Category Archives: Virtue Ethics

From virtue to social justice?

Is there a connection between Stoicism and social justice, understood in the modern sense of the term? I’m not talking about the (often pejorative) term “social justice warrior,” with its very particular political meaning, but rather of the general philosophical concept, which has a long and complex history: “Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.” (Wiki article) Typical names that come up in this context are those of philosophers like John Rawls and Thomas Pogge. More generally, though, is Stoicism leaning toward particular political positions? If the Stoics advised us to “follow nature,” and if reality — as the comedian Stephen Colbert once joked — has a liberal bias, does that mean that a modern Stoic is committed to be a progressive liberal in political terms?

Well, it’s complicated. My general take about the relationship between Stoicism and both religion and politics is that the philosophy is compatible with a number of positions in both areas of concern, though obviously not all. (It is hard to imagine a fundamentalist Christian Stoic, for instance, since the notion that evolution did not take place, or that the Earth is only millennia old, flies in the face of the best science, and Stoics ought to be scientifically as informed as possible — see the field of study of “physics.” Similarly, it is hard to imagine a Stoic Nazi, as that political ideology is incompatible with any reasonable understanding of the virtue of justice, not to mention with the concept of cosmopolitanism.) But can we say anything more about this crucial topic? I believe we can, but not everyone is going to like my take…

A major resource about social justice within Stoic philosophy comes from the so-called cradle argument, the Stoic take on moral developmental psychology. A modern version is found in Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (see this commentary), but the classic rendition is located in Cicero’s De Finibus, as explained by his friend, Cato the Younger:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution. … 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. … Man’s first attraction [thus] is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.5-21)

The logical progression implied in these passages can be summarized as follows:

(human infant) selfishness > (young child) instinctive concern for care takers and close others > (age of reason, 7+) concern for others begins to expand due to reason > (adult) further expansion of concern for others, abstract thoughts > (prokopton / prokoptousa) conscious practice of virtue, cosmopolitanism > (Sage) perfected virtue

What this does is to establish that — according to Stoic philosophy — human beings come to be concerned about others by a combination of two processes: our natural instincts as social beings, and our capacity to reason about our problems. Hence Marcus’ injunction to:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Great, but what does this mean, in practice? Here, of course, we run into the classical limitation (in some people’s views) or advantage (in other people’s view) of virtue ethics in general, not just Stoicism: it does not provide us with specific answers to particular questions, but only with the general framework and the tools to arrive at those answers on our own.

For instance, Epictetus puts forth a theory of social roles (as discussed by Brian Johnson in his book, commentary here):

“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Discourses II, 10.10)

This is often interpreted as supporting a rather socially conservative take on life, whereby we are stuck into pre-determined roles, which are to be played according to the general directions issued by society. But that is far too simplistic an understanding of Epictetus in particular, and of Stoicism more generally. For one thing, Epictetus tells us that the most fundamental role, the one that overrides all others, is that of a human being:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4)

Setting aside the obligatory reminder that “divine” here just means natural, this is a pretty clear call for unselfish behavior, for deploying reason to figure out how to best help the human polis.

Still, we are short on specifics, and what I’ve said so far is arguably compatible with a number of progressive liberal policies, but also with some libertarian or conservative ones, to use the parlance of contemporary American politics. As it should be. One of the things that makes Stoicism a timeless philosophy — just like the case of, say, Buddhism, or Christianity — is precisely the fact that it sets out general principles from which reasonable people may derive specific actions to carry out. The trouble is that reasonable people may reasonably disagree on what such actions ought to be, because the principles (not just Stoic ones, but pretty much any sufficiently broad and interesting principle) underdetermine, as philosophers are want to say, the ways to implement them. Contra much current political “discourse” (to use the term charitably) there often isn’t a single solution to complex problems, and the possible solutions are probably not going to be simple anyway.

So how do we then bridge the gap between Stoic precepts (or, generally, virtue ethical ones) and specific policies concerning social justice? By moving into the empirical domain, and specifically by applying inductive reasoning to observations about human affairs. Crucially though, this isn’t a simple matter of handing over ethical decisions to disciplines such as economics, or psychology. It is, rather, an approach that requires us to take on board research in those disciplines while being informed by an ethical perspective (in our case, specifically a Stoic one).

Consider economics, for instance, and in particular the issue of social responsibility on the part of corporations, as reflected in the debate between supporters of stockholders and stakeholders theories. Stockholders theory is also known as the Friedman doctrine, named after economist Milton Friedman: “This approach views stockholders as the economic engine of the organization and the only group to which the firm must be socially responsible. As such, the goal of the firm is to maximize profits and return a portion of those profits to stockholders as a reward for the risk they took in investing in the firm. Friedman advocates that the stockholders can then decide for themselves what social initiatives to take part in rather than having their appointed executive, whom they appointed for business reasons, decide for them.” (Wiki article)

Contrast the above with the tenets of shareholders theory, often associated with the work of R. Edward Freeman: “In the traditional view of a company, the stockholder view, only the owners or stockholders of the company are important, and the company has a binding fiduciary duty to put their needs first, to increase value for them. Stakeholder theory instead argues that there are other parties involved, including employees, customers, suppliers, financiers, communities, governmental bodies, political groups, trade associations, and trade unions.” (Wiki article)

It should be clear at first glance that stockholders theory is typically favored by conservatives and libertarians, while stakeholders theory is the go to framework for liberal progressives. Who is right? The answer depends on the interrelation of values and empirical evidence. While it may superficially appear that the values underlying the two approaches are mutually incompatible, a closer look reveals that they share at least one fundamental value in common: consent. What stockholders theorists object to is the idea that decisions about the company’s management be imposed on owners by people outside the company itself, who have not invested money (and hence taken on risks) in the company. Similarly, stakeholders theorists are also concerned with consent, this time of people outside company management (workers, citizens of the local community) who are going to suffer potentially grave consequences from actions imposed by stockholders without broader consultation. Violation of consent results in potential loss of money for stockholders, and in potential loss of jobs, or a lowered quality of life, for stakeholders.

