Category Archives: Ancient Stoicism

On the nature of the Sage: III. Was there ever a Sage?

The Philosopher at Delphi, a Sage?

Let’s continue our discussion of René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press) with a look at the third chapter of the book, on whether the Stoics thought the Sage was a real thing or just a hypothetical. Again, in a sense this series is truly more “academic” than practical, since none of us will likely become a Sage anyway. That said, the Stoic Sage is what we aspire to, akin to the Enlightened Buddha, for instance, so it’s interesting to learn what the ancients thought of the whole idea.

So, did the ancient Stoics actually consider themselves Sages? According to 19th century scholar S. Hirzel, Zeno and Cleanthes — the first and second head of the Stoa — did, but Chrysippus distanced himself from such claims, and came to consider both his predecessors as very wise, but not quite Sages. We shall see below that there is ample doubt that Hirzel got it right about Zeno and Cleanthes, but regarding specifically Chrysippus here is what Plutarch (a critic of Stoicism) says:

“What is more, Chrysippus does not proclaim himself or any of his own acquaintances or teachers a sage.” (On Stoic Contradictions, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 3.662)

A lot of what we know about how the early Stoics thought of Sagehood comes from Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Professors, also hostile to Stoicism, so that its pronouncements need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Here is a taste:

“According to the Stoics themselves, Zeno and Cleanthes and Chrysippus and the others from their school are reckoned among the inferior persons [i.e., non-Sages], and every inferior person is ruled by ignorance. … Chrysippus either knew this dogma, being a Stoic one, I mean ‘The inferior person is ignorant of all things,’ or he did not know this. And if he knew it, then it is false that the inferior person is ignorant of everything; for Chrysippus, being an inferior person, knew this very thing — that the inferior person is ignorant of all things.”

The second part of this is a straightforward attempt at logical “gotcha!” on the part of Sextus, but of course it is not wise to interpret the Stoics’ “dogma” (which was the word used for philosophical tenet, or belief) in a literal sense. To say that we are all ignorant is something very akin to the Socratic idea that we are all unwise. It is more charitable, and useful, to treat it as a call to epistemic modesty.

Diogenes of Babylon, a Stoic, says in fragment 32 that while gods (i.e., nature, the cosmos) are of such a nature that they necessarily exist, this does not apply to the nature of the Sage. In a sense, the Sage is a theoretical possibility, but does not have to be realized in any specific instance. Sextus confirms this, when he says: “up till now their Sage has not been found” (SVF 3), all of which would seem to flatly contradict Hirzel’s conclusions about Zeno and Cleanthes, which were based on guesswork and a psychological argument about how Zeno could most convincingly present his new philosophy to the public (as in “hey, come over here! I’m a Sage!).

Cicero too doubts the existence of the Sage:

“It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence.” (On Divination 2.61)

And he states the same opinion again while providing a description of the Sage in his Tusculan Disputations:

“The man in whom there shall be perfect wisdom — whom until now we have not seen, but what he will be like, if he will come into existence one day, has been described in the doctrines of the philosophers — this person then or such reason that will be perfect and absolute in him.” (2.51)

And here is Seneca, also disputing the existence of Sages:

“Yet I would not prescribe that you are to follow, or attach to yourself, no one but a Sage. For where do you find him, whom we sought for so many centuries? Choose as the best the least bad.” (On Tranquillity 7.4)

Then again, Seneca seems to edge his bets a bit:

“There is no reason for you to say, Serenus, as your habit is, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found. He is not a fiction of us Stoics, a sort of phantom glory of human nature, nor is he a mere conception, the mighty semblance of a thing unreal, but we have shown him in the flesh just as we delineate him, and shall show him — though perchance not often, and after a long lapse of years only one. For greatness that transcends the limit of the ordinary and common type is produced but rarely. But this self-same Marcus Cato, the mention of whom started this discussion, I almost think surpasses even our exemplar.” (On Constancy 7.1)

Marcus Cato is, of course, Cato the Younger, Seneca’s favorite role model, whom he mentions frequently in his writings (here is a compendium of the best quotes). There are other reports that seem to state that the Sage is rare, but real, for instance this bit from the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias:

“There have been just one or two good men, as is fabulously related by them, like some absurd and unnatural creature rarer than the Ethiopians’ phoenix.” (SVF 3.658)

Seneca had also, previously, compared the Sage to the phoenix:

“For one of the first class [i.e., a Sage] perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years.” (Letter 42.1)

Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic are often held up as Sages, but there is no straightforward evidence that the Stoics themselves thought so. For instance, Diogenes Laertius writes rather ambiguously:

“Posidonius in his first book On Ethics says that evidence for virtue existing is the fact that (those around?) Socrates, Diogenes and Antisthenes got to a state of progress.” (Lives 7.91)

Just because those “around” Socrates, Diogenes, and Antisthenes made progress it doesn’t mean that these three were actually Sages. There is, however, according to Brouwer, evidence that the Stoics identified some mythological characters with the Sage (and notice, again, the reference to Cato):

“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy 2.1)

I have written about Odysseus as a Stoic role model, but here Seneca actually makes him into a Sage, which is above the role of a simple role model. Then again, notice how often the Sage is talked about in mythological terms (the phoenix, Odysseus, Heracles…).

