We have seen some of the major arguments that Cicero uses against the Stoics, in book IV of his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils), and I’m going to complete my brief analysis in this post.
At #48 we find a fascinating, and in some sense, very modern, passage: “Considerations of conduct or duty do not supply the impulse to desire the things that are in accordance with nature; it is these things which excite desire and give motives for conduct.”
This sounds awfully close to David Hume’s (another philosopher who was critical of, and yet sympathetic toward, Stoicism) famous quote from A Treatise of Human Nature (book 2, Of the Passions, 3.2): “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
This is obviously a position antithetical to Stoicism, which very much puts Reason in charge of redirecting the passions, combating some (e.g., fear, anger) and fostering others (love, a sense of justice). Modern cognitive science strikes a balance between the Reason First and the Passions First positions, but at any rate it is not clear how Cicero thinks this is going to help his pro-Aristotelian case, since Aristotle certainly would not have agreed with Hume!
(Incidentally, it is odd that Cicero, throughout book IV of De Finibus, contrasts Stoicism with Aristotelianism, even though his own sympathies went to the Academic Skeptics.)
Soon afterwards (IV.52) Cicero is back to his main beef against the Stoics, the thorny issue of the preferred and dispreferred indifferents, on which I spent most of the first post:
“Here are people all agog to learn why pain is no evil; and the Stoics tell them that though pain is irksome, annoying, hateful, unnatural and hard to bear, it is not an evil, because it involves no dishonesty, wickedness or malice, no moral blame or baseness. He who hears this may or may not want to laugh, but he will not go away any stronger to endure pain than he came.”
I think Cicero is wrong on both counts here. First, there is an important conceptual distinction between something being “evil,” i.e., necessarily bad, and something being “irksome, annoying, hateful,” etc.. For one thing, because pain can actually be good, as in then pain you might have to suffer during an operation to save your life, or, more modestly, to improve your health through strenuous exercise at the gym. So pain is not inherently evil, it can be good or not, depending on the circumstances. More importantly, though, Cicero simply refuses to accept — without argument — the crucial distinction that the Stoics make between the moral sphere and everything else. They reserve the label of “evil” (whatever that means, metaphysically) for morally unworthy actions, and contrary-wise the label “good” for the practice of virtue. This, however, does not imply that other things may not be “irksome, annoying, hateful” and so forth.
Second, the Stoics were right that one’s mental attitude toward pain does actually affect one’s experience of pain. There is plenty of modern empirical evidence of this fact, and the Stoics — who were keen observers and good psychologists — had intuited it (and, likely, experienced it in the first person). Of course this doesn’t mean that one can simply think one’s pain away, but read this brutally honest and compelling account of a modern Stoic dealing with chronic pain and see if Cicero wasn’t a bit too hasty in his dismissal of the Stoic doctrine.
Cicero then turns again to Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, displaying what today would unquestionably be labeled as a good dose of racism: “your little Phoenician (for you are aware that your clients of Citium originally came from Phoenicia), with the cunning of his race” (IV.56). Nevermind that, he does make a good point:
“if your conclusions are upset, your premises are upset also. What then are your conclusions? That those who are not wise are all equally wretched; that the wise are all supremely happy; that all right actions are equal, all sins on a par — these dicta may have had an imposing sound at first hearing, but upon examination they began to seem less convincing. For common sense, the facts of nature, truth herself seemed to cry aloud that nothing should persuade them that there was actually no difference between the things which Zeno made out to be equal.”
Here Cicero is mentioning some of the most paradoxical of Stoic doctrines, such as that we are all equally unwise, a concept often illustrated by an analogy to someone who is drowning at the bottom of the sea compared to someone who is doing so in a meter of water: while the latter is much closer to the surface, he is drowning just the same. Or the idea that all “sins” are equally bad, which critics take to mean that there is no difference between stealing a lamp and murdering someone.
These notions do, indeed, go against commonsense, but of course that’s hardly a reason to reject them — taking that route you will end up rejecting much of philosophy (and science!). Nonetheless, modern Stoics like Larry Becker have dealt with such paradoxical notions, re-interpreting some of them and rejecting others. (See, for instance, here and here.)
My personal charitable reading of those two particular issues is as follows: I) Of course someone who is swimming from the bottom of the ocean up toward the surface is making progress, so to speak, against the goal of not drowning, just like self-reflective and disciplined people make progress toward virtue. But to remind ourselves that we are all — except for the Sage — underwater is a healthy check against one’s hubris and exaggerated self-confidence. It is not that different from the Christian concept that we are all sinners except Jesus. II) Of course murdering someone is more despicable than merely stealing a lamp, but the point can be taken to be a reminder of something beautifully described by Epictetus: “This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!” (Discourses, I.29.21)
At IV.68 Cicero addresses the Stoic notion that moral worth is the Chief Good (which, originally, is a Socratic concept, as explained in the Euthydemus), which is really a roundabout way to once again criticize the idea of preferred indifferents:
“To maintain that the only Good is Moral Worth is to do away with the care of one’s health, the management of one’s estate, participation in politics, the conduct of affairs, the duties of life; nay, to abandon that Moral Worth itself, which according to you is the beall and the endall of existence.”
It should be clear by now why Cicero is mistaken in this, and it is rather ironic that he is supposed to be talking to Cato the Younger, who most definitely did not abandon “participation in politics [and] the duties of life.” On the contrary.
But here is another way to put the point: economists make use of the concept of lexicographic ordering of preferences to account for why standard market theory cannot explain certain rather common human behaviors. For instance, I assume that you wouldn’t sell your daughter, say, in exchange for a Lamborghini, or whatever other very costly object you’d like to possess. Why not? Because your daughter belongs to a higher lexicographical set of preferences than a Lamborghini, and there is no trading off one against the other precisely because they belong to incommensurables sets, unlike the perfectly fine trading off of a pile of a cash for the above mentioned Lamborghini.
So all the Stoics are saying is that there is a qualitative distinction between Class-A goods (wisdom, virtue, integrity of character) and Class-B goods (health, wealth, education). While this means you are not to trade any Class-A goods in exchange for any Class-B goods, it doesn’t mean at all that you cannot pursue Class-B goods, so long as you don’t do it in a way to compromise any Class-A ones. Go ahead, if you have enough cash buy yourself a Lamborghini. But don’t sell your daughter for it!
I hope to have given Cicero a fair shake, and to have taken his criticism of Stoicism seriously. But, as he puts it at IV.80 to his friend Cato: “[the] evening is closing in, and I must be getting home. So enough for the present; but I hope we may often renew this conversation.”