Virtue ethics is a big tent: a response to Edith Hall

Zeno vs Aristotle

Classics professor Edith Hall has recently published a fascinating article in Aeon entitled “Why read Aristotle today?,” on the reasons we should adopt Aristotle as a guide to a happy life. In the article, it transpires that she really doesn’t like Stoicism, so that prompted some reflection on my part on both Aristotelianism and Stoicism.

I have adopted Stoicism as a personal philosophy of life because it spoke to me from the moment I heard of a strange thing called “Stoic Week.” It has been only four years, really, and my life has changed, mostly for the better (and the non-mostly part isn’t Stoicism’s fault anyway!). Several things attracted me to the philosophy, and the more I study it, the more my initial hunch is confirmed. Three in particular: the idea of “living according to nature,” the practice of the four virtues, and the dichotomy of control. I have come to think of these elements respectively as the fundamental axiom of Stoicism, its moral compass, and its key to serenity.

The fundamental axiom: to live according to nature means to take seriously human nature, specifically the fact that we thrive only in the context of a society and that we are capable of reason. Three things follow: we are all members of the same human cosmopolis; consequently, we should try to practice oikeiosis, the “appropriation” of other people’s concerns as if they were our own; and, therefore, a good human life consists in applying one’s reason to improve society. These three points are the basis of the Stoic notion of cosmopolitanism.

The moral compass: the practice of the four cardinal virtues (which turn out to be among a small subset of virtues recognized cross-culturally) of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. This practice is an incredibly effective way to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is important, and to navigate even complex situations in the most ethical way. Any time you have to make a decision, just ask yourself: is this good or evil (practical wisdom)? Am I being as courageous as the occasion requires? Am I acting justly with respect to others? Am I doing this in the right measure? You’d be surprised how easy it is to figure out what the right thing to do is, with this compass in hand (whether we actually do it or not, of course, depends on the progress we have made).

The key to serenity: while the primary goal of Stoicism is to live a virtuous, and therefore meaningful life, the Stoics also aimed at ataraxia, i.e., tranquillity of mind. Epictetus promises that we will reach this state if we internalize the basic idea of the dichotomy of control: some things are up to us (our values, judgments, and opinions) and other things are not up to us (everything else). Focus therefore on what is under your power, and simply accept with equanimity that things sometimes go your way, and that at other times they don’t. (Again, it takes practice to get reasonably good at this.)

There are, of course, several things about which I disagree with the ancient Stoics, and a number of areas where the original philosophy, to remain alive, needs to be updated. One of these things is the idea that Stoicism is “the” philosophy to follow. We know from sources such as Diogenes Laertius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero, that the Stoics engaged in fierce verbal battles with all the major Hellenistic schools, from the Epicureans to the Aristotelians to the Academic Skeptics. There is good evidence, discussed in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, that these debates influenced and over time modified the positions of the various schools, including the Stoics themselves. Seneca, after all, wisely wrote:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I have slowly come around the notion that many (though not all) religions and philosophies of life have core teachings that are helpful to people and that — if practiced consistently — would lead us to build a better world. I don’t think it is a coincidence that there are so many similarities, not just across the Greco-Roman philosophies, but between Aristotelianism and Confucianism as well as Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism, not to mention Christianity. Indeed, Epictetus might have been on to something like an ecumenical philosophy when he wrote:

“For who among us doesn’t assume that the good is beneficial and desirable, and that we should seek and pursue it in every circumstance? And who among us doesn’t assume that what is just is honorable and appropriate? When does contradiction arise, then? It comes about when we apply our preconceptions to particular cases … Jews, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans. They don’t dispute that what is holy should be preferred above everything else and in every case pursued; but they argue, for example, over whether it is holy or unholy to eat pork.” (Discourses I, 22.1-4)

So, while my personal choice is Stoicism, I fully believe that there are many paths to wisdom and a life worth living, and that each of us has to choose (or build) the path that resonates with us, given not just the specific content of the philosophy, but also our personal character and culture of provenance.

