JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Ethical System of the Stoics.

§ 43.

1. In accordance with the fundamental principles of their physical theories, the Stoics taught that the supreme duty and highest purpose of man's life is "to live according to Nature." By Nature they did not here understand the individual nature of man; they used the term in its wide and universal sense. In Nature the eternal and divine law manifests itself, and as this law is the measure to which all things in the universe must conform in their action, it is the standard to which human action must conform, the standard according to which man must live if he would fulfil the purpose of his existence. The expression, "to live according to Nature" (homologoumenôs tê phusei zên) means no more than the accord of man's conduct with the sovereign law of Nature, or the accord of man's will with the Divine Will. The fundamental law of human conduct may therefore be expressed in the formula: "Thou shalt live according to Nature, i.e., according to the Divine Law which manifests itself in Nature."

2. The highest purpose of human life is not, then, to be found in theoria (contemplation), but in action, and in that action which is according to Nature. Virtue consists in thus living according to Nature. The man who acts in accordance with right understanding is the only man who acts virtuously, and the man who acts according to the natural law, as manifested to reason, is the only man who follows right understanding. We have found it to be the ultimate destiny of man that he should live according to Nature; we may now substitute the notion of Virtue in the formula, and say that to strive after virtue, or to be virtuous, is the highest duty of man.

3. If Virtue is the ultimate destiny of man, it follows that Virtue is to be sought not for sake of anything apart from itself, but for its own sake only. Virtue is its own end. If it were directed to a higher purpose, it would, by the fact, cease to be the ultimate destiny and the highest purpose of human life. Man must be virtuous for Virtue's sake.

4. We must not, then, make Pleasure or Self-gratification the end of our actions. Pleasure is merely an accessory of our action -- not the end after which we must strive. The instinctive impulse of nature is not directed to gratification or pleasure as to its end, but to self-preservation, to integrity and health of body, to true knowledge and science, &c.; in all these cases pleasure accompanies the satisfaction of nature's tendency, but is not the end at which nature aims. Much more should this be the case when there is question of a rational action. Virtue is here the only end.

5. This being so, it follows further that Virtue is the supreme good of man, as well as his highest end. The supreme good must be that good which is sought purely for its own sake, which cannot serve as a means for the obtaining of something else. From what we have said, it is manifest that Virtue is an ultimate good of this kind, for it is essentially its own end. Virtue is, then, the highest good of man, and the true and highest happiness of man can only be found in Virtue.

6. More than this: Virtue is not only the highest good, it is the only true good of man. There is, in fact, only one good, the kalon, i.e., that good which is desirable for its own sake, not for sake of the advantage which it confers, and this good is Virtue, and Virtue only. Everything other than Virtue which men regard as good, is merely an adiaphoron -- something indifferent, not a good in the proper sense of the term. Such things cannot contribute to happiness. Virtue alone is the measure of happiness.

7. We must, however, make a distinction between various kinds of indifferent objects. Some are to be preferred (proêgmena), others not to be preferred (apoproêgmena); others again not worthy of preference or rejection, indifferent in the strictest sense of the word. There are, therefore, certain things of value (axian echonta), and certain things of no value, and worthy rather of contempt (anaxian echonta), and lastly, things that are not of the one class or the other. Things in the first of these categories are to be preferred, things in the second to be rejected, things in the third are absolutely indifferent.

8. The proêgmena accord with the natural desires of man, and can, therefore, be the aim of his efforts; but they do not contribute to real happiness, and must, therefore, be included in the category of things indifferent. On the other hand, the apoproêgmena have no power to disturb or diminish the happiness of the virtuous man. This, with greater reason, is true of things which are absolutely indifferent. The true and highest good is, therefore, Virtue. Virtue alone is not subject to abuse; everything besides can be abused.

9. Virtue is essentially one. If a distinction is drawn between virtues, the difference is a difference of relation -- that is, it is a question of one and the same virtue manifesting itself in different ways. In this sense we may distinguish between cardinal and secondary or derivative virtues. In the first class are included Prudence or Practical Wisdom (phronêsis), Courage, Temperance, and Justice. In their definition of these several virtues the Stoics follow the teaching of Aristotle. In the second category are included Magnanimity, Continence, Patience, Diligence, Deliberation. All these virtues depend upon right understanding, and can, therefore, be communicated by teaching.