One approach informed by Stoic philosophy here is that the virtue of justice requires that we treat others with fairness, while the notion of cosmopolitanism means that we should consider all people involved as equally deserving of regard. This, however, does not necessarily favor stakeholders theory, as it may at first appear. It only means that we can reasonably remind stockholders in a particular company that they will also at the same time be stakeholders from the point of view of other companies in which they are not invested. It would then be unreasonable (i.e., a violation of the logos) for any corporate manager to actually think that a company ought to be able to do whatever necessary to maximize profit, even at the cost of the world going to hell in a handbasket, as they say. (The point here is not that some managers won’t actually believe that, or behave accordingly, but rather that they ought — on the basis of reason — not to believe or behave that way.)

In practical terms, the two sides are not as far from each other as it may seem. Let’s take a specific example: Apple has recently gotten into trouble in terms of public perception because of the famous Paradise Papers, showing that the company has looked for places where to store huge amounts of money it saved over two decades during which it benefited from artificially low taxes in Ireland. If Apple brought that money back to the US it would face a huge tax bill.

Clearly, that would go against the interest of the company’s stockholders. Equally clearly, it would benefit a large number of stakeholders, for instance the taxpayers of the United States of America (or even all of its citizens, who would presumably benefit from services that could be paid for with that tax money).

Apple, however, has raised a standard corporate defense of its practices, arguing that “it pays every dollar it owes in every country around the world.” This is probably true, meaning that there is no evidence that Apple has engaged in illegal practices. The fact remains, though, that Apple’s behavior has arguably been unethical, knowingly taking advantage of a loophole that allowed them to pay taxes at the ridiculously low rate of 0.005% (for comparison, the recent rate in the US has been 35%, and is about to be lowered by a new Republican bill to 20%, which is still 4,000 times higher than what Apple got away with. And before anyone thinks that Apple is an anomaly, it isn’t. The very same discussion is currently going on within the European Community concerning Google).

At this point, there are two possible courses of action we as a society can take against Apple. On the one hand, we can use stockholders theory against them, in a sort of socio-financial judo move, and start a boycott until the company decides to do the right thing. The idea here is that company management is bound, legally and morally, to maximize stockholders’ profit, and if that profit is going to be hampered by an international boycott, then management will act accordingly. On the other hand, invoking stakeholders theory, we could push for legislation — in either or both the US and the European Community — that closes the loophole and makes such actions illegal and punishable by fines against the company and/or jail for its managers.

My point is that Stoic philosophy should lead one — regardless of political inclinations — to conclude that Apple has indeed misbehaved. If Apple were a person (I mean a physical person, not the legal Fiction according to which a corporation is a “person”), we would conclude that its character is deeply flawed and that its actions need to be opposed.

But which of the two approaches outlined above is the right way to go? Stoicism cannot answer that question because its precepts underdetermine the two possible courses of action. The answer must come from available empirical evidence and the application of inductive reasoning to it. In the past, have boycotts worked? Under what circumstances, and to what extent? Crucially, do they tend to work better or worse than the introduction of new legislation? What are the limitations of the latter, considering that large corporations increasingly influence the political process and convince legislators to write laws that favor them?

I don’t have the answer, because the problem is complex and the relevant information hard to come by and subject to disputation. Nonetheless, there is going to be an empirical answer, if only couched in probabilistic terms. As a Stoic, then, I will favor whatever actual course of action is more likely to result in correcting the problem that my virtue ethical grounding has identified, regardless of which side of the political spectrum favors which solution.

This approach, I believe, is generalizable to any societal problem, in the following three-step fashion that relates the procedure to the three fields of study constituting the Stoic curriculum:

(I) Use the philosophical framework to decide in broad terms what is the virtuous thing to do (Stoic ethics);

(II) Acquire as much relevant empirical evidence as possible (Stoic physics);

(III) Use your reason to determine the best empirical way to improve the ethical situation (Stoic logic).

Or as Marcus put it:

“Do you have reason? I have. Why then do you not use it?” (Meditations IV.13)

Living according to nature

Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus

The ancient Stoics were famous, or infamous, depending on whom one asks, for promulgating doctrines that sounded “paradoxical.” Indeed, Cicero wrote an entire book called Paradoxa Stoicorum (my commentary here), in which he tried to explain six of them. “Paradox” here, however, does not literally mean something that is logically contradictory, or that otherwise appears to violate the laws of logic. Rather, it simply means a notion so odd that it is hard to imagine that serious philosophers — such as the Stoics certainly were — ever actually said that. The Stoic motto “live according to nature” certainly falls into this category. And yet, it is a fundamental aspect of Stoic doctrine, so it is important to understand exactly what the Stoics said, and what they meant by it.

One thing the phrase does not mean is that we should go running naked into the nearest forest, stopping to hug trees from time to time. Another thing it does not mean is an appeal to nature. The latter is a well known informal logical fallacy, and according to G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica of 1903, it consists in claiming that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural,’ or bad because it is ‘unnatural.’” (This is related to, but not the same, as David Hume’s is/ought gap, often referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. We will turn to that one in a minute.)

It should be pretty obvious that appealing to nature to determine what is good or bad is not a sound procedure. Vaccines are “unnatural,” meaning that they are human creations (of course humans themselves are part of nature, but you see the distinction), and yet they are good for us, anti-vax pseudoscientific nonsense notwithstanding. By contrast, tsunamis are most definitely natural, and yet they are bad for both human beings and other animals on earth who happened to be so unfortunate as to experience their effects.

