Why is ancient philosophy still relevant?

Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus

Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus

Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.

Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?

And yet, I’m clearly not the only one here. Setting aside that a sizable number of people these days seem to be interested in Stoicism in particular (the Stoicism Facebook page is almost 12,000 strong and growing), there has been a resurgence of virtue ethics in general (mostly in the guise of Neo-Aristotelianism), and of course millions of people around the world still find valuable guidance in the sayings of Buddha or Confucius. Why?

It isn’t that these people are ignoring science, cognitive or otherwise. I, for one, was initially trained as a biologist, and I fully appreciate what modern science can tell us about human life and flourishing. I am also a 21st century philosopher, so I am cognizant of Hume, Kant, Mill, and so many others, all the way to Peter Singer.

And yet, there is clearly something that the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle), the Buddhist, the Confucianists and so forth clearly got right. There is something they thought about and taught to their students that still resonates today, even though we obviously live in a very different environment, socially, technologically, and otherwise.

The answer, I think, is to be found in the relative stability of human nature. This is a concept on which the Hellenistic philosophers relied heavily, though they didn’t use that specific term.

For Aristotle, humans were essentially rational (meaning capable of reason) social animals. The Stoics agreed, and in fact their theory of oikeiosis (“familiarization”) was essentially an account of developmental moral psychology: young humans have a natural propensity toward self-regard and regard for those who are close to them (mostly, kins). Over time, this natural morality gets extended further and further, to friends and others living in the same polis, and — ideally — to the whole of humanity. The process is made possible by the fact that reason builds on a natural instinct, nurturing it and developing it over time.

(Crucially, although other primates seem to share in our natural instinct for sociability, they are incapable of extending it by reason.)

But these days the concept of human nature is seen with suspicion by both biologists and philosophers — though for different reasons.

Biologists ever since Darwin have moved away from the simplistic notion that anything complex (like a human being) can possibly be characterized by a small set of essential properties. And rightly so. Homo sapiens is the result of a gradual process of biological evolution, a cluster in evolutionary space, distinct from other such clusters (other species of Homo, now extinct, as well as chimpanzees, bonobos and so forth) only by degrees, not by sharp boundaries.

Philosophers, by and large, have become even more skeptical of the whole idea, or at the least such has been my experience over the years. Some simply accept biologists’ rejection of essentialism, concluding (erroneously, I think) that therefore one cannot properly speak of human nature. Others, more drawn to the so-called Continental approach, are suspicious of past (and, indeed, current) use of notions like that of human nature to buttress racism and misogyny. Certainly these are well founded fears, unfortunately, but again they do not license a wholesale rejection of the concept.

I think the modern philosopher who got closest to a reasonable account of human nature was also the one that is famous for most drawing from the science of his time: David Hume.

I can do no better than to summarize a lovely paper by Michael Gill published a number of years ago in Hume Studies. Gill bases his analysis on what Hume writes in the aptly titled, given our topic, Treatise of Human Nature, and sets it against the background of a controversy concerning the origins of human sociability then raging among Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

Gill’s main thesis is that Hume developed a “progressive” account of human nature distinct from that of the three philosophers just mentioned, who agreed that human beings are social, but disagreed on the origins of our sociability: for Mandeville it is self-interest; for Hutcheson and Shaftesbury it is natural benevolence.

Shaftesbury presented as evidence of our benevolent nature the fact that we derive so much pleasure from friendship and other social interactions, and even from the very fact of doing good deeds. Similarly, Hutcheson said that we have an innate sense of public good (we feel good when others are happy, cringe at others’ misery) and moral good (approve of virtue and disapprove of vice).

Mandeville was of a very different opinion, according to which our basic nature is selfish (a la Hobbes) and we organized in groups only to protect ourselves, first from natural dangers, then increasingly from each other. Modern society’s complex “commerce” and “standards of politeness” are made possible by our ability to communicate and write, but are still rooted in our original selfish nature.

What about Hume? On the one hand, he was no egoist (in the Hobbesian sense), as he thought humans are endowed with natural virtues. On the other hand, he squarely said that justice is not natural, but rather the result of (cultural) “artifice.”

(Pause here and see if you can find parallels between Hume’s idea of natural virtues + cultural artifice and the above mentioned concept of Oikeiosis.)

A major part of Hume’s argument is that justice is not common among pre-civilized humans, and it requires training. It cannot, therefore, be natural. (Yes, I know, modern readers rightly cringe at this sort of statement, but bear with me a little longer, it will be worth it.)

