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CHUA, Neil S.

4LM1 Stoicism

October 8, 2012

Stoic people or those associated with a stoic attitude, have often been judged or considered as indifferent, devoid of emotion, even inanimate at times. While these impressions may be true, they are incomplete. There is much more to Stoicism than simple resignation to the way of the world. In any discussion, it is important to begin with the foundations of a school or idea. But tracing the very foundations of Stoicism is not an easy task, because of the evidence that exists. The evidence is there, but only in the form of highlights of Stoic ideas, instead of continuous reports of Stoic positions and arguments. This makes it very difficult to distinguish the central ideas from the peripheral. Not only does this produce an incomplete and vague perspective on the philosophical ideas of Stoicism, it also leaves an incomplete history (White, 1979). But Max Pohlenzs efforts to look into the dynamics of Stoicism have somehow shed light upon this matter. According to Pohlenz (1949), the Stoic school of thought was founded by Zeno of Cytium. Zenos ideas were directed at opposing that of Epicurus, who advocated that human beings ought to pursue pleasure (and that they do so from birth), and that humans fail in this pursuit because of ignorance and bad strategy.

In Zenos mind, the goal of man must be the fulfilment of mans nature, and that this nature must set him apart from other beings. Unlike Epicurus focus on the pursuit of pleasure, Zeno wanted man to aim for his peculiar essence that is reason. Possessing reason allows man to put himself above beasts, and perhaps approach the divine (Pohlenz, 1949). Another part of Zenos idea is that living things primarily pursue selfpreservation and the maintenance of existence. The presence or absence of pleasure is only secondary. It then follows that man avoids what may be adverse to his existence; that man is attracted to what may help preserve it. This pattern of behaviour constitutes what is called in classic Stoicism, oikeiosis. This idea was vital to moral development, drawing the line between the sages and the fools. (Pohlenz, 1949) However oikeiosis is not enough to distinguish man from other animals, because even beasts live by this idea. Even a gazelle runs for safety (although usually in vain) as soon as it sees its predator nearby. Pohlenzs (1949) account on Zeno continues to say that the truly distinguishing possession of man is his logos or reason. Therefore, the drive for self-preservation in human beings must be seen in a life of reason. On another note, Zenos ideas bear a similarity to Aristotles views on humans. Aristotle was also fixated on certain human features that are said to be essential, and urged the development of the same. This similarity, however, does not eliminate the differences between Aristotelian and Stoic ethics but it does provide a historical connection that helps to satiate our need for understanding on the foundations of

Stoicism. The Stoics considered themselves as one of the Socratic schools, yet it is scarcely considered a product of purely Greek intellect, but rather as the first fruits of that interaction between East and West which followed the conquests of Alexander (Grant, 1915). Basic Assertions From the outset, Stoicism has been a philosophy for life. Stoicism brings one to the pursuit of happiness, through the attainment of virtue. Yes, Stoicism still assumes that happiness is our end, but unlike Hedonism, the former is more guided. To be happy is to follow the way of nature, and to follow nature is to be virtuous. Eudaimonia, or the flourishing of life, was the target. Moral and intellectual virtues are necessary to achieve eupatheiai or good feelings (Garrett, 2006). Virtue, unlike the worldly things that are commonly perceived to bring happiness, is satisfying of and for itself. Virtue lets reason keep a dominant hand over passions and appetites in dictating mans actions. This leads the individual, and his will, to attain freedom as well. More than just achieving inner harmony, virtue brings us to peace with nature, its workings and the higher power behind it. This emphasis on virtue implies that the aim of the moral life is perfection. A Stoic theory considers passions as, physically, violent movements of the soul while they are, cognitively, considered as false judgments (Garrett, 2006). Letting passions dictate ones decisions is contrary to Stoic beliefs; it makes external things the true goods and

the objective of actions. The Stoics insist that we are wrong to think that pleasure is good; wrong to think that money and fame are good; wrong to think that health, freedom, and life are good (Brennan, 2005). Assent is another important part of Stoicism. It is the fundamental psychological activity more fundamental even that believing something, or desiring something (Brennan, 2005). To assent to something is to accept and believe in it. In Stoic terms, this is called sunkatathesis. Human freedom stems from the ability to assent to things, something that other animals are incapable of doing. It draws the line between people in terms of the patterns of the assents that they make, or do not make. Assent cannot be made without presentation, that is, the means which enables us to recognize external objects. These presentations imprint themselves on the soul, much like objects imprint themselves on a wax tablet; there is no room for fallibility (Ioppolo, 1990). With the appropriate actions (kathekonta), along with consistency and philosophical insight into such actions, one may make enough progress to become a sage. The sage is the Stoic epitome of the virtuous man. Problems of Stoicism The problem with the Stoic ethical system is that its requirements on human nature are so onerous, that to follow Stoicism absolutely with reduce the mind to a dead calm (Johnson, 1752). Stoicism advocates a shift from emotion and passion, to apathy and self-sufficiency, with the latter a very difficult task for man. Man is capable

