Category Archives: Metaphysics

Stoicism and natural law

natural lawFor some time people have asked me to comment on the relationship between the concept of natural law (and the related one of natural rights) and Stoicism. Part of the reason is that I profess to be a Stoic, and yet I reject the idea of natural law, which if didn’t exactly originate with the Stoics, was certainly greatly elaborated put on the map by them. What gives? The final prompt to sit down and write this was actually a recent, shall we say forceful exchange that I have had with Skeptic’s editor Michael Shermer, who is an advocate of natural rights. (The article that started our discussion was published in Scientific American; here is my first response; this is Michael’s response to me; and this is my response to his response.) This post will not cover the full history and philosophical debates on natural law (a comprehensive article can be found here), but will rather focus on the early versions of the concept, and especially on Stoicism — ancient and modern.

Ius naturale, or lex naturalis, asserts that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature, endowed by God or other transcendent source, but understandable by way of human reason. In a sense, then, moral natural law is something like scientific laws: in traditional views, up to Newton included, laws of nature in the scientific sense were thought of as being given by a Creator God (that is why they were referred to as “laws”), but human beings are smart enough to grasp them. My critical argument later in this post hinges on two propositions: I reject the notion of transcendent sources, and I don’t think natural moral laws — whatever they may be — are anything like laws of nature in the scientific sense.

Alfred Whitehead famously said that much of Western philosophy can be understood as a series of footnotes to Plato. Sure enough, people have attempted to pin the origin of the concept of natural law on Plato. The major sources are the Symposium and the Republic, especially the latter, in which Plato develops his idea of the Forms, and particularly the Form of the Good. This has (somehow) mind-independent existence, and yet can be grasped by human beings (especially philosophers, when they manage to get out of the mythical cave). The ideal Republic, says Plato, is “a city which would be established in accordance with nature.” (428e9) Still, Plato certainly did not have an explicit theory of natural law, and uses the term only rarely (in Gorgias 484 and Timaeus 83e).

The next, more convincing, candidate, is Aristotle. He does talk about natural rights in the Nicomachean Ethics (book V), but a lot of what is attributed to Aristotle in this case is the result of a conflation between natural law and natural rights by Thomas Aquinas, who also influenced (not for the better) the early medieval translations of Aristotle, once his works were recovered through the influence of the Muslim world. Still, Aristotle does explicitly talk about natural law in his Rhetoric, where he distinguishes between a “particular” law that varies from country to country and a “common” law that is in accordance to nature. However, some scholars suggest that Aristotle treated natural law as a potential strategy in rhetorical discourse, not as a thick metaphysical concept.

Which brings us to the Stoics and to Cicero, who really put the concept on the map. The ancient Stoics, as is well known, were pantheists. They thought that the universe is a living organism, which they called god. We are literally bits and pieces of the divine, and very special bits and pieces at that, since we participate in the highest version of the all-pervading pneuma (breath), the Logos, the ability to think rationally. For the Stoics, then, natural law simply meant the workings of the cosmos, which we are capable of apprehending via our sharing in the Logos. To live according to nature, for them, meant to live following an understanding of human nature, and human nature is the nature of a social being capable of reason.

“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, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things. … Diogenes [of Babylon] then expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is natural. Archedemus says the end is to live in the performance of all befitting actions.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.85-88)

As I’ve pointed out in the past, this is not a simple appeal to nature, which would be a logical fallacy. The Stoics were too damn good logicians to fall for that! They did argue that whatever is natural is good, as it manifestly isn’t (anger, for instance, is natural, but the Stoics famously thought of it as a destructive emotion, to be avoided). Rather, the thought is more sophisticated: it begins with certain observations about the nature of the world and of humanity, and works its way, by philosophical reasoning, to what it means to act in a way that is consonant with both.

