoumene - "same as the logos") disposition, choiceworthy for its own sake. Virtue is not chosen from fear or hope or any other external motive.
Chrysippus and other Stoics enumerated the virtues variously, but all acknowledged the four primary Platonic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. In accordance with the Socratic principle that virtue is a kind of knowledge, they explained each of the virtues. Wisdom is the knowledge of which things are good, which things are evil, and which are neither (for those who acknowledged this final category). Courage is knowing what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent, and so on.
Good in general is that from which some advantage (ophelos) comes, or it is identical with the benefit itself. Following this definition, virtue is good in three senses: (1) as the source of benefit, (2) as that in respect of which benefit results (e.g., the virtuous act itself), and (3) as that by the agency of which benefit results (e.g., the good man who partakes of virtue). For rational beings, the Stoic definition of good is "the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational". Virtues, virtuous acts and virtuous men all answer to this definition, confirming the three senses in which virtue is good.
The Stoics had various means of classifying things that are good. Some goods are psychical, such as the virtues and virtuous acts, while others are external, such as having prosperity, a good country, or a good friend. Some goods are neither psychical nor external, such as the fact of being good and happy. Also, goods may be considered as ends or means, or both. A friend is merely a means by which we obtain advantages (psychical or external), while confidence, liberty, delight, freedom from pain, and virtuous acts, are all ends desired for their own sake. Virtues themselves are both ends and means. They are means because they cause happiness, as Epicureans might agree, yet they are also ends because they perfect happiness and are a part of it. Similarly, vices are both means and ends of misery.
Psychical goods may be subdivided into exeis ("behaviors, habits, states") and diatheseis ("arrangements, dispositions, constitutions"). Virtues are diatheseis, since they are dispositions of the soul, while a man's achievements are exeis, that is, regular behaviors of the soul. Yet when we consider the soul's activity as such or the exercise of its faculties, these are neither exeis nor diatheseis, that is, neither behavioral states nor dispositions of the soul.
Some goods can be mixtures of psychic good and external good. For example, one may be happy in one's children, so this is both a good of the soul and a good of external circumstance. Knowledge, by contrast, is a pure, unmixed good, being independent of external circumstance.
The Stoics considered virtue to be a superior good for man, since, being psychical rather than dependent on externals, and being a disposition rather than a behavioral state, it could be a lasting, permanent good. Physical activities and joys were merely transitory goods, by contrast. Virtue was not only a means of attaining happiness, but happiness was to be found in virtue itself, and it is in virtue as an end that the lasting good of man can be found.
For the Stoics, goodness transcended Epicurean utility, but did not exclude it. Thus they taught that all good is expedient, useful, beautiful, beneficial, desirable, and just or right, that is, in harmony with law and drawing men together. These various aspects of the good are not in tension with each other when rightly considered. When the Stoics say that the good is always expedient or useful, they do not mean conversely that what is useful or expedient is always good. They do deny, however, that there could ever be a good thing that is useless or without benefit, or unworthy of desire.
The Stoic school considered the good and the beautiful to be equivalent. By beautiful, they meant that which makes something praiseworthy. Of this broader sense of beauty (kalon), there are four kinds: what is just, courageous, orderly or wise. These four kinds of beauty correspond to the four virtues. "Orderly" beauty corresponds to the virtue of temperance, which includes decorum, as well as our notion of physical beauty (kallos), which is derived from a sense of harmonious proportions and other features.
Among things that are neither good nor evil, the Stoics included: life, health, pleasure, physical beauty (kallos), strength, wealth, fame, and noble birth. Contrary to Epicurus' claim, the Stoics did not seek virtue in order to win fame or reputation as virtuous men, and did not even consider fame to be a good. Things like life, health, wealth, and pleasure, are "things preferred," but not necessarily good, for the good is always beneficial, but these things can sometimes cause harm if bad use is made of them. As Chrysippus remarks, some pleasures can even be disgraceful.
