A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans

Zeno vs Epicurus

“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout,” says Seneca to Lucilius in Letter II, On Discursiveness in Reading, 5. He writes this because he had made a habit, for a while, of closing his letters to his friend with a “present,” a quote from another philosopher, usually Epicurus.

I don’t think of Epicureans, or Buddhists, or Christians, as “enemies.” My take is that it is useful to develop and adapt a philosophy of life — because it provides us with a moral compass and a framework to distinguish important from unimportant things in life — but that which philosophy one chooses is less important. Your specific choice may have to do with your cultural background, your personal history, your character and personality, or your stage in life. If it works, go for it (so long as it isn’t a destructive philosophy, like, you know, fascism). I write this blog, now in its third year and counting 348 posts, to help others for whom Stoicism resonates, but I’m certainly not here to make converts.

That said, the blog also has a special category of entries termed “critics of Stoicism,” where I respond to the surprisingly many, and often surprisingly vicious, attacks on our philosophy. You are about to read yet another of these responses, this time to “The seductive dead-end of Stoicism,” written by one Cassius Amicus (obviously a pseudonym) over at newepicurean.com.

“Cassius” is, apparently, moved by a concern for his many Stoic friends, especially because they have a high regard for Marcus Aurelius, who he does not trust after “spending much of a weekend reviewing” the Meditations. He adds: “As one generation passes and new students of philosophy arise, the old errors constantly attract new converts. It is regularly necessary for Epicureans to recalibrate their guns and fire again on Stoicism, lest it infect new generations. For the truth is, those who espouse the Stoic platitudes — which I regret to say includes both Marcus Aurelius and Cicero — are like philosophical vampires, always lurking in the shadows to steal the life from the unsuspecting; always in the service of the oldest dead-head vampire of them all — Plato.”

Strong words! Fighting words! But, wait, Plato?? If there is anything that is far removed from Plato — apart from Epicureanism itself — is precisely Stoicism, and perhaps even more its cousin, Cynicism. Don’t forget that Plato himself referred to Diogenes the Cynic as “Socrates gone mad.”

So what’s Cassius’ issue with Marcus? He thinks that the Meditations reek of religionism, fatalism, and passivism, which he maintains are attitudes utterly incompatible with Epicureanism.

Well, he is right on the latter, though the Epicureans themselves — contra modern lore — where not atheists, they were what we would today call deists. It is also true that their metaphysics was very different from that of the Stoics: atoms swirling in the void in the first case, cause-effect determinism in the latter. The Stoics did believe in “providence” of some sort, though they did not mean the Christian variety at all, but rather a consequence of what they saw as a universe being alive and doing its thing. Since we are bits and pieces of that universe, there is a sense in what happens to us, and that sense is precisely analogous to the role of a foot stepping in the mud, if the whole body to which that foot belongs has to get home and there is a puddle of mud in its way. (That is, in fact, an analogy used by Epictetus, in Discourses II.6.9-10.)

Sure, modern science — as Larry Becker maintains in A New Stoicism — has discarded the organismal view of the cosmos in favor of a mechanistic one. But this should be of little comfort to the Epicureans. Not only the “atoms” they were talking about have precious little to do with the atoms of modern science, but they made a special plead to save human free will by arbitrarily introducing their concept of the “swerve,” an idea that looks pretty close to magic from a modern scientific perspective.

As for “religionism,” indeed Marcus sounds very pious when he is talking to himself (and even so, he constantly repeats the “providence or atoms” mantra, more than hinting at the idea that whatever metaphysical theory one subscribes to simply doesn’t matter in terms of the crucial thing: ethics). Perhaps he really was pious, it’s hard to say. But a fair reading of the Stoics always has to keep in mind that for them “god” was made of matter, and coincided with the universe itself. Not to mention that, despite the oft-brought up example of Cleanthes’ “prayer” to Zeus, we know from Diogenes Laertius (VII.33) that Zeno of Citium, the founder of the philosophy, clearly stated that in an ideal Stoic republic there would be no temples, i.e., no organized religion or worship.