A bit more practical matter is the relation between Sagehood and truth. The Stoics, subtle logicians and dialecticians that they were, made an interesting distinction according to Brouwer: “The Stoics said that truth belonged to the Sage exclusively, whereas the true can belong to the Sage and the inferior person alike.” This is interesting because it says that we mere mortals can aspire to discovering true things, even though only the perfectly wise person has unshakable knowledge. The rest of us will have to be content with propositions that we believe are true but may need to be revised. I’ll take it! Brouwer summarizes the idea in this way: “the Stoics distinguished sharply between cognitions, on the one hand, and stable cognitions or knowledge, on the other. Just as an inferior person can at times say something true, he can at times have a cognition. Just as an inferior person has no truth, he has no stable cognitions.”

Here is another passage that further elucidates early Stoic thought, this time by Quintilian, in his Institutions:

“I will respond to those who ask if they [Cicero and Demosthenes] were orators, in the manner in which the Stoics would reply, if asked whether Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus themselves were Sages. I shall say that these men were important and worthy of our veneration, but that they did not achieve what is the highest in the nature of man. For did not Pythagoras desire that he should not be called a wise man, like the sages who preceded him, but rather a lover of wisdom (studiosum sapientiae)?” (SVF 1.44)

This, incidentally, is one of the early references to the very definition of a philosopher as lover of wisdom, or studiosum sapientiae in Latin. And here is an Epicurean telling us that the Stoics didn’t think of themselves as Sages:

“[The Stoics described] him [Zeno] as great, as the founder of their school, but not wise.” (Philodemus, On the Stoics col. 14.19–22)

Note, incidentally, that Epicurus did consider himself a Sage, so Philodemus here is making a dig at the Stoics for not having any Sages in their ranks.

Finally, the next quote is one of my favorite stories in Stoic lore, and it comes to us from Diogenes Laertius:

“One day a conversation took place on whether the wise man would hold opinions, and Sphaerus said that he would not. Wishing to refute him, the king ordered wax pomegranates to be placed before him. Sphaerus was deceived and the king cried out that he had given his assent to a false impression. Sphaerus gave him a shrewd answer, saying that his assent was not [to the impression] that they were pomegranates but [to the impression] that it was reasonable that they were pomegranates. He pointed out that the cognitive impression is different from the reasonable one.” (Lives 7.177)

This is both very shrewd, as Diogenes observes, and in fact an excellent explanation of the Stoic doctrine that there is a difference between reasonable judgments on impressions and truth. Again, the latter is obtained only by the (possibly mythological) Sage. Sphaerus here has cognition, but not “stable” cognition, i.e., knowledge. Given that, then there is hope for the rest of us too.


Basic Stoic theory, Diogenes Laertius edition

I just finished co-running Stoic Camp New York-2017, together with my friend Greg Lopez. We had 20 students and an amazing time up in Stony Point, on the West Bank of the Hudson River, north of New York. As part of the introductory session, we went through the basics of Stoic theory as reported by Diogenes Laertius in book VII of his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, which covers the early and middle Stoa (i.e., before Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus). I’m going to propose the passages we used here, organized by subject matter, as a handy vademecum for the Stoic practitioner. Each section below begins with a selection of pertinent quotes from Diogenes, and ends with a mini summary and commentary of my own. I hope it’s going to be useful.

The parts of philosophy

[39] Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical.

[40] They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.

[41] Diogenes of Ptolemaïs, it is true, begins with Ethics; but Apollodorus puts Ethics second, while Panaetius and Posidonius begin with Physics, as stated by Phanias, the pupil of Posidonius, in the first book of his Lectures of Posidonius.

This is the classic division of philosophy into three fields: logic (having to do with good reasoning), physics (understanding of the world), and ethics (how to live one’s life). The three are connected in that — as in the analogy of the garden — the logic and physics are necessary to protect (from bad reasoning) and nurture (through a sound understanding of the cosmos) the ethics. Notice that there was disagreement among the Stoics on the best way to set up the curriculum, one of a number of pieces of evidence that the philosophy was open to internal disagreement, not run like a cult (in the way of the Pythagoreans, for instance).

The nature of impressions

[45] A presentation (or mental impression) is an imprint on the soul: the name having been appropriately borrowed from the imprint made by the seal upon the wax.

[46] Freedom from precipitancy is a knowledge when to give or withhold the mind’s assent to impressions. By wariness they mean a strong presumption against what at the moment seems probable, so as not to be taken in by it.

[47] Without the study of dialectic, they say, the wise man cannot guard himself in argument so as never to fall; for it enables him to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and to discriminate what is merely plausible and what is ambiguously expressed, and without it he cannot methodically put questions and give answers.

[48] Overhastiness in assertion affects the actual course of events, so that, unless we have our perceptions well trained, we are liable to fall into unseemly conduct and heedlessness.

