Stoicism and natural law

natural lawFor some time people have asked me to comment on the relationship between the concept of natural law (and the related one of natural rights) and Stoicism. Part of the reason is that I profess to be a Stoic, and yet I reject the idea of natural law, which if didn’t exactly originate with the Stoics, was certainly greatly elaborated put on the map by them. What gives? The final prompt to sit down and write this was actually a recent, shall we say forceful exchange that I have had with Skeptic’s editor Michael Shermer, who is an advocate of natural rights. (The article that started our discussion was published in Scientific American; here is my first response; this is Michael’s response to me; and this is my response to his response.) This post will not cover the full history and philosophical debates on natural law (a comprehensive article can be found here), but will rather focus on the early versions of the concept, and especially on Stoicism — ancient and modern.

Ius naturale, or lex naturalis, asserts that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature, endowed by God or other transcendent source, but understandable by way of human reason. In a sense, then, moral natural law is something like scientific laws: in traditional views, up to Newton included, laws of nature in the scientific sense were thought of as being given by a Creator God (that is why they were referred to as “laws”), but human beings are smart enough to grasp them. My critical argument later in this post hinges on two propositions: I reject the notion of transcendent sources, and I don’t think natural moral laws — whatever they may be — are anything like laws of nature in the scientific sense.

Alfred Whitehead famously said that much of Western philosophy can be understood as a series of footnotes to Plato. Sure enough, people have attempted to pin the origin of the concept of natural law on Plato. The major sources are the Symposium and the Republic, especially the latter, in which Plato develops his idea of the Forms, and particularly the Form of the Good. This has (somehow) mind-independent existence, and yet can be grasped by human beings (especially philosophers, when they manage to get out of the mythical cave). The ideal Republic, says Plato, is “a city which would be established in accordance with nature.” (428e9) Still, Plato certainly did not have an explicit theory of natural law, and uses the term only rarely (in Gorgias 484 and Timaeus 83e).

The next, more convincing, candidate, is Aristotle. He does talk about natural rights in the Nicomachean Ethics (book V), but a lot of what is attributed to Aristotle in this case is the result of a conflation between natural law and natural rights by Thomas Aquinas, who also influenced (not for the better) the early medieval translations of Aristotle, once his works were recovered through the influence of the Muslim world. Still, Aristotle does explicitly talk about natural law in his Rhetoric, where he distinguishes between a “particular” law that varies from country to country and a “common” law that is in accordance to nature. However, some scholars suggest that Aristotle treated natural law as a potential strategy in rhetorical discourse, not as a thick metaphysical concept.

Which brings us to the Stoics and to Cicero, who really put the concept on the map. The ancient Stoics, as is well known, were pantheists. They thought that the universe is a living organism, which they called god. We are literally bits and pieces of the divine, and very special bits and pieces at that, since we participate in the highest version of the all-pervading pneuma (breath), the Logos, the ability to think rationally. For the Stoics, then, natural law simply meant the workings of the cosmos, which we are capable of apprehending via our sharing in the Logos. To live according to nature, for them, meant to live following an understanding of human nature, and human nature is the nature of a social being capable of reason.

“And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things. … Diogenes [of Babylon] then expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is natural. Archedemus says the end is to live in the performance of all befitting actions.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.85-88)

As I’ve pointed out in the past, this is not a simple appeal to nature, which would be a logical fallacy. The Stoics were too damn good logicians to fall for that! They did argue that whatever is natural is good, as it manifestly isn’t (anger, for instance, is natural, but the Stoics famously thought of it as a destructive emotion, to be avoided). Rather, the thought is more sophisticated: it begins with certain observations about the nature of the world and of humanity, and works its way, by philosophical reasoning, to what it means to act in a way that is consonant with both.

