On the whole, there is probably no treatise so masterly as Aristotle’s Ethics, and containing so much close and valid thought, that yet leaves on the reader’s mind so strong an impression of dispersive and incomplete work. It is only by dwelling on these defects that we can understand the small amount of influence that his system exercised during the five centuries after his death, as compared with the effect which it has had, directly or indirectly, in shaping the thought of modern Europe.
Partly, no doubt, the limited influence of his disciples, the Peripatetics, is to be attributed to that exaltation of the purely speculative life which distinguished the Aristotelian ethics from other later systems, and which was too alien from the common moral consciousness to find much acceptance in an age in which the ethical aims of philosophy had again become paramount.
Partly, again, the analytical distinctness of Aristotle’s manner brings into special prominence the difficulties that attend the Socratic effort to reconcile the ideal aspirations of men with the principles on which their practical reasonings are commonly conducted.
The conflict between these two elements of Common Sense was too profound to be compromised; and the moral consciousness of mankind demanded a more trenchant partisanship than Aristotle’s.
Its demands were met by the Stoic school which separated the moral from the worldly view of life, with an absoluteness and definiteness that caught the imagination; which regarded practical goodness as the highest manifestation of its ideal of wisdom; and which bound the common notions of duty into an apparently coherent system, by a formula that comprehended the whole of human life, and exhibited its relation to the ordered process of the universe.
Stoics and Cynics¶
The intellectual descent of its ethical doctrines is principally to be traced to Socrates through the Cynics, though an important element in them seems attributable to the school that inherited the “Academy” of Plato.
Both Stoic and Cynic maintained, in its sharpest form, the fundamental tenet that the practical knowledge which is virtue, with the condition of soul that is inseparable from it, is alone to be accounted good. He who exercises this wisdom or knowledge has complete well-being; all else is indifferent to him.
It is true that the Cynics were more concerned to emphasize the negative side of the sage’s well-being, while the Stoics brought into more prominence its positive side. This difference, however, did not amount to disagreement. The Stoics, in fact, seem generally to have regarded the eccentricities of Cynicism as an emphatic manner of expressing the essential antithesis between philosophy and the world; a manner which, though not necessary or even normal, might yet be advantageously adopted by the sage under certain circumstances.1
Wherein, then, consists this knowledge or wisdom that makes free and perfect? Both Cynics and Stoics agreed that the most important part of it was the knowledge that the sole good of man lay in this knowledge or wisdom itself. It must be understood that by wisdom they meant wisdom realized in act; indeed, they did not conceive the existence of wisdom as separable from such realization.
We may observe, too, that the Stoics rejected the divergence which had been gradually taking place in Platonic-Aristotelian thought from the position of Socrates, that “no one aims at what he knows to be bad.”
The stress that their psychology laid on the essential unity of the rational self that is the source of voluntary action, prevented them from accepting Plato’s analysis of the soul into a regulative element and elements needing regulation.
They held that what we call passion is a morbid condition of the rational soul, involving erroneous judgment as to what is to be sought or shunned. From such passionate errors the truly wise man will of course be free. He will be conscious indeed of physical appetite; but he will not be misled into supposing that its object is really a good; he cannot, therefore, hope for the attainment of this object or fear to miss it, as these states involve the conception of it as a good.
Similarly, though like other men he will be subject to bodily pain, this will not cause him mental grief or disquiet, as his worst agonies will not disturb his clear conviction that it is really indifferent to his true reasonable self.
That this impassive sage was a being not to be found among living men the later Stoics at least were fully aware. They faintly suggested that one or two moral heroes of old time might have realized the ideal, but they admitted that all other philosophers were merely in a state of progress towards it.
This admission did not in the least diminish the rigour of their demand for absolute loyalty to the exclusive claims of wisdom. The assurance of its own unique value that such wisdom involved they held to be an abiding possession for those who had attained it;2 and without this assurance no act could be truly wise or virtuous.
Whatever was not of knowledge was of sin; and the distinction between right and wrong being absolute and not admitting of degrees, all sins were equally sinful; whoever broke the least commandment was guilty of the whole law.
Similarly, all wisdom was somehow involved in any one of the manifestations of wisdom, commonly distinguished as particular virtues; though whether these virtues were specifically distinct, or only the same knowledge in different relations, was a subtle question on which the Stoics do not seem to have been agreed.