That is why I was a bit disappointed by Hall’s essay. She does make a masterful case for why we should, indeed, read Aristotle, who has much to teach us about the route to happiness. Heck, she almost convinced me to switch camps and become a peripatetic! (No, not really, but still, the essay is very good.)

Yet, Hall apparently felt it necessary to begin with a nasty dig at Stoicism:

“Stoicism, founded in Athens by the Cypriot Zeno in about 300 BCE, has advocates. Self-styled Stoic organisations on both sides of the Atlantic offer courses, publish books and blog posts, and even run an annual Stoic Week. Some Stoic principles underlay Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). He recommended Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to its readers. But authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites. It recommended the resigned acceptance of misfortune, rather than active engagement with the fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving. It left little room for hope, human agency or constructive repudiation of suffering.”

I guess since Stoicism, surprisingly, is the successful kid in the room at the moment, one has to take it down a notch or two before advancing one’s own preferred philosophy.

But Hall’s treatment of Stoicism is way off the mark. Briefly:

  • Carnegie may have been inspired by Marcus Aurelius, but Stoicism is not a form of self-help. It is an all-encompassing philosophy of life, which is made very clear by “self-styled” (why the rhetorical dig?) Stoic organizations throughout the world.
  • Ancient Stoicism was anything but pessimistic and grim. The Stoics believed that the Logos, the principle of rationality, permeated the universe, and they conceived of it as god. Accordingly, we are literally bits and pieces of the divine, hardly a grim picture of ourselves. While most (but not all) modern Stoics have abandoned pantheism, we still think that life is an amazing thing, very worth living to its fullest, no matter what one’s special circumstances might be.
  • Stoicism did not denounce pleasure, it simply advised moderation. Seneca writes about the need to dance and drink wine, even to intoxication, from time to time (On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII).
  • Stoicism most certainly does not predicate the suppression of emotions, as discussed in detail, for instance, in Margaret Graver’s book. The Stoics thought of their approach as a philosophy of love, and cultivated joy (Seneca, Letters XXIII.3) and other positive emotions, while staying away from the unhealthy ones like anger, hatred, and fear.
  • Stoics were not resigned to accept misfortune, as is very clearly demonstrated by several of their role models, like Cato the Younger, and by their fierce fight against the tyranny of three emperors. They did, however, accept misfortune with equanimity, because what is the point of complaining about the inevitable?
  • The Stoics very much advised us to get involved in the “fine-grained business of everyday problem-solving.” That was the whole point of Epictetus’ role ethics.
  • As for human agency, the Stoics were what we today would call compatibilists about free will, a commonly accepted position in contemporary philosophy. And the chief aim of Stoic training was, and still is, precisely to improve and refine aagency

I’m sure Hall will disagree with my response, just as I (or others who are better qualified) can martial a number of objections to her view of Aristotle. But that is not the point. Let a thousand philosophies bloom instead. Aristotle’s your guy? Excellent! Do you prefer Epicurus? Go for it! Epictetus really does it for you (as he does for me)? Wonderful! Or perhaps Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Jesus, and so forth. Just go for it and try to live a meaningful and ethical life.

Mind you, not all philosophies or ideologies will do. There is no such thing as a good fascist or a eudaimonic Nazi (or Stalinist, or Maoist), and some religions are cultish and rather dangerous (e.g., Scientology).

I am not arguing that there are no substantive differences among the many possible legitimate alternatives. This is one reason I tend to be somewhat skeptical of “eclectic” approaches that mix and match from different traditions. But hey, if that’s your cup of tea, by all means, drink it!

Virtue ethics, the broad family to most Greco-Roman philosophies belong, has the potential to really change both individuals and, in bottom-up fashion, society. For the better. If more people took seriously the idea that a good life (eudaimonia) requires an ethical approach, and that such a life is possible for anyone willing to work on their character and attitudes, reflecting — at least from time to time — on why we do what we do, this would be a far better place than we have managed to make it so far. And it really wouldn’t matter if you got there by way of Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius.