English historian A.J. Carlyle highlighted one of the major consequences of Stoic thought about natural law:

“There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness as the change from the theory of Aristotle to the later philosophical view represented by Cicero and Seneca. … We think that this cannot be better exemplified than with regard to the theory of the equality of human nature.” (A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, vol. 1. Edinburgh. pp. 8–9, 1903)

For his part, Charles H. McIlwain observes:

“The idea of the equality of men is the most profound contribution of the Stoics to political thought … its greatest influence is in the changed conception of law that in part resulted from it.” (The Growth of Political Thought in the West: From the Greeks to the End of the Middle Ages. New York. pp. 114–15, 1932)

Cicero also thought that natural law obliges us to work for the betterment of humankind. In De Legibus he argued that both justice and law originate in nature, and that it is the human mind that can grasp what nature tells us and act accordingly. In De Republica he writes:

“There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong. It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones. No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether. Neither the people or the senate can absolve from it. It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.” (V.29-30)

And here is where I’m going to disagree. First off, if we want to draw an analogy between moral and scientific natural laws we immediately get into trouble, because of what Cicero writes here: “It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones.” That certainly goes for moral law, but not for scientific ones. You may disagree with the law of gravity, say, but you will nonetheless going to comply with it. This is an important disanalogy, because it hints at the idea that the word “law” is used in multiple ways, and that one should think of natural moral laws as more akin to what is called positive law (i.e., the kind of laws we come up with to regulate actual societal interactions) than to something unavoidable (or inalienable) like scientific laws.

Second, and more important, I am not a pantheist, so I don’t think that the universe is an organism with its own aims, an organism whose intentions need to be read by human mind so that we can act accordingly. The universe just is, and it is indifferent to us, it provides neither guidance nor hindrance, from a moral perspective.

But if that is the case, why do I still call myself a Stoic? What happened to “live according to nature”? I still think the Stoics got enough right to feel comfortable within their philosophy. What they got right is the idea that morality is about improving social living, that human beings are quintessentially social animals (we do not flourish, and in fact barely survive, in isolation), and that we are indeed equipped with the ability to reason about things. So it is still perfectly coherent to say that living according to nature means to apply reason to social living, just as Marcus says:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it? … Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.13 and IV.24)

The problem is that reason and facts about human nature are not in a simple, one-to-one correspondence. You can’t read what you ought to do straight from what is. You can, however, bridge the so-called is/ought gap, by using facts about human nature as empirical axioms, and then deploying a particular philosophical framework, such as Stoicism, to arrive at guidance for ethical action. The upshot is that you can still do Stoic philosophy. The catch is that there is more than one way to translate facts about human nature into philosophical moral precepts (in philosophy this phenomenon is called under-determination). Which means that if Stoicism doesn’t do it for you, you can try Buddhism, or Christianity. Heck, even Epicureanism might do it! From this perspective, it makes no sense to ask whether Stoicism is “true” (that’s a category mistake). But it makes sense to say that it is beautiful, coherent, and useful.

31 thoughts on “Stoicism and natural law

  1. Jason Malfatto

    Thanks for this, Massimo. I read your original review of Shermer’s article on your other blog when it first came out, but lost track of the rest of the thread (including his response and your second round).

    That said, in the follow-ups I only just focused in on the “natural rights” portions (and merely skimmed the rest) so as to get a sense for Shermer’s basis for that concept. It appears to me that his reference to “abstract Platonic truths that most scientists agree exist” is the question-begging crux of the matter, so I’m glad that you addressed that in your last response to him (viz. with the chess analogy, which I love).

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  2. Robin Luethe

    It struck me even in the 50s that natural law might in some sense be a derivative of human evolution. The works of E. O. Wilson reinforced those thoughts as did the much more recent book by Bellah on religion and evolution. Roman Catholic demands that they are the authoritative interpreters is of course simply offensive.