10. The principles here established as to the nature of Virtue lead to the following conclusions:

(a) The person who possesses one virtue possesses all; for virtue being essentially one, each single virtue includes in itself all the others.

(b) There is no difference of degree in virtue, i.e., virtue cannot be attained in a higher or lower degree. The nature of virtue does not admit of a more and a less. A man cannot live according to nature in a greater or less degree -- and the essence of virtue consists in living thus. The good actions of virtuous men are, therefore, all equally good; in the goodness of actions more and less are not admissible.

11. The opposite of Virtue is Vice. A man is vicious who lives not in harmony with the law of nature, but at variance with it. What is true of virtue is true analogously of vice.

(a) The man who is stained with one vice is stained with all vices. As a man cannot be virtuous in one respect, without being virtuous in every respect, so he cannot be wicked in one respect without being wicked in every respect.

(b) In the same way, there cannot be a distinction of degree in vice any more than in virtue. A man cannot be wicked in a higher or lower degree; as all virtuous men are equally virtuous, so all wicked men are equally wicked. And for this reason all evil deeds are equally evil (omnia peccata paria), there is not in this matter a more and a less.

12. Furthermore, the Stoics teach that there is no mean between Virtue and Vice (aretê kai kakia). There is indeed such a thing as an approximation to virtue. But the individual who only approaches virtue, is still without virtue quite as much as the absolutely wicked. A middle state does not exist. Man either possesses virtue, or does not possess it. In the former case he is virtuous, in the latter wicked; he is not, and can never be, neither virtuous nor wicked.

13. In human actions, considered in themselves, the Stoics distinguish between katorthôma, or complete fulfilment of duty, and kathêkon, or mere right action. A rightful, befitting action is, no doubt, conformable to nature, and is therefore justifiable; it is not, however, performed from a purely virtuous motive, but for the attainment of some ulterior end to which it leads. An action is the perfect fulfilment of duty katorthôma, when it is performed purely out of a virtuous disposition, and for sake of the good done. The katorthôma alone fulfils the requirements of virtue, for virtue essentially excludes the notion of a further end.

14. No act is, in itself, praiseworthy or reprehensible; all acts, even those which are accounted wicked, are good if performed with a righteous, virtuous disposition. With a contrary disposition every action is evil, even though, in outward appearance, it seem good. The wicked man sins in every action; the virtuous man in every action is doing good. "Unnatural love, prostitution, violation of tombs, and the like deeds, are no longer immoral in themselves; it is no longer forbidden to eat the flesh of men; the deeds of Oedipus and Jocasta become indifferent in character." The virtuous man, as such, is incapable of wickedness; the wicked man, as such, is incapable of good.

15. The emotions (pathê), be they of what kind they may, are aberrations from the right practical judgment as to what is good and evil. The principal forms of emotion are Fear and Anxiety, resulting from the apprehension of a future or present evil; Desire and Delectation, which result from the apprehension of a future or present good. The emotions proceed from a false practical judgment; they are not, therefore, in any case, in accordance with nature, and thus they cannot be reconciled, with virtue. The virtuous man must yield to no emotion or pathos, he must be raised above them all.

16. In keeping with these ethical principles is the Ideal of the Sage which the Stoics put before us. The true sage is the man who possesses virtue. As such he is indifferent to everything except virtue, for he understands that other things are not truly and really good. He is indifferent to pleasures and desires, for he knows that neither any pleasure nor any desire is in accordance with nature and with virtue. He is indifferent to all pain, to all fear, and to all anxiety, for he knows that these things cannot trouble the happiness which he possesses in virtue. He frees himself from all passions; and if, in certain cases, he cannot help feeling pain or pleasure, he does not permit himself to be influenced by these feelings, but remains always unmoved and immovable. In every gratification and success, in every misfortune and accident of life, he maintains imperturbable equanimity; no sickness can trouble this evenness of mind, no fear can disturb him, no fate, however hard, affect him -- in a word, he is apathês (without feeling). In this apatheia consists the ideal perfection of the sage.