The Stoics, as we shall see, were not invoking a logical fallacy when they exhorted us to live according to nature. What they were doing, however, is much closer to rejecting David Hume’s postulation that there is an unbridgeable (or at least, very hard to bridge) gap between is and ought, i.e., between facts about the world and moral values. Here is how Hume himself famously put it, in A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

In truth, it is not clear here whether Hume is saying that the is/ought gap cannot be bridged, or simply warning us that if one wishes to bridge it then one ought (ah!) to provide explicit arguments, and not just accomplish the feat by sleight of hand. In a talk that I gave earlier this year at Oxford (slides here; video here) I argued for the latter, and connected this to two facts about Hume: (i) he developed a theory of human nature that is compatible with a naturalistic understanding of ethics, and hence with a bridge between is and ought; and (ii) he was actually sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, though not a Stoic himself (see this previous post).

Hume proposed a “progressive” theory of human nature as part of a debate he was involved in with some of his most esteemed contemporaries, Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and the Earl of Salisbury, Anthony Cooper. (I discuss that debate and Hume’s view of human nature here.)

Briefly, Mandeville argued that human beings are naturally self-interested, while Hutcheson and Cooper thought that we are naturally benevolent. Hume came down somewhere in the middle, suggesting that human nature is really a mix of the two, as we both have instincts that are aimed at self preservation as well as instincts that make us a naturally social and cooperative animal. Our social virtues, Hume added, then develop further because of reflection, cultural forces, and habit:

“’Tis by society alone [that man] is able to supply his defects. … By society all his infirmities are compensated and tho’ in that situation his wants multiply every moment on him, yet his abilities are still more augmented and leave him in every respect more satisfied and happy than ‘tis possible for him in his savage and solitary condition, ever to become.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 479)

Hume scholar Michael Gill explains: “People initially care about justice [and other socially valuable virtues] because it accords with self-interest, [Hume] tells us here. But over time, they develop mental associations that lead them to approve of justice even when it does not promote their self-interest, and to disapprove of injustice even when it does promote their self-interest.” (Hume’s progressive view of human nature, Hume Studies XXVI.1:87-108, 2000)

As we shall see, this is the Enlightenment version of the Stoic “cradle argument,” and does, in fact, provide the basis for a philosophically sound bridging of the is/ought gap. It is also part of the justification for the Stoic dictum that we should live according to nature.

Let’s turn now to the Stoics. In volume III of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil; my commentary here and here), Cicero imagines Cato the Younger explaining things to him:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution … 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.5)


“Man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.21)

It should be clear why this is essentially Hume’s view or, rather, the other way around, since Hume not only lived 18 centuries after Cicero, but we have direct evidence that he was influenced by the Stoics. It should also be clear why this is often referred to as the cradle argument: it is a developmental account of how we gradually move from purely selfish interests to more and more socially oriented ones, as a result of upbringing (chiefly, teachings from our caretakers), as well as our own ability to reflect on what makes sense and what doesn’t, and to behave accordingly.

The other major source on the Stoic idea of living according to nature is Diogenes Laertius, who in book VII of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers wrote:

“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: his words are, ‘The dearest thing to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof’; for it was not likely that nature should estrange the living thing from itself or that she should leave the creature she has made without either estrangement from or affection for its own constitution. We are forced then to conclude that nature in constituting the animal made it near and dear to itself; for so it comes to repel all that is injurious and give free access to all that is serviceable or akin to it.’ For [animals], 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. 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, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. So too Cleanthes in his treatise On Pleasure, as also Posidonius, and Hecato in his work On Ends. 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. 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.” (VII.85-88)

Several things need to be observed in the long passage above. To begin with, again, this is a developmental account of human social psychology. Second, Diogenes tells us that this notion appeared at the very beginning of Stoic philosophy, with Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, respectively the first, second, and third heads of the Stoa. Finally, living according to nature in the sense above leads us to live virtuously, because the virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) are the means by which we rationally govern our intercourse with fellow human beings. Or as Socrates says in the Euthydemus (see separate essay here), virtue is the chief good because it is the only thing that can never be used for ill (unlike wealth, health, education, and all the other preferred indifferents).

As I have explained in a series of recent posts, the cradle argument has been reconstructed in a philosophically sound way, and one moreover that agrees with modern cognitive science, by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism:

“We may begin life as greedy little egoists, but it is clear enough that we soon spontaneously develop matching affective responses to what we read as signs of others’ pleasures and pains. Cognitive development is relentlessly recursive — ‘leg over leg’ as Piagetians say — in the sense that whatever conceptual schemas we develop and whatever content we acquire in them themselves become the objects of (and determinants of) our subsequent development. As we develop and begin to use the ability to represent this purposive activity symbolically … and begin to manipulate those symbolic representations logically, a secondary form of agency arises, driven by this representational and logical activity. … The process of deliberation and choice becomes a determinative condition of (some of) our conduct.” (Ch. 6)

My original research background is in evolutionary biology, and it is interesting to me that the above meshes very nicely with what primatologists have discovered about our close evolutionary kins over the past couple of decades or so. Just check out Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers” for a good sense of a combined scientific and philosophical approach to the evolution of morality. Studies conducted on chimpanzees, macaques, rhesus monkeys, and capuchin monkeys show the presence in social primates of four building blocks of morality: empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity, and peace making. So the life sciences tell us that the building blocks of morality are found (and presumably selected for) in non-human social primates. In the light of modern science, the phrase “live according to nature” takes an enlarged, empirically substantiated meaning.

It is also interesting to note that the words “ethics” and “morality” themselves have revealing roots: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character; the second one is from the Latin moralis, which has to do with habits and customs. Ethics or morality, in the ancient sense, then, is what we do in order to live well together — just like our primate cousins, except of course that unlike bonobos and capuchin monkeys, we can articulate and reflect on our own behaviors, which leads us to the more sophisticated, rationally based sense of living according to nature that the Stoics were defending.

As for modern cognitive sciences, which I see as an extension of the life sciences to the special case of humans, Jean Piaget found that young children are focused on authority mandates, and that with age children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality. Famously, Lawrence Kohlberg expanded upon Piagetian notions of moral development to arrive at his three-level classification of attitudes toward morality:

Subsequently, Elliot Turiel has argued for a social domain approach to social cognition, delineating how individuals differentiate moral (fairness, equality, justice), societal (conventions, group functioning, traditions), and psychological (personal, individual prerogative) concepts from early in development throughout their lifespan. Over the past 40 years, research findings — including cross-cultural studies — have supported this model. (The Handbook of Moral Development, edited by Melanie Killen and Judith Smetana, summarizes the relevant literature while covering a large range of related topics. Also, I am aware that Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s original articulation of their ideas has been criticized, but the general picture seems to hold as much as anything else in developmental moral psychology.)