Regarding fatalism, the concept itself is muddled, and again Becker makes a good case for why the Stoics were not fatalists, but determinists, there is a difference, and modern science, and much of modern metaphysics, lean toward the Stoic, not the Epicurean, position.

To accuse the Stoics, and especially Marcus, of passivism is, of course, ridiculous on the face of it, though a common sport amongst our critics. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy, and one often repeated by Marcus, is that we ought to work on our faculty of judgment, to arrive at better decisions about what to do, and especially how to be helpful to others (something the Epicureans infamously shied away from, uninterested as they were in politics and social issues, on the ground that to engage in those areas causes pain, a no-no for them). And anyone picking up a biography of Marcus, or of Cato the Younger, or even Seneca, or Epictetus, will certainly realize that these were not people who passively accepted their “fate.” They fought hard, sometimes literally, for what they believed, in order to make the world a better place. Nothing of the sort can be said of any Epicurean I’m aware of.

Next, our friend Cassius takes aim at the Stoic doctrine of “living according to nature,” where he says: “for the constant Stoic incantation of ‘Nature’ is nothing but illusion. Stoicism fails to define or ground the guidance of Nature in anything real — unlike Epicureanism, which grounds Nature’s guidance in pleasure.”

Au contraire, Stoicism grounds its philosophy in the empirically tenable idea that human nature is that of a fundamentally social being who is capable of reason, from which it follows that the natural way of living for us is to deploy reason in order to improve social living. As Marcus puts it: “Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (IV.13) And: “So long as nothing … drives me out, I remain, am free, and no man shall hinder me from doing what I choose; and I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal.” (V.29)

Moreover, it is the Epicureans who clearly get human nature wrong, as Cicero has Cato the Younger explain in book III of De Finibus: “Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.16) One of those things that infants strive for because it is good for them is learning how to walk. Which is painful, not pleasurable.

Cassius then invokes a namesake, Cassius Longinus, who in 45 BCE told Cicero that the Stoic idea that one chooses good for its own sake is nonsense: “For it is hard to convince men that ‘the good is to be chosen for its own sake’; but it is both true and demonstrable that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that ‘to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice.’”

Okay, to begin with, where on earth does Epicurus get the strange idea that it is impossible to live a life of pleasure without being virtuous and just? Do the Epicureans not read the newspapers? Or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey? More to the point, the Stoics do not argue that one ought to do good for its own sake, they argue that to be helpful to others is good because we are all deeply interconnected in a web of cause and effect, not just with the universe as a whole, but specifically as a species of highly social beings. In this sense, for the Stoics — and contra much modern moral philosophy — there is no sharp distinction between selfishness and altruism: every time I do something for myself I improve the wellbeing of humanity, and vice versa, every time I do something for others I indirectly improve things for myself.

Even more to the point, the Stoics — following Socrates in the Euthydemus — think that virtue is the chief good. “Chief” doesn’t mean “only,” hence the further category of preferred indifferents. But why would virtue be the chief good, and not, say, money, or health, or education? Because virtue is the single thing (and those others are not) that can always and only be used for good. It makes no logical sense to say that one commits a virtuous crime, for instance. But it does make perfect sense to say that wealth can be used for good or for evil (i.e., it is morally neutral, hence an “indifferent”).

Epicurus, again quoted by Cassius was right on one thing though: “We must also recollect that which principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is the persuasion which they cherish that the stars are beings imperishable and perfectly happy, and that then one’s thoughts and actions are in contradiction to the will of these superior beings. They also being deluded by these fables, apprehend an eternity of evils, and they fear the insensibility of death, as if that could affect them.” (From the Letter to Herodotus)

But the Stoics wouldn’t disagree here, as it is made abundantly clear by Seneca in this passage: “Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)

Cassius goes on quoting Epicurus’ Letter to Menoceus: “The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.”