    Stoic ethics have always impressed me as being compatible with Wilson, Bellah, and many others on the nature of human social culture. Steven Pinker’s newly published book Enlightenment Now could be considered as supporting a modern interpretation of natural law, although I thought the last three chapters on reason, science, and humanism could have been less contentious.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    I’m not a fan of Wilson or Pinker. What they are trying to do is what the Stoics were already doing 23 centuries ago: naturalize ethics. But while the Stoics (and many others since) were sophisticated about it, not incurring in attempts to simplistically reduce ethics to “physics” (i.e., natural science), that seems precisely the project Wilson and Pinker are vested in. For a detailed criticism of Wilson, for instance, see here: https://aeon.co/essays/why-should-science-have-the-last-word-on-culture

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  4. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Having already commented on the question of natural rights, I’d like to add something more specific about Stoicism, particularly as it relates to your statement here:

    I still think the Stoics got enough right to feel comfortable within their philosophy. What they got right is the idea that morality is about improving social living, that human beings are quintessentially social animals (we do not flourish, and in fact barely survive, in isolation), and that we are indeed equipped with the ability to reason about things.

    Though I lack the time and training to do the hard work myself, I have begun to wonder if your criteria for a coherent moral framework cannot be met through some hybrid of Stoicism and other virtue-ethical schools.

    For one thing, having recently finished Cicero’s De Finibus, I’m now aware of an ancient (albeit, possibly unreliable) opinion that the Stoics introduced original jargon to discuss ideas that predated them – at least according to Cicero (an Academic skeptic) and his friend Piso (a Peripatetic). In any case, perhaps Cicero’s ecumenical yet critical approach is a good model for us moderns, who face an even larger menu of moral philosophical options than he did.

    Even more recently, I was struck by Martha Nussbaum’s argument (from her 2009 introduction to The Therapy of Desire), where she concluded that “Any decent political approach, I now believe, must contain both Aristotelian and Stoic elements.” I’m not sure if she still believes that today, but in any case I find her unorthodox approach to Stoicism both refreshing and coherent.

    Thoughts?

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    plenty of people follow eclectic systems, it’s just not my favorite thing to do. The reason is because at some point you run into contradictions. If you apply both Aristotelianism and Stoicism, what are you going to do with externals? Are they necessary, or preferred indifferents?

    If you mix Epicureanism and Stoicism, when push comes to shove, are you going to making the avoidance of pain your priority, or the pursuit of virtue?

    Cicero and Nussbaum are smart cookies, but I’d rather adapt and modify a single framework than mix frameworks. Works better for me.

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  6. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: If I understood Cicero’s account correctly, then the other schools at his time (both Academic and Peripatetic) agreed with Stoics entirely on ethics (and disagreed with Epicureans) – they just used more common language for “external goods” than the Stoic term “preferred indifferents.” (More controversially, I imagine, Piso accused Stoics of stealing their ethics from other schools and merely changing the names.) In any case, the practical difference here seems minor at best.

    And I take Nussbaum’s point to mean that we need more than Stoic theory to address public policy, where the emphasis is on creating the political-economic conditions under which citizens may flourish (as well as practice virtue). Makes sense to me and reminds me of comments you’ve made in the past re: Rawlsian theory at the political level to supplement virtue ethics at the personal level.

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  7. Daniel Cirignani

    Massimo, I specifically dislike it of myself when I am only found to chime in with criticism or disagreement – so that’s on me I am sorry and if I had your email I’d send this as a personal note not a blog comment.
    On this post: I think you could have done better. If I was a personal friend and you gave it to me and asked my input I’d just say to re-write it, and if you did and it wasn’t much better I’d say give it a year, then re-write it.

    Time is an input to chemical equations and reactions and as an input it’s often irreplaceable and in the same way any words I offer will fail to stand in for time here but this can seem unhelpful so as much as I don’t care for the stand-in’s here are a few to think about. I am not defending NLT, I am critiquing your post.

    It is unfortunate that when describing Natural Law you even make reference to God, the better point is transcendent source and you are specifically on defense in your rejection of transcendent source so by invoking God you are rhetorically strengthening your case without logically advancing it. Transcendent source is compelling: is the Golden Ratio an accident of mechanical cognition or a clue to ontology that lies beyond cognition? No less than Bertrand Russell concedes that the latter position is compelling to the rational mind. Those holding that it’s an accident of cognition have at best – at best – 50:50 to those who say its a clue to ontology that transcends sense and cognition.