17. The sage is thus the really free man, the really rich man, the true king and ruler, the true priest, prophet, and poet; he unites in himself all perfection; in intrinsic dignity he is second to no rational being, not even to Zeus himself, except that he is not, like Zeus, immortal. He is a god after his fashion. All that he does is good, he cannot lose his virtue. "Notwithstanding this moral independence, he is yet in practical communion with other rational beings. He has his part in the affairs of the State, and this part is the larger the nearer the State approaches the perfection of that one ideal State in which all men are embraced. But he exercises towards other men, as towards himself, not forbearance, but justice. He is permitted community of wives. He is master of his own life and of his own choice can put an end to it; suicide is allowed him."

15. The fool is, in all respects, the contrary of the sage. We may assert of him the contrary of all that we have attributed to the wise man. The fool, not possessing virtue, is subject to the influence of every emotion and every passion; he is a slave in the true sense; a godless being, who sins in every action that he performs. Between the sage and the fool a chasm intervenes, so wide that we can institute no comparison between them. As there is no middle state between the condition of virtue and the condition of vice, it follows that all men are either sages or fools, either perfect in goodness (spoudaioi) or thoroughly wicked (phauloi).

19. It must be allowed that the later Stoics abandoned to some extent this extravagant exaltation of the wise man, and this exaggerated contrast between the condition of the sage and of other men. They taught that no individual attains to the ideal state of the wise man, that in actual fact the only distinction existing is the distinction between the state of fools and the state of those who are advancing to wisdom (prokoptontes).

20. Such, in brief, is the ethical system of the Stoics. It is noticeable that this system, though it denies the very basis of moral life -- liberty, immortality, &c., -- increases nevertheless the measure of man's moral obligations exorbitantly. Herein it is unreasonable and unnatural, and leads finally to excesses, with which its first principles are in glaring contradiction. The demands made upon the Stoic sage become wholly unnatural in their extent, and are wholly irreconcilable with the needs of practical life. Yet the only ultimate result is that the sage proudly exalts himself to an equality with the gods, and looks down with contempt on all men who have not reached the level he has attained; that he is permitted every licence, even the most shameful, and that ethical antinomies are made the laws of morals. The principles which underlay the system of the Stoics, notably their thoroughly pantheistical doctrine of Necessity, and denial of Immortality, could lead to no more than a caricature of ethical science, and it was in the nature of things that such a system should at last degenerate into unrestrained immorality.

21. We have now to notice briefly the "later" Stoics, followers of the older school, who either maintained its principles intact, or accepted them with some modification. To the later Stoics belong:

(a) Panaetius of Rhodes (B.C. 180-111), a pupil of Diogenes. He modified somewhat the rigid character of the Stoic teaching (Cic. De Fin. IV., 28), and gave it that special form which secured it favour among the Romans. He himself won for the Stoic school such Roman nobles as Laelius and Scipio. "He aimed at a less rugged, and a more brilliant exposition of the Stoic philosophy; and in his exposition he appealed not only to the older Stoics, hut also to Plato, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Theophrastus, and Dicasarchus, and by this method prepared the way for Eclecticism." He rejected the astrological soothsaying and divination which had been in favour with the older Stoics, in consequence of their fatalistic notions; he abandoned the doctrine of a conflagration of the world, and with Socratic modesty disclaimed all title to perfect wisdom. His work (peri tou kathêkontos) is the foundation of Cicero's work, De Officiis. (Cic. De Off. III. 2.)

(b) Posidonius of Apamea, in Syria (B.C. 90), held his school at Rhodes, where, amongst others, Cicero and Pompey attended his lectures. He was esteemed the most learned (polumathestatos kai epistêmonikôtatos) of the Stoics. He inclined to Eclecticism, blended Platonic and Aristotelian with Stoic doctrines, and delighted in a lofty rhetorical style.

We may further mention: Apollodorus of Athens (B.C. 144); Athenodorus of Tarsus, President of the Library of Pergamus, and, at a later period, friend and companion of Cato the Younger (Uticensis), who strove to confirm the Stoic doctrines by the example of his own life; Antipater of Tyre (B.C. 45), a teacher of Cato the Younger; Apollonides, a friend of Cato; Diodotus (B.C. 55), one of Cicero's instructors, later a member of his household, and his friend; and lastly, Athenodorus, the teacher of Octavianus Augustus. Cfr. Ueberweg.