[49] For presentation comes first; then thought, which is capable of expressing itself, puts into the form of a proposition that which the subject receives from a presentation.

[51] Again, some of our impressions are scientific, others unscientific: at all events a statue is viewed in a totally different way by the trained eye of a sculptor and by an ordinary man.

“Impressions” are a combination of sensorial input and automatic judgment, as, for instance, when I suddenly feel fear because I have heard an unfamiliar sound in the house at night. Impressions ought to be examined in the light of reason, so that we can decide whether to give assent to them or not. This requires a certain degree of cognitive distancing (avoiding overhastiness), and also the ability to engage in sound reasoning (logic). This is the basis of Epictetus’ discipline of assent, which Pierre Hadot connects with the topos of logic and the virtue of prudence (practical wisdom). Notice that practice makes for better (more “scientific”) judgments of impressions.

Living according to nature

[85] An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends.

[86] And nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically.

[87] This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end “life in agreement with nature” (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life. … Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De finibus; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.

[88] 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. … And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life.

[89] By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.

So the Stoics had what we would today call an evolutionary theory of virtue (just like their “cradle argument” was a theory of human developmental psychology, connected to the concept of oikeiosis): plant life is regulated without impulses and sensation, which however do play a role in animal and human life. But human beings have reason as well. So to apply reason to the question of how to live is the same as living according to nature. If you do that, according to the Stoics, you figure out that this specifically means living a life of virtue (though Diogenes doesn’t say this here, that’s because virtue is the only thing that is always useful to improve the human lot, an argument that goes back to Socrates in the Euthydemus). Notice two more things: first, the reference to a smooth flow of life if we live virtuously; second, again, vibrant disagreement among the Stoics on specific issues of doctrine, in this context whether we should think in terms of human nature or the nature of the cosmos at large.

The virtues

[90] Virtue, in the first place, is in one sense the perfection of anything in general, say of a statue; again, it may be non-intellectual, like health, or intellectual, like prudence.

[91] That it, virtue, can be taught is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his work On the End, by Cleanthes, by Posidonius in his Protreptica, and by Hecato; that it can be taught is clear from the case of bad men becoming good.

[92] Panaetius, however, divides virtue into two kinds, theoretical and practical; others make a threefold division of it into logical, physical, and ethical; while by the school of Posidonius four types are recognized, and more than four by Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Antipater, and their followers. Apollophanes for his part counts but one, namely, practical wisdom. Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance. Particular virtues are magnanimity, continence, endurance, presence of mind, good counsel. And wisdom they define as the knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil; courage as knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.

[93] Similarly, of vices some are primary, others subordinate: e.g. folly, cowardice, injustice, profligacy are accounted primary; but incontinence, stupidity, ill-advisedness subordinate. Further, they hold that the vices are forms of ignorance of those things whereof the corresponding virtues are the knowledge.

[94] Virtue itself and whatever partakes of virtue is called good in these three senses — viz. as being (1) the source from which benefit results; or (2) that in respect of which benefit results, e.g.the virtuous act; or (3) that by the agency of which benefit results, e.g. the good man who partakes in virtue.

To begin with, the word “virtue” (arete, in Greek) applies to any kind of human excellence, of which the moral (intellectual) virtues are a subset. Diogenes lists the four cardinal Stoic virtues, but makes clear that there are several sub-virtuous, so to speak. The full list is detailed in a table on p. 28 of this paper by Matthew Sharpe on Stoic virtue ethics. Well worth the reading. Diogenes then says that to each virtue corresponds a given vice, and — most importantly — that virtue is a type of knowledge, and vice a type of ignorance (best understood as unwisdom). Notice, once more, evidence of debate among the Stoics on all these subject matters.

Preferred vs dispreferred indifferents

[102] Goods comprise the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the rest; while the opposites of these are evils, namely, folly, injustice, and the rest. Neutral (neither good nor evil, that is) are all those things which neither benefit nor harm a man: such as life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like. This Hecato affirms in his De fine, book vii., and also Apollodorus in his Ethics. and Chrysippus. For, say they, such things (as life, health, and pleasure) are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, though falling under the species or subdivision “things preferred.”

[103] Further, they say that that is not good of which both good and bad use can be made; but of wealth and health both good and bad use can be made; therefore wealth and health are not goods.

[104] The term “indifferent” … denotes the things which do not contribute either to happiness or to misery, as wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy without having these, although, if they are used in a certain way, such use of them tends to happiness or misery.

[105] Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts — as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.

[107] Again, of things preferred some are preferred for their own sake, some for the sake of something else, and others again both for their own sake and for the sake of something else. … Things are preferred for their own sake because they accord with nature; not for their own sake, but for the sake of something else, because they secure not a few utilities.

