Recently I’ve been asked to write a review of a fascinating book by Peter T. Struck: Divination and Human Nature, A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity. While the full book is worth reading for anyone interested in ancient Greco-Roman culture, as well as in the early development of science, there is a whole chapter on Posidonius, one of the major figures of the so-called Middle Stoa, the period during which Stoicism transitioned from its original home in Athens to Rome. Posidonius is a fascinating figure in his own right, and he is often not written about because all we have by him are fragments and indirect sources (as opposed to, say the wealth of stuff by Seneca). Divination is also rarely commented on in Stoic circles, because it is automatically relegated to the category of superstition, something the Stoics were wrong about and that we just don’t need to be concerned with nowadays. But the story is not that simple.
We have so far examined stories about Cato the Younger’s childhood, his very conscious embracing of Stoicism, as well as his first assignment as military commander and his rather un-Stoic reaction to the death of his half-brother. Another of the pivotal episodes of his life was his clash with the eminent orator and philosopher Cicero, during the famous Catiline conspiracy. We will therefore look at those events to refine our understanding of the man who became a Stoic role model. As usual, I will follow Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s treatment in Rome’s Last Citizen.
Stoics were well known in antiquity for the use of metaphors, as well as for developing concepts that to others sounded rather paradoxical, or even downright nonsensical. Cicero went so far as to write an entire book entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum.
I maintain, though, that the Stoics weren’t fools, and understood perfectly well how some of their notions came across to non-Stoics. However, they used such “paradoxical” ideas and strange metaphors as a pedagogical tool to draw others into considering their philosophy seriously, rather than reducing it to what we today would call a bumper sticker version.
We have seen some of the major arguments that Cicero uses against the Stoics, in book IV of his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils), and I’m going to complete my brief analysis in this post.
At #48 we find a fascinating, and in some sense, very modern, passage: “Considerations of conduct or duty do not supply the impulse to desire the things that are in accordance with nature; it is these things which excite desire and give motives for conduct.”
When one is immersed into a particular philosophy or point of view it is always a good idea to hear some vigorous critique of it. This will help us maintain a critical attitude toward our own beliefs, and as a bonus it will allow us to practice the virtue of temperance, since people are apt to get seriously irritated when their positions are critiqued by others!
That’s why I went through the painful exercise of reading Frank McLynn’s (unfair, in my mind) blasting of Stoicism in his biography of Marcus Aurelius (on the same book, see also here, here, and here). It is now time to look at a more serious, and much more ancient, attack on the Stoics, the one articulated by Cicero in book IV of his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils).
Let us continue our discussion of book III of Cicero’s De Finibus, which is organized around a dialogue between Cicero and Cato, where Cato explains the basics of Stoicism to his friend.
Beginning around #41, Cato launches into an explanation of some major differences between the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle) and the Stoics. And these differences are both important and still relevant to anyone interested in practicing virtue ethics in modern times.
In preparation for Stoic Camp New York 2015 I have been going over parts of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils). Its five books make up a commentary on rival philosophical schools, where Cicero argues against Epicureanism (books I and II), has Marcus Porcius Cato explain to him Stoic philosophy (book III), raises objections to Stoicism (book IV), and discusses and criticizes in dialogue form the Academics and their doctrines (book V). In this multi-part essay I will focus on book III, where Cato explains to Cicero the basics of Stoicism.