Well, the wise man in question just turned out to be wrong, didn’t he? Epicurus here is espousing a species of hard incompatibilism, according to which the ability to make decisions, and the moral responsibility that accompanies those decisions, are impossible in a deterministic universe. But, as the Stoics already surmised, and both modern science and much modern philosophy confirm, we do live in a deterministic universe, at least in the sense of a universe governed by cause and effect. The Stoics also figured out, just like modern day compatibilists, that there is an important sense in which our decisions are truly ours, a topic for which I refer the reader to my essay on Chrysippus’ analogy of the rolling cylinder, as well as to part of my commentary on Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.

Cassius proceeds with a bizarre, and largely irrelevant, further attack based on Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of the Stoics. But, to begin with, Jefferson was an amateur philosopher whose opinions on the matter are no more weighty than those of someone who picked up the Meditations for an entire weekend; moreover, Cassius quotes Jefferson at length, railing against Plato! Once again: Platonic philosophy has precious little to do with Stoicism, so criticism of the first says nothing at all about the second.

The last bit of Cassius’ rant is a simple series of selected quotations from the Meditations, each bit of which is accompanied by entirely unsubstantiated and unhelpful comments, usually along the lines of “Epicurus held that…” Insofar this list is meant to convince readers that Stoicism and Epicureanism are different, and often at odds with each other, well yes, though we knew that. If it is meant to show the alleged superiority of Epicureanism, however, a hell of a lot more work needs to be done.

One final comment about the “truth” of philosophical doctrines (something I also recently brought up in response to my friend Dan Kaufman’s criticism of Stoicism from an Aristotelian perspective): certain aspects of a given philosophy, like the metaphysical claim that we live in a deterministic universe (or not) are either true or false, though it is often highly contentious whether we have satisfactorily arrived at one conclusion or the other. But a philosophy of life, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism (or Aristotelianism, Buddhism, Christianity) cannot be true of false. That is a category mistake. Philosophies of life are more or less coherent, and more or less useful to individuals and society. In those respects, both Stoicism and Epicureanism are coherent philosophies; and they can both be useful to individual practitioners. Though I would argue that Stoicism is far more useful to society than Epicureanism is, simply because the Epicureans pointedly withdraw, as I mentioned above, from social-political life, while the Stoics embrace it.

So, my Epicurean friends, no need to hurl insults at us (they wouldn’t take anyway, see Discourses I, 25.28-29), or waste much time to try to show that we are “wrong.” Incidentally, isn’t so much passion about philosophical discourse with strangers a precisely non-Epicurean thing to do, since it likely brings pain and no pleasure? Here is what our own Epictetus had to say about it: “What was it, then, that awakened Epicurus from his slumbers and impelled him to write what he did? What else than what is most powerful of all in human beings, nature, who constrains everyone to her will, groan and resist though he may. ‘For since you hold these antisocial views,’ she says, ‘write them down and hand them on to others, and stay awake at night because of them, and so become, through your own practice, the denunciator of your own doctrines.’” (Discourses II.20.15-16) Oops!


30 thoughts on “A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans

  1. Paul Braterman

    ” virtue is the single thing … that can always and only be used for good”. One obvious problem here. Courage is a virtue, but a suicide bomber is courageous. One response might be that his courage has been taken prisoner by his unwisdom, but this risks making the argument narrowly circular, by saying that if something is not being used for good, then in that context it is not really virtue.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Right, but the Stoics were very clear that “courage” is moral courage, not just the ability to take risks. So the suicide terrorist is out by definition. All four virtues are considered deeply interconnected, essentially four facets of one fundamental thing, wisdom.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    The suicide bomber case reminds me of the “virtuous Devil” argument brought up recently by a transhumanist (which is a descendant of Utilitarianism, which is a descendant of Epicureanism, in the Pleasure-as-the-highest-good tradition), to try to argue that pleasure is the highest good because without reference to it, Justice in the form of compassion and mercy is impossible. To that, I would argue that, for a human being (but not necessarily for a devil, a hypothetical creature that is rational but anti-social), wishing pleasure upon others, fate permitting, is essential to the virtue of Justice, but that doesn’t mean that the pleasure itself is what’s important, because it may not happen. Also, the preference for pleasure when possible, and for higher-quality pleasures over lower-quality ones (and even being able to judge the quality of pleasures), requires the virtue of Wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jbonnicerenoreg