    You go on to take aim at the collusion of natural laws with scientific laws but this seems pretty blatantly to be a Straw Man even in context. A better argument would be to state that NLT should choose a different word, “law” itself perhaps gains some command facility (which NLT theoriests may have ulterior motives to seek) but it comes at a lose of the subtle point underlying Natural Law Theory which is a genuinely poignant subtle point:

    the factors that differ between a thriving flower versus flowers dying on the vine … represent something – a noun of some kind (perhaps not a “law”), and what sets agents apart from flora is that agents have the option to elect for that which thrives versus that which dies on the vine. Is it a law? I don’t know. Seems like an unfortunate choice choice of word. Is it a good point? Yes – even the Stoics opposing Aristotle have to agree it’s a pretty good point.

    Colluding pantheism with transcendent source is unmerited. One can look at right angles, fractals, the Golden Ratio, etc., and deduce that these all hint compellingly at something that transcends cognition, if not qualia accessible to human sensation, and still remain agnostic about the nature of what is hinted at, and in doing so reject pantheism or any other ontological account for the transcendent. Again its rhetorical advancement without logical advancement.

    Then your conclusion: do you like your conclusion? Do you feel that represents you? After all of this you equate it to a choice: could be Buddhism, could be Christianity, could be Stoicism … but now that you’ve reached bottom this choice is a choice because: hey–what works for you! Not because: Virtue, the Good, is a rejection by the agent of chaos or in modern philosophy: nihilism. At the point where you’ve left us at the doors of three traditions, that’s what we have though – you have deconstructed – I would argue – not so well (I am sorry !) but failed to construct anything: there is no … anything in particular, because by now the question is so poorly posed … so choose for yourself!

    I don’t think the Stoics would have it that way, but they would sustain the validity of Christianity or Buddhism just the same, but in their case because Stoicism is a temple to Virtue but Virtue is not confined to the temple and Virtue is a noun, it is a thing, a real thing and something agent elects for or does not and electing for it, or not electing for it: matters.

    Explain why you think it matters and you’ll be being a better Stoic. All this post tells me is why you think it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t do a good job doing that.

    If you want – keep this reply private. I don’t care for the public argumentation I see us as on the same side.

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  8. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    “the other schools at his time (both Academic and Peripatetic) agreed with Stoics entirely on ethics (and disagreed with Epicureans) – they just used more common language for “external goods” than the Stoic term “preferred indifferents.””

    I disagree, and so did the Stoics. Yes, preferred indifferents refers to externals, but there is an important distinction — pace Cicero — in the attitude that Aristotelians and Stoics had with respect to externals. I go in detail about that here: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-stoic-spectrum-and-the-thorny-issue-of-preferred-indifferents/

    “In any case, the practical difference here seems minor at best.”

    I don’t think it is. It makes a huge practical difference whether you think some externals are necessary for eudaimonia or not. It changes the way your prioritize things in life.

    “Nussbaum’s point to mean that we need more than Stoic theory to address public policy, where the emphasis is on creating the political-economic conditions under which citizens may flourish”

    I understand her point, but I’m not convinced. First off, of course, Stoicism is a personal philosophy, not a social one. This goes for all eudiamonic philosophies. So in a sense it is a category mistake to expect specific policies to come out of it. Second, I would hope that a social policy, of whatever kind, would be informed by the virtues. After all, Rawls based his whole theory on just one of them: justice, interpreted as fairness.

    “reminds me of comments you’ve made in the past re: Rawlsian theory at the political level to supplement virtue ethics at the personal level.”

    Yes, with the qualifications I just gave. In fact, the Romans got the idea right: they distinguished between philosophy and law. The first one was personal and informed the law. Law was how one regulates things at the social level. But they did have a broader conception of law than we do today, as it included what we today call social philosophy.

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    I think your comments are unnecessarily harsh, frankly, but let’s look at the substance, since you do make interesting points:

    “It is unfortunate that when describing Natural Law you even make reference to God, the better point is transcendent source and you are specifically on defense in your rejection of transcendent source so by invoking God you are rhetorically strengthening your case without logically advancing it. Transcendent source is compelling: is the Golden Ratio an accident of mechanical cognition or a clue to ontology that lies beyond cognition? No less than Bertrand Russell concedes that the latter position is compelling to the rational mind. Those holding that it’s an accident of cognition have at best – at best – 50:50 to those who say its a clue to ontology that transcends sense and cognition.”