To understand Hume’s further discussion we need to keep in mind that for him a virtue consists of having a certain motive for action (this is very close to Lawrence Becker’s take on Stoicism and virtue). Now the motive for justice cannot be regard for justice, on pain of circularity. It can’t be self love either (although it did exist in pre-civilized humans, and is therefore natural, according to Hume), since this will often be in conflict with justice. Hume also rejected regard for public interest as a motive for justice, thus apparently (but only apparently!) landing squarely in Mandeville’s camp.

Indeed, Hume went so far as to conclude that “In general, it may be affirm’d, that there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, or services, or of relation to ourself.” (Again, something the Stoics would agree on.) Emotions about other human beings, maintained Hume, are always directed at particular individuals, not at humanity in general. The converse is true as well: we don’t get a sense of justice by generalizing our feelings for particular individuals, because sometimes we ought to and do behave justly toward people we deeply dislike.

Hume agreed with Mandeville (and with Hobbes) that we have developed societies because we would otherwise have a hard time surviving on our own. So, societies originated out of the self interest of individuals. The fact that justice then also arises from selfish motives can be derived from the observation that we simply wouldn’t need justice if we were naturally disposed to respect the interests of others.

Where Hume began to diverge from Mandeville is with the latter’s contention that, essentially, we are all hypocrites when we talk about morality. For Hume, rather, people have genuine moral feelings of justice. Hume’s middle way between Mandeville on one hand and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury on the other, is the idea that we initially want justice for selfish reasons, but eventually develop a mental association that leads us to approve of justice even when it runs counters to our selfish motives. (The major difference between Hume and Stoic oikeiosis here is that the Stoics emphasized the role of reason, not just habit, in the process.)

To recap the situation so far: Hume agreed with Mandeville that justice is an artificial virtue originating in self interest; but he also agreed with Hutcheson and Shaftesbury that people exhibit genuine non self interested feelings of justice. All three of his predecessors would have thought these two positions to be mutually incompatible.

One way to look at this is that the three in question adopted (different) static, “originalist,” views of human nature. Hume, by contrast, upheld a dynamic, progressive view, where originally selfish motives can develop into genuinely altruistic ones.

The Humean engine for this change is his famous principle of association: we begin by disapproving of acts of injustice that do not affect us (because they tend to be harmful), and we end up conjoining disapproval and injustice in general. Which means we develop a broader disapproval of all unjust acts, including those that benefit us. This mechanism, says Hume, applies not just to justice, but to all morally relevant sentiments.

Gill makes a final interesting point by drawing a distinction between two senses in which one may ask about the “origins” of something: chronological and functional. For instance, we could ask what is the origin of the Constitutional powers of the American government and provide two very distinct, not mutually exclusive, answers: they came from a Constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787; and they are rooted in consent of the people (at least in theory). The first answer is chronological, the second is functional.

Gill suggests that the three pre-Humean philosophers simply assumed that chronological and functional explanations coincide in the case of moral sentiments, while Hume’s innovation consisted in decoupling them. Here is how Hume himself very clearly put it: “Thus self-interest is the original motive to the establishment of justice; but a sympathy with public interest is the source of the moral approbation which attends that virtue.”

What are we to make of the Humean solution to the Mandeville-Hutcheson-Shaftesbury debate, from our post-Darwinian perspective? Roughly speaking, we could say that both Mandeville, on one hand, and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, on the other, were early versions of what today we would call biological determinists — they only disagreed on the qualitative nature of that determinism (selfish for Mandeville, benign for the other two).

Hume’s position, however, can be updated in a more nuanced and interesting way, from the vantage point of modern biology and social science. At the risk of stretching Hume’s own intention, I am going to suggest that his acknowledgment of a “natural” status for our moral feelings is a due and reasonable concession to the “naturist” camp in the nature-nurture debate. There is no getting around it: human beings are a particular biological species, characterized by a historically inherited genetic environment that constrains the way we act, feel and think. What elevates this to the lofty status of “human nature” is that our closest evolutionary cousins (bonobos, chimpanzees, and other great apes) have a significantly different genetic and behavioral repertoire.

But Hume’s principle of association can be profitably recast as an embryonic theory of cultural evolution (and personal development), according to which we are capable of generating novel (genuine) feelings out of a combination of experiences and our ability to reflect on those experiences.

If Hume is even approximately right, and I think he is, that goes some way toward explaining why ancient wisdom is still relevant today: because human nature changes slowly, since it is rooted in the particularities of the human gene pool, which impose constraints on just how different people can be once we abstract from the historical peculiarities of any given culture.