An important bit here is the very clear explanation that preferred indifferents are so-called because they have “value” (that’s why they are preferred) but they do not affect our moral character (indifferent). I have explained this concept in earlier writings in terms of what modern economists call lexicographic preferences. Notice, at [103], a piece of syllogistic reasoning aiming to prove that wealth, health, etc. are not “goods.” Once you understand how the Stoics used these terms, it becomes obvious why this is true: wealth, for instance, can be used to do good as well as to do evil, therefore it is logically independent of good and evil, and so it is not, by itself, good or evil (though one can use it in good or evil fashion). At [105] we get a pretty clear explanation of why certain things are preferred (or dispreferred): either they contribute to harmonious living, or to the life according to nature, or because of the barley and the mule thing…

On good and bad emotions

[110] Passion, or emotion, is defined by Zeno as an irrational and unnatural movement in the soul, or again as impulse in excess. The main, or most universal, emotions, according to Hecato in his treatise On the Passions, book ii., and Zeno in his treatise with the same title, constitute four great classes, grief, fear, desire or craving, pleasure.

[111] They hold the emotions to be judgements, as is stated by Chrysippus in his treatise On the Passions: avarice being a supposition that money is a good, while the case is similar with drunkenness and profligacy and all the other emotions. Pity is grief felt at undeserved suffering; envy, grief at others’ prosperity; jealousy, grief at the possession by another of that which one desires for oneself; rivalry, pain at the possession by another of what one has oneself.

[112] Fear is an expectation of evil.

[113] Desire or craving is irrational appetency, and under it are ranged the following states: want, hatred, contentiousness, anger, love [meaning irrational, obsessive passion], wrath, resentment. … Hatred is a growing and lasting desire or craving that it should go ill with somebody.

[114] Wrath is anger which has long rankled and has become malicious, waiting for its opportunity. … Resentment is anger in an early stage. Pleasure is an irrational elation at the accruing of what seems to be choiceworthy. … Malevolent joy is pleasure at another’s ills.

[115] And as there are said to be certain infirmities in the body, as for instance gout and arthritic disorders, so too there is in the soul love of fame, love of pleasure, and the like. … And as in the body there are tendencies to certain maladies such as colds and diarrhoea, so it is with the soul, there are tendencies like enviousness, pitifulness, quarrelsomeness, and the like.

[116] Also they say that there are three emotional states which are good, namely, joy, caution, and wishing. Joy, the counterpart of pleasure, is rational elation; caution, the counterpart of fear, rational avoidance. … And they make wishing the counterpart of desire (or craving), inasmuch as it is rational appetency. … Thus under wishing they bring well-wishing or benevolence, friendliness, respect, affection; under caution, reverence and modesty; under joy, delight, mirth, cheerfulness.

[117] Now they say that the wise man is passionless, because he is not prone to fall into such infirmity [i.e., unhealthy passions].

This is a pretty complete treatment of the oft-misunderstood topic of Stoic emotions. It should be clear, however, that the Stoics sought to avoid only the unhealthy emotions, what they called “passions” (pathē), and to nurture healthy emotions (eupatheiai). Diogenes gives a lengthy list of both, so to thoroughly explain what the Stoics meant. Notice, incidentally, the common parallel in Stoicism between physical and mental / spiritual health. At [111] we are introduced to the Stoic theory that emotions are a form of judgment, i.e., they have a cognitive component. So the “impressions” from above, which are automatic, generate a sort of proto-emotions (propatheiai), and it is to those that we apply our judgment. If we do this incorrectly, we turn the proto-emotion into an unhealthy passion. Schematically:

propatheiai + incorrect assent => pathē

Something like this is confirmed by modern cognitive science, where neuroscientists talk of “fear,” say, referring to the involuntary feeling arising from the rush of adrenalin when we perceive a threat, while psychologists use the same word referring to the mature, cognitively mediated emotion of the type “I ought to be afraid of terrorist attacks.” So when the Stoics say that the wise person is “passionless” (apatheia) they don’t mean that she lacks all emotions, but that she is unaffected by unhealthy one, as in:

propatheiai + correct assent => apatheia

The goal of Stoicism here is to produce emotionally healthy individuals. Hard to object to it, no?

That’s Stoicism in a nutshell! Let me leave you with a bonus quotation from Diogenes:

[118] They will take wine, but not get drunk.

On the nature of the Sage: II. How to transition to sagehood

While discussing René Brouwer’s The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press), we have encountered the two Stoic definitions of wisdom: (i) “knowledge of human and divine matters,” and (ii) “fitting expertise.” In chapter 2, Brouwer turns to the issue of what happens when someone transitions into sagehood. A note of caution: according to Seneca, this event (if it occurs at all) is as rare as the mythical bird, the phoenix, i.e., it takes place every half millennium or so. The chances you’ll personally achieve sagehood, therefore, ain’t that high. Still, I think that if one is interested in Stoic philosophy this is a topic worth briefly discussing.

Plutarch (who was not particularly sympathetic to the Stoics, and whose writings need, therefore, be interpreted with caution) says in “How a man may become aware of his progress in wisdom,” with barely veiled sarcasm:

“The sage changes in a moment or a second of time from the lowest possible inferiority to an unsurpassable character of virtue; and all his vice, of which he has not over a long time succeeded in removing even a small part, he instantaneously flees forever.” (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, 3.539).