These things that are neither good nor evil are sometimes called "indifferent" by the Stoics. This does not mean that we should never care about whether we are healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, alive or dead, but only that such things do not contribute to the essence of happiness or misery. In other words, it is possible to possess these things, yet still lack happiness. In Scholastic terms, they are not moral goods, but physical goods, which may be used for morally good or bad purposes. We should not, therefore, use these things as criteria for moral choices, though there may be other grounds for choosing or avoiding them. Pleasure may provide a basis for choosing or preferring one action over another, but not for discerning the good.
The Stoics discerned three kinds of things that are "indifferent": (1) those preferred for their own sake, such as natural ability or moral improvement, (2) those preferred for the sake of something else, such as wealth and noble birth, and (3) those preferred for both reasons, such as strength and perfect faculties. Even if we were to agree with Epicurus that pleasure is preferred for its own sake, this would not be inconsistent with the notion that pleasure is a morally indifferent thing. This is because the Stoics had the sense to make a distinction between preference in general and a desire for the morally good.
Taking Zeno's notion of duty (kathekon), the Stoics identified as dutiful those acts that reason persuades us to do, while undutiful acts are opposed to what reason exhorts. The Stoics thought it was rationally evident that we should honor our country, our parents and our brethren, and converse with our friends. The neglect of these tasks was opposed to duty. We must remember that the Stoic notion of reason includes moral purpose, though it is not exactly clear how man is to know which behaviors are best suited to his moral good. The Stoics acknowledged that some acts, such as picking up a twig, were neither dutiful nor undutiful, having no moral value.
Among duties, the Stoics distinguished those that were unconditional (e.g., providing for one's own health) from those that are imposed by special circumstances. In times of great need, one may need to sacrifice property or even life and limb for the good of the nation. According to Greek legend, Agamemnon even had to sacrifice his daughter for the success of the Trojan War, so this notion of contingent duty was already well known.
Even things that are in themselves neither good nor evil might have moral duties attached to them, according to some of the later Stoics. For example, boys ought to obey the attendants in charge of them. Stoics from Cleanthes onward were increasingly concerned with harmonizing their ethical system with public mores. Thus they allowed for a kind of duty even among things intermediate between good and evil.
Chrysippus in particular found himself walking a fine line between showing due deference for contemporary mores and following the logic of Stoic thought. Although he allowed for intermediate duties, and even acknowledged that pursuit of bodily health and other externals may be preferred goods, he was nonetheless faulted by contemporaries for saying indecent things about the gods and allowing for incestuous marriages. In actual practice, the great Stoic philosophers upheld the mores of their times with great purity, unlike their Cynic predecessors, yet they still argued for the ethical indifference of such things as lewd acts in public or even consumption of human flesh. These seem to have been theoretical arguments rather than serious proposals for behavior, yet the moral repugnance of these theses leads us to consider that Stoic ethical theory is fundamentally flawed.
For one thing, the Stoics say that all virtue directs man to follow nature, yet they deny that there is any real good in man pursuing natural physical impulses for their own sake. They contend that such impulses are often irrational, yet reason itself supposedly only tells us to do what is good for our nature. The problem with Stoicism is that it implores us to transcend physical externals, yet tries to ground this desire in nothing more than our physical nature. The Epicurean answer to this paradox is to say we should seek nothing more that the pursuit of natural pleasure, but I would contend that the flaw is in the other half of the paradox, namely the attempt to ground morality in what is physically natural. Virtue points us toward a good that transcends what we are by nature. We try to become better than what we currently are. Still, the Stoics had the good sense not to suppress this desire to transcend our animal impulses, though they may be faulted for overstating the principle, so that there is no moral good whatsoever in our physical activities.
Chrysippus distinguished Stoic virtue from animal appetites by emphasizing the power of the rational will, which can make itself free from irrational impulses. He took Zeno's four classes of emotion - grief, fear, desire, pleasure - and sought to show how each was a kind of judgment grounded in falsehood. It may seem strange to think of emotions as judgments, but Chrysippus was attempting to contrast rational and irrational judgments, so that a man may free himself from emotion by purely voluntary rational means, namely by learning what is true. This strong voluntarism would reappear in the Christian era as the Pelagian heresy, with its insistence that man could cleanse himself of sinful inclinations by purely voluntary rational acts.