The way I see it, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and philosophy provide us with a fuller picture of ethics. The first one tells us something about why we have a moral instinct in the first place (we are inherently social animals, so natural selection favored the evolution of pro-social behaviors); the second one informs us about how modern human beings, with their large brains and cultural milieu, develop complex views of morality from infancy through adulthood; and the third one helps us further develop the logical consequences of our own thinking about how to relate to others, for instance arriving at the related Stoic principles of oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism, famously articulated by Hierocles with his ideas of a series of contracting circles of concern:

We can therefore, and without fear of committing any logical fallacy, happily agree with Epictetus:

“What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.” (Discourses I.1.17)

Becker’s A New Stoicism, VII: virtue, part 1

AreteVirtue is the quintessential concept in virtue ethics (hence, obviously, the name) and in Stoicism in particular. The entire, long and complex, chapter 6 of Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism is dedicated to it, and I in turn will devote two essays to that chapter, as part of my ongoing commentary on this most important book.

The chapter begins with the acknowledgement that the Ancient Stoics put forth a number of doctrines that were a bit hard to swallow, like the idea that virtue is one thing, and that it does not admit of degrees. That’s the sort of statement that famously led Cicero to talk of Stoic “paradoxes.” Larry’s whole project, of course, is to modernize our philosophy while retaining as close a family resemblance to the original as possible, and in that spirit he recognizes that there are three fundamental notions in Stoicism: agency (based on the faculty of judgment that Epictetus emphasized), virtue (four of them, as we know), and eudaimonia (the life worth living). His suggestion is that these three, though conceptually distinct, are so causally interconnected that for all effective purposes having one means having the others, and lacking one means lacking the others. I think he is essentially correct on this, and that his approach recovers much of the “paradoxical” ideas of the ancient Stoics, but in a way that is palatable for modern philosophical sensibilities:

“We make the argument that such virtue is achieved only through a natural course of moral development ending in a specifically Stoic form of ideal agency, and we reiterate the claim that the virtue it produces is sufficient for eudaimonia. … Ideal agency is relentlessly aimed at the only thing that is ultimately good, namely, achieving and sustaining Stoic virtue-in-the-singular, from which — and only from which — a Stoically appropriate form of eudaimonia will emerge.” (p. 90)

Most of chapter 6 is then devoted to slowly building an argument for why the above is, indeed, the case. Becker begins by considering the development of virtue through agency. An important component of this argument relies on the already advanced idea (chapter 5) that agency acts recursively, perfecting itself through acting on itself (remember the contrast between agency and any other human mental or physiological process, like digestion). If virtue is essentially indistinguishable from perfected agency, then virtue itself — like everything that is perfect — does not admit of degrees. But agentic activity makes progress toward the state of perfected agency, and so, similarly, there is progress in virtuous activity, toward virtue itself. This rather elegantly, and a bit more clearly, recovers the Ancient Stoic notion that one can make progress — after all, students of Stoicism referred to themselves as prokoptontes (m.) and prokoptousai (f.), i.e., those who make progress — and yet that all but the Sage are unvirtuous, because virtue itself is not a matter of degree.

We then need to talk about the nature of agency. Agency, maintains Larry, is constituted by elements that may be “received” (i.e., arrived at without the aid of one’s agency) or “constructed” (i.e., resulting from the exercise of one’s agent). To begin with, there is the classic Stoic “cradle argument,” the observation, supported by modern developmental psychology, that agency emerges during the normal course of human development, initially as a natural, instinctive behavior, and later, gradually, as a behavior shaped by external influences, habit, and conscious reflection and decision making. Notice the qualification “normal”: as Larry drily puts it, “Question: what is worse than a psychopath? Answer: a psychopath with really strong agentic powers.” (p. 93)

Received elements of agency include our endowments, i.e., impulses, drives, and predispositions to react in certain ways to given situations.

Becker here does a little bit of a (useful) detour into the concept of consciousness. He reminds us that Stoics are materialists, and that we therefore reject any kind of mind-body dualism. Nonetheless, we do not endorse the reductive view that the mind and the body are identical, and that therefore mental activity can be explained away, in the way, say, in which the “rising” and “setting” of the Sun is explained away by celestial mechanics. Rather, Becker’s position is similar to that of philosopher of mind John Searle (and my own), that mental activity is an emergent property of the physical brain and its interaction with the internal and external environment.

Moreover, Larry takes note of the existence of two distinct types of processing of information in the human brain, unconscious and conscious (what Daniel Kahneman famously referred to as System I and System II). If so, then of course the possibility exists that the two processes will yield contrasting results in any particular instance, generating intra-agentic conflicts, so to speak. This does not present a problem for Stoic philosophy, as already the Ancient Stoics recognized the existence of non-deliberative behavioral dispositions. But they, like Aristotle, and like modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, believed that the two systems can be linked by way of deliberate habituation: we consciously decide to engage in certain behaviors, and the more we do so the more this generates an automatic disposition toward those behaviors. Virtue, in other words, is at least in part a matter of (Stoic) practice.