If taken seriously, this makes the transition to sagehood sound very much like revelation for a Christian (say, on the way to Damascus), or enlightenment for a Buddhist, with the difference that the source of the Christian transformation is external, while for both Stoics and Buddhists it is internal. It is also irreversible, as I think it is in Buddhism, but not necessarily in Christianity (where one can lose one’s way; perhaps precisely because the transformation was triggered from the outside in the first place?).

Much of Brouwer’s discussion here is based on the Synopsis of “The Stoics talk More Paradoxically than the Poets,” again by Plutarch. According to Plutarch’s Synopsis, then, two things immediately characterize the transition to sagehood: its speed, and the fact that it is a change between opposite states (vice and virtue).

The Synopsis also states that the Sage may be ugly rather than beautiful, and a beggar rather than a rich king. So don’t expect wisdom to correspond to external attributes, such as beauty and wealth or power.

Moreover, the Sage does not hold “opinions,” meaning changeable convictions about whatever matters he contemplates. That is because he has reached the pinnacle of human epistemic power: he does not have superhuman knowledge, but does have the best knowledge any human being can possibly achieve. His cognition, so to speak, is stable. Needless to say, from a contemporary standpoint this is simply nonsense, and it should be abandoned by modern Stoics. There is no human ideal of knowledge because knowledge is always context-dependent, and moreover it encompasses far too much for a single human mind to actually hold and comprehend. On these bases alone we may conclude that Sagehood — if so defined — is not just rare, it is unachievable.

Interestingly, Plutarch says — and Brouwer confirms that this is found also in other ancient texts on the topic — that the Sage is not “like” Zeus, he actually is divine. As Sextus Empiricus puts it, in his non-Stoic friendly “Against the Professors” (7.423):

“According to them [i.e. the Stoics] the sage possesses an infallible criterion, which makes him in all respects divine because he never holds opinions, that is assents to what is false, wherein lies the height of unhappiness and the ruin of the inferior person.”

This may struck the modern reader as just bizarre, until we remember that the Stoics did not literally believe in the Olympian gods, as for them god was the same as nature itself. And human beings participate in the Logos, so they are, in a sense, divine. Brouwer again: “Chrysippus explains in allegorical fashion that not only the Olympian gods such as Zeus, Ares and Hephaistos are to be ‘assimilated’ to, respectively, reason that rules over everything, war or the principle of order and disorder, and fire, but also that the sun and moon are gods. What we thus seem to have is an interpretation of the gods of traditional religion in terms of natural phenomena and an interpretation of natural phenomena in terms of the divine.” Ancient Stoicism, in other words, was pantheistic.

A further characteristic of the transition to sagehood is its radical nature. That is because the ancient Stoics maintained that there is nothing between vice and virtue, and that all bad deeds are equal. (I commented on this strange idea before, in terms of the famous drowning man metaphor.) Another way to explain this is summarized by Brouwer in this fashion: “According to Chrysippus in his fourth book Ethical Questions [see Diogenes Laertius 7.120, SVF 3.356], just as it does not matter whether the pilgrim is a hundred or a few miles away from Canopus [a sanctuary in the Nile delta which flourished in the third century BCE], as they are both not in Canopus, so it does not matter whether one makes a big or a small mistake: in either case, one is not virtuous.”

Well yes, technically, but really, the only charitable interpretation we can give of this, and the only reason we may entertain retaining this notion in modern Stoicism, is as a call for humility, along the Christian lines of “we are all sinners.” If taken literally, the analogy has very little force.

What about logic and knowledge? As we have seen above, the transition to sagehood also means that the Sage no longer holds to mere opinions, he actually has knowledge based on stable cognition. But even this is open to dispute, as Brouwer reminds us of the famous (and actually useful, I think) analogy of the hand: “Zeno is said to have compared the open palm of his hand with an impression, the fingers of his hand a bit contracted with assent to the impression, his fingers made into a fist with a cognition and the tight and forceful gripping of his other hand over the fist with knowledge.” It’s a “handy” (literally!) reminder, worth spelling out in sequence:

Open palm = Impression
Contracted fingers = Assent to the impression
Fist = cognition (which, however, may be unstable, if one is not a Sage)
Other hand over fist = knowledge (i.e., stable cognition, typical only of the Sage)

Finally, there is yet another weird thing about the Stoic Sage: he may be unaware of actually having achieved sagehood! Philo of Alexandria writes:

“They say that it is impossible that those people who have reached the highest wisdom and touched upon its borders for the first time, know their own perfection; for the two things do not happen at the same time, namely the arrival at the border and the cognition of arrival; in between the two there is ignorance of such a sort that is not far removed from knowledge, but close to it and on its doorstep.” (SVF 3.541)

Brouwer elaborates: “wisdom consists in the special disposition of character. As this disposition is the (only) condition for wisdom, the virtuous (or expert) disposition of the Sage need not be accompanied by the awareness of the fact that it is a virtuous disposition.”