The reason Epictetus, Epicurus, Buddha, Confucius and a number of others still resonate with us in the 21st century is because they got something profoundly right about the nature of humanity in the place and time in which they lived. And since such nature — as non essentialistic and slowly evolving as it is — has apparently not changed drastically over the past several millennia, here we are, still studying Epictetus and the others, and still gaining from them the kind of insight that made Arrian take the detailed notes that eventually turned into the Discourses and the Enchiridion as we know them today.

11 thoughts on “Why is ancient philosophy still relevant?

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Tightening Hume seems to run into his (Pyrrhonian) scepticism of the self. It seems to me that loosening Shaftesbury would bring more harmonius results. In other words Hume’s basis is ancient Scepticism while Shaftesbury’s is ancient Stoicism.


  2. sigmax

    From your brief summary, the contrasting views of Shaftesbury/Hutcheson and Mandeville seem to closely parallel the famous debate over human nature in Confucianism—with Mencius arguing that humans are essentially good and pro-social (he famously pointed to the compassion we all feel if we see a child about to fall into a well), and Xunzi arguing that humans are fundamentally driven by selfish impulses.

    Mencius saw philosophy’s role as clearing away the social baggage that prevented us from fulfilling and cultivating our natural virtues. Xunzi saw philosophy as actively teaching us to be virtuous, despite our natural tendency toward destructive self-regard.

    Thank you! I did not realize there had been a high-profile debate in Western philosophy on a similar issue!


  3. Massimo Post author


    yes, Hume was more of a skeptic than a Stoic, but I’m reading a fascinating paper that actually argues that he was very sympathetic to Stoicism. I’ll write about it in a future post.


    I find these sorts of cross-cultural parallels fascinating and very instructive!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patrice Ayme

    Very interesting, as usual, Massimo.

    Thinking works in a hierarchized way: from the obvious to the extremely subtle revealed by the latest neurology. The Greeks were the first to write extensively on the first aspects of thinking, so their considerations have to be considered first, whenever one studies thinking. So they stay first, and always will, as long as the memory of the past survives.

    Now I know you are a professor in New York, so you have to swim in the Anglo-Saxon wisdom as if you belonged there. I also recognize that English philosophers are important, especially as punching balls, and you gave excellent examples of that above. Monkeys have a sense of fairness, recent ethological studies have shown this. So a sense of justice did not wait for civilization.

    It’s astounding that English philosophers are still viewed as so deep coming up with such shallow theories, several centuries after Montaigne’s much deeper studies, and insights (which gave rise to the Enlightenment). My point is that the Anglo-Saxon philosophy tends to ignore centuries of “continental” philosophy, including centuries of feminist philosophy (some French, some Italian). Centuries of philosophy which happened before the Eighteenth Century. (Early on, English philosophy was not distinct from French philosophy, for obvious reasons: the Prime Minister of Charlemagne was an English philosopher, the Oxford Computation school was launched by Buridan, etc.; the evolution of English philosophy as adversarial with tied to worldwide imperial competition, recently)

    This obsession with all things English as supremely wise, all has a very practical world political, world economic, and world social impact today. An example: Butros Butros Ghali, an Egyptian francophone and anglophone was supposed to be re-elected Secretary of the United Nations. He got 14 votes for him at the UNSC (out of 15). However, the USA vetoed his re-election. Madeleine Albright, U.S. Sec of State was asked why. She replied with a smirk: “Butros Butros Ghali? He looks like a French aristocrat”.

    Philosophy is the most practical of activities, as it directs how thinking, and even feeling is to be guided. Sentience itself depends upon one’s philosophical axiomatics. Thus, the survival of civilization itself is in question when one is studying ancient philosophers.


  5. Seth Leon

    I’m not sure I buy Hume’s argument.

    There seem to plenty of non-sentient or at least sub-human natural type systems that would seem to exhibit altruistic behavior if no judgement were made as to their level of sentience. So why should we assume humans start from self-interest and then move to altruism and justice. Consider the workings of ant colonies or even the subsystems with a human being where teleonomy is abundant.
    It seems much more likely to me that we have both selfish and altruistic tendencies as part of our unconscious processes from the get go. We can learn to increase our selfishness and we can learn to hate just as we can learn to become more giving or loving.

    I agree that there is a difference in kind or degree that we can call human nature whereby instead of teleonomy we can cultivate teleology, and direct our own purposes with forethought to a degree that other species cannot.