Fun fact, known to the Stoics, and amply confirmed by modern cognitive science: the power of agency can be manipulated (usually impaired) in a number of ways, for instance by way of chemicals, such as alcohol or drugs. That’s probably why Diogenes Laertius said that Stoics “will take wine, but not get drunk.” (VII.118)

Our characters are then shaped over time, by a combination of early dispositions that we have as infants, affects we develop by interacting with people and objects around us, and so forth, in an iterative fashion. The results may be very different for different people:

“It is also [the case] that through the iterative learning processes mentioned above, some of us become basically trusting, optimistic, confident, outgoing, benevolent, nonaggressive children with high self-esteem. Others become basically distrustful, pessimistic, anxious, introverted, malevolent, and aggressive, with low self-esteem.” (p. 103)

What about the constructed elements of agency? These arise from the fact that, at some point in our development — call that the age of reason, around when we are seven years old — we acquire a rational capability to represent our purposive activity to ourselves and others by symbolic means, i.e., by language. We then use our memory, imagination, and ability to generalize, in order to understand our experience in propositional terms. Moreover, because of a natural, built-in propensity to reduce cognitive dissonance, we strive to minimize the discrepancy between the conclusions we reach and the results we achieve. (Sometimes we do that rationally, at other times by way of rationalizing, which is not a good thing.)

The results of this activity include the ability to control (within limits) our impulses, the tendency toward reciprocity in dealing with others, the development of a certain degree of benevolence, as well as emotionality towards others. At a higher level of agentic development we encounter traits such as courage, endurance, and perseverance, which begin to look a lot like (Stoic) virtues. All of this made possible by building on natural human dispositions, augmented by our constant representing to ourselves our preferences and goals, while at the same time attempting to maximize their achievement (through the continuous perfection of agency).

Finally, we arrive at a constructed concept of who we are, an idea of self, and to the related virtue of integrity:

“By the time we develop the ability to represent the self-other distinction symbolically, we not only have a sharply defined body to refer to as the self but a growing assortment of memories, attachments, projects, emotions, and behavioral dispositions as well that we include in our consciousness of ourselves as agents. … Thus one sort of ‘integrity project’ arises: an endeavor to exercise our agency in ways that are consistent with our image of ourselves.” (p. 112)

Of course, the crucial point here is not just that Stoicism is about developing agency — that’s just what human beings in general do, including psychopaths. The idea, rather, is to develop healthy agency. But that modifier, “healthy,” requires further arguments. Here Larry deploys the same metaphor used by the Ancient Stoics, drawing a parallel between a healthy body and a healthy mind:

“A perfectly healthy human body has a complete and intact structure, standardly configured; all the parts of that structure, from skeleton to skin, function in their nominal ways. … A perfectly healthy agency likewise has a complete inventory of intact, nominally functional elements and integrated, homeostatic systems whose development is timely and complete.“ (pp. 113-114)

The idea is that psychological health will map on a good moral (i.e., virtuous) character, while psychopathology will correlate with vice. To continue the analogy with physical fitness, just as the latter is the result of both one’s constitution and of one’s conscious efforts at training (for muscles, aerobic capacity, etc., including of course a healthy diet), so is psychological health a matter of one’s early dispositions of character, augmented by one’s deliberate training in perfecting virtuous agency.

Becker then tells his readers that — again as in the case of physical training — human beings may be able to proceed from being fit to virtuosity, i.e., they may excel at what they are doing, as a result of abilities and training. One can become an Olympian athlete, just like one can make serious progress toward wisdom. By definition, of course, ideal Stoic agency is virtuoso agency, the sort of agency that culminates in the figure of the Sage. Interestingly, there may be a price to pay for this:

“The bulked-up muscles of a virtuoso bodybuilder may exclude her from many other pursuits (ballet, or competitive swimming, for example). The intellectual dispositions of a virtuoso rational-choice theorist may likewise exclude him from polite company.” (p. 119)

Much has been written on the concept of the Stoic Sage, and Larry’s view of it — in agreement with Seneca’s — is that this isn’t a logical impossibility, but rather the rare instance of a human being that has developed her virtuous agency to the upper limits possible for a member of our species. The Sage is not “perfect,” whatever that means, and it is certainly not omniscient. But she would win the gold medal at the Olympics specialty of virtue, if there were such a thing. (Which there wouldn’t be, in the ideal Stoic Republic, because Stoics don’t see much point in competing for the sake of showing one’s superiority…)

Larry points out that there is no reason to believe that the development of virtuoso agency should result in one and only one kind of person. Even Sages will be very different from each other. More pragmatically important, perhaps, is also is contention (obvious, by this point, but worth reiterating) that whatever the Ancient Stoics thought, we no longer have any reason to believe that virtue is limited to members of a particular gender, ethnicity, or religion. Stoicism and the practice of Stoic virtue is for everyone, in a truly cosmopolitan spirit.

Here is the next important step, which I can do no better then let Becker himself explain in some detail:

“Ideal Stoic agents will clearly have many of the traits that are standardly called virtues. They will act in a principled way toward others, treating similar cases similarly by criteria of fittingness and proportionality. That fits an ordinary description of a narrow sense of justice and is a trait that healthy agents will construct (and ideal ones will perfect) from primal reciprocal responses, generalization, and rationality. They will exhibit justice in a wider sense of the term as well, for they will construct cooperative dispositions from the persistent need to integrate and optimize endeavors that arise from both their primal benevolence and their narrow self-interest, and to solutions to distributive questions that are rational and stable in a given social environment with a given set of resources. Wisdom in two senses is also included in the notion of ideal agency. Such agency is the practical ability to optimize the success of one’s endeavors, and means having wisdom in the narrow sense of practical intelligence (phronesis), along with the knowledge necessary for effective deliberation and choice. But the move from healthy to fit agency, and then to the limit of versatility for it, inevitably means that ideal agents will frame their deliberations in terms of what is best for their whole lives. That frame of reference, together with the enormous breadth and depth of knowledge required to make practical intelligence effective in it, surely qualifies as wisdom in a broad sense (sophia). … Courage, endurance, and perseverance are also parts of fit agency, as we mentioned earlier. And temperance or moderation (sophrosyne) will be evident in the modulation of passion, affect, emotion, attachments, and purposes necessary to integrate one’s endeavors (personally and socially) in terms of an optimal whole life.” (p. 124)

I have highlighted the four standard Stoic virtues in the passage above in order to help the reader see the big picture of how, in Larry’s mind, they are interconnected and fit nicely with his account of virtuous (and eventually virtuoso) agency.