    In today’s world Epicureanism seems to be a good philosophy for the disabled or retired. Living a quiet life in pleasant surroundings preserving one’s tranquillity through an absence of pain using pain killers and tranquilizers.


  5. Shane Sullivan

    “Okay, to begin with, where on earth does Epicurus get the strange idea that it is impossible to live a life of pleasure without being virtuous and just? Do the Epicureans not read the newspapers? Or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey?”

    Well, the Epicurean rejection of pleasures that are unnatural and unnecessary should eliminate that approach right out of the gate. In short, the people you read about and see on horrible reality television, to quote Seneca, “do not consider how sober and temperate — for so, by Hercules, I believe it to be — that ‘pleasure’ of Epicurus is”. As for the connection between pleasure and virtue, I think Epicurus’ dictum was meant to be similar to what you said about altruism above. And although I doubt either Stoics or Epicureans would agree with me, I like to think that a sense of worthwhileness can be counted as a form pleasure–I would say the highest-order pleasure. For that admittedly shaky reason, I don’t see the need for 2,300 years of philosophers sniping at eachother.

    Now that my obligatory half-hearted defence of Epicureanism is out of the way, let me just say that I find it endlessly amusing how closely the Epicurean “swerve” resembles the modern quantum-consciousness woo espoused by Deepak Chopra and the like. =)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    I didn’t think about Chopra, but now that you mention it…

    Regarding the House Wives of NJ, my comment was obviously in jest, I do know that’s not the sort of pleasure Epicureans seek. But that sentence was a half-serious attempt to show how strange it is the Epicurean claim that it is not possible to live a life of pleasure without virtue. And, unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans don’t actually have an independent argument for why virtue is good, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jbonnicerenoreg

    Although Stoicism and Epicureanism clearly differ in their final end, techniques like mindfulness, goal setting and others can be used by either when appropriate. Choice or free will is granted by both although explained differently. Epicurus said Virtue is necessary to achieve a tranquil mind and freedom from pain which is hard to deny. And a disabled person aiming at freedom from pain would seem reasonable. So, at least for some, a pleasant retirement would seem to be a live option since an elderly person engaged in a rigorous training for a short future is more of an exercise in futility than excellence.


  8. Plutarch


    Great article. I think you did a great job respectfully laying out some key difference between Stoicism and Epicureanism as ways of life. Epictetus is much less fair to the Epicureans than you were, so thanks for resisting the urge to take cheap shots, ala modern day Cassius.

    It’s all to easy for this kind of thing to turn into a pissing match, where everyone talks past each other presenting the most uncharitable way of seeing each other. Which is, if I understand Stoicism and Epicureanism properly, not something a Stoic or Epicurean is encouraged to do. And yet, something so many Stoics and Epicureans have done.

    As you noted, the real test is how coherent these philosophies (ways of life), is how well they let differing social animals choose what is important or unimportant in our lives:

    “My take is that it is useful to develop and adapt a philosophy of life — because it provides us with a moral compass and a framework to distinguish important from unimportant things in life — but that which philosophy one chooses is less important. Your specific choice may have to do with your cultural background, your personal history, your character and personality, or your stage in life.”