    God is a transcendent source, indeed, for most people it is the main or only transcendent source, so I don’t think it was specious at all for me to bring it up. Besides, the history of natural law is deeply entwined with medieval Christianity, so God is hardly irrelevant.

    I don’t find transcende sources compelling at all. Your reference to the golden ratio is a typical defense of Platonism, which I reject after very serious consideration, for instance here: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/smolin-on-mathematics/

    Russell was a smart guy, and one of my favorite philosophers, but he was wrong on a number of things, including on Stoicism: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/bertrand-russell-got-stoicism-seriously-wrong/

    The 50-50 argument does not hold water. From my perspective, Platonism and similar notions are extraordinary claims, and there is little to back them up. So a default position of rejection of the transcendental seems the most defensible to me. Obviously, you disagree, but that hardly makes my essay so trivially wrong as you suggest.

    “You go on to take aim at the collusion of natural laws with scientific laws but this seems pretty blatantly to be a Straw Man even in context.

    Ah, yes, I love it when people accuse me of committing elementary logical fallacies. Actually, there is a strong connection between natural law and scientific law. It is a well known historical fact that early scientists, like Galileo and Descartes (and later Newton) disagree on whether to call scientific laws “laws” precisely for reasons that mirror the problems with natural law (i.e., its god/transcendental implication). See here: https://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2013/10/are-there-natural-laws.html

    It’s just that science overcame its hangover with the transcendental in the 18th and 19th centuries, while (some) philosophy still has it.

    “what sets agents apart from flora is that agents have the option to elect for that which thrives versus that which dies on the vine. Is it a law? I don’t know. Seems like an unfortunate choice choice of word. Is it a good point? Yes – even the Stoics opposing Aristotle have to agree it’s a pretty good point.”

    I’m not sure what you are getting at with this, but we now have a far better understanding of both flowers (?) and agency than Aristotle did. We have evolutionary biology and cognitive science. But I honestly am not sure what your point was, so I will not dwell further on it.

    “Colluding pantheism with transcendent source is unmerited. One can look at right angles, fractals, the Golden Ratio, etc., and deduce that these all hint compellingly at something that transcends cognition, if not qualia accessible to human sensation, and still remain agnostic about the nature of what is hinted at, and in doing so reject pantheism or any other ontological account for the transcendent. Again its rhetorical advancement without logical advancement.”

    I beg to differ. The Stoics were pantheists, and that is where they got their sense of transcendence. And since they are the ones that pretty much invented natural law as was later understood, it seemed pretty obviously pertinent to make the connection.

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  10. Massimo Post author

    Daniel (part II),

    “Then your conclusion: do you like your conclusion? Do you feel that represents you? After all of this you equate it to a choice: could be Buddhism, could be Christianity, could be Stoicism … but now that you’ve reached bottom this choice is a choice because: hey–what works for you! Not because: Virtue, the Good, is a rejection by the agent of chaos or in modern philosophy: nihilism. ”

    I just re-read my conclusion, yes, I’m very happy with it. I’ve always appreciate Stoicism precisely because it is metaphysically ecumenical, and I have always said that it is only one of a number of frameworks one can use to live a life worth living. I stand by both assessments.

    I think it is now your turn of strawmanning my position. “It works for me” does not imply that anything goes, and I don’t see where you get that from. It is not by chance that I mentioned Buddhism (a virtue-type philosophy) and not Nazism, say. So no, nihilism wouldn’t make the list either. You are making the mistake of going from “a number of different solutions to problem X is about equally good” (my position) to “any solution to problem X is equally good” (your caricature, or misrepresentation).