At this point Becker returns to his crucial notion that virtue, ideal agency, and eudaimonia, are tightly linked and completely interdependent within Stoic philosophy. Given all the above, ideal Stoic agency is both necessary and sufficient for achieving virtue, and virtue in turn is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. This also means that the virtues are indeed unified, in the specific (modern) sense that virtue is a single and comprehensive endeavor that guides the Stoic moral agent. The separate virtues are thought of as dispositions that need to be coordinated in order to yield ideal agency.

Interestingly, Larry takes sides in the context of an ancient dispute among the Stoics themselves, and I think it is the right side he comes down in favor of:

“We do not imagine, as perhaps Chrysippus did, that the Sage’s very motivations are harmonized, with the result that desire and passion are unified with reason and will, thus producing tranquility by removing conflicts at their roots. Rather we follow Posidonius in supposing that conflict remains constitutive of healthy, mature agency, and that the function of agency proper is to cope with it, not necessarily to root it out.” (p. 126)

This is more important than it may seem at first glance, because the upshot is that, whatever Chrysippus and perhaps Epictetus may have thought, a reasonable Stoic does not attempt to eliminate even the negative emotions, since that is, as a matter of fact, impossible for a human being (and thus in violation of what Becker calls the Axiom of Futility). Rather, Stoicism is about coping with the unhealthy aspects of our mental life while cultivating the healthy ones, in what I have called an exercise in shifting the emotional spectrum.

Next up: the argument for virtue as the product of ideal agency.

Why virtue is sufficient for a life worth living

My friend Dan Kaufman, over at the Electric Agora, has written a nice compact piece arguing that the Aristotelian view of eudaimonia — the life worth living — is significantly more defensible than the Stoic one. (Except, as even Dan acknowledges, when things aren’t going well and people live in times of turmoil. Which, one could argue, is most of human history.)

Dan and I, together with our colleague Skye Cleary, are assembling a collection of essays by multiple contributors offering a panorama of possible philosophies of life, that is, of different philosophical frameworks one may adopt as a compass to guide them to a better, more meaningful life. So this exchange between Dan and I can be seen as a preview of what the book is about, as well as of how to compare and contrast two of the most ancient philosophies of life.

The Aristotelians and the Stoics battled for the soul of their practitioners, so to speak, already 23 centuries ago, after Stoicism was established in Athens by Zeno of Citium, so this exchange belongs to a long tradition of which, I’m sure Dan would agree, the two of us are among the latest, and least worthy, interpreters.

The debate was about the sufficiency, or not, of virtue for a eudaimonic life. The Stoics (together with their close cousins, the Cynics) argued that virtue is both necessary and sufficient. In particular, the four cardinal virtues of phronesis (practical wisdom), courage, justice, and temperance. The Stoics (unlike the Cynics), also recognized that people want a number of other things, including health, wealth, education, love, friendship, and so forth. They referred to those as “preferred indifferents” (and to their negative counterparts, such as sickness, poverty, ignorance, etc., as dispreferred indifferents). They are preferred because it is reasonable for people to pursue them, so long as they do so without compromising their virtue (i.e., their moral character), but they are indifferent because, in themselves, they do not make one more or less virtuous. And since virtue is the only thing that matters for eudaimonia, they do not contribute to that either. It is a perfectly coherent system. But is it “true”? (I will come back later to why I put scare quotes around that word.)

The Aristotelians thought not. As Dan says, their philosophy also belongs to the eudaimonic tradition, and they too thought that virtue is necessary for a life worth living. But they did not think it was sufficient. Those things that the Stoics refer to as “preferred” are also needed. If your life does not — even through no fault of your own — include at least some health, wealth, education, and even good looks, you are screwed. No eudaimonia for you.

The distinction sketched above makes Aristotelianism an elitist philosophy, as it applies only to a subset of humanity. How large of a subset depends on the time and place, and also on just how much externals are really needed (Aristotle was pretty vague on this point). By contrast, Stoicism is for everyone: rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, you can still be eudaimon. Unlike the case of Aristotelianism, where luck is needed, for Stoics your eudaimonia is entirely up to you, Fortuna simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

As Dan clearly perceives, much — if not all, really — here depends on exactly what eudaimonia is taken to mean. I completely agree with my friend that translating the Greek word, as is often done, as “happiness” misses the mark. Happiness, in modern parlance, chiefly (though not exclusively) refers to a state of perceived wellbeing in the moment. It’s a feeling of elation, as in “I’m happy when I play the piano” (or when I have sex, or when I read a book, or whatever). This, very clearly, is not what either Aristotle or the Stoics had in mind.

But Dan makes a mistake, I think, when he seems to assume that the Aristotelians and the Stoics meant the same thing by eudaimonia. They didn’t, nor did several of the other Hellenistic schools. Indeed, a major way to classify and understand the differences among those schools is precisely to look at how they construed eudaimonia and the path to its achievement. Aristotelians and Stoics certainly disagreed between them, bu they both thought that the Epicureans, with their emphasis on ataraxia (tranquillity of mind), and their recipe of virtue plus physical and mental pleasure minus physical and mental pain, were far more misguided.

Dan, not surprisingly, adopts the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, that of the flourishing life. Flourishing means that a eudaimon being is capable of pursuing a number of personal projects because she has sufficient material and psychological resources, including of course a measure of the above mentioned externals. She is sufficiently educated, say, to become a university professor. She is attractive enough to marry a good and interesting person and have children. She has meaningful relationships with her family and friends. And so forth. If we conceive of eudaimonia that way, it then becomes obvious that externals are not just preferred indifferents, they are necessary.

But the Stoics explicitly referred to their school as “Socratic” (which the Aristotelians definitely didn’t), in part because they inherited their definition of eudaimonia from the Athenian sage: it consists in a life worth living. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it isn’t. Certainly an Aristotelian life of (virtuous, let’s not forget) flourishing is worth living, but that’s not the only kind falling into the broader category favorite by the Stoics.