English historian A.J. Carlyle highlighted one of the major consequences of Stoic thought about natural law:

“There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness as the change from the theory of Aristotle to the later philosophical view represented by Cicero and Seneca. … We think that this cannot be better exemplified than with regard to the theory of the equality of human nature.” (A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West, vol. 1. Edinburgh. pp. 8–9, 1903)

For his part, Charles H. McIlwain observes:

“The idea of the equality of men is the most profound contribution of the Stoics to political thought … its greatest influence is in the changed conception of law that in part resulted from it.” (The Growth of Political Thought in the West: From the Greeks to the End of the Middle Ages. New York. pp. 114–15, 1932)

Cicero also thought that natural law obliges us to work for the betterment of humankind. In De Legibus he argued that both justice and law originate in nature, and that it is the human mind that can grasp what nature tells us and act accordingly. In De Republica he writes:

“There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal. Commanding us to do what is right, forbidding us to do what is wrong. It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones. No other law can be substituted for it, no part of it can be taken away, nor can it be abrogated altogether. Neither the people or the senate can absolve from it. It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing to-morrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.” (V.29-30)

And here is where I’m going to disagree. First off, if we want to draw an analogy between moral and scientific natural laws we immediately get into trouble, because of what Cicero writes here: “It has dominion over good men, but possesses no influence over bad ones.” That certainly goes for moral law, but not for scientific ones. You may disagree with the law of gravity, say, but you will nonetheless going to comply with it. This is an important disanalogy, because it hints at the idea that the word “law” is used in multiple ways, and that one should think of natural moral laws as more akin to what is called positive law (i.e., the kind of laws we come up with to regulate actual societal interactions) than to something unavoidable (or inalienable) like scientific laws.

Second, and more important, I am not a pantheist, so I don’t think that the universe is an organism with its own aims, an organism whose intentions need to be read by human mind so that we can act accordingly. The universe just is, and it is indifferent to us, it provides neither guidance nor hindrance, from a moral perspective.

But if that is the case, why do I still call myself a Stoic? What happened to “live according to nature”? I still think the Stoics got enough right to feel comfortable within their philosophy. What they got right is the idea that morality is about improving social living, that human beings are quintessentially social animals (we do not flourish, and in fact barely survive, in isolation), and that we are indeed equipped with the ability to reason about things. So it is still perfectly coherent to say that living according to nature means to apply reason to social living, just as Marcus says:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it? … Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.13 and IV.24)

The problem is that reason and facts about human nature are not in a simple, one-to-one correspondence. You can’t read what you ought to do straight from what is. You can, however, bridge the so-called is/ought gap, by using facts about human nature as empirical axioms, and then deploying a particular philosophical framework, such as Stoicism, to arrive at guidance for ethical action. The upshot is that you can still do Stoic philosophy. The catch is that there is more than one way to translate facts about human nature into philosophical moral precepts (in philosophy this phenomenon is called under-determination). Which means that if Stoicism doesn’t do it for you, you can try Buddhism, or Christianity. Heck, even Epicureanism might do it! From this perspective, it makes no sense to ask whether Stoicism is “true” (that’s a category mistake). But it makes sense to say that it is beautiful, coherent, and useful.

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The philosophy and science of (Stoic) free will

Frontal lobes and hegemonikonTime to tackle again the debate that never goes away: how is the Stoic idea that we can work to improve our character, or — which is the same — Epictetus’ contention that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us, compatible with the (also Stoic) contention that we live in a universe determined by a universal web of cause and effect? In other words, how is Stoic “free will” going to square with their metaphysical position of physicalism? And, moreover, hasn’t modern neuroscience “demonstrated” that there is no such thing as free will?

Let me summarize the answers upfront, and then we’ll dig into the details, with the help both of scholarly work on Stoic philosophy and of scientific research on the human mind. In a nutshell: “free will” is an awfully confusing term that should never, ever, be used again. (Yes, I know, it’s in the title of this post. That’s because I wanted to grab your attention.) Instead, we should use the word “volition,” which — as we shall see in a moment — is both the best translation of what Epictetus means by the Greek term prohairesis as well as the appropriate technical term used by modern cognitive scientists. Moreover, the Stoics had a sophisticated causal model of volition (it may be good to re-read this post on Chrysippus’ metaphor of the rolling cylinder, before proceeding further), which turns out to be in very good agreement with the findings of modern science (yes, including the (in)famous Libet experiments popularly, but mistakenly, assumed to “demonstrated scientifically” that there is no such thing as free will; more on that below). Okay, let’s get started.

