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.
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 point of Stoic philosophy is to help us live a worthwhile life. That task fell to one of the three Stoic topoi, 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 topoi, “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.
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.
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.
Stoics were well known in antiquity for the use of metaphors, as well as for developing concepts that to others sounded rather paradoxical, or even downright nonsensical. Cicero went so far as to write an entire book entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum.
I maintain, though, that the Stoics weren’t fools, and understood perfectly well how some of their notions came across to non-Stoics. However, they used such “paradoxical” ideas and strange metaphors as a pedagogical tool to draw others into considering their philosophy seriously, rather than reducing it to what we today would call a bumper sticker version.
As part of my sabbatical devoted to writing How to Be a Stoic (the book, scheduled to be out for Basic Books in late April) I spent a few days in Greece with the primary intent of going after Epictetus. I visited Nicopolis, the Roman town where he went after he was exiled by Domitian in 93 CE. There he established his school and eventually died, probably around 135 CE, when he was about 80.
On my way to Nicopolis (modern day Preveza, in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece), I rented a car from Athens and drove the 370 or so kilometers with my friend Tunc, stopping at Delphi. I had been there before, but the place truly is magical, and was certainly worth a visit on our way to the Ionian coast.