    Thanks for writing this article and thanks for writing this blog. Lord knows the Stoics already have had, and now do have, enough critics who misunderstand them. All this without Stoics also uncharitably misunderstanding other philosophical schools that actually share much in common with them.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    As I wrote in the OP, Epicureanism is certainly a live option, and not just for the elderly. But I disagree on a couple of points. First off, I’m not aware of anything like mindfulness techniques among Epicureans, but that may simply be my ignorance. Those techniques, by contrast, are clearly laid out in Seneca, Marcus, and Epictetus.

    Their theories of volition are actually radically different, with the Stoics falling into modern day compatibilism and Epicureans into hard incompatibilism of the free will variety. They are not riconciliabile, metaphysically speaking.

    Yes, Epicurus said virtue is necessary to achieve tranquillity, but that is not the Stoic goal, it is, rather, a byproduct of pursuing virtue, emphasized especially by the late Roman Stoics.

    Finally, regarding retirement, Seneca’s take is certainly different from that of Epicurus, as he explains, for instance, in letter XIX to Lucilius.


  10. Massimo Post author


    You are right, bad example! Seneca there does sound Epicurean. But there are other places in the Letters where he takes a different view, more, ahem, Stoical. For instance, in Letter VIII he says:

    “I have withdrawn not only from men, but from affairs, especially from my own affairs; I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.”

    This is not in contradiction with XIX, where he is advising Lucilius to withdraw from worldly pursuits. Here he is explicitly saying that one should work, even in retirement, for the betterment of humankind, including later generations. It is hard to see how an Epicurean would justify that position.


  11. Alan Cooper

    There are many kinds of pleasure and pain, and pleasure in one dimension of experience may well entail pain in another. Also, sometimes present pain must be suffered in order to ensure an expectation of even greater future pleasure. It is even possible to seek one kind of pain in order to mask another kind, or to somehow take actual pleasure of one kind in pain of another kind. But no matter what reward we seek, we can never do anything other than whatever (partly random) processes in our brain have decided for us in that moment.

    It so happens that for the virtuous person, virtue is the highest pleasure and guilt is the greatest pain. By acting virtuously is that person being a Stoic or an Epicurean?


  12. Massimo Post author


    Well yes, our brains make us do it. Whate else? Aren’t “we” precisely the agents that make decisions because we have brains?


  13. Ram Tobolski

    Massimo, “the Stoics were very clear that “courage” is moral courage, not just the ability to take risks”.

    Could you cite a source for that?

    And what does “moral” mean here? Did the Stoics even have a word like our “moral”?


  14. alexanderzrios

    Chapter 13, Summary And Conclusions, God and The Atom, Victor Stenger writes:
    THEY HAD IT (MOSTLY) RIGHT The view of nature proposed over two thousand years ago by the Greek philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, and preserved for posterity by the Roman poet Lucretius, has been validated by modern physics, cosmology, and, where applicable, by the rest of science. However, I need to continually emphasize that what we are talking about here, whether from antiquity or from the twenty-first century, is a just a model that describes what we observe with our senses and scientific instruments. We have no way of knowing what is the ultimate reality that lies behind that model. The atomic model, in which the universe is composed of matter and nothing else, is adequate to explain everything we observe and experience as human beings. In this model, matter itself is composed of elementary particles that move around in an otherwise completely empty void. Until the twentieth century, the particulate nature of matter was not directly observable but by the twentieth century was well confirmed empirically. After its rediscovery in the Renaissance, atomism became the foundational principle of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. It reached fruition with the discovery in the nineteenth century that the chemical elements are well described as particulate, and in the twentieth century with the discovery that those elements are in fact composed of even more elementary constituents: quarks and electrons. At this writing, the latest triumph of atomism is the apparent confirmation in 2012 of the existence of the Higgs boson, which had been predicted forty-eight years earlier, as the source of the masses of elementary particles. Because of its implicit and sometimes explicit atheism, the particulate model of matter has had many opponents throughout history—


  15. Massimo Post author


    Courage is a moral virtue for the Stoics, like the other three, so it has to be couched in moral terms, otherwise it makes no sense.

    Just as an example, here is how Diogenes Laertius summarizes it (VII.92):

    “courage [is] knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.”

