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Phil 125 Epicurus vs Stoics

Phil 125 Epicurus vs Stoics

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Published by Justin Kan

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Published by: Justin Kan on Dec 22, 2009
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 Nathaniel KanPhilosophy 125 aTA: Les Wolf Epicurus and the StoicsDuring the Hellenistic period, several schools of philosophy emerged that werenot only theoretical studies but forwarded practical philosophy for ordering one’s ownlife. Epicurus and the Stoic philosophers are both omnipresent examples of these practical philosophies, applications of which have appeared throughout history. While theethical philosophies of these schools are probably their most widely recognized ideas,issues raised by their metaphysical philosophies—notably the compatibility of determinism and Free Will—are still puzzled over today. By reviewing each school’smetaphysical theories, we can see why they developed different ethical recommendationsfor practical living.Both Epicurus and the Stoic philosophers argued in their ethics for following anatural course of being. Epicurus said the two most important things were one’s own bodily health and a peaceful state of mind. The Stoics’ philosophy of ethics was one stepremoved: one’s own health, etc are “natural things” (i.e. you generally prefer them),however, happiness is not contingent on external things. Happiness rather is contingenton whether you have rational ordering of preferences.We can see how these two contemporary Hellenistic schools developed differentethical philosophies by looking at their differing metaphysics. The Stoics deny theexistence of universals or Forms: everything that
must have the power to act and be
affected by other things that exist. The Stoics proposed a cyclical, entirely materiallyuniverse. This universe has no vacuum space and is populated by the four elements, twoof which are active (fire and air) and two of which are passive (earth and water).In order to maintain distinct macroscopic objects in the ontology, the two activeelements combine to form pneuma, a substance which guides the development of animate bodies. Pneuma’s inward force is what constitutes the unification of a single object, whileits outwards force is what grants objects distinct properties.This denial of non-physical objects does not mean that the Stoics rejected theexistence of God, rather, they make God an omnipresent material internal to the universe.Every cycle of the Stoic world-view is completely teleologically determined by thisWorld-Soul. The Stoics believed in fate as a science.The Epicurean world-view, on the other hand, is not completely determined;certain events are indeterministic, and still others are under the control of the individual.Epicurus was an atomist, adopting Democritean atoms into his own philosophy andadding to them the properties of weight and swerve. Swerve, the propensity of atoms torandomly readjust their course, allowed Epicurus to argue that Free Will does exist—inthe form of indeterminacy.There are various arguments for the incompatibility of Free Will and anindeterministic system (as well as obvious arguments for why Free Will is incompatiblewith a deterministic one, teleological or otherwise). In modern terms the Stoics would probably be called some form of Compatibilists; believing that the actions of all matter are fully determined, but that Free Will is simply acting in accordance with the physicalstates of one’s mind. The Epicureans, believing that indeterminacy can be equated with
Free Will, bear some similarities to modern theories that quantum mechanicalindeterminacy can be equated with Free Will.
Both schools believed in Man’s capacityfor an independent will, however, their definitions of what constitutes Free Will aredifferent.The Stoic assumption that the universe is a determined system leads into theStoic ethical philosophy: it makes no sense to anguish when something tragic befalls you,as there was nothing you could have done. Men are born with the facilities to endure:[28] Haven’t you received faculties that enable you to bear whatever happens? Have you not got magnanimity? Courage? [29] Have you notreceived the power of endurance? Any why should I care any longer aboutwhatever happens if I haven magnanimity? (Epictetus 14)Thus the best life is one where contentedness is achieved not through the actualization of events, but by correctly ordering one’s preferences based on a system of “natural preferences”—those things which in general we desire—health, wealth, etc. To the Stoic,these things are not truly Good things, as they are not Good in every circumstance (wecan easily imagine situations where money does not equate happiness). Thus the onlytruly Good thing is virtue produced by happiness. Maximizing this virtue without relianceon events out of one’s control is the ultimate life-goal.For example, supposed the Stoic Sage lives on a tropical island prone tohurricanes, and after a storm warning one cloudy day he has the choice between 1)fortifying his house against the possible storm and 2) drinking all night. The sage chooseto prepare, and yet the storm comes the next day and destroys his house and kills hisfamily anyways. But the Stoic sage accepts this. Epictetus writes “[37] Come then, now
Nick Herbert explores this idea thoroughly in his book 
Elemental Mind 

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