This sounds to me rather odd, but I do wonder whether a Buddhist practitioner knows he has achieved enlightenment at the very moment he has, or whether a Christian mystic is aware of a state of divine bliss as it begins. Perhaps, again, the difference lies in whether the transition is triggered externally or the result of an internal change?

The Stoics tried to explain this by way, as usual, of an analogy. Let’s say you have been practicing for a long time a particular craft, for instance playing the flute. It is possible that you achieve “perfection” (whatever that means) at that craft without — again, initially — realizing it. Does it matter? No, because the earliest known characterization of wisdom, Brouwer tells us, goes back to Homer, and it implies that it is the mastery that counts, not the awareness of it.

Despite all the problematic aspects outlined above of the transition to sagehood, Brouwer concludes that in a very important sense the Sage remains a human being: “the sage is in a way ordinary, in the sense that he remains doing what he did before, that is judging each impression and placing it in the overall scheme of things. As it turns out, Stoic wisdom is very much a this-worldly affair: the person who becomes a Sage, will continue to live life as he did before, dealing with judging impressions.”

Becoming a Sage is, in effect, a type of initiation. In the Great Etymological Dictionary edited in 1848 by T. Gaisford, and cited by Brouwer, we find:

“Chrysippus says that the doctrines [logoi] on divine things are rightly called initiations: for these should be the last things to be taught, when the soul has found its stability and has become in control, and is capable of keeping silent [amuetous] towards the uninitiated. For it is a great reward to hear the correct things about the gods and to gain control.”

Notice the reference to “keeping silent to the uninitiated,” which sounds very much like it reflects some mystical approach to knowledge. Brouwer’s comment is intriguing: “Chrysippus apparently considered it prudent that the real truth about the nature of the gods should be kept secret. Chrysippus does not tell us why, but a suggestion is that bringing out truths that reduce the traditional gods to a force in nature did not go down well with the traditional supporters of Athenian civic religion.” This is a tantalizing hint that the Stoics, while not atheists, were potentially considered “impious” by the standards of their culture. And you know what happened to Socrates when that charge was raised against him…

On the nature of the Sage: I. Two definitions of wisdom

Let’s start a series of commentaries on a book by René Brouwer, an assistant professor at the School of Law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, entitled The Stoic Sage: The Early Stoics on Wisdom, Sagehood and Socrates (Cambridge Press). It’s a bit technical, and not cheap at $56 for the Kindle edition and a whopping $90 for the hardcover, but it’s worth discussing a number of chapters from it, beginning with the first one, where Brouwer introduces two definitions of wisdom.

The Stoics thought of wisdom as (i) “knowledge of human and divine matters,” and (ii) as “fitting expertise.” The first definition actually became commonplace in the ancient world, but Brouwer says that the Stoics were the first ones to use that particular articulation, and he begins his discussion with it: “the three elements in it — i.e. knowledge, human matters and divine matters — can be connected to the three parts of philosophical discourse as distinguished by the Stoics — i.e. logic, ethics and physics.” In other words, there is a direct connection between the Stoic concept of wisdom and the three fields of Stoic philosophy.

A major source for attributing the first definition of wisdom to the Stoics is Plutarch, and it’s a near perfect summary of the basic Stoic ideas about wisdom, the nature of philosophy, and the topoi:

“The Stoics said that wisdom is knowledge of human and divine matters, and philosophy exercise of fitting expertise; the single and supremely fitting expertise is excellence, and excellences at their most general are three: in nature, in behavior, in reasoning. For this reason philosophy is also divided into three parts: physical, ethical and logical. Physical is when we investigate the world and the matters in the world, ethical is that which is occupied with human life, logical is that concerned with reasoning — the last they also call dialectical.” (Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta 2.35)

The division of philosophy in the three topoi is also quintessentially Stoic, according to Brouwer, and is found especially in Diogenes Laertius’ commentary:

“They say that philosophical discourse has three parts: the physical, the ethical and the logical part.” (SVF 2.37)

As is well known, physics is concerned with the study of how the world is, logic with the study of reason, and ethics with the study of how to live. But how, exactly, are the three topoi related to the first Stoic definition of wisdom?

Here is Brouwer: “With ethics as the part concerned with life and the things that relate to us, human matters [in the definition] can easily be understood as a reference to ethics. With regard to physics as ‘the part concerned with [the] cosmos and the things in it’, the link with the divine matters in the definition of wisdom may at first seem more obscure than in the case of ethics. This is not so, though: according to standard Stoic doctrine nature or the cosmos is divine or even identified with god. Dialectic and knowledge are perhaps at first sight less easy to connect [but] the Stoics included the theory of knowledge in dialectic, even agreeing among themselves that the theory of knowledge should be ‘placed first.’”

So to recap: knowledge [logic] of human [ethics] and divine [physics] matters.

Brouwer then engages in an interesting discussion concerning the relationship between Stoic physics and ethics, dissecting the available sources about the famous Stoic dictum, “live according to nature.”