    And again at VII.126:

    “each of the virtues has a particular subject with which it
    deals, as, for instance, courage is concerned with things that must be endured.”

    Here is Cicero, On Duties, I.62:

    “The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right.’”


    Stenger was simply wrong about that. He wanted, for ideological reasons (he was a New Atheist) to think that the Epicureans had gotten atomism right. But they very obviously did not. What they meant by “atoms” had nothing whatsoever to do with modern physics, and to read the latter into it is really bad historical scholarship. Then again, Stenger was not a historian.

    When he said that the Atomists got it “mostly” right I wonder how on earth he is assessing that. Did they talk about electrons? Protons? Quarks? Orbitals? Quantum levels? What, exactly, did they get right, other than a generic sense that there should be some ultimate level of matter that is indivisible? A sense, incidentally, that is actually doubted by some modern physicists and philosophers of physics (see, for instance, Ladyman and Ross’ Every Thing Must Go).

    Liked by 1 person

  16. alexanderzrios

    Epucurus’ Letter to Menoeceus only dismisses “inexorable Fate” and agrees that many events occur due to Necessity.

    So yeah. Agreed. The Universe operates by natural principles, and is, at larges scales, predictable. Epicurus’ Letter To Pythocles talks about the regular and recurring behavior of the Cosmos and events such as solar, lunar cycles in it, and other events that happen by necessity.

    And so models of classical physics, which apply to collections of bodies composed of large numbers of particles, are often deterministic, despite the fact of underlying quantum indeterminacy (swerve) of the elementary particles (Epicureans ultimate atoms).


  17. alexanderzrios

    Massimo suggests we use Reason to better our social environment. No doubt “sober reasoning” is recommended by Epicureans, while at the same time also counting the emotions, instincts and all the automatic behavior that occurs in our non-volitional mind, which have been naturally selected, and is what Epicureans mean when they refer to our human nature. That instead of apatheia.

    The fact is that humans are not very good at being reasonable, logical, unbiased, fair (un-prejudiced) and Epicurus’ Letter To Herodotus and Pythocles teach us how to avoid falling into the most common of these traps/errors while investigating natural phenomena.

    Modern science is telling us that we’re not good at it. Humans are not reasonable, so why ask them to depend so strongly on their own reason/logic instead of their emotions, instincts, feelings and anticipations?

    We have vast catalogs of how we fail to be reasonable too, such as the Cognitive Bias Codex, and lists of Logical Fallacies


  18. alexanderzrios

    Children choose pains that lead to pleasant living just as Epicureans suggest. Children choose to walk, and they enjoy their success at it too, they also cry when they fall because of the associated pain, and the suffering associated with failing to meet goals. No adult ever returns to crawling as the primary means to locomotion because, crawling, is in fact a more painful way to live pleasantly.


  19. Massimo Post author


    I find it rather unproductive to discuss Stoic or Epicurean physics. They are clearly obsolete by modern standards. The real issue is ethics.

    You say humans are unreasonable. Yes, but they are capable of reason. And here I think both the Stoics and the Epicureans agree: we should attempt to reason better. After all, the Epicureans give arguments in defense of their positions, and arguments require reason, bot to be deployed and to be understood.

    As for children and pain/pleasure, I think you are missing the point of the objection: since infants are incapable of reasoning that they need to do painful things in order to later on obtain pleasures, they engage in painful activities instinctively. That refutes the Epicurean contention that pleasure is what we naturally seek. We do some of The Times, but we are also capable of enduring pain on purpose. So pleasure and the avoidance of pain cannot be as fundamental in humans as the Epicureans think they are.


