Cicero, bust in the Capituline Museums, Rome (photo by the Author)
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).
Aquinas had a complex relationship with Stoicism
We are getting near the end of my running commentary on the wonderful Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, this time tackling the Stoic take on naturalism — a term in philosophy that has taken on a variety of meanings over the past two millennia or so.
The relevant chapter, written by T.H. Irwin, begins with a useful reminder of the three Stoic doctrines that have markedly influenced later moral philosophy: “(1) Eudaemonism: the ultimate end for rational action is the agent’s own happiness. (2) Naturalism: happiness and virtue consist in living in accord with nature. (3) Moralism: moral virtue is to be chosen for its own sake and is to be preferred above any combination of items with non-moral value.”
A reader recently sent me a link to an article on Stoicism published by the Ayn Rand Institute… I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s true. The article in question is actually the transcript of a lecture made available through the ARI’s campus branch, and it is the quintessential mischaracterization of Stoicism. As such, it is well worth examining in some detail.
[Full disclosure: I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist “philosophy,” as can be seen here, here, here, and here. So take the following with a grain of salt. I am not an unbiased observer in this case!]