Diogenes Laertius, in this regard, says that:

“Zeno in his On the Nature of Man was the first to say that the end was to live in consistency with nature.” (SVF 1.179)

The book title itself clearly singles out human nature, though Epictetus later on said that Zeno was talking about universal nature. Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor as the head of the Stoa, spoke of living “in consistency with nature,” by which he seems to have understood cosmic nature. As for Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, DL says that:

“By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord Chrysippus understands both common nature and in a special sense human nature.” (SVF 3.4)

Either way, Stoic physics is obviously relevant to its ethics, because at a minimum the idea is that in order to figure out the best way to live one has to have some understanding of how the world works, including a good comprehension of human nature. The emperor Julian the Apostate wrote about this:

“That [the students of the man from Citium] made ‘know thyself’ into the main point of their philosophy, you may believe, if you will, not only from the things which they brought up in their writings, but even more so by the end of their philosophy: for they made the end living in consistency with nature, which cannot be achieved if one does not know who one is, and of what nature one is; for someone who does not know who he is, will surely not know what he ought to do.” (Orations 6.6)

Or, as modern Stoic Larry Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, living according to nature can simply be understood in modern terms as “follow the facts [about the world and humanity].”

I find what Brouwer says immediately afterwards rather interesting, and departing from what I think is common understanding among most modern Stoics: “As with knowledge, the Stoics understood excellence both in cognitional and in dispositional terms, and they furthermore placed human excellence, as a character, in the wider context of the nature of the whole. … The standard modern translation of arete as ‘(moral) virtue’ is often less appropriate, as it suggests a restriction of its usage to ethics. The Stoics also used the term in a broader sense, and did not restrict its usage to the moral virtues.”

This being the case, then, Stoic excellence is to be understood both in the specific moral sense and in the broader human sense, outside the moral sphere. Brouwer elaborates: “Logic as an excellence, according to Cicero, provides a method of reasoning that guards against assenting to incorrect impressions. … Physics is an excellence, too: without an explanation of the natural world justice towards other human beings and piety towards the gods is impossible.” So a good Stoic does not want to excel only at the moral virtues, or in the practice of ethics, but also in the other two topoi, if nothing else because those are instrumental for the pursuit of the third one.

Brouwer then shifts to considering more in detail the second definition of wisdom given above: fitting expertise. He begins by citing Galen:

“Others defined philosophy as the exercise of fitting expertise of the best life for human beings, saying that philosophy is exercise, and calling wisdom fitting expertise, which is also a cognition of human and divine matters.” (On the History of Philosophy, 5, 602.19-3.2)

It is interesting, as Brouwer notes, to recall that early definitions of philosophy, as in Herodotus and Heraclitus, framed it as loving wisdom, whereby the “lover” (i.e., the philosopher) already possess it. It is Plato that shifts to what then became the standard take, philosophy understood more modestly as striving toward wisdom.

Going back to the (second) definition of wisdom itself, Brouwer goes along with Long and Sedley’s interpretation, that it is a shorthand for “expertise of what is really useful.” A further elaboration is found in Seneca (Letter 88.26.7) where he presents a picture of different types of expertise as instances of “knowing how” (to play an instrument, to solve a geometrical problem, etc.), with wisdom being a superior type of “knowing why,” that is, knowing when and how to use every other kind of knowledge.

A further explanation of what “fitting expertise” means is given by Olympiodorus:

“Cleanthes, then, says that an expertise is ‘a tenor that accomplishes everything methodically.’ But this definition is considered to be incomplete, for nature is also a tenor that does methodically all it does. Accordingly Chrysippus, after adding the phrase ‘with impressions,’ said ‘an expertise is a tenor that proceeds methodically with impressions’.” (SVF 1.490)

“Tenor,” explains Brouwer, is a technical term that refers to an enduring disposition. What Chrysippus is saying, then, is that wisdom is the ability to correctly interpret impressions. That is why, centuries later, Epictetus insisted that the most important thing to do for a student of Stoicism is to improve her faculty of judgment (prohairesis), i.e., the very faculty by which we assess (and give or refuse assent to) impressions:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

By the end of the chapter, Brouwer concludes that the two Stoic definitions of wisdom are remarkably convergent, and that “the activity that goes with the exercise of (or the search for) this expertise is called physics when we investigate the world and the things in the world, ethics when we occupy ourselves with human life, and logic (or dialectic) when we deal with reason as such.”

Everything you need to know about the dichotomy of control

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

So, famously, begins Epictetus’ Enchiridion, his handbook of Stoic practice. This is, of course, the same sentiment expressed by the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer, used for instance by a number of 12-step organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

(Which, as I point out in my book, How to Be a Stoic, appears more than once in Kurt Vonnegut’s disturbing Slaughterhouse Five.)

The sentiment is found in a number of other traditions as well. Solomon ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Jewish philosopher, for example, expressed it this way: “And they said: at the head of all understanding — is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist scholar, similarly wrote: “If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes / What reason is there for dejection? / And if there is no help for it / What use is there in being glum?”