To begin with, the Stoics used two terms within the context of this discussion: hêgemonikon and prohairesis. The two are often treated as interchangeable, but Anthony Long, in his excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (see my two commentaries here and here) draws an interesting and useful distinction between them.

Hêgemonikon is the most common Stoic term, and broadly speaking it is a faculty of the mind that has four “powers,” according to this helpful article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “presentation [phantasia], impulse [hormê], assent [sugkatathesis], and reason [logos].” The ancient Stoics thought that the hêgemonikon resided in the heart, a notion for which they were ridiculed by Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ personal doctor. Galen was right, of course, and I suggest that modern neuroanatomy locates the hêgemonikon in the frontal lobes.

The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes (but, interestingly, not so in lesser apes and monkeys). The frontal lobes (one per hemisphere) are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and do assess similarities and differences between things and events. That sounds to me very much like what the Stoics were talking about whenever they used the term hêgemonikon, usually translated as ruling faculty. Here is Marcus, for instance:

“Things stand outside of us, themselves by themselves, neither knowing anything of themselves nor expressing any judgment. What is it, then, that passes judgment on them? The ruling faculty.” (Meditations, IX.15)

Modern science tells us that the frontal lobes do not fully mature in human beings until our late ‘20s, and of course a variety of situations can impair their proper function, from accidents such as the famous one that occurred in 1848 to the American railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and various forms of dementia.

Interestingly, according to Long:

“Hêmonikon does not mean rationality; it is a term that applies to the souls of animals who lack rationality as well as to human beings“ (p. 211)

Which is in broad agreement with the above mentioned scientific fact that all mammals have this structure, albeit in a less developed form than in the great apes. The Stoics were also clearly aware that there are conditions in which one’s hêmonikon is impaired, by age or disease, or not yet fully formed, in children.

Long insists, and it seems to me that he is correct, that there is a good reason why Epictetus — uniquely among the Stoics — switches to prohairesis, instead of hêmonikon. Prohairesis refers to a faculty that is unique to humans, and in a sense is a specific sub-component of the hêgemonikon:

“We should take prohairesis to refer to the human mind in just those capacities or dispositions that Epictetus constantly maintains to be completely ‘up to us’ and free from external constraint.” (p. 211)

What’s the difference? One of the characteristics of the hêgemonikon, as we have seen, is that it is presented with phantasia, or impressions, both external ones (from our sensory apparatus) and internal ones (from memory). Such presentation, according to Epictetus, is automatic, i.e., it is not “up to us.” The remaining three powers of the hêgemonikon, however, impulses, assent, and reason are up to us. So we can think of prohairesis as the ability to reason and to give or withdraw assent to our impressions — thereby controlling our impulses — that is part of the hêgemonikon. I will leave it to neuroscientists to work out exactly which structures within the frontal lobes are more concerned with reasoning and decision making, and which are devoted to sensorial inputs and memory. The answers are empirical in nature, but do not affect the philosophy at all.

[Incidentally, as Long points out, Epictetus is not alone here: Aristotle also adopted the term prohairesis to mean “the deliberated desire of things that are up to us.” Moreover, Aristotle too judges what he calls “prohairetic disposition” to be a better assessment of moral character than action, presumably because actions are not entirely up to us, only judgments are. (p. 212)]

We are now in a better position to make sense of one of the most famous passages in the Discourses:

“For a start, don’t be carried away by [the impression’s] vividness, but say: Wait for me a bit, impression; let me take a look at you and what you are about, let me test you. Next, don’t let it lead you on by painting a picture of what comes next. Otherwise, it is off and away, taking you wherever it wishes. Instead, confront it with another impression, a fine and noble impression, and dismiss this foul one.” (II.18)

It is the hêgemonikon that both presents us with the impression (say, of an attractive member of the other sex) and with memories to draw from (of pleasurable previous sexual encounters). But it is our prohairesis that applies reason to the situation and denies assent to the impression (I am in a committed relationship, and I will therefore not pursue sex with another person on the side).