    How do we best make use of this capacity of what we call human nature in pursuit of living a meaningful life? This is my biggest interest in philosophy and I would agree that some of ancient philosophies seem to place more emphasis on this question. Personally I don’t equate the capacity to reason with human nature. I think it’s better conceived of as the capacity to purposefully integrate our feelings, emotions, passions and reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Michael Manca

    I’d argue that Stoicism has become more relevant for reasons beyond the universality of human nature across times (though I do think that the argument is in many ways a valid one). For example, what struck me while reading both the Moral letters to Lucilius and De Brevitate Vitae was the fact that our current customs and economic conditions in industrialized countries are similar to those of a member of the elite such as Seneca. A society that has consistently experienced affluenza for generations is also a society that would greatly benefit from the practical application of reason to every day life in attempt to curb its most inveterate bad habits.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Patrice Ayme

    Seth: What you describe in more detail is exactly what I tried to convey above. Let me add some more.

    Just an example. It was well known in Antiquity that dolphins were extremely altruistic. There were explicit examples of dolphins rescuing at sea sailors whose ship had sunk. Ancient thinkers were struck by dolphins offering a ride to sailors, all the way to terra firma.

    The colossal reputation for altruism of dolphins was such that, when a part of the Alps from Turin to Grenoble (ex- Gratiannopolis, the city of Gratian) became de facto a republic independent of the “Roman empire” in the high Middle Ages, it adopted as name Dauphine’, and as symbol, the Dolphin (it’s true, to this day: watch Dolphin symbols along alpine roads). So then, six centuries later come Hobbes, Hume and other servants of the English aristocracy to say what are obvious absurdities.

    Hobbes, Hume and company abstracted by Massimo: “… societies originated out of the self interest of individuals. The fact that justice then also arises from selfish motives can be derived from the observation that we simply wouldn’t need justice if we were naturally disposed to respect the interests of others.”

    Well the self is not just about selfishness, when animals have brains and they think. Advanced animals, from hyenas to sperm whales simply would not exist if they were only selfish. The new born baby has not much of a sense of self, but first of all, acquires the sense that parents, and especially mom and her various appendages, are good things. The coming-to-the-world is essentially altruistic, and the sense that goodness given by others, who, altruistically, make the existence of the baby possible.

    So why can’t the famous Anglo-Saxon predatory philosophers understand this? Because their advocacy of selfishness is the defense of predation as the motor of all human creation. Thus they celebrate the mentality of the predatory class of plutocrats, and that made them indispensable to impose that mentality on the entire planet. (The same argument extends to Locke and Kant both advocates of… slavery).

    And indeed why are those advocates of selfishness, and destroyers of altruism still viewed as master thinkers? Because they are master sinkers. They claim that selfishness, that is greed, is the engine which propels, not just Wall Street, and its tax eschewing hedge fund managers, not just the economy, but society and humanity, even all human creation. And it cannot be any different.

    One would expect such thinkers to be highly respected in plutocratic universities. And, indeed, they are.


  8. Taylor Davis

    Patrice: While I agree with many of your concerns and criticisms of Enlightenment thought, I find it highly suspect that your attitude towards these thinkers is so openly and unreservedly hostile.

    First of all, you seem to have skipped entirely any thought for the Principle of Charity that is so crucial to good philosophy (and which indeed is a big part, in principle if not in choice of verbiage, of the work of hermeneutic thinkers like Gadamer, who I would venture to guess you would generally approve of). In actively assuming that “English” (which is in fact at least as much Scottish) philosophy of the Enlightenment is solely concerned with the rape of the natural world and non-European societies. The truth is much more complicated, and in fact, many philosophers of the British Enlightenment were closer in spirit to their French and German contemporaries than you give them credit for.

    Certainly, the Enlightenment is, in my view, too narrowly concerned with rational self-interest and individualism, but it is not, therefore, simple or unsophisticated, any more so than is Kant, who I also feel you’re besmirching a bit, and unfairly. Especially with your claims about “…slavery”.

    If I recall correctly, a number of classical thinkers, from Aristotle to Marcus Aurelius, were perfectly comfortable with slavery, and certainly seem to view it more favorably than did, for instance, Kant.

    In all fairness, for better or worse, the Enlightenment, while generally much less “bad” than certain 20th Century minds have thought it, was based on certain principles, and furthermore the rejection of certain characteristics of classical and medieval thought, and in doing so they occasionally held certain beliefs and ideas that you and I would disagree with, and which have had serious negative consequences for the human species. That does not, however, mean that the essential relevant valence of Enlightenment thought was rape, control, usurpation, or imperialism.