Grief or pain, according to Chrysippus, is an irrational mental contraction. It is irrational because the soul laments the loss of that which is not good, but a thing indifferent. Types of grief include envy, jealousy, rivalry, annoyance, distress, anguish and pity. We might think pity to be a virtuous disposition, but to a Stoic it is irrational, since it is grief at suffering, which is not evil even when it is undeserved. Envy is irrational because it is grief at the possession by another of what one desires, where desire is an irrational emotion.
Fear is the expectation of evil. It may be considered irrational insofar as the thing judged evil is really a matter of indifference. To the Stoics, evil was not to be found in externals, but only in the loss of virtue, yet no external circumstance could take virtue away. We see a semblance of this line of thinking in later Christian thought, particularly in St. John Chrysostom's sermon that no one can be injured who does not injure himself. In other words, external circumstances, human enemies, and even the devil himself cannot compel a man to sin, so they cannot harm a man in his soul unless he allows it. We find this line of thinking, emphasizing the triumph of the interior life over external problems, even in modern thought. For example, we may consider Eleanor Roosevelt's famous dictum that no one can make you feel insignificant without your consent.
Fear might still be judged irrational even if we admit that the expected evil is a genuine evil, insofar as it does not enhance our ability to act in order to prevent that evil. In this vein, we might consider the Gospel saying: "Which of you can add a moment to his life by worrying?" If the purpose of fear or anxiety is to avoid evil, this emotion is a means ill-suited to its end, so its continued presence is irrational.
Desire or craving is also considered an irrational appetite, encompassing "want, hatred, contentiousness, anger, love (eros), wrath, resentment." Want is irrational because it craves in vain for what it cannot have. Hatred is the desire that evil should befall someone. Anger is a desire to punish one who has unjustly injured you. Love, in the sense of eros, is a desire to win affection through physical beauty (kallos). Resentment is an early stage of anger, while wrath is anger developed into malice.
We can see why the desires listed would be considered irrational by Stoic standards, since none of them lead directly to one's personal development of virtue. To wish evil upon another person does not help one become more virtuous, nor does the cultivation of purely physical beauty. The Stoics do not allow even for anger motivated by zeal for justice. It is assumed that the only cause of anger in its various forms is injury to oneself. Naturally, a Stoic should be indifferent to such injuries, as they do not detract from one's virtue. This expectation of complete abstinence from anger, erotic love, and other natural cravings that we might consider morally defensible, even virtuous in certain contexts, is why the Stoics were perceived by their detractors as insensate men of stone. We see some parallels to this denial of desire, especially that of want, in the Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism.
Lastly, pleasure (hedone) is characterized as "an irrational elation at the accruing of what appears to be choiceworthy." Unlike the other emotions, pleasure is not an appetite, but a sense of satisfaction upon gratifying some irrational appetite. Pleasure is irrational insofar as we are satisfied by things that are not really good for us. The types of pleasure (as recorded by Diogenes Laertius) are ravishment, malevolent joy, delight and transport. Ravishment is a pleasure that charms the ear, while malevolent joy is pleasure at another's ills. Delight (terpsis) is a turning toward weakness; i.e., indulgence in sensual pleasures that do not enhance our virtue. Transport is the consummation of delight, an immersion in sensual pleasure that makes us lose sight of virtue, so it melts away.
This condemnation of pleasure weighs hardest on the modern ethos, which tends to be hedonistic to various degrees. Modern defenses of hedonism usually start with platitudes such as "pleasure is natural," "it does not hurt anybody," or "there is no guilt in pleasure". All of these arguments can at most establish that pleasure is a thing indifferent, not that it is a positive good conducive to the cultivation of virtue. They further ignore the psychological reality that the pursuit of pleasure often leads men astray from virtue, or at least indifferent to virtue or neglectful of it. Here I am speaking strictly of the pleasures as defined by the Stoics, not the much broader sense of "pleasure" (fulfillment of what one desires; absence of fear) used by Epicurus. The pleasures condemned by the Stoics may be natural to irrational creatures, but not to man, whose nature is rational and therefore ought to be subordinated to reason and the cultivation of virtue.