That also makes sense of why the Stoics, and Epictetus in particular, insisted that the only things that are truly good or bad are our judgments: the impression itself is neutral, because it is a fact about the world, and moreover is not under our control. It is us, through the faculty of prohairesis, who attach a value judgment to things and events. That attaching of a judgment is under our control, and so the only truly good thing is to have a well functioning prohairesis, and the only truly bad thing is to have a malfunctioning one (which leads to the condition often describe as amathia, or un-wisdom).

Long provides his readers with a very good discussion of why he ends up translating prohairesis with “volition,” and it is well worth attending to his reasoning. He considers three other options: moral purpose (or moral character), will, and agency. He discards the first possibility, because prohairesis can be good or bad, while “moral” has a positive meaning only; moreover, the word is tainted by later connotations that would distract and lead us to misunderstand the Stoic meaning.

What about will? He has actually translated prohairesis that way, occasionally, particularly because Epictetus does use phrases like “if you will, you are free.” But, again, the term has become loaded with especially Christian-influenced meaning, and — more importantly — it may lead us to erroneously conclude that Epictetus is thinking of a faculty of the will distinct from assent and impulse, which he is definitely not.

Agency, says Long, is a better alternative, and indeed it is the one used by modern Stoic Lawrence Becker throughout his A New Stoicism, about which I have recently published a ten-part commentary. But Long isn’t happy with agency either. Consider this passage:

“And who told you; it is your function to walk unimpeded? What I was telling you is that the only unimpeded thing is the impulse. Wherever there is a need for the body and the body’s cooperation, you have long ago heard that nothing is your own.” (Discourses IV.1.72-73)

What Epictetus is reminding his student of, here, is that even our bodily actions are not entirely up to us: we may decide to start walking, but we could be paralyzed by disease, or chained to a wall by a tyrant. So the action is not (entirely) up to us, only the impulse to perform the action. Since “agency” typically carries a meaning of actually doing things, not just willing them, then I would have to agree with Long’s take.

Hence the final preference for volition, which in modern psychology is “the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action. It is defined as purposive striving and is one of the primary human psychological functions.”

As Long correctly points out, volition is not contradictory to a physicalist view of the world as determined by cause and effect:

“We take people to have volitions irrespective of whether these are predetermined or independent of antecedent causation.” (p. 220)

And, moreover, modern psychological science considers volition to be “a process of conscious action control which becomes automatized” (see link just above). But wait a minute! Isn’t it a fact of modern science that free will, however one wishes to call it, is an “illusion”? Specifically, didn’t the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet back in the 1980s conclusively show that to be the case? Does that not mean, therefore, that the entire Stoic philosophy of mind, and hence the crucial idea of the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchiridion, crumble under the pounding of modern science? Nope, not at all. On the contrary, Libet’s experiments, and subsequent others carried out since, spectacularly confirm the ancient Stoic intuition about prohairesis.

Libet performed some fascinating experiments on conscious vs unconscious decision making, beginning back in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems.

But in fact it was Libet himself who rejected the facile “free will is an illusion” interpretation of his own research. Here is part of his commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

Note that the motor cortex in question is part, surprise surprise!, of the frontal lobes (specifically, part of the posterior border of the lobe, called the precentral gyrus), which I have suggested is the anatomical counterpart of both the hêgemonikon and enables the faculty of prohairesis.

Also, more recent research (summarized here), has led to a re-interpretation of Libet’s original findings that aligns them even more with the intuitions of the Stoics. For instance, a group of researchers in Germany has modified the original protocol to test Libet’s idea of a veto power exercised by conscious thought. Bear with me for a minute, because some of the details are important.

