On the nature of the Sage, IV: Stoics vs Epicureans

Epicurus (left) vs Zeno (right)

Last installment of my discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). I will focus here on the final section of the fourth chapter of the book, which features a very revealing and harsh controversy between the Stoics and their cousins, the Epicureans. It will illuminate the figures of Socrates and Epicurus, the nature of wisdom, and the difference between the two schools of thought.

Simply put: while for the Stoics Socrates was a role model, and arguably the closest thing to an actual Sage, the Epicureans despised the fellow, accusing him of lying and positively getting in the way of people’s ability to achieve eduaimonia. What the hell?

To begin with, even the very existence of this controversy, as Brouwer reminds his readers, is further confirmation of the centrality of Socrates’ figure for all Hellenistic philosophies. Love him (the Stoics) or despise him (the Epicureans), he was the point of reference against which one had to measure one’s philosophy.

To give you a taste of the sharpness of the exchanges, consider that the Epicurean Colotes argued in his not ironically titled “On the Point that it is Impossible Even to Live According to the Doctrines of the Other Philosophers” that the Socratic injunction to “know thyself,” that is, the quest for self-knowledge, leads to “the collapse of life … it is these enormities in the Phaedrus [Plato’s dialogue] that bring our affairs into disorder.”

Plutarch, who was a Platonist, not a Stoic, in turn wrote an entire book entitled “Against Colotes,” where he stated that it is simply hard to see how asking questions like “what am I?” May possibly lead to something so catastrophic as the collapse of life. On then contrary:

“[Socrates] cleared life from madness and confusion, and from burdensome and excessive illusions about oneself and arrogance.” (Against Colotes, 1118F)

What, exactly, was Colotes’, and the Epicureans in general, problem with Socrates? They argued that he said one thing and practiced another, because he claimed to know nothing, and yet he clearly did know certain things. They deduced from this that Socrates did not wish to share his wisdom with people whom he should have treated as friends. This sort of behavior, in turns, makes the (Epicurean!) ideal life of shared friendship impossible.

Interestingly, by the way, Plutarch does not mention the Stoics in his rebuttal to the Epicureans, and Brouwer suggests that this was a shrewd move on his part: he could therefore project the impression that it was the Platonists, not the Stoics, who were the true inheritors of Socrates’ legacy.

Epicurus went further than some of his disciples in setting up a contrast between himself and Socrates. He broke the “taboo” against not declaring oneself a Sage and did just that, implying therefore that he — again, unlike Socrates — was imparting wisdom to his students. We have confirmation of this both in passages from Plutarch, where he quotes Metrodorus, one of Epicurus’ students, and from Cicero, who states the same in both On Ends (II.7):

“[Epicurus] is the only one, as far as I know, who has dared to present himself as a Sage.”

And in On Old Age (43):

“[Gaius Fabricius Luscinus] used to marvel at the story … that there was a man at Athens who professed himself a Sage, and said that everything we do should be judged by the standard of pleasure.”

Epicurus’ barbs were apparently directed specifically at the Stoics: he positioned himself as a Sage and anti-Socratic, in sharp contrast to the Stoic view that we should search for wisdom precisely by patterning our efforts after the example of Socrates.

The Stoics in turn made their own, and elaborated upon, Socrates’ definition of wisdom: knowledge of human and divine matters. As we have seen at the beginning of our discussion of Brouwer’s book, this means knowledge of how to live (human matters) and of how the world works (divine matters). That’s why there is no contradiction, pace the Epicureans, between Socrates’ profession of ignorance (in the specific sense of lack of wisdom, the relevant word is amathia) and his acknowledgement that some people do have “knowledge,” in the limited, and less important, sense of techne, as in the case of the craftsmen he mentions in the Apology (22c-e). To know how to make a musical instrument is surely a type of knowledge, but it falls into an altogether different category than knowledge of how to live one’s life, which was the main Socratic, and Stoic, concern.

Here is how Cicero beautifully summarizes the point, in his On the Nature of the Gods (II.153, remember, of course, that for the Stoics gods = nature = the cosmic web of cause and effect):

“Such matters [i.e., observation of the heavens] allow the mind to attain knowledge of the gods, and this gives rise to piety, with which justice and the other virtues are closely linked. These virtues are the basis of the good life, which is similar and equivalent to that enjoyed by the gods; it yields to them only in their immortality, which has no relevance to living well.”

5 thoughts on “On the nature of the Sage, IV: Stoics vs Epicureans

  1. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I feel like I’m missing something here. If we regard Socrates as a role model of anything, wouldn’t that be a sage (an expert in how to live well, as opposed to, say, an expert craftsman)? So, if Socrates himself denied such knowledge, then why should we not take him at his word? Or, if we choose instead to second-guess him (i.e. on the observation that, as you put it: “he claimed to know nothing, and yet he clearly did know certain things” re: sagehood), then was he not (to put it more mildly than an Epicurean) being somewhat cagey?


  2. Massimo Post author


    My ethics has changed a lot since the time I wrote Denyng Evolution. Back then I considered myself a secular humanist with utilitarian leanings. Now I practice Stoicism and embrace the virtue ethical approach.


    I gently disagree with your take. First, a role model is not the same as a Sage. Role models can be fictional (Odysseus) and imperfect (your mother, say), they do not rise to the levels of a Sage.

    Now, the Stoics may have disagreed about whether Socrates was not just a role model, but actually a Sage, but he need not have been the latter.

    Second, I don’t think there is a contradiction in what Socrates did and said. Remember that, to be precise, he was skeptical of the Delphi Oracle’s judgment that he was the most wise man in Greece. Turns out, he was, not because he had any positive knowledge, but because he was at least not under the illusion that he did have knowledge, unlike all the characters he encounters in the Platonic dialogues.

    So I do think the Epicurean charge is unfounded, or at least uncharitable.


  3. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I’m mainly going by my understanding of your account above: that is, I admit that my memory of Socrates from reading Plato is foggy and incomplete.

    That said, I sense a positive side to being free of an illusion: it’s an addition of knowledge that others generally lack – in Socrates’ case, that knowledge takes the form of a critical-thinking skillset that can save others a lot of trouble, if properly disseminated.

    I’m still not sure from your account what Socrates should have done differently, in the Epicureans’ view, but it sounds like they perceived a kind of hypocrisy in his know-nothing message, when he clearly knew something of great value, as his interlocutors in the Platonic dialogues discovered the hard way.


  4. Massimo Post author


    Well, yes, being free of the illusion of being wise is a kind of knowledge, but turning that admission of humility around and accusing Socrates of keeping “knowledge” for himself seems like a rather willful perversion of the situation on the part of the Epicureans.

    Besides, Socrates made a career of disseminating that sort of knowledge by his method of elenchus, trying to get others to realize the truth on their own accord, rather than simply telling it straight out — a pretty good pedagogical technique even today. And he got killed as a thanks…

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