(c) Under the Roman Empire immorality and corruption were ever on the increase. The men who set themselves to struggle against the prevailing evils, turned for the most part to Stoicism, seeking from the calmer study of this philosophy consolation and tranquillity of mind, or borrowing from it a haughty virtue to resist the masters of the State. It thus caine to pass that, at this period, the philosophy of the Stoics began to assume a political character, to render those who professed it objects of suspicion, and even to expose them to persecution. The most remarkable amongst the Stoics of this period are:

(alpha) L. Annaeus Seneca, a native of Cordova, in Spain (B.C. 3 to A.D. 63), the tutor of Nero. He directed his attention to Ethics rather than to Physics, and he was more concerned to exhort to the practice of virtue than to inquire into its nature. His views on the latter point do not differ materially from those of the older Stoics. Of his philosophical writings the following have been preserved: Quaestionum Naturalium, Libri VII., and a number of religious and moral treatises: De Providentia; De Brevitate Vitae; De Otio aut Secessu Sapientis; De Animi Tranquillitate; De Constantia; De Ira; De Clementia; De Beneficiis; and the Epp. ad Lucilium. He exalted the Stoic Sage above the gods; for the independence of the Sage, he holds, is the work of his own will, and this is not the case with the gods. Nevertheless he is profuse in despairing lamentations over the corruption and misery of human life, and he makes large concessions indeed to human weakness. The same contradiction he exhibited in his private life. In theory a gloomy Stoic, looking down with contempt on all things human, he was in practice a dainty courtier, by no means averse to the pleasures of the table and other like indulgences.

(beta) Following Seneca, we have L. Annaeus Cornutus (B.C. 20 to A.D. 66), the Satirist A. Persius Flaccus (B.C. 34 to A.D. 62) a pupil and friend of Cornutus, and C. Musonius Rufus of Volsiniuni, a Stoic whose views corresponded with those of Seneca. Musonius Rufus was banished from Rome by Nero at the same time as the other philosophers (A.D. 65); he was recalled at a later period, probably by Galba; he was exempted from the order of banishment issued against the philosophers by Vespasian, and was personally acquainted with Titus. His pupil, Pollio, composed the apomnêmoneumata Mousôniou (Memoirs of Musonius), from which Stobaeus has probably derived what he tells us of the life of Musonius. To him is attributed the maxim: "If thou doest good under difficulty, the difficulty will pass, but the good will endure; if thou doest evil with pleasure, the pleasure will pass, but the evil will endure."

(gamma) Epictetus, a native of Hierapolis, in Phrygia, was first the slave, and afterwards the freedman of a soldier of Nero's body-guard. He was a pupil of Musonius Rufus, and subsequently taught philosophy in Rome till the philosophers were banished from Italy by Domitian (A.D. 94.) He then retired to Nicopolis, in Epirus, where Arrian became his pupil, and wrote down his lectures. According to Epictetus, the whole duty of man consists in living entirely for God, in reverencing God, and being obedient to Him rather than to man. The god within us (theos or daimôn) we should reverence most. The efforts of the Sage are directed to make himself independent of all external goods which are not under his own control; man must endeavour to have all his fortune in himself. He will attain this perfection by self-denial and patience. Hence the rule of life: "Bear and forbear." (anechou kai apechou.)

(delta) Lastly, we must mention here the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Stoicism had hitherto heen only on the side of those who were discontented with the circumstances of the time, and the general condition of society; but with Marcus Aurelius it took possession of the imperial throne. The treatise of this prince (ta heauton), the last remarkable outcome of Stoic philosophy, contains short proverbs and aphorisms, in which the doctrines of philosophy are applied to the concerns of practical life. In this teaching a certain tendency to mysticism betrays itself, revealing an affinity between this form of the Stoic doctrines and the Neo-Platonism, which was soon to succeed them. Theoretical views are adopted by the Emperor merely as a basis for some religious or moral precept. We also notice that concentration in self, and an abandonment to the will of the Deity, are the dispositions of mind which his moral teaching requires from man.

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