Still, the Stoic school recognized that there are some emotional states or feelings that are ethically good. Joy (charan is a rational elation, the counterpart of pleasure (hedone). Joy is a satisfaction in virtuous acts, and is therefore rational. (Epicurus, of course, would argue that joy is really a kind of pleasure.) There is also a rational counterpart of fear that can be called avoidance or caution. A wise man should not feel fear, since fear is an apprehensiveness toward things that are not really evil (i.e., they do not obstruct virtue in us), or a useless disturbance that does not help us avoid genuine evils. Avoidance, by contrast, is a rationally willed judgment to act in a way that prevents genuine evil. For example, a wise man may exercise caution in avoiding acquaintances or situations that could induce him to commit vicious deeds. It is not clear, however, to what extent caution for one's life, health or property would be considered rational, since the Stoics generally regarded these as things indifferent.
A third feeling that is ethically good is rational appetency, the counterpart of desire. A wise men may desire what is genuinely good for himself and for others. It is under rational appetency that the Stoics categorize friendship and other bonds of affection that are ethically good. These kinds of love are contrasted with that which desires physical beauty, a thing indifferent.
Note that the Stoic allows no rational counterpart for grief or anger, which are judged to be altogether incompatible with wisdom. There is no reason for a wise man to grieve, for the only thing worthy of grief would be the loss of virtue, yet it is always in our power to regain virtue. Anger is never good, because the desire to punish does not cultivate virtue in ourselves.
In synthesis, the ethical developments of the Stoic school through Chrysippus appear lofty and admirable, yet at the same time perhaps too demanding and indifferent to legitimate human longings. These characteristics are true to the original ethics of Zeno, however much the details may have been modified or developed. A wise man is passionless (apathe) and has no dealings with pleasure, grief, fear or anger. This seemingly inhuman doctrine of apatheia - which bears some resemblance to Eastern religions - has earned the Stoics the most scorn, for their concept of human nature is almost unrecognizable to most of us. Despite this weakness, the noble aspects of Stoicism earned a wide following, especially as it seemed to be the strongest alternative to the selfish hedonism prevalent among the ruling classes of the ancient world, which often brought ruin to the polity. It should not be surprising, then, that this philosophy should find fertile soil in the mind of one of Rome's greatest exponents of civic duty.
After the death of Chrysippus (206 BC), the Stoic school was headed by Zeno of Tarsus. Zeno introduced few writings or new doctrines, though he questioned the final conflagration of the cosmos. He was succeeded by Diogenes of Babylon (c. 230-150 BC), who also studied under Chrysippus. Diogenes was an important philosopher of his day, but none of his works are extant. He was the teacher of Panaetius of Rhodes (c. 185-110 BC), who eventually moved to Rome and introduced Stoicism there.
Panaetius was the most eloquent of the Stoics and the least severe, so his ethics could be applied to the lives of ordinary people, not just a few men of heroic austerity. It is primarily through the writings of Panaetius that the illustrious Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) acquired a detailed knowledge of Stoic ethics. In the last year of his life, Cicero attempted to popularize Stoicism in Tusculanarum Disputationum ("Tusculan Disputations") and De Officiis ("On Moral Duty"). The latter work in particular follows the ethical theory of Panaetius in some detail, though Cicero has added much that is his own. Although Cicero wrote these works relatively late in antiquity (45-44 BC), he is an important witness to one of the oldest ethical traditions in Western philosophy, since the original works of Panaetius and the other Stoics are no longer extant.
Cicero's essay De Officiis is of more than historical interest, as it has shaped Western thought on ethics for millennia, finding admirers among pagan statesmen, Christian saints, and Enlightenment philosophes. The longevity and universal appeal of this work at least suggests that Cicero and his Stoic predecessors have hit upon some principles that resonate with the noblest aspirations of human nature, to be found in cultures with diverse religious and philosophical assumptions, as well as diverse aesthetic sensibilities. This implies that there is something in De Officiis that is truly ethical.
Continue to Part II
© 2010-11 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org