Subjects were asked to hit a foot pedal as quickly as possible after seeing a green light on a screen, but also to stop themselves from doing so (i.e., cancel their own movements) whenever a red light appeared. Researchers then put the red light under the control of a computer monitoring the participants’ brain waves. The twist was that whenever the computer detected the above mentioned readiness potential building up it would make a red light appear. In agreement with Libet’s veto hypothesis, participants were, in fact, able to stop themselves from pushing the pedal, reversing the build up of the action potential. This was possible up until a point of no return: if the red light was too close after the green one (about 0.25 seconds) then the foot movement could not be completely inhibited.

And there is more. A French team of neuroscientists published a paper in 2012 in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they argued for a different interpretation of Libet’s original experiments. They suggest that the readiness potential does not, in fact, signal the brain’s preparation for a specific action. Rather, the potential goes up and down randomly, but movement can only occur when a certain threshold in the potential is reached. Sure enough, they conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to press a button, either at moments of their own choosing, or when they heard a random click. The results show that the response to the random clicks were much faster when they happened to coincide with a (again, random) surge in the readiness potential then when the potential happened to be low. So the potential is not really a sign of an already made unconscious decision, but rather one of a number of co-occurring causes that facilitate the movement.

All of the above seems to me eminently compatible with the Stoic take on volition. Please understand that I am not suggesting that the ancient Stoics somehow anticipated modern neuroscience. That would be preposterous. They knew nothing about action potentials, and they even got spectacularly wrong the anatomical location of the hêgemonikon. But their intuitive understanding of human psychology — on which they built their moral philosophy of action — was right on target, which makes their philosophy perfectly compatible with modern cognitive science. (For another example of such compatibility, this one concerning the Stoic treatment of emotions as cognitively informed, see here.) There is no magic here, the Stoics were simply astute observes of human nature.

To summarize then: the hêgemonikon, our ruling faculty, is roughly equivalent to the functions performed by the mammalian frontal lobes, which are particularly developed in the great apes, and that in the human species reach full maturity in our late ‘20s. Prohairesis is our special faculty of deliberate, rational judgment, and is made possible by sub-components of the frontal lobes. Our volition is compatible with the fact that the cosmos is characterized by a universal web of cause and effect, because some of these causes are internally generated (see Chrysippus’ cylinder), which makes Stoic philosophy of mind a type of compatibilism about “free will” (and please, let’s no longer use that term!). Finally, not only there is no contradiction between modern cognitive science and the Stoic idea that some things (namely, our judgments) are “up to us.” It is, on the contrary, the case that modern science tells us about the anatomical bases and physiological mechanisms underlying prohairesis. It is this congruence between early Stoic intuitions about human psychology and nature and modern science that make their philosophy still so useful today. We can, therefore, agree with Epictetus when he says:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans

Zeno vs Epicurus

“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp — not as a deserter, but as a scout,” says Seneca to Lucilius in Letter II, On Discursiveness in Reading, 5. He writes this because he had made a habit, for a while, of closing his letters to his friend with a “present,” a quote from another philosopher, usually Epicurus.

I don’t think of Epicureans, or Buddhists, or Christians, as “enemies.” My take is that it is useful to develop and adapt a philosophy of life — because it provides us with a moral compass and a framework to distinguish important from unimportant things in life — but that which philosophy one chooses is less important. Your specific choice may have to do with your cultural background, your personal history, your character and personality, or your stage in life. If it works, go for it (so long as it isn’t a destructive philosophy, like, you know, fascism). I write this blog, now in its third year and counting 348 posts, to help others for whom Stoicism resonates, but I’m certainly not here to make converts.

That said, the blog also has a special category of entries termed “critics of Stoicism,” where I respond to the surprisingly many, and often surprisingly vicious, attacks on our philosophy. You are about to read yet another of these responses, this time to “The seductive dead-end of Stoicism,” written by one Cassius Amicus (obviously a pseudonym) over at newepicurean.com.