    ” don’t think the Stoics would have it that way, but they would sustain the validity of Christianity or Buddhism just the same, but in their case because Stoicism is a temple to Virtue but Virtue is not confined to the temple and Virtue is a noun, it is a thing, a real thing and something agent elects for or does not and electing for it, or not electing for it: matters.”

    The first part of what you say is precisely what I meant, and you misread. And yes, the Stoics do say (Seneca, for instance) that virtue is a thing, a material thing, even. Sorry, they are wrong on that one. It is a good concept, which leads to good lives. But that’s it. Nothing magical or transcendental about it. It’s a human invention, like mathematics.

    Seneca himself said that we don’t think of those who came before us as our masters, only as our teachers. And if future generations will discover new truths we will do well to adapt accordingly. Well, here we are, two millennia later we have discovered a new thing or two, and Stoicism needs to adapt (much, much more about that here: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/tag/a-new-stoicism/

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  11. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: It makes a huge practical difference whether you think some externals are necessary for eudaimonia or not. It changes the way your prioritize things in life.

    To quote Piso the Peripatetic (care of Cicero):

    “The things we reckon as bodily goods do, it is true, form a factor in supreme happiness, but yet happiness is possible without them. For those supplementary goods are so small and slight in the full radiance of the virtues they are invisible as the starts in sunlight.”

    One may certainly doubt Cicero’s historical accounts of these schools (which, after all, rely on his personal encounters with individual members, as well as on his own reflections), but at face value I see no “huge practical difference” here with Stoic ethics. Indeed, it conforms to the “lexicographical ordering” that you mentioned in the linked article, whereby the virtues are the non-negotiable Set A and the external goods are the “supplementary” Set B.

    Re: politics, I think back to when I was younger and read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, followed immediately by Politics. It as a rather seamless transition, as I recall, and an approach that still resonates with me, whatever we now call the latter phase (law, public policy, political theory, or social philosophy).

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  12. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    we don’t have to rely on Cicero, we have Aristotle. The difference is not minor. If it is, not only myself, but pretty much every scholar who has looked into Stoicism, from Chris Gill to John Sellars to Don Robertson to Larry Becker to Margaret Graver is too. Possible, but unlikely.

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  13. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: So you discount Cicero’s account. Like I said, that’s an option, but it doesn’t change the substance of what I said above, based on the text. Rather, it casts doubt on Cicero as an historical source.

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  14. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    I don’t discount Cicero, I just put him against other sources, including himself. In book III of De Finibus, for instance, he gives a much more accurate and fair presentation of Stoicism. As I said, the view that the differences between Stoicism and Aristotelianism are trivial is not accepted by any modern scholar I know. Just take a look at the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, for instance.

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  15. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo:

    Cicero’s account may be totally inaccurate as history: maybe over time the Peripatetics embraced the idea that “happiness is possible without” external goods, which are “so small and slight in the full radiance of the virtues they are invisible as the starts in sunlight” – and then credited themselves at the Stoics’ expense, ignoring whatever “real disagreement” (as Cicero put it to Cato) there actually was between their schools’ founders (i.e. Aristotle and Zeno, whom Cicero claims only had a “verbal disagreement”).

    In any case, I’ve largely stuck to what Cicero reports in De Finibus, while you keep pulling back to a more general comparison. That’s fine, so long as we’re clear as to where the “real disagreement” occurs.

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  16. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    I doubt the Peripatetics changed things as you suggest. And I don’t see why one should limit discussion to Cicero, who was well known to be partisan. He had sympathies with the Stoics, but followed his own understanding of Academic Skepticism. And he tells different stories in books III and IV of De Finibus. You think the one in IV is more accurate, I don’t.

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  17. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: You think the one in IV is more accurate, I don’t.

    How do you go from my saying “Cicero’s account may be totally inaccurate as history” to the above?

    Cicero’s response to Cato is Book IV, Piso’s is Book V, and the two largely agree with respect to Stoics (i.e. they both lob the “just semantics” charge at them, among other minor criticisms).

    But of course this is all related by Cicero, who (like you say) was “well know to be partisan”, but was also (as your blog attests) sympathetic to Stoicism. And yet, as biased and historically unreliable as it may be, the text plainly expresses a “real agreement” with Stoic ethics by these representatives of other schools. I guess I find that specific account to be more interesting than the general account that appears to interest you.

