Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes

One of the most famous secondary sources on Stoicism is a collection of six essays by Cicero (who considered himself an Academic Platonist, but was sympathetic to Stoicism), entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum, or Stoic paradoxes. Indeed, the Stoics were well known for a number of precepts and standard phrases that sounded decidedly paradoxical to the uninitiated. “Preferred indifferents” anyone? Some of the critics of Stoicism, then as now, took these “paradoxes” as indication that the Stoics were just playing with words, and that their doctrines were not in fact much of an innovation over, say, those of Aristotle. Cicero disagreed, and took the Stoics seriously enough to engage a number of these alleged paradoxes in detail. He wrote the six essays in the form of a letter expounding on Stoic doctrine, addressed to Brutus, Cato the Younger’s nephew and one of the co-conspirators against Julius Caesar (as well as the husband of one of the few famous Stoic women, Porcia Catonis).

The six paradoxes considered by Cicero pertain to the following Stoic claims: (i) that virtue is the only good; (ii) that a man who is virtuous doesn’t lack anything for the happy life (external conditions are indifferent); (iii) that all bad actions are equal, and so are all the good actions (i.e., there is no gradation of good and bad); (iv) that every fool is a madman; (v) that the wise man alone is free, everyone else being a slave; and (vi) that the wise man alone is rich.

My objective here is both to summarize Cicero’s treatment of the paradoxes, as well as to provide my own take on each of them. A couple of preliminary notes: first, these are not really “paradoxes” in the strict logical sense of the term, they should rather be thought of as unusual notions that seem at first to fly in the face of commonsense. Second, I obviously have the utmost respect for ancient Stoic philosophy, and actually appreciate what I perceive as the ideas behind each paradox. However, this doesn’t mean that as a modern Stoic I feel obliged to follow the ancients in every respect, so I will reject a couple of the notions discussed below. As Seneca put it, “Any truth, I maintain, is my own property [regardless of who holds it].” (XII. On Old Age, 11)

Paradox I: that virtue is the only good

Cicero dispatches of this topic very quickly, basically agreeing with the Stoics:

“I never was one who reckoned among good and desirable things, treasures, magnificent mansions, interest, power, or those pleasures to which mankind are most chiefly addicted. For I have observed, that those to whom these things abounded, still desired them most: for the thirst of cupidity is never filled or satiated. They are tormented not only with the lust of increasing, but with the fear of losing what they have.”

“But some one will ask, ‘What then is a real good?’ Whatever is done uprightly, honestly, and virtuously, is truly said to be done well; and whatever is upright, honest, and agreeable to virtue, that alone, as I think, is a good thing.”

After a detour devoted to criticism of the Epicureans, who according to Cicero reduce themselves to the level of animals by valuing pleasure over virtue, he concludes: “surely to live well and happily, is nothing else than to live virtuously and rightly.”

Here I agree with Cicero’s treatment here: the idea that virtue is the only true good, which the Stoics inherited from Socrates (see the Euthydemus) is fundamental to the philosophy, and — together with the accompanying notion of preferred and dispreferred indifferents, distinguishes Stoicism from the allied philosophies of Peripateticism and Cynicism (see this post).

Paradox II: that a man who is virtuous doesn’t lack anything for the happy life

Cicero readily agrees with the Stoics here too. He begins the essay by mentioning one of the Romans’ heroes, Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was captured, tortured and eventually killed by the Carthaginians, and yet bore everything with utmost integrity and courage. Marcus, says Cicero, was not unhappy — where of course “happiness” here does not mean a feeling of elation (which would hardly be appropriate, or humanly possible, given the circumstances), but rather eudaimonia, the sort of life that is worth living, in the case of Marcus because he was helping his country prevail against her powerful rival, even at the cost of his personal suffering and death.

In fact, Cicero is pretty explicit here: “No man who is wholly consistent within himself, and, who reposes all his interests in himself alone, can be otherwise than completely happy. But the man whose every hope, and scheme, and design depends upon fortune, such a man can have no certainty — can possess nothing assured to him as destined to continue for a single day.”

Seneca, later on, will make the same point repeatedly: “No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (IV. On the Terrors of Death, 7)

Here too, I find myself in complete agreement with the Stoics, and therefore disagree that the notion is “paradoxical” at all. Once we understand that happiness means eudaimonia, and particularly Stoic apatheia, or equanimity toward circumstances, then it readily follows that indeed no external can possibly get in the way of it, not even torture and death. Only the Sage, the perfect Stoic, is said to be “happy” on the rack, but apparently Marcus Regulus got pretty close.

Paradox III: that all bad actions are equal, and so are all the good actions

The basic idea, explains Cicero, is that crimes are to be measured not by their consequences, but by the intentions of the perpetrators. So there is no difference between killing a slave (yup, that’s the sort of time we are talking about!) and killing your father. In fact, Cicero says that some times it is more objectionable to do the former than the latter, depending on circumstances.

The analogy introduced to make the point is this: “A pilot oversets a ship laden with gold or one laden with straw: in value there is some difference, but in the ignorance of the pilot there is none.” Well yes, sort of. Here I can appreciate the logic, but I’m just not going to buy the outcome.

If you grant that all bad actions are equal (which I don’t), then it does follow, however, that all good actions are also equal. And as Cicero puts it: “it is most easy to be perceived that a man can not be better than good, more temperate than temperate, braver than brave, nor wiser than wise.”

