I have commented on the general topic of Stoic ethics before (here and here), but given that ethics is the fundamental pillar of Stoic philosophy, I’m sure there will be plenty of other occasions to return to the subject. This post is about the treatment of Stoic ethics to be found in a chapter by Malcolm Schofield in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics.
The first interesting bit comes when Schofield discusses Zeno’s views on ethics, as presented by Stobaeus. According to Schofield, Zeno’s views are eminently Socratic, in particular he adopts the four fundamental virtues (wisdom, courage, justice and temperance) from Plato’s Republic, and imports the idea that things like health and sickness are not bad or good in themselves from the Apology and especially Euthydemus.
In other texts we encounter a redefinition of the virtues, all cast in terms of wisdom. As Schofield puts it: “Zeno specified each of the other three in terms of phronêsis, practical wisdom (thus exhibiting a unity in plurality that Chrysippus would turn into a particularly subtle form of inseparability): justice as wisdom in matters of distribution, moderation in matters requiring choice, courage in matters requiring endurance.” I quite like this 1+3 version of the virtues, it makes more sense to me than to consider wisdom a fourth virtue on par with the other three.
Schofield then moves to consider Zeno’s views as found in Diogenes Laertius, and in particular his distinction between things that have value (preferred, such as health and education), those that have negative value (dispreferred, like sickness and ignorance), and those that have neither.
Zeno is also known for his idea that the goal of life is to “live consistently,” and that happiness is “the smooth current of life.” Consistently here means in accordance to reason. And Diogenes explains: “Living consistently with nature is living in accordance with virtue, since nature leads us to virtue.” To which Schofield adds the following comment: “The idea is that we all have as our natural endowment certain inclinations which are ‘starting points for virtue’ (Cleanthes) or the ‘foundation of appropriate behaviour and matter for virtue’ (Chrysippus).”
Zeno argued that human beings are “programmed” (we would say) by what the Stoics called oikeiôsis (i.e., affinity) to do the following:
- to behave in ways that promote our health, wealth and reputation — goals that are facilitated by the practice of the Stoic virtues of moderation and courage
- to identify with the interests of our parents, friends, and other fellow humans — related to the practice of the Stoic virtue of justice
- to discover “what is appropriate” — which is achieved through the practice of practical wisdom, the fourth Stoic virtue.
Schofield then tackles the need the Stoics had to refute the Epicureans, who famously argued that pleasure (not virtue) is the fundamental good in life. According to Diogenes, Chrysippus argues — against the Epicureans — that the first impulse even of animals, let alone humans, is self-preservation, not pleasure. And Seneca points out, along the same vein, that human toddlers try to walk even though this actually causes them pain. Pleasure, then, cannot be the most fundamental animal or human instinct.
Schofield’s chapter, appropriately enough, ends with a section on practical Stoic ethics, since Stoicism was meant to be a living philosophy, not just a theoretical system. As Epictetus puts it in the Discourses (III.24.30): “The philosopher’s lecture room is a hospital: you ought not to walk out of it in a state of pleasure, but in pain – for you are not in good condition when you arrive!”
Indeed, much of what we know about Stoicism directly from Stoics belongs to the Roman period, and it is all about practical advice: Seneca writes letters to his friends on how to deal with life’s situations, Epictetus gives advice to his students, and Marcus Aurelius reminds himself of the right things to do and the right attitudes to countenance.
As Schofield writes: “It is in Stoic writings on practical ethics, which are still available to us, that we get perhaps our keenest sense of what it was like for ancient thinkers not just to subscribe to Stoicism as a philosophy, but also to move about in it as their intellectual home and as the air they breathed.” And he gives a number of examples, from which I cite in part.
Here is Epictetus on being on guard about becoming too attached to anything, including people: “Remind yourself that the person you love is mortal, not one of your own possessions, something given to you for the present, not undetachably nor for ever … If you long for your son or your friend like this, at a time when that has not been given to you, rest assured: you are hankering for a fig in winter.” (III.24.84-87)
And Seneca, on doing things for others: “This is in my opinion the least surprising or least incredible of the paradoxes of the Stoic school: that the person who receives a benefaction gladly has already returned it . . . When a person gives a benefaction what does he aim at? To be the cause of profit and pleasure to the person to whom he gives. If he accomplishes what he wished, and his intention is conveyed to me, and affects me with a reciprocating joy, he gets what he aimed at. He didn’t want me to give anything in exchange. Otherwise it would have been not a benefaction, but a business transaction.” (On Acts on Benefaction, II.31.1-2)
Again Seneca, from the same book (II.17.3-4), making the analogy between playing ball with someone and teaching someone how to be ethical: “If we are dealing with a practised and educated partner, we should be bolder in our throwing of the ball. No matter how it comes, his ready, nimble fingers will whip it back. But if we are playing with an uneducated novice, we shall not throw it so hard or with such force, but lob it more gently – in fact we shall move towards him in a relaxed manner and guide the ball right into his hand. The same strategy should be adopted in helping people. There are some people we have to teach how to receive help. And we should judge it sufficient if they try, if they dare, if they are willing.”