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  18. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    I feel like we are reaching diminishing returns on this. First, I did not say that Cicero’s account is completely inaccurate. In fact, he gives an accurate account of Stoicism not only in De Finibus III, but also in the Tusculan Disputations and in other writings. Second, “Piso’s account” is actually yet another account by Cicero, obviously. Third, I’m interesting in the general account because that is the most decisive source of evidence, as opposed to specific, partisan accounts.

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  19. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I know you didn’t say “Cicero’s account is completely inaccurate.” I said it “may be totally inaccurate as history”, which is rhetoric for: I’m more interested in his philosophy than I am in his history.

    I also said “of course this is all related by Cicero”, which includes Piso’s presentation.

    With these agreements in mind, your reference to “the most decisive source of evidence” implies an hypothesis, as if we’re arguing history. I had hoped that my “totally inaccurate as history” rhetoric above would have avoided this confusion, but apparently I was mistaken. Oh, well.

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  20. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    we are not talking about history at all, we are talking philosophy. When seen within the context of Cicero’s own other writings, and of that of many other sources, I think Cicero’s treatment of the Stoics in the later books of De Finibus is philosophically, not historically, inaccurate, or at the very least uncharitable.

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  21. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I saw Cicero’s treatment of Stoicism as more or less consistent with your previous characterization of him as a sympathizer. However, that account tended to focus on Cato’s presentation and to gloss over what Cicero himself and his friends said and thought about it: for example, that they endorse (at least in De Finibus) the same “lexicographical ordering” as Stoics by elevating the virtues over external goods. Nothing you’ve said here (or elsewhere, as I recall) has yet to refute that claim (which is both philosophical and historical), but I’ve been following your work for roughly ten years so far and will surely be on the look out for that refutation in the future.

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  22. Daniel Cirignani

    Massimo, “Harsh?” I know – because I prefer it be private and in your case the bar is set very high. There are compromises others can make and get away with them because no one takes them seriously – but people take you seriously, they go to you as a guide. Also, I repeatedly made it clear you may keep the communication private.

    I’m not going to take you point by point but instead here’s where I wish this steered.

    I wish you would have conceded that “God” loads philosophical freight on your opponents that they in no sense deserve, the use of the term serves no effect to your argument except for rhetorical advancement. In your (II) – and wow – thank you that I wrote something deserving so thorough a reply – but as to it:

    Had I been able to proof this post I’d of asked you to start over with reply-II, and build from there.

    Show us constructively why and how you are able to build what is a physicalist structure for an ethical system that isn’t just an alternative to nihilism, its specifically incompatible with it and offers no home for it. Consider that many NLT theorists are not so much committed to NLT per se, as that are with the dissolution of any popular intuitive sense for a reliable moral substructure and even if you disagree with the moral theory they think is the remedy, you should at least concede that you are on the same side with respect to curing the disease.

    Then start talking about the specific application. Instead you have constructed an argument against NLT that takes conventional rhetorical liberties and fails to undermine NLT where it is persuasive to those who understand it, but the more damaging effect is that those conventional liberties spill into attacks on what people traditionally associate with transcendent sources for their own moral intuitions – it’s a shotgun approach when a scalpel was all that was needed for your purposes, while hammer, brick and mortar were really what is called for from you, in particular.

    We don’t need a new restatement of traditional objections, rhetorical or logical, to NLT, we need demonstration of valid physicalist alternative.

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  23. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: The claim is that ‘Cicero himself and his friends…endorse (at least in De Finibus) the same “lexicographical ordering” as Stoics by elevating the virtues over external goods.’ The Piso quote above from Book V demonstrates that, but there are other demonstrations in Book III, which are told in Cicero’s voice.

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  24. Massimo Post author

    Daniel,

    ” wish you would have conceded that “God” loads philosophical freight on your opponents that they in no sense deserve, the use of the term serves no effect to your argument except for rhetorical advancement.”