  20. Ram Tobolski

    Massimo, thanks for the citations. I recall similar formulations from Plato. However, it still seems to me superficial and unconvincing. I don’t understand how the courage of a good person can be different, in principle, from the courage of a bad person, as courage. Of course, you can artificially insert “moral” into the definition of “courage”, and them “courage” will be “moral courage” by definition. But this is merely playing with words. In a parallel fashion you can describe the moral person’s language as “moral English”, or her meal as “moral potatoes”. Similarly, “moral courage” seems to be just courage, in the context of moral purposes. And an immoral person may be courageous just the same, but with different kinds of purposes.


  21. Massimo Post author


    I dont’ think there is anything superficial or artificial here. The Stoics simply defined — in clear words — courage in a moral sense. That’s no different from their moral definition of practical wisdom, which can also be applied more generally, to non moral issues.

    That’s just the way the philosophy works, and so long as one is clear on the terminology I don’t see where the problem is. Why insist in saying that “courage” can also be non-moral? Yes, it can, but not in the Stoic conception. For the Stoics that sort of courage simply doesn’t count. So no, a bad person cannot be courageous. By definition.


  22. SocraticGadfly

    See, I actually think of Stoics as like Deists, since Enlightenment Deists, even if their Deos was more passive than the Logos, had an organized, logical, and overall generally optimistic take on things. If one does that … maybe we could compare the Epicureans to today’s “nones”?


  23. Ram Tobolski


    “The Stoics simply defined — in clear words — courage in a moral sense”

    If “courage is moral” is a product of definition, then it says nothing about courage. It says something only about our choice how to use the word courage.

    “That’s just the way the philosophy works”

    I hope not… Nothing substantial or interesting in philosophy can be based on the mere choice of words.


  24. montaignesque

    I have been following your blog with great interest and am constantly impressed by seriousness of your treatment of the subject and the quality of your posts.
    I am not an academic. While this necessarily limits the breadth of my knowledge in the spheres beyond my profession (I am a lawyer), yet this has one advantage: I pursue those spheres solely in order that they may impact my thinking and my life, without any mercenary interests.
    Your recent post (“Why virtue is sufficient for a life worth living”) touched upon some fundamental precepts of Stoicism. As a person who examines Stoicism not for academic reasons, but in order to improve spiritually (forgive me if this sounds presumptuously), I found your conclusions to be somewhat impractical (and, therefore, erroneous). I would be extremely grateful if you read my comments in the blog which I have just set up and where the first post is devoted exactly to this question: good life under Stoic and Aristotelian ethics (https://montaignesque.wordpress.com/2017/11/05/good-life-for-stoics-and-aristotelians/).
    I wrote this here because the comments section under your previous post is no longer active. Apologies for reaching you in this roundabout way.
    Should you find my thoughts worth being commented upon, I would be more than glad to learn about your thoughts (which I value a lot) and benefit from the discussion.



  25. Massimo Post author


    I’m honestly not sure what the problem is. Of course we need definitions of terms, otherwise we literally don’t know what we are talking about. The Stoic point isn’t to illuminate the concept of courage, it is to define it in a certain way and then practice it. If you define courage differently then you are not accepting the Stoic definition, which is fine. But however you think of it, your definition is just as arbitrary as anyone else’s.


    Thanks for the link, I’ll try to find some time to look it over and see if I have comments to add.


  26. Ram Tobolski


    As to what is the problem that the definition of courage seems to reflect, it is this: when we speak about the unity of the virtues, it promises to be a profound and surprising insight about the virtues. But now it seems that this unity of the virtues is true by definition. And that therefore the unity of the virtues just reflects the way that the Stoics defined their words. And that therefore the unity of the virtues is merely verbal, and does not reflect any unity in reality. And this is disappointing.


  27. Massimo Post author


    Again, sorry to be disappointing, but I’m not sure of what “reality” you speak. Virtue is a human concept, it doesn’t exist in a Platonic realm. So things are true or not true of it in virtue (ah!) of how we define the concept. The same goes with pretty much anything else, not just in philosophy, but in science. Is Pluto “truly” a planet? Well, it used to be. But then astronomers changed the definition of “planet,” so it is no longer true.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.