Chrysippus’ cylinder: agency in a material universe

Do we live in a material universe governed by cause and effect? I believe so. Do we, then, have free will? It depends on what you mean by that term. The so-called problem of free will is one that keeps intelligent and well intentioned people arguing in circles forever, and there is of course a huge philosophical literature about it (see, for an introduction, this article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Heck, some misguided scientists even think they can, and indeed have, solved the problem experimentally! (This article by Adina Roskies explains why that’s problematic.) I will not defend the above assertions here, but accept them as given and proceed with what I think is a more interesting discussion. Please note that this post should be of far wider interest than just to people attracted to Stoicism in particular, as the messy issue of “free will” arises for any philosophical position.

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The Stoic spectrum and the thorny issue of preferred indifferents

One of the things I truly enjoy about Stoicism is its alleged “paradoxes.” Cicero wrote a whole book to explain them, and they still puzzle people when they first (and second, and third) encounter them. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the Stoics perversely enjoyed to present their doctrines in the form of short phrases that would appear puzzling, and which therefore invited further discussion and clarification — thus avoiding the reduction of their philosophy to a “bumper sticker” version. If you wanted to understand Stoicism, you needed to slow down and wrap your mind around it, no shortcuts allowed.

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The three topoi and the three disciplines

Zeno & Epictetus
Zeno & Epictetus

Two of the first things anyone interested in Stoicism learns are the distinctions among the three topoi (i.e., logic, physics, and ethics) and the three disciplines (i.e., desire, action, and assent). One may even learn that the two sets were not, so far as we know, explicitly connected in ancient times, but that Pierre Hadot has made an excellent case for a specific pattern of relationship between them (and the four virtues), in his excellent Philosophy as a Way of Life.

In this post I’d like to revisit the issue and clarify why Zeno, who originated the tri-partition among the topoi, taught them in a specific sequence, as well as way Epictetus, who is thought to have explicitly introduced the three disciplines (though they were arguably implied in earlier Stoicism) thought that one of them had clear precedence over the others.

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Greek Buddha, part II

BuddhaLet me conclude my brief commentary of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing (and controversial, see also here) Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, following up on yesterday’s post on the alleged relationship between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism (and, indirectly, other Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism).

We are now going to tackle the phenomenon of the Greek Enlightenment, to which Beckwith devotes chapter 4 of his book, and which he provocatively subtitles “what the Buddha, Pyrrho, and Hume argued against.” (On David Hume and his take on both Pyrrhonian skepticism and Stoicism, see here.)

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Greek Buddha, part I

Greek BuddhaI often say that Stoicism is the Western equivalent of Buddhism, since there are many similarities between the two philosophies, based on what little I have read about Buddhism, and what I am told by friends and colleagues who know much more about it than I do. But could it be that some of these similarities are not the result of convergent cultural evolution, but rather of direct historical influence? It is not a crazy idea, given that we know that the Greeks came into extensive contact with Indian culture at the least in the time of Alexander the Great, and likely significantly earlier.

It is thus with more than a little curiosity that I tackled the reading of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.

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Musonius’ sayings

Musonius
Musonius

We have just taken a look at Musonius Rufus’ Lectures, as newly translated by Cynthia King (with preface by Bill Irvine). It is then time to turn to the collection of short Sayings that are part of the same book to further our picture of an influential Stoic and teacher of Epictetus.

The Sayings are essentially aphorisms, not the sort of comprehensive essays that we have seen in the Lectures, but they are nonetheless useful to improve our understanding of Musonius and his Stoic worldview.

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