I have been reading a nice paper by Matthew Sharpe, published as chapter 3 in The Handbook of Virtue Ethics, edited by Stan van Hooft & Nafsika Athanassoulis (Acumen Publishing, 2014) (downloadable here), and have discussed its first three sections in my last post. Here I conclude my analysis of the paper, covering sections 4-6.
4. Virtue as technē
Another significant difference between Aristotle and the Stoics is that the former made a distinction between epistēmē (theoretical wisdom) and phronēsis (practical wisdom), and then between those two and technē (technical knowledge concerned with arts and crafts). But for the Stoics virtue is both technē and epistēmē. John Sellars, Sharpe reminds us, interprets this as suggesting that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living,” a really nice concept, I think.
Importantly, the Stoics distinguish between the goals of a virtuous action — which are under the control of the virtuous person — and the ultimate outcome, which is not. One of their most used analogies was to an archer: the goal of training as one is to maximize the chances that the archer hits his target under a wide variety of conditions. But even the most skilled archer may fail if the conditions change suddenly and unexpectedly (e.g., a strong gust of wind): “All we can therefore rationally concern ourselves with is the cultivation of a state of character deftly able to best respond to any and all such circumstances.”
Which logically leads to the famous hypoexairēsis, or inner attitude of reserve: the desired outcomes of one’s action can never be guaranteed, because while the goal is under our control, the result of our actions is not. We do everything, as Donald Robertson puts it, while uttering the reserve clause, “fate permitting.”
Here is a very insightful passage from Sharpe: “The Stoics’ famous opposition to the pathē or passions — seemingly their greatest break with Aristotle — turns on the thought that passions like anger, fear, urgent desire (epithymia) and hatred each reflect and embody more or less unconditional psychological attachments to external things, as if they were necessary to our eudaimonia.” Which, of course, they are not.
5. Stoic magnanimity and courage
There is a whole new book on the virtue of courage in ancient Greece, which I intend to read as soon as possible and report on. Meanwhile, the fifth section of Sharpe’s paper takes on this and related topics from a Stoic perspective.
He sets up yet another contrast between SVE and its Aristotelian counterpart, when it comes in particular to the concept of megalopsychia, roughly translatable as magnanimity (which literally means “great-souledness”). Aristotle thinks this is the virtue of men of status and wealth, but Chrisippus does away with that bit of aristocratic thinking, defining megalopsychia as “the epistēmē which makes one be above those things whose nature it is to happen to good and bad persons alike.”
Megalopsychia, then, is a species of courage, one of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism, which elevated it to a much more prominent role than Aristotle did.
6. Logic and Physics as virtues
At the onset of this section Sharpe reminds us of a famous observation by Bernard Williams, one of the most prominent ethical philosophers of the 20th century. Williams pointed out that from the Greek / eudaimonic perspective, our modern moral philosophy would seem to be concerned with a narrow range of subjects, essentially falling under the single virtue of justice. Their concept of justice was much more enlarged, and this is even more so for the Stoics.
The paper reprints a very helpful table (derived from the writings of Stobaeus), summarizing at a glance the Stoic classification of virtues. Without getting into too much detail (again, the full paper is available here) the virtues fall under four categories:
Proper actions (ta kathekonta), Impulses (hormai), Cases of endurance (hypomonai), and Distributions.
The four primary virtues, as is well known, are, respectively: Phronēsis (practical wisdom), Sophrosyne (temperance), Andreia (courage), and Dikaiosyne (justice).
Each of the primary virtues has a number of subordinated virtues. For instance, under practical wisdom we find good judgment, discretion, shrewdness, etc.; under temperance we have propriety, sense of honor, self-control; under courage the Stoics listed perseverance, confidence, magnanimity (see above); and under justice they included piety, kindness and sociability.
The Stoics went further, though, claiming for instance — rather counterintuitively, it must be said — that logic is a virtue. That’s because dialectic, the activity of engaging in rational discourse, is more than just an activity, it is a type of excellence that ought to be cultivated. Even more so for the care with which one arrives at (rational) judgment, a logical (in the broader, Stoic sense of the word) skill of eminently practical importance.
But it gets weirder: for the Stoics physics too was a virtue! Here lies another breaking point between Aristotelianism and Stoicism, since for Aristotle knowledge of natural phenomena is of no practical import, it only brings intellectual pleasure. But for the Stoics, famously, there was a deep connection between physics (and logic) and their focal concern, ethics: “Chrisippus is reported to have repeatedly claimed that one cannot better begin the study of ethics than by understanding physics.” While Sharpe — rightly — brings in Stoic theology at this point, and in particular Cicero’s explanation in De Finibus that “a person cannot rightly judge good and bad, without a knowledge of the whole purpose (ratio) of nature,” there is a straightforward naturalistic interpretation of the connection between ethics and physics as well: the basis of the Stoic discipline of desire — i.e., the ability to recognize and accept what happens in the universe — is a straightforward implication of the Stoic concept of universal causality. As Epictetus puts it: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion, 8)