    If anything, these are very old human tendencies that have continually influenced how we relate to ourselves, both in our views towards them, and in how much or how little our paradigms align with said tendencies.

    Certainly, I think there is an enormous amount that can be learned from them that is good and useful and relevant to our current lives, but also, to reject them outright is likely to end in just such evil as their whole or partial rejection of pre-Modern thinking. We must be very aware of the history not only of our ideas, but of how those ideas functioned within and related to our social development.

    One can not learn from the mistakes of a past he chooses to ignore out of distaste.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Taylor Davis/Massimo: Thank you for your challenging comment. Glad you appreciated some of the things I wrote.

    I am a bit baffled, though that you considered that I “forgot the Principle of Charity”. That was precisely what I was trying to say: charity is central. Charity, is a weak form of altruism, and I was precisely saying that altruism, not just selfishness, is central to the human character.

    I actually believe altruism to be more important, more central, more fundamental than selfishness, and that it arises earlier in psychological development: being an infant is all about mom. That’s was my central critique of Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and other English philosophers of what you call the “British Enlightenment.

    For me Adam Smith, a student of the French physiocrats, and Edward Gibbon, the historian of Antiquity were enlightened philosophers, Hobbes, Hume and Locke, not that much. Actually, just the opposite: their crudeness made them precious.

    I don’t deny their importance, though: by claiming selfishness, greed and slavery were fundamental drivers of the human character, they incited the British government to go all out in its conflict with mightier France (and to borrow the hilt to do so). Voltaire, adviser and friend of Louis XV, instead advocated peace, and “not dying for a few arpents of snow in Canada”. Thus France lost the Seven Years World War of 1756-1763. And the British empire and its crude colony flew from success to success, invading, deporting, enslaving and massacring all in the way.

    In other words, the apostles of selfishness as the principle of human creation are legitimate saints of the Anglo-Saxon universe, as they helped wrestle from French control two-third of North America, by providing the philosophical backbone to do so. Alleluia…

    If it worked so well then, why not now? So let’s organize a world as selfish as possible, that can only be for the best, and create more justice. So now, 164 individuals own more property than three billion people. Alleluia! The greatest inequality ever, since there are men, and they think! The more selfishness, the more justice!

    I have written broadsides against both Aristotle (intimate friends of tyrants he himself taught, great promoter of hereditary dictatorship, thus philosophical creator of the sorry “Hellenistic Kingdoms” and 22 centuries of monarchies thereafter) and Marcus Aurelius (intellectual fascist, culprit, among similar sins, of having made his 5 year old son, Commodus, “Caesar” at the grand old age of 5 (five), an event never seen in Rome before (or after).

    To excuse Kant’s strident advocacy of slavery by pointing at Aristotle and Aurelius thus does not make me tremble upon my foundations.

    I do not mean, with my critiques, that all philosophers of the Enlightenment or Antiquity were wrong, far from it. It’s actually the exact opposite. I have great reverence for many Ancient Philosophers, for example Cicero (not generally viewed as a great philosopher, but he was). I even approve of much of the work of Aristotle (especially in biology and logic) or many of what Marcus Aurelius wrote. But I don’t subscribe to a personality cult.

    Overall, Aristotle’s influence on the world was catastrophic (he encouraged his very close friend Antipater to fight and subjugate Athens, and even to make Athens an official plutocracy). It was all the more devastating, because Aristotle had indeed plenty of great ideas.

    This is in sharp contrast with most other philosophers, whose influence was highly beneficial Say the founders of Cynicism, or of Stoicism, or the pre-Socratics, all the feminist philosophers, Montaigne, Abelard, Buridan, Giordano Bruno (anniversary of his torture to death today). Any advanced thinking starts as philosophical foray, not to say foreplay.

    My criticism of a handful famous Anglo-Saxon philosophers coincides perfectly with that greatness of the Anglo-Saxon realm, which is also horror personified. I understand why the apostles of selfishness are lauded: their contribution to the “five eyes” system, to global plutocracy, and general pell-mell rush to oblivion, we enjoy today.
    (Check Wikipedia for “five eyes” and why France is excluded from it.)


  10. Massimo Post author


    while your comments are appreciated, as I mentioned in the past, please tone it down, focus more, and shorten them. Calling Marcus an intellectual fascist is both unhelpful and anachronistic; going on and on about the intellectual history of the West is marginally relevant to the post and the blog, and writing comments that are longer than the OP is not a good idea. Thanks.


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