Perhaps a more convincing analogy is this one, near the end of the essay: “If a player dances ever so little out of time, if a verse is pronounced by him longer or shorter by a single syllable than it ought to be, he is hooted and hissed off the stage. And shall you, who ought to be better regulated than any gesture, and more regular than any verse shall you be found faulty even in a syllable of conduct? I overlook the trifling faults of a poet; but shall I approve my fellow-citizen’s life while he is counting his misdeeds with his fingers?”

This is a way to explain the strange Stoic notion that only the Sage is wise and everyone else is a fool, something I have written about in the context of the drowning man metaphor. As I said, I appreciate the reasoning, but I don’t feel compelled to agree.

Paradox IV: that every fool is a madman

Here Cicero’s explanation of the Stoic point is rather nebulous, and his defense of it utterly unconvincing. He begins thus:

“I will now convict you,  by infallible considerations, not as a fool, as I have often done, nor as a villain, as I always do, but as insane and mad. Could the mind of the wise man, fortified as with walls by depth of counsel, by patient endurance of human ills, by contempt of fortune; in short, by all the virtues — a mind that could not be expelled out of this community — shall such a mind be overpowered and taken by storm? For what do we call a community? Surely, not every assembly of thieves and ruffians?”

It goes on like this until the end of the essay. I take his point to be that it is insane, not just merely foolish, to put oneself into the hands of Fortuna by valuing externals. But since this is what everyone does, except for the wise man, then not only we are all fools, we are insane.

Well, okay, but you know, in a country of fools, it is the sane person who is going to go mad. This is a second instance where I can appreciate the logic, and even that the argument is meant — just like the preceding one — as an invitation to humility (we all do bad things, we are all fools or mad). But perhaps one could be reminded of that in a more charitable, and less “paradoxical” fashion.

Paradox V: that the wise man alone is free, everyone else being a slave

While the fifth paradox is closely related to the preceding two, I find the point both more compelling and more useful in terms of practical philosophy. Cicero begins:

“It has been said, then, by the most learned men, that none but the wise man is free. For what is liberty? The power of living as you please. Who, then, is he who lives as he pleases, but the man surely who follows righteousness, who rejoices in fulfilling his duty, and whose path of life has been well considered and preconcerted. … The fortune of every man is molded by his character. To the wise man alone it happens, that he does nothing against his will, nothing with pain, nothing by coercion. … All wicked men therefore are slaves, and this is not so surprising and incredible in fact as it is in words.”

Notice the acknowledgment in the last sentence that these words are “surprising,” i.e., paradoxical in the sense used by Cicero in these essays. But, indeed, I agree that, as a matter of fact, we are often slaves of our cravings for external things, and that freedom does lie in treating them with indifference.

Wait a minute, though. Aren’t we in danger of entering Cynic territory? Are we supposed to do without externals at all, in order not to be slaves to Fortuna? What happened to the “preferred” part of preferred indifferents?

Cicero explains with a brilliant turn of phrase: “‘Are not these [externals], then, elegant amusements?’ They are: for I too have a cultivated eye; but I beseech you, let these elegances be so regarded as the playthings of boys, and not as the shackles of men.”

This, I think, is one of the crucial — and most useful — points of Stoic philosophy. By all means, enjoy whatever material goods Fortuna throws your way. But treat them always as temporary gifts, and be prepared to relinquish them with equanimity when Fortuna takes them away. They are indeed the playthings of boys (or girls), not the shackles of men (or women).

Paradox VI: that the wise man alone is rich

This is arguably the best of the six essays, and the one in which Stoic thought really shines. Cicero writes: “It is your own mind, and not the talk of others, nor your possessions, that must pronounce you to be rich … If, therefore, we are to rate every man rich only in proportion to the valuable things he possesses, who can doubt that riches consist in virtue, since no possession, no amount of gold and silver, is more to be valued than virtue? … The amount of wealth is not defined by the valuation of the census, but by habit and mode of life; not to be greedy is wealth; not to be extravagant is revenue. … How much more valuable [than externals] is virtue, which never can be wrested, never can be filched from us, which can not be lost by fire or by shipwreck, and which is not alienated by the convulsions of tempest or of time.”

This is the sort of beautiful prose for which Cicero was justly famous. But it is the meaning of the words, not their form, that is really of lasting value. Our own character is the most valuable thing we have, the only good that is always useful, and the only one that nobody can take away from us without our own consent. It was true more than two millennia ago, and it is still true today.


2 thoughts on “Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes

  1. Reading your stoic essays always sets me to thinking. The phrase, Aspirational Ethics, looms in my mind. It is out there in google land but not in the way I would use it. The ‘paradoxes’ of stoicism can be explained, it seems to me, in terms of Aspiration. The great exemplars of Stoicism all failed and that is held against Stoicism. Wrongly, because none of them claimed to be the Sage. Aspirational ethics can also explain the bad man or woman. They aspire to an ethical end which is not admirable.

    In part those Stoic paradoxes are intrinsic problems only because stoicism is presented almost solely as a product of reason. Reason, it increasingly is learned, plays only a part and often small part in how we behave and how we feel. If we seriously examine those other aspects of our thinking and behavior (here we were warned by Socrates),

    I have been playing with how an aspirational ethic fits in with evolutionary ethics, and how these two cohere are close to the very core of what ethics is about. Our emergent properties of reason, sense of freedom, loyalty to the tribe can produce the most horrible reality or occasionally an ethic or society which is beautiful, based on love, and universal is scope. It has very little to do with organized religion, although from an evolutionary point of view Religion may be an essential element in its emergence.


  2. A small mistake here – you have quoted the phrase “If a player dances ever so little out of time, if a verse is pronounced by him longer or shorter by a single syllable than it ought to be, he is hooted and hissed off the stage.” twice.

    Thanks for all the work you do!

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