Take, for instance, the example of Cato the Younger, a Roman Senator during the last years of the Republic that is one of the Stoics’ preferred role models, particularly by Seneca. Although Cato had access to some of the externals that Aristotelians think are necessary, he gladly did without them. While wealthy, he often walked around the streets of Rome in tattered clothing. He ate simple meals, though he could afford extravagant ones. And when he served as commander in the army he walked side by side with his soldiers, instead of comfortably travel on horseback.

More importantly, Cato’s life was marked by repeated failures. He lost two crucial elections, as praetor and as consul, that would have allowed him to more efficaciously oppose his political archenemy, Julius Caesar; he was unjustly accused of hoarding wealth for himself during his governorship of Cyprus, even though he was actually one of the few Roman officials immune from corruption; and, most of all, lost the civil war against Caesar, something that meant everything to him not juts as a politician and commander, but as a Roman citizen.

And yet, how did Cato react to such misfortunes? When he heard of the election results he went off to play with his friends. When he was accused of financial improprieties he showed his fellow citizens what sort of men he really was by way of his conduct, so much so that Romans adopted a saying for excusing their own moral failures, “not everyone is a Cato.” And when he lost everything, he had the courage to commit suicide by literally ripping his guts out of his self-inflicted dagger wound, in order to retain his integrity and not be used by Caesar for political gain.

Was Cato’s life a flourishing one? Hardly. Was it worth living? The very fact that we are still talking of the man in admiring terms more than two millennia after his death is a testament to that, one that even Aristotle (who thought that eudaimonia could be assessed only after one’s demise) ought to have bowed to.

And it is not difficult to find modern examples like Cato’s either. James Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam and survived seven years of torture and isolation (which left him crippled for life) in part thanks to his studies of the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. Nelson Mandela was not a Stoic, but his pivotal change from angry and bitter victim of the apartheid government to peaceful and forgiving leader of the resistance was helped by a smuggled copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He still had to suffer 28 years in prison, though, hardly a life of flourishing in the Aristotelian sense, but certainly one worth living in the Stoic one.

The Stoics, as Dan acknowledges, do want to succeed at their endeavors. Cato wanted to beat Caesar; Stockdale not to be captured in Vietnam; Mandela not to spend decades in prison. But while the Aristotelians give up and declare one’s life a failure when things don’t go well enough, the Stoics find inner resources in their conviction that the true measure of a person is in her character, not in the vagaries of fortune.

The Stoic attitude is not at all the cheap consolation prize that Dan describes when he says that it is akin to telling a kid who lost the race that he “did his best.” The point isn’t to feel better, the point is to look squarely at what cards life deals us and play them to our best, because that is all we can do. Dan is therefore profoundly mistaken when he characterizes the Stoic approach as a way to be happy with one’s life even if it isn’t a eudaimonic one. Happiness doesn’t enter into the Stoic equation. Knowing that one has done one’s best, and especially that one has tried to be the most moral person one can be, that is the standard by which a life worth living is being measured.

Dan argues that the Hellenistic philosophies are “philosophies under siege.” They, like Christianity thereafter (and like Buddhism in India, or Confucianism in China) are good for when people feel they have no control over their lives, especially in terms of the big picture. Aristotelianism, by contrast, is conceived by Dan as a “bourgeois” philosophy well tailored for “a time and place where there is unprecedented material prosperity, longevity, and overwhelming safety, as there is in the modern, industrialized world.”

Well, even if that were the case, I would remind my friend that most of the world, much of the time, has been, and still is, in a decidedly non bourgeois state of affairs. Even in the 21st century very large numbers of people live in poverty, war zones, slavery (literal or in terms of labor conditions), famine caused by environmental catastrophe or by the actions of fellow humans, and so forth. But in fact even we lucky (in the Aristotelian sense), or privileged (as the current parlance goes) Western white males face major uncertainties at both the macro- and the micro-scale.

At the macro-level, one only has to open a newspaper to find news of unfolding global environmental disaster, the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by an incompetent narcissist currently seating in the White House, and the resurgence (yet again) of a greedy Wall Street that is gearing itself to possibly cause another global financial catastrophe as if 2008 had never happened. And you think the death of Alexander the Great was destabilizing? Ah!

At the micro-level, we are all guaranteed to suffer major setbacks in our lives. If for nothing else because we are destined to die. And so are our loved ones and friends. We get sick, we lose love, and we may lose our job. Every such turn of events is a nail in the coffin of your eudaimonia, according to the Aristotelian way of looking at life. But for the Stoics every single one of those unhappy instances is an opportunity to test our character and to demonstrate to ourselves that we can get through it. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

This attention to the everyday life of every human being is what makes Stoicism appealing, and what condemns Aristotelianism to elitism. Dan says that plenty of things that are elitist and unfair are nonetheless true. But “true,” when applied to a philosophy, is a category mistake, as I’ve argued at book length. Philosophies in general, and philosophies of life in particular, are neither true nor false. They are, instead, more or less useful ways of thinking. They provide users, that is, practitioners, with a framework by which to organize their lives, to set their priorities, and through which to attempt to cope with whatever life — which truly is neither fair nor just — throws at them.

Stoicism is one such powerful tool, and so are kindred philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism. They are not meant to “console” people, which would be patronizing. They are, rather, meant to empower them, to show them that no matter what happens, they can still find meaning in what they do. As Marcus, again, says: “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1) And what does the work of a human being look like? Something along these lines:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

That is, life is always hard and full of challenges, even for a privileged member of the bourgeois. But we can all look at how things are, eschewing wishful thinking, and decide — regardless of the vagaries of Fortuna — to act in the right way toward ourselves and our fellow human beings. That, really, is all there is to it.

On the different conceptions of the good life

What is the good life? The ancient Greeks referred to it as eudaimonia, which very unfortunately often gets translated into modern English as “happiness,” a vague concept that usually refers to a momentary feeling of pleasure. A closer rendition is “flourishing,” but I think an even better one is: the life that is truly worth living, i.e., the sort of life one may look back to on one’s death bed and think, yup, that was worth whatever pain accompanied it.

