The Stoics

Dr William Large

We now come to the last lecture in our series with the philosophy of the Stoics. We can say that this philosophy began a generation after the death of Aristotle, but in a certain sense it points back to a philosopher that inspired both him and his teacher Plato, namely Socrates. We might understand Stoicism as the desire to return to the simplicity of the philosophy of Socrates against the great metaphysical systems of Plato and Aristotle. The aim of the Stoics was not to invent one more philosophical theory, but live philosophy, as Pierre Hadot might say, as a way of life. This does not mean that the Stoics did not have a philosophy at all, but for them learning about philosophy was no substitute for being a philosopher, which did not mean being learned or scholarly, in the sense that in the age of the university, the philosopher has become nothing else, but living a spiritually self disciplined life.  We can, however, in terms of what the university demands, break Stoic philosophy into three basic parts:  ethics, physics and logic.  Let us look at each of these parts separately.

First ethics (and let is remind ourselves here that we only giving the barest of sketches of these philosophies).  The purpose of all life, the Stoics, argued was self preservation.  All life lives according to its nature and the order of the cosmos of which it is a part, whether we are speaking about animals, plants or stones. To live according to its own nature is the fundamental instinct of life. For human beings, however, his nature is reason. This means that if anyone is to live a fully actualised human life, if we might use a Aristotelian way of speaking, then he or she must control and direct his passions or desires by reason. And yet what does it mean to truly live by reason alone? It means to live in terms of what is most good for human life according to our nature. Common sense tells us that the best good for human life are what the Greeks called material goods, such as health, fame and fortune.  And yet, as we have already learnt from Plato, these material goods cannot be in our own power, and thus it is against our own rational nature to seek our own purpose and end in them. They can be a means to end, thus no-one seeks to be poor, but one might become so through providence, but they are not ends in themselves. The only good for the Stoics were moral goods.  The material goods they called indifferent things, as indifference was the correct attitude to have to them since they were outside one’s power to have or not to have.  What, however, did they mean by moral goods, which were the only true good? The moral good is the virtuous activity itself or the right approach to things.  In more modern ethical language we would call them the moral intentions. For it is only this intention that is under the power of reason, whereas everything else is not.  The philosopher who comes back home to find her house on fire and her only child within will try her hardest to save the child, for that is the right moral act, but if, doing as much as she can, the child dies, he will not blame himself, for this was outside her power. What matters is that she attempted to do the right thing, because ‘saving a child’ is the right thing to do in that situation, and not whether the child was saved or not.[1] Virtue, so to speak, is its own reward. Or as R. W. Sharples writes, ‘The Stoic sage is like an archer whose goal is not to hit the target, but to the best he can to hit the target.’[2]

Stoicism, and this is how the word ‘stoical’ has entered the English language, means a certain indifference to external circumstances, for no matter what injustices or hardships happen to me they will never be able to break into the ‘inner citadel’ of my virtue. We might see the difference here from Aristotle’s position, for example, that being born a slave would mean that a good life would be impossible, since external circumstances would prevent it, whereas for the Stoics, it is the inner life that matters. It is perfectly possible, no matter how terrible the slave’s life was, that he or she could live a good life.  Nothing some one does to me from the outside can effect the moral worth of my soul.

Stoic ethics is in a certain sense connected to their physics. Everything that is real for the stoics is material. What gives material bodies their particular nature is an active principle which they call God. Even the active principle is something material, since everything that existed must be a material thing. This material form they called pneuma which can be translated as ‘breath’.  It is this breath which gives unity and holds things together in their particular form.  In man and animals, this breath is the soul, psyche in plants phusis, which is this context might be translated as nature and in inorganic substances, it is the hexis, which might be translated as ‘constitution.’ Nonetheless, each of these three forms are the expression of one and the same breath. Thus the Stoics saw the world itself as a organism, and each of the different parts of the natural world were expression of the ‘world’ or ‘cosmic’ soul.  Or if you like, the universe is God, or God is this universe. Thus, the soul of the individual man or woman was part of the divine soul of God. There was no separation, as there is in monotheism, between the creator and the created. That everything belonged to God meant that everything must have a divine purpose, even though this divine purpose is not visible to the human mind.  This again explains the forbearing nature of Stoicism’s ethics.  For if everything thing, and every event belonged to the world soul, then even that which seemed to be bad had its purpose in the greater order of things, even the death of my child in the fire.  All of us are part of a cosmic drama, and it is own only own irrational pride that make me place my sufferings at the centre of the universe and give them the importance that they should not have. Once I see that my soul is part of the cosmic soul and all is determined in advance, then my own relative suffering pale into insignificance as part of the divine plan that I cannot know.

The view that individuals are merely configurations of the universe, rather than separately existing entities also determined Stoic logic (logic – the way that we talk about the world) and made it quite different from Aristotelian logic. This latter logic concerns the interrelation of universal terms: all human being are mortal, Greeks are human beings, therefore Greeks are mortal.  This logic rests on Aristotle’s view of reality as the relation between genera and species.  For the Stoics only individual things have any material reality and therefore logic must start with the individual rather than the universal, and these individuals are certain modifications of the one universe – the horse as a Socrates, as that horse over there and so on. As Sharples explains, people and animals are not qualities but qualifieds, a body qualified in a certain way, and these qualifieds have certain dispositions, such as knowledge, and relations, one person is next to other. Individuals, therefore are seen not as nouns – individual substances, as they are in Aristotle, but adjectives.[3]

This rejection of the comparison of individuals as the basis of logic (all human beings are mortal, Socrates is a human being, therefore Socrates is mortal) also had an effect on how the Stoics conceived of formal logical relations, and it is this that makes their logic closer to modern logic.  For them it was not a question of interrelation of universal terms that was primary, as in the Aristotelian syllogism, but the interrelation of propositions: if it is day, it is light, but it is day so it is light; or if it is day, it is light, but it is not light so it is not day. Chrysippus recognised five basic forms of propositional logic as follows:

If p, q.  But p \q
If p, q. But not q
\not p
Not both p and q. But p
\ not q
Either p or q. But p
\ not q
Either p or q. But not p
\q.

As Sandbach demonstrates this is a powerful logic.[4] Take the following argument from the Stoic writer Chrysippus that is quoted by the Latin writer Cicero:

If (a) gods exist and (b) do not foretell the future, either (c) they do not love us, or (d) they do not know what will happen, or (e) they do not think it would profit us to know or (f) they do not think that it would accord with their dignity to tell us, or (g) they are unable to tell us.  But it is not true that they do not love us, nor that they do not know what will happen etc. [A reason is given to for rejecting each alternative.] Therefore it is not true that the gods exist and do not foretell the future.  But the Gods exist.  Therefore they foretell the future.  (On Divination 1. 82)

The logical propositional form of this argument is as follows: if a +b, either c or d or e or f or g.  But not c or d or e or f or g \ not both a  or b. But a \ not b.



[1] This example is from A. A Long, Hellenistic Philosophy (London, Duckworth, 1986), pp.197-8.

[2] Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics (London & New York, Routledge, 1996), p.103.

[3] Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, pp.46-7.

[4] See, F.H. Sandbach, The Stoics (New York: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989), p.98