“Cassius” is, apparently, moved by a concern for his many Stoic friends, especially because they have a high regard for Marcus Aurelius, who he does not trust after “spending much of a weekend reviewing” the Meditations. He adds: “As one generation passes and new students of philosophy arise, the old errors constantly attract new converts. It is regularly necessary for Epicureans to recalibrate their guns and fire again on Stoicism, lest it infect new generations. For the truth is, those who espouse the Stoic platitudes — which I regret to say includes both Marcus Aurelius and Cicero — are like philosophical vampires, always lurking in the shadows to steal the life from the unsuspecting; always in the service of the oldest dead-head vampire of them all — Plato.”

Strong words! Fighting words! But, wait, Plato?? If there is anything that is far removed from Plato — apart from Epicureanism itself — is precisely Stoicism, and perhaps even more its cousin, Cynicism. Don’t forget that Plato himself referred to Diogenes the Cynic as “Socrates gone mad.”

So what’s Cassius’ issue with Marcus? He thinks that the Meditations reek of religionism, fatalism, and passivism, which he maintains are attitudes utterly incompatible with Epicureanism.

Well, he is right on the latter, though the Epicureans themselves — contra modern lore — where not atheists, they were what we would today call deists. It is also true that their metaphysics was very different from that of the Stoics: atoms swirling in the void in the first case, cause-effect determinism in the latter. The Stoics did believe in “providence” of some sort, though they did not mean the Christian variety at all, but rather a consequence of what they saw as a universe being alive and doing its thing. Since we are bits and pieces of that universe, there is a sense in what happens to us, and that sense is precisely analogous to the role of a foot stepping in the mud, if the whole body to which that foot belongs has to get home and there is a puddle of mud in its way. (That is, in fact, an analogy used by Epictetus, in Discourses II.6.9-10.)

Sure, modern science — as Larry Becker maintains in A New Stoicism — has discarded the organismal view of the cosmos in favor of a mechanistic one. But this should be of little comfort to the Epicureans. Not only the “atoms” they were talking about have precious little to do with the atoms of modern science, but they made a special plead to save human free will by arbitrarily introducing their concept of the “swerve,” an idea that looks pretty close to magic from a modern scientific perspective.

As for “religionism,” indeed Marcus sounds very pious when he is talking to himself (and even so, he constantly repeats the “providence or atoms” mantra, more than hinting at the idea that whatever metaphysical theory one subscribes to simply doesn’t matter in terms of the crucial thing: ethics). Perhaps he really was pious, it’s hard to say. But a fair reading of the Stoics always has to keep in mind that for them “god” was made of matter, and coincided with the universe itself. Not to mention that, despite the oft-brought up example of Cleanthes’ “prayer” to Zeus, we know from Diogenes Laertius (VII.33) that Zeno of Citium, the founder of the philosophy, clearly stated that in an ideal Stoic republic there would be no temples, i.e., no organized religion or worship.

Regarding fatalism, the concept itself is muddled, and again Becker makes a good case for why the Stoics were not fatalists, but determinists, there is a difference, and modern science, and much of modern metaphysics, lean toward the Stoic, not the Epicurean, position.

To accuse the Stoics, and especially Marcus, of passivism is, of course, ridiculous on the face of it, though a common sport amongst our critics. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy, and one often repeated by Marcus, is that we ought to work on our faculty of judgment, to arrive at better decisions about what to do, and especially how to be helpful to others (something the Epicureans infamously shied away from, uninterested as they were in politics and social issues, on the ground that to engage in those areas causes pain, a no-no for them). And anyone picking up a biography of Marcus, or of Cato the Younger, or even Seneca, or Epictetus, will certainly realize that these were not people who passively accepted their “fate.” They fought hard, sometimes literally, for what they believed, in order to make the world a better place. Nothing of the sort can be said of any Epicurean I’m aware of.