Knowledge, Virtue, Vice¶
Aristotle had already been led to attempt a refutation of the Socratic identification of virtue with knowledge; but his attempt had only shown the profound difficulty of attacking the paradox, so long as it was admitted that no one could of deliberate purpose act contrary to what seemed to him best.
Now, Aristotle’s divergence from Socrates had not led him so far as to deny this; while for the Stoics who had receded to the original Socratic position, the difficulty was still more patent.
This theory of virtue led them into two dilemmas.
Firstly, if virtue is knowledge, does it follow that vice is involuntary? If not, it must be that ignorance is voluntary. This alternative is the less dangerous to morality, and as such the Stoics chose it.
But they were not yet at the end of their perplexities; for while they were thus driven to an extreme extension of the range of human volition, their view of the physical universe involved an equally thorough-going determinism.
How could the vicious man be responsible if his vice were strictly pre-determined? The Stoics answered that the error which was the essence of vice was so far voluntary that it could be avoided if men chose to exercise their reason.
No doubt it depended on the innate force and firmness3 of a man’s soul whether his reason was effectually exercised; but moral responsibility was saved if the vicious act proceeded from the man himself and not from any external cause.
With all this we have not ascertained the positive practical content of this wisdom. How are we to emerge from the barren circle of affirming
- that wisdom is the sole good and unwisdom the sole evil, and
- that wisdom is the knowledge of good and evil;
and attain some method for determining the particulars of good conduct?
The Cynics made no attempt to solve this difficulty; they were content to mean by virtue what any plain man meant by it, except in so far as their sense of independence led them to reject certain received precepts and prejudices.
The Stoics, on the other hand, not only worked out a detailed system of duties—or, as they termed them, “things meet and fit” (καθήκοντα) for all occasions of life; they were further especially concerned to comprehend them under a general formula. They found this by bringing out the positive significance of the notion of Nature,4 which the Cynic had used chiefly in a negative way, as an antithesis to the “consentions” (νόμος),5 from which his knowledge had made him free.
Even in this negative use of the notion it is necessarily implied that whatever active tendencies in man are found to be “natural”—that is, independent of and uncorrupted by social customs and conventions—will properly take effect in outward acts, but the adoption of “conformity to nature” as a general positive rule for outward conduct seems to have been due to the influence on Zeno of Academic teaching.
Whence, however, can this authority belong to the natural, unless nature be itself an expression or embodiment of divine law and wisdom?
The conception of the world, as organized and filled by divine thought, was common, in some form, to all the philosophies that looked back to Socrates as their founder—some even maintaining that this thought was the sole reality.
This pantheistic doctrine harmonized thoroughly with the Stoic view of human good; but being unable to conceive substance idealistically, they (with considerable aid from the system of Heraclitus) supplied a materialistic side to their pantheism,—conceiving divine thought as an attribute of the purest and most primary of material substances, a subtle fiery aether.
This theological view of the physical universe had a double effect on the ethics of the Stoic.
In the first place it gave to his cardinal conviction of the all-sufficiency of wisdom for human well-being a root of cosmical fact, and an atmosphere of religious and social emotion. The exercise of wisdom was now viewed as the pure life of that particle of divine substance which was in very truth the “god within him”; the reason whose supremacy he maintained was the reason of Zeus, and of all gods and reasonable men, no less than his own; its realization in any one individual was thus the common good of all rational beings as such; “the sage could not stretch out a finger rightly without thereby benefiting all other sages”—nay, it might even be said that he was “as useful to Zeus as Zeus to him.”6
But again, the same conception served to harmonize the higher and the lower elements of human life. For even in the physical or non-rational man, as originally constituted, we may see clear indications of the divine design, which it belongs to his rational will to carry into conscious execution; indeed, in the first stage of human life, before reason is fully developed, uncorrupted natural impulse effects what is afterwards the work of reason.
According to Nature¶
Thus the formula of “living according to nature,” in its application to man as the “rational animal,” may be understood both
- as directing that reason is to govern,
- and as indicating how that government is to be practically exercised.
In man, as in every other animal, from the moment of birth natural impulse prompts to the maintenance of his physical frame; then, when reason has been developed and has recognized itself as its own sole good, these “primary ends of nature” and whatever promotes these still constitute the outward objects at which reason is to aim; there is a certain value (ἀξία) in them, in proportion to which they are “preferred” (προηγμένα)7 and their opposites “rejected” (ἀποπροηγμένα); indeed it is only in the due and consistent exercise of such choice that wisdom can find its practical manifestation.