    You keep saying that, but I keep explaining that since for most people — including the Stoics, in theor own way — god is the main source of transcendence, seemed perfectly to bring that into the discussion.

    “Show us constructively why and how you are able to build what is a physicalist structure for an ethical system that isn’t just an alternative to nihilism, its specifically incompatible with it and offers no home for it.”

    I’m perfectly satisfied with the way Larry Becker re-built it on Stoic principles, updated sans the transcendental. I hate to redo the work that others have done so well. But that’s why I devoted nine posts to his book.

    “Consider that many NLT theorists are not so much committed to NLT per se, as that are with the dissolution of any popular intuitive sense for a reliable moral substructure and even if you disagree with the moral theory they think is the remedy, you should at least concede that you are on the same side with respect to curing the disease.”

    This is, honestly, a bit obscure. What disease are both NLT theorists and I trying to cure, exactly. What substructure are you referring to?

    “We don’t need a new restatement of traditional objections, rhetorical or logical, to NLT, we need demonstration of valid physicalist alternative.”

    See my comment above about Larry. And of course plenty of philosophers have defended physicalists grounding of morality. There are lots of naturalists out there, so, again, I don’t feel compelled in producing redundant work. Besides, at this point, after a couple of millennia of philosophical and scientific investigations, seems to be the burden of proof is squarely on those assuming the transcendental.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    “The claim is that ‘Cicero himself and his friends…endorse (at least in De Finibus) the same “lexicographical ordering” as Stoics by elevating the virtues over external goods.’ The Piso quote above from Book V demonstrates that, but there are other demonstrations in Book III, which are told in Cicero’s voice.”

    Ah, I see. Well, then both the Aristotelians and the Cynics followed the same order (virtue at the top), while the thing is less clear for the Epicureans (who arguably put the avoidance of pain at the top).

    But this doesn’t change the substance, which is that Aristotelians, Stoics, and Cynics had very different roles for externals, respectively: necessary for the good life; not necessary but nice if you have them; get in the way. That, in my mind, is a huge conceptual difference, which has certainly had a very practical impact on the way I conduct my own life.

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  26. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo:

    “Ah, I see. Well, then both the Aristotelians and the Cynics followed the same order (virtue at the top)…”

    I guess I should have placed more emphasis on that claim earlier. Anyways, glad we understand each other better now.

    “Aristotelians, Stoics, and Cynics had very different roles for externals, respectively: necessary for the good life; not necessary but nice if you have them; get in the way.”

    Yes, but here’s the Piso quote one more time:

    “The things we reckon as bodily goods do, it is true, form a factor in supreme happiness, but yet happiness is possible without them. For those supplementary goods are so small and slight in the full radiance of the virtues they are invisible as the starts in sunlight.”

    So if Piso was an Aristotelian (which is how I interpret his Peripatetic identity), then he must have been an unorthodox one to suggest that “happiness is possible without” externals, or else perhaps Cicero misrepresented him (e.g. projected his own view onto him), as he says similar things in his response to Cato in the previous book.

    In any case, you could say that I come here in praise of unorthodoxy. 😉

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  27. Massimo Post author

    Jason,

    Piso is definitely not an orthodox Aristotelian. Aristotle is pretty clear that eudaimonia is not possible without some externals, he even lists a number.

    Whether Cicero mischaracterized the school, or their position had changed, or Piso was an exception I don’t know.

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  28. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: “Piso is definitely not an orthodox Aristotelian.”

    And I accept that statement.

    Still, verbal disagreements occur here re: the meanings of “happiness” and “good” and Cicero even challenges Piso on behalf of the Stoics at one point, stating that “it is violently inconsistent to call a man happy and at the same time say that he is overwhelmed with evils. How happiness and misfortune can go together I entirely fail to understand.”

    Piso’s answer is nuanced but satisfying, in my opinion – enough so that I don’t mind sticking with more conventional language in my daily travels, even if I have to translate those terms into more cumbersome technical jargon, like “preferred and dispreferred indifferents”, when moving in Stoic circles. 🙂

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