During the Hellenistic period — roughly from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, which marked Octavian Augustus’ ascent to power in Rome and the beginning of Empire — there was an explosion of philosophical schools, each with its own conception of eudaimonia. Let me remind you of the major ones and how they were related to the obvious pre-Hellenistic point of reference: Socrates.

During the Hellenistic period the Platonic Academy was dominated by Skeptics (Carneades, for instance, though Cicero professed to be one as well), who didn’t really have much to say about the good life, for simple reason that they did not believe we have knowledge, and that consequently we should suspend judgment on all matters, including, coherently, what constitutes eudaimonia. The best Sextus Empiricus (a Pyrrhonian Skeptic) came up with was to recommend a life of detachment based on epistemic — not moral — reasons, talking little about virtue, and saying nothing about eudaimonia.

The Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, by contrast, had a lot to say on the subject. They thought that the life worth living is the result of a combination of two factors: virtue and certain externals, such as health, wealth, education, and good looks — at least in some measure. This is rather commonsensical, but it also makes the approach somewhat elitist: if you don’t have a given level of externals you are screwed, no eudaimonia for you, buster!

Moving to the hedonistic branch, the Cyrenaics believed that the good life is achieved when one seeks physical pleasures in the moment. This still needs to be done virtuously, so that you own the pleasure, not the other way around. The Epicureans, however, valued mental pleasures (e.g., the company of friends) higher than physical ones, and at any rate for them eudaimonia consisted mostly in the absence of pain, both physical and especially mental. Hence their famous (or infamous) advice of withdrawing from social and political life, which is notoriously painful.

Finally, we move to the Cynic and Stoic branch. And here is the funny thing: there was no distinction between these two schools in terms of their view on eudaimonia. They both taught that virtue is necessary and sufficient to justify a life worth living. This means that anyone at all can be eudaimon: it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, handsome or ugly. How refreshing.

The big difference between the Cynics and the Stoics, of course, lies in their respective treatment of preferred and dispreferred indifferents, that is of externals. For the Cynics, they are to be avoided because they positively get in the way of virtue. Famously, Cynic philosophers did not own a house, had few other possessions, did not merry, and did not have children. The glaring exception was Crates, married to Hipparchia, and here is how Epictetus explains the anomaly:

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ You’re referring to a special case in which the marriage was prompted by love, and you’re reckoning on a wife who was herself another Crates.” (Discourses III.22.76)

The Stoics, by contrast, acknowledged that people have needs and interests outside of virtue, and thought that this can be part of a eudaimonic life so long as externals are treated as indifferent, i.e., it’s fine if one has them, but it is not good to get attached to them. A fortiori, it is certainly not acceptable to obtain externals by compromising one’s virtue.

In a sense, then, the relationship between Cynics and Stoics can be understood as being similar to that between Buddhist monks and lay Buddhists, or between Catholic priests and nuns and lay Christians: the stricter version of the philosophy (Cynicism) is only for a few who are answering a call, while the accessible version (Stoicism) is for everyone else.

Indeed, Epictetus writes a whole chapter — Discourses III.22 — on Cynicism where he puts it essentially that way:

“So you too should consider this matter with proper care: it isn’t what you think it is. ‘I wear a rough cloak even now, and I’ll be wearing one then. I sleep on a hard bed now, and I’ll sleep on one then. I’ll take up a knapsack and staff, furthermore, and set off on my rounds, begging from those whom I meet, and abusing them. And if I see anyone pulling out his body hair, I’ll give him a scolding, and likewise if his hair is dressed too fussily, or he struts around in purple robes.’ If you picture the Cynic calling as being something like that, keep well away from it, don’t come near, because it is not for you.” (Discourses III.22.9-11)

Cynicism is hard work, and only suitable for the few that are capable of rising to the challenge. For the rest of us, a eudaimonic life that is focused on the improvement of our moral character but that allows — and yet, crucially, does not require or depend from — externals, is indeed the kind of life we will be able to look back to near the end and think: yup, that was worth it.

Epicureans and the experience machine

The Epicureans are a much maligned group. Arguably, they were misunderstood by many of their contemporaries, and there were certainly smeared by the early Christians, who focused on the Epicurean idea that pleasure was the highest good in order to paint them, unfairly, as a bunch of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” hedonists. The actual Epicurean position was much more subtle, emphasizing lack of mental distress more than what we moderns call pleasure.

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How to choose your Hellenistic school


Socrates, National Roman Museum (photo by the Author)

Socrates, National Roman Museum (photo by the Author)

The Hellenistic period, which is typically defined as going from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) to the rise of the Roman Empire (marked by the battle of Actium, 31 BCE) saw the flourishing of a bewildering number of new philosophical schools, of which Stoicism was of course one. I have discussed the variety of these schools and their genealogical derivation from the thought of Socrates in a previous post, devoted more broadly to the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of ethics, and of course this very blog is an ongoing discussion and exploration of Stoicism in particular. But perhaps Stoicism isn’t quite for you, and yet you are still attracted to the idea of a eudaimonic life, a life spent in pursuit of something that makes it meaningful and worth living? Then you are in luck, because I’m about to introduce the Hellenistic Schools decision making tree! Continue reading

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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The Stoic spectrum and the thorny issue of preferred indifferents

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

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Sophia vs Phronesis: two conceptions of wisdom

Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Sophia, from the Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Wisdom is something that pretty much all philosophical and religious traditions seek. While it isn’t a popular concept in modern academic philosophy departments, that’s a bad reflection on the latter, not on the former.

The Greeks since Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics distinguished two different kinds of wisdom: phronesis, or practical wisdom, and sophia, or “transcendental” wisdom. To complicate things from a Stoic perspective, while phronesis is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being temperance, courage, and justice), many Stoics thought — together with Socrates — that these are all aspects of one underlying virtue, which they referred to as wisdom. Clearly, a bit of unpacking is in order.
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