Next, our friend Cassius takes aim at the Stoic doctrine of “living according to nature,” where he says: “for the constant Stoic incantation of ‘Nature’ is nothing but illusion. Stoicism fails to define or ground the guidance of Nature in anything real — unlike Epicureanism, which grounds Nature’s guidance in pleasure.”

Au contraire, Stoicism grounds its philosophy in the empirically tenable idea that human nature is that of a fundamentally social being who is capable of reason, from which it follows that the natural way of living for us is to deploy reason in order to improve social living. As Marcus puts it: “Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (IV.13) And: “So long as nothing … drives me out, I remain, am free, and no man shall hinder me from doing what I choose; and I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal.” (V.29)

Moreover, it is the Epicureans who clearly get human nature wrong, as Cicero has Cato the Younger explain in book III of De Finibus: “Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.16) One of those things that infants strive for because it is good for them is learning how to walk. Which is painful, not pleasurable.

Cassius then invokes a namesake, Cassius Longinus, who in 45 BCE told Cicero that the Stoic idea that one chooses good for its own sake is nonsense: “For it is hard to convince men that ‘the good is to be chosen for its own sake’; but it is both true and demonstrable that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good. Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that ‘to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice.’”

Okay, to begin with, where on earth does Epicurus get the strange idea that it is impossible to live a life of pleasure without being virtuous and just? Do the Epicureans not read the newspapers? Or watch Real Housewives of New Jersey? More to the point, the Stoics do not argue that one ought to do good for its own sake, they argue that to be helpful to others is good because we are all deeply interconnected in a web of cause and effect, not just with the universe as a whole, but specifically as a species of highly social beings. In this sense, for the Stoics — and contra much modern moral philosophy — there is no sharp distinction between selfishness and altruism: every time I do something for myself I improve the wellbeing of humanity, and vice versa, every time I do something for others I indirectly improve things for myself.

Even more to the point, the Stoics — following Socrates in the Euthydemus — think that virtue is the chief good. “Chief” doesn’t mean “only,” hence the further category of preferred indifferents. But why would virtue be the chief good, and not, say, money, or health, or education? Because virtue is the single thing (and those others are not) that can always and only be used for good. It makes no logical sense to say that one commits a virtuous crime, for instance. But it does make perfect sense to say that wealth can be used for good or for evil (i.e., it is morally neutral, hence an “indifferent”).

Epicurus, again quoted by Cassius was right on one thing though: “We must also recollect that which principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is the persuasion which they cherish that the stars are beings imperishable and perfectly happy, and that then one’s thoughts and actions are in contradiction to the will of these superior beings. They also being deluded by these fables, apprehend an eternity of evils, and they fear the insensibility of death, as if that could affect them.” (From the Letter to Herodotus)

But the Stoics wouldn’t disagree here, as it is made abundantly clear by Seneca in this passage: “Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XIX)

Cassius goes on quoting Epicurus’ Letter to Menoceus: “The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.”

Well, the wise man in question just turned out to be wrong, didn’t he? Epicurus here is espousing a species of hard incompatibilism, according to which the ability to make decisions, and the moral responsibility that accompanies those decisions, are impossible in a deterministic universe. But, as the Stoics already surmised, and both modern science and much modern philosophy confirm, we do live in a deterministic universe, at least in the sense of a universe governed by cause and effect. The Stoics also figured out, just like modern day compatibilists, that there is an important sense in which our decisions are truly ours, a topic for which I refer the reader to my essay on Chrysippus’ analogy of the rolling cylinder, as well as to part of my commentary on Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.

Cassius proceeds with a bizarre, and largely irrelevant, further attack based on Thomas Jefferson’s criticism of the Stoics. But, to begin with, Jefferson was an amateur philosopher whose opinions on the matter are no more weighty than those of someone who picked up the Meditations for an entire weekend; moreover, Cassius quotes Jefferson at length, railing against Plato! Once again: Platonic philosophy has precious little to do with Stoicism, so criticism of the first says nothing at all about the second.