In this way all or most of the things commonly judged to be “goods”—health, strength, wealth, fame,9 &c.,—are brought within the sphere of the sage’s choice, though his real good is solely in the wisdom of the choice, and not in the thing chosen.
The doctrine of conformity to Nature as the rule of conduct was not peculiar to Stoicism. It is found in the theories of Speusippus, Xenocrates, and also to some extent in those of the Peripatetics.
The peculiarity of the Stoics lay in their refusing to use the terms “good and evil” in connection with “things indifferent,”10 and in pointing out that philosophers, though independent of these things, must yet deal with them in practical life.
So far we have considered the “nature” of the individual man as apart from his social relations; but the sphere of virtue, as commonly conceived, lies chiefly in these, and this was fully recognized in the Stoic account of duties (καθήκοντα); indeed, in their exposition of the “natural” basis of justice, the evidence that man was born not for himself but for mankind is the most important part of their work in the region of practical morality.
Here, however, we especially notice the double significance of “natural,” as applied to
- what actually exists everywhere or for the most part,
- and what would exist if the original plan of man’s life were fully carried out;
and we find that the Stoics have not clearly harmonized the two elements of the notion.
That man was “naturally” a social animal Aristotle had already taught; that all rational beings, in the unity of the reason that is common to all, form naturally one community with a common law was (as we saw) an immediate inference from the Stoic conception of the universe as a whole.
That the members of this “city of Zeus” should observe their contracts, abstain from mutual harm, combine to protect each other from injury, were obvious points of natural law; while again, it was clearly necessary to the preservation of human society that its members should form sexual unions, produce children, and bestow care on their rearing and training.
But beyond this nature did not seem to go in determining the relations of the sexes; accordingly, we find that community of wives was a feature of Zeno’s ideal commonwealth, just as it was of Plato’s; while, again, the strict theory of the school recognized no government or laws as true or binding except those of the sages; he alone is the true ruler, the true king.
So far, the Stoic “nature” seems in danger of being as revolutionary as Rousseau’s. Practically, however, this revolutionary aspect of the notion was kept for the most part in the background; the rational law of an ideal community was not distinguished from the positive ordinances and customs of actual society; and the “natural” ties that actually bound each man to family, kinsmen, fatherland, and to unwise humanity generally, supplied the outline on which the external manifestation of justice was delineated.
It was a fundamental maxim that the sages was to take part in public life; and it does not appear that his political action was to be regulated by any other principles than those commonly accepted in his community.
Similarly, in the view taken by the Stoics of the duties of social decorum, and in their attitude to the popular religion, we find a fluctuating compromise between the disposition to repudiate what is conventional, and the disposition to revere what is established, each tendency expressing in its own way the principle of “conforming to nature.”
Among the primary ends of nature, in which wisdom recognized a certain preferability, the Stoics included freedom from bodily pain; but they refused, even in this outer court of wisdom, to find a place for pleasure. They held that the latter was not an object of uncorrupted natural impulse, but an “aftergrowth” (ἐπιγέννημα).
They thus endeavoured to resist Epicureanism even on the ground where the latter seems prima facie strongest; in its appeal, namely, to the natural pleasure-seeking of all living things.
Nor did they merely mean by pleasure (ἡδονή) the gratification of bodily appetite; we find (e.g.) Chrysippus urging, as a decisive argument against Aristotle, that pure speculation was “a kind of amusement; that is, pleasure.” Even the “joy and gladness” (χαρά, εὐφροσύνη) that accompany the exercise of virtue seem to have been regarded by them as merely an inseparable accident, not the essential constituent of well-being.
It is only by a later modification of Stoicism that cheerfulness or peace of mind is taken as the real ultimate end, to which the exercise of virtue is merely a means.
At the same time it is probable that the serene joys of virtue and the grieflessness which the sage was conceived to maintain amid the worst tortures, formed the main attractions of Stoicism for ordinary minds.
In this sense it may be fairly said that Stoics and Epicureans made rival offers to mankind of the same kind of happiness; and the philosophical peculiarities of either system may be traced to the desire of being undisturbed by the changes and chances of life.
The Stoic claims on this head were the loftiest; as the well-being of their sage was independent, not only of external things and bodily conditions, but of time itself; it was fully realized in a single exercise of wisdom and could not be increased by duration.
The two systems that have just been described were those that most prominently attracted the attention of the ancient world, so far as it was directed to ethics, from their almost simultaneous origin to the end of the 2nd century a.d., when Stoicism almost vanishes from our view.