Yet, modern Stoics and non-Stoic alike are often confused by the concept of the dichotomy of control. Our critics tend to interpret it as an invitation to quietism, to just endure whatever happens while sporting the mythical stiff upper lip. They are completely wrong, that is definitely not what Epictetus and Zeno (who originated the concept) meant, as I’ll explain (once more) in a minute.

But even some of our own seem to have trouble with it. Here is Bill Irvine’s famous (and highly controversial) attempt to “update” the dichotomy to a trichotomy, in his A Guide to the Good Life:

“The problem with [Epictetus’] statement of the dichotomy is that the phrase ‘some things aren’t up to us’ is ambiguous: it can be understood to mean either ‘There are things over which we have no control at all’ or to mean ‘There are things over which we don’t have complete control.’ … Stated in this way, the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, since it ignores the existence of things over which we have some but not complete control. … This suggests that we should understand the phrase ‘some things aren’t up to us’ in [a different] way: we should take it to mean that there are things over which we don’t have complete control. … This in turn suggests the possibility of restating Epictetus’ dichotomy of control as a trichotomy.” (pp. 87-88)

To illustrate, Bill imagines the example of a tennis player who has managed to shift his attention from the obvious external goal of winning the match to the internal one of playing at his best and accepting the outcome with equanimity:

“[the tennis player] will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.” (p. 94)

This is actually very similar to what Cicero has Cato say in book III of De Finibus, using this time the example of an archer:

“if a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (III.22)

Notice that Cicero’s archer behaves exactly like Irvine’s tennis player: they both internalize their goals. Cicero is also very revealing when he says that the Chief Good for the archer is to be a virtuous archer, i.e., to practice archery with arete, or excellence (the same word used by the Greeks to indicate moral virtue). The actual outcome, then, is referred to with the delightful phrase of being “chosen but not desired.”

I have to admit that when I first read Irvine I thought his move from a dichotomy to a trichotomy of control was a good example of updating ancient to modern Stoicism. But then Don Robertson straightened me out on the Facebook Stoicism page: he pointed out that everything we attempt to do can be broken down into two components: the part that is entirely up to us (“opinion, motivation, desire, aversion”) and one that is not up to us, although it can be influenced by us (“our body, our property, reputation, office”). He added that, should one go down Irvine’s road, one would eviscerate the Stoic concept and be left with a fairly banal observation about how the world works.

Don’s take makes more sense, come to think of it, also because it is hard to believe that the Stoics, who were renowned for their contributions to logic, would trip over a simple false dichotomy, as Irvine suggests. Put another way, it’s a bit difficult to conceive that Epictetus did not realize that “our body, our property, reputation, office” cannot be influenced by our choices and actions.

So I came up with what I think is a novel, and hopefully useful, way to conceive of the dichotomy of control, which also makes it crystal clear why it is not, in fact, a trichotomy: vector analysis!

I know, I know, your eyes are rolling while your memory stretches back to those boring lessons about basic math and physics you had to endure in high school. But bear with me for a minute, it will be worth it, I promise.

This first diagram shows the basic idea:

The horizontal vector visually represents what is under your control. The vertical vector is everything else, i.e., the stuff you don’t control at all. In the case of the archer, the first vector summarizes the archer’s determination, practice, focus, care of the bow and arrow, and choice of the moment at which to let the arrow go. The second vector, by contrast, captures the things the archer has absolutely no control over, including the fact that his target may move (enemy soldiers don’t usually just stand there!), sudden gusts of wind, and so forth.

The combination of these two factors yields the differently colored vector in the diagram, representing the actual outcome. As you can see, the outcome is the combinatorial of the archer’s efforts (what is up to him) and the externals (what is not up to him).

However, notice also the solid block limiting the range of the horizontal vector, which represents an absolute limit to what is under the control of the archer. Without that, we could imagine that all one needs to do is to keep increasing the length of the horizontal vector (i.e., one’s own efforts) to eventually dwarf the contribution of the external factors, thus always achieving one’s objectives.

That, of course, would be Secret-type wishful thinking, incompatible with the way the world works, and the Stoic topos of physics is there to tell us that that’s impossible.

Notice also that there is no equivalent block on the vertical vector, meaning that external forces, for all effective purposes, can (and often will) dwarf your efforts no matter what. One way to conceptualize this is to say that the universal web of cause-effect is gigantic, and our actions are only a tiny fraction of it.

Turn now to the second diagram:

It presents a scenario where your efforts happen to be well aligned with external forces, and as a result, you do achieve your “chosen” (but, remember, not to be desired!) goal. (Note that the three vectors are actually coincident, they are drawn slightly apart for clarity’s sake.)

Finally, the third diagram:

This is an extreme case where your efforts are entirely futile, because they are dwarfed by the size of the externals. Here, as a Stoic, you accept the outcome with equanimity, reminding yourself that, in the words of Epictetus, you always set yourself up to do two things:

“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Enchiridion 4)

To remain in harmony with nature means to choose, but not to desire, certain outcomes. It means that you cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward what happens to you. That is the way of the Stoic, the path to ataraxia.

Bertrand Russell got Stoicism seriously wrong

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t resist, I went back to the book, and oh boy…

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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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