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70 thoughts on “Virtue ethics is a big tent: a response to Edith Hall

  1. Massimo Post author

    I tend to agree with E.O. about emotions: the Stoics sought to avoid the unhealthy ones, but they recognized, for instance, that even grief — for a time, and in a measured way — is human and necessary.

    I am, however, rather skeptical of the modern emphasis on empathy, especially given research in cognitive and social psychology that shows how easy it is to manipulate it. My preference goes for sympathy, which I also find to be more in line with Stoic philosophy:

    https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/sympathy-empathy-and-how-a-stoic-should-relate-to-other-peoples-emotions/

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pelagius

    Talonguard asked about defining compassion. I’d be happy to start with Adam Smith’s definition:

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

    Also, I understand Victoria’s point about the sayings of Confucius. Likewise, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in grade school doesn’t seem to guarantee good U.S. citizenship. But with virtue ethics, we’re talking about not just knowing the virtues but making a concerted effort to apply them to everyday life, in fact, to each moment of everyday life. So I guess that means it depends on agency. You might not be able to teach people to be wise. But it’s still possible to learn!

    PS. Best thanks to Massimo for hosting this excellent debate!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pelagius

    One last note from me on this. Here’s Pierre Hadot, from his book, “What Is Ancient Philosphy?” (Pages 278 and 279 in the Belknap Press paperback edition): “Perhaps we should say that the choices of life we have described — those of Socrates, Pyrrho, Epicurus, the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Skeptics — correspond to constant, universal models which are found, in various forms, in every civilization, throughout the various cultural zones of humanity. That is why I earlier mentioned a Buddhist text, as well as some considerations by Hulin, who was inspired by Buddhism: because I thought they could give us a better understanding of the essence of the Greek sage. It is most interesting that in Greece, India and China, one of the paths to wisdom is indifference, or the refusal to accord things differences in value … the ancients were perhaps closer to the Orient than we are. The same point is made by a modern Chinese author who writes: ‘Chinese philosophers were all Socrates, to various degrees’.”

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  4. Victoria

    Actually, the first Chinese philosophical golden age (the hundred schools of
    Thoughts) happened around the same time as Socrates’ life, also around the time of the Buddha. I used to think of Confucius whenever the name Aristotle came up. In fact, the thought of Aristotle wearing the ancient Chinese clothing came to my mind one day and it was hilarious.😑 is there a mix dressing comic competition on ancient philosophers?

    For a long time I wondered if the Eastern and Western philosophies were similar 2.5k years ago? And I wondered why these great thinkers showed up independently around the same time? Was it that when human cognitive ability developed to a certain level and it gave birth to philosophy? Massimo I’m sure you’ve got PhD students looking into these questions, if they haven’t been answered already, right?

    By the way, my apologies if it seems I’m only commenting on a small part of Western and Chinese philosophies, as if the philosophical world is only made up of 2 groups. Well, it is not. I simply don’t know enough about anything else 😂. I welcome anyone who’d have the time to lecture me on philosophies from India, Africa and other parts of the world!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. E. O. Scott

    Victoria,

    “I welcome anyone who’d have the time to lecture me on philosophies from India, Africa and other parts of the world!”

    In that case, I highly recommend Peter Adamson’s huge and illustrious podcast, “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.”

    He has series on Islamic and Indian philosophy, and he just started two more, on Byzantine and Africana philosophy, respectively!

    https://historyofphilosophy.net/

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Massimo Post author

    Tim, Victoria,

    that said, there is quite a bit of skepticism in historical academic circles about the idea of an axial age, partly because it’s a pretty long span of time (things didn’t happen in sync), and partly because there doesn’t seem to be a single (or a small number of) common causal factor(s).

    From the relevant Wiki page:

    “The validity of the concept has been called into question.[30] In 2006 Diarmaid MacCulloch called the Jaspers thesis “a baggy monster, which tries to bundle up all sorts of diversities over four very different civilisations, only two of which had much contact with each other during the six centuries that (after adjustments) he eventually singled out, between 800 and 200 BCE”.[31] A comprehensive critique appears in Iain Provan’s 2013 book Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.[32]”

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