But side by side with them the schools of Plato and Aristotle still maintained a continuity of tradition, and a more or less vigorous life; and philosophy, as a recognized element of Graeco-Roman culture, was understood to be divided among these four branches.
The internal history, however, of the four schools was very different. We find no development worthy of notice in Aristotelian ethics. The Epicureans, again, from their unquestioning acceptance of the “dogmas”11 of their founder, almost deserve to be called a sect rather than a school.
On the other hand, the changes in Stoicism are very noteworthy; and it is the more easy to trace them, as the only original writings of this school which we possess are those of the later Roman Stoics.
These changes may be attributed partly to the natural inner development of the system, partly to the reaction of the Roman mind on the essentially Greek doctrine which it received,—a reaction all the more inevitable from the very affinity between the Stoic sage and the ancient Roman ideal of manliness.
It was natural that the earlier Stoics should be chiefly occupied with delineating the inner and outer characteristics of ideal wisdom and virtue, and that the gap between the ideal sage and the actual philosopher, though never ignored, should yet be somewhat overlooked.
But when the question “What is man’s good?” had been answered by an exposition of perfect wisdom, the practical question “How may a man emerge from the folly of the world, and get on the way towards wisdom?” naturally attracted attention; and the preponderance of moral over scientific interest, which was characteristic of the Roman mind, gave this question especial prominence.
The sense of the gap between theory and fact gives to the religious element of Stoicism a new force; the soul, conscious of its weakness, leans on the thought of God, and in the philosopher’s attitude towards external events, pious resignation preponderates over self-poised indifference; the old self-reliance of the reason, looking down on man’s natural life as a mere field for its exercise, makes room for a positive aversion to the flesh as an alien element imprisoning the spirit; the body has come to be a “corpse which the soul sustains,”12 and life a “sojourn in a strange land”;13 in short, the ethical idealism of Zeno has begun to borrow from the metaphysical idealism of Plato.
Epictetus (born c. a.d. 60), Greek philosopher, was probably a native of Hierapolis in south-west Phrygia. The name Epictetus is merely the Greek for “acquired” (from ἐπικτᾶσθαι); his original name is not known. As a boy he was a slave in the house of Epaphroditus, a freedman and courtier of the emperor Nero. He managed, however, to attend the lectures of the Stoic Musonius Rufus, and subsequently became a freedman. He was lame and of weakly health. In 90 he was expelled with the other philosophers by Domitian, who was irritated by the support and encouragement which the opposition to his tyranny found amongst the adherents of Stoicism. For the rest of his life he settled at Nicopolis, in southern Epirus, not far from the scene of the battle of Actium. There for several years he lived, and taught by close earnest personal address and conversation. According to some authorities he lived into the time of Hadrian; he himself mentions the coinage of the emperor Trajan. His contemporaries and the next generation held his character and teaching in high honour. According to Lucian, the earthenware lamp which had belonged to the sage was bought by an antiquarian for 3000 drachmas. He was never married.
Other Stoic Resources¶
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It has been suggestively said that Cynicism was to Stoicism what monasticism was to early Christianity. The analogy, however, must not be pressed too far, since orthodox Stoics do not ever seem to have regarded Cynicism as the more perfect way. ↩
The Stoics were not quite agreed as to the immutability of virtue, but they were agreed that, when once possessed, it could only be lost through the loss of reason itself. ↩
Hence some members of the school, without rejecting the definition of virtue = knowledge, also defined it as “strength and force.” ↩
[φύσις, ‘Phusis’ or ‘Physis’, “nature”—from which we get “physics”, “physiology”, &c. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physis & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_law#Stoic_natural_law] ↩
It is apparently in view of this union in reason of rational beings that friends are allowed to be “external goods” to the sage, and that the possession of good children is also counted a good. ↩
[proêgmena, “preferred things”, oft given as “preferred indifference”, e.g., health, wealth] ↩
[aproêgmena, “un-preferred things” or “dis-preferred things”, oft given as “unpreferred indifference”, e.g., illness, poverty] ↩
The Stoics seem to have varied in their view of “good repute,” εὐδοξία; at first, when the school was more under the influence of Cynicism, they professed an outward as well as an inward indifference to it; ultimately they conceded the point to common sense, and included it among προηγμένα. ↩
[Whether προηγμένα or ἀποπροηγμένα] ↩
The last charge of Epicurus to his disciples is said to have been, τῶν δογμάτων μεμνῆσθαι. [tón dogmáton memnísthai, “memorize the doctrines”] ↩