The last bit of Cassius’ rant is a simple series of selected quotations from the Meditations, each bit of which is accompanied by entirely unsubstantiated and unhelpful comments, usually along the lines of “Epicurus held that…” Insofar this list is meant to convince readers that Stoicism and Epicureanism are different, and often at odds with each other, well yes, though we knew that. If it is meant to show the alleged superiority of Epicureanism, however, a hell of a lot more work needs to be done.

One final comment about the “truth” of philosophical doctrines (something I also recently brought up in response to my friend Dan Kaufman’s criticism of Stoicism from an Aristotelian perspective): certain aspects of a given philosophy, like the metaphysical claim that we live in a deterministic universe (or not) are either true or false, though it is often highly contentious whether we have satisfactorily arrived at one conclusion or the other. But a philosophy of life, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism (or Aristotelianism, Buddhism, Christianity) cannot be true of false. That is a category mistake. Philosophies of life are more or less coherent, and more or less useful to individuals and society. In those respects, both Stoicism and Epicureanism are coherent philosophies; and they can both be useful to individual practitioners. Though I would argue that Stoicism is far more useful to society than Epicureanism is, simply because the Epicureans pointedly withdraw, as I mentioned above, from social-political life, while the Stoics embrace it.

So, my Epicurean friends, no need to hurl insults at us (they wouldn’t take anyway, see Discourses I, 25.28-29), or waste much time to try to show that we are “wrong.” Incidentally, isn’t so much passion about philosophical discourse with strangers a precisely non-Epicurean thing to do, since it likely brings pain and no pleasure? Here is what our own Epictetus had to say about it: “What was it, then, that awakened Epicurus from his slumbers and impelled him to write what he did? What else than what is most powerful of all in human beings, nature, who constrains everyone to her will, groan and resist though he may. ‘For since you hold these antisocial views,’ she says, ‘write them down and hand them on to others, and stay awake at night because of them, and so become, through your own practice, the denunciator of your own doctrines.’” (Discourses II.20.15-16) Oops!

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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Posidonius on the science and art of divination

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.

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The lazy argument, determinism, and the concept of fate

LazinessThe ancient Stoics were determinists, believing in universal cause and effect. Indeed, Chrysippus — we are told by Diogenes Laertius — wrote extensively about the concept of causality. In a sense, then, they also believed in “fate,” and in fact modern Stoics formulate the so-called reserve clause that accompanies any of their plans for the future with “fate permitting.” Some of their critics came out with something called “the lazy argument” to show that if things are fated then one doesn’t actually need to do anything other than sit around and wait for things to happen. The reason this is relevant to modern Stoicism is that, as we have seen even recently, part of the harsh criticism our philosophy is getting these days is based on the (fallacious) assumption that it leads one to disengage from social and political life. So, let’s see what exactly the lazy argument consists of, and how Chrysippus himself responded to it. I will then distinguish two senses of the word “fate,” only one of which would be recognized by the Stoics.

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The complex relationship between metaphysics and ethics

The point of Stoic philosophy is to help us live a worthwhile life. That task fell to one of the three Stoic fields, i.e., areas of study, known as the ethics. But the Stoics insisted that in order to improve our understanding of ethics we also need to learn about the other two fields, “physics” and “logic.” Physics actually encompassed what we today would call the natural sciences (including physics in the modern, narrow sense, of the term), metaphysics, and theology. Does that mean, then, that Stoic ethics is compatible only with a particular type of metaphysics or theology? I have argued in the past that this is not the case, and have reiterated the notion more recently, when discussing the difference between pantheism and panentheism. But if so, doesn’t that mean that the ancient Stoics were mistaken in linking their physics to ethics? And wouldn’t that, in turn, make their ethics far less naturalistic than it seems to be? I’m going to explain in this post why that is not the case either: Stoic ethics is compatible with some, but not all, possible metaphysics, thus confirming the ancient intuition that we ought to know something about how the world works in order to live the best life possible, and also that modern Stoicism is an ecumenical philosophy, within certain limits.

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