of achieving a certain degree of self-control, but not at par with that demanded by Stoicism. Any effort to try achieving happiness via apathy would only fail; the best that apathy could do is contribute to a persons tranquillity. This is not a bad thing, but nonetheless Stoicism fails at achieving true happiness. What happens in practice then, is mere suppression of emotion. It would be impossible for a person to achieve happiness by never feeling things such as fondness, distress, or admiration. The Stoic ideal of apathy is a radical solution to mans pain. Applied to a practical situation, the real world does not have much room for Stoics. This is not to say that Stoics are scorned or looked down upon, but they are much more likely to be trodden on. Stoics, armed with virtue, would probably find that the wicked are the ones who prosper, while the virtuous miscarry (McIntosh, 1966). Johnson (1752) questions if philosophers can reconcile us with misfortune, because Stoicism cannot explain away external evil. Epicurus teaches endurance of the worlds ways but this does not provide lasting contentment. Zeno teaches indifferences but only conceals sorrow instead of reducing it. It is true; stoicism only provides a guide for responding to phenomena, but cannot why there is evil and why it afflicts man. However, Stoicism must be given credit for being able to relieve the bitterness and harshness of life through its teachings. Relating Stoicism to Religion

What stirred my interest in stoic ethics is its resemblance to Christian teachings and its respective ethics. A person who related faith and stoicism was St. Paul. He was born in Tarsus a known seat of Stoic ethics, being the home of many Stoic philosophers. It is of no surprise that St. Pauls manner of arguing, theology and ethics are rooted in Stoicism. This would somehow imply that Christianitys teachings and that of Stoicism agree with each other at some points. A question that would pop into ones mind would be, Why would St. Paul use Stoic references if he wanted to preach the Word of God? If he did so, it was most likely a consequence of his background than his intentions. Whenever messages are passed on, it is inevitable for some variations to arise. St. Paul was certainly not a Stoic, but the effects of Stoicism were evident (Grant, 1915). St. Paul took on a pessimistic stance towards the world, but this was not due to imminent death, but due to the poor morality level as seen by religion during his time. Much like Stoicism, St. Paul also traced evil to within us. That is why St. Paul says we come so hardly to healing because we do not know we are sick. Cosmopolitanism was also a shared quality of Stoicism and St. Pauls attitude. Stoicism was universal through its recognition of all men possessing reason, whereas the religion that St. Paul was preaching was, if properly understood, was universal (Grant, 1915). As mentioned earlier, the sage was the Stoic ideal. Christianitys counterpart is Jesus Christ.

St. Paul did disagree with Stoicism at some points. For one, nature did not impress St. Paul too much, as the devil was the spirit of the world for him. It is important to remember however, that Stoicism is not a definite dogmatic teaching compared to Christianity or any of its denominations. These teachings do no truly form a system. Stoicism consists more of expressions of thought regarding already-accepted dogmas of philosophy (Grant, 1915). One could say that it is a philosophy on other philosophies. For the sake of clarity however, the main point of these Stoic philosophers was empowering the individual to be superior to his environment and the events that would burden him therein. The beauty of Stoicism is how it ultimately leads the individuals who live by it to God. The patient search for virtue brings the individual first to wisdom. In learning to think correctly and living according to virtue and reason, the individual is pushed to look further on for the first cause of being & the final goal of life. Ultimately, they will find God. Samuel Johnson (1752) questioned Stoic teachings, and in doing so, ultimately lead to his invigorated faith in God. It is worth noting that Johnson was afflicted with the sickness and depression hence his intense stand on the shortcomings of Stoicism at alleviating suffering. From his debate with Stoicism, Johnson eventually found true tranquillity in God who holds both life and death. Perhaps Stoicism can be a good philosophy to follow for the afflicted, as seen with Samuel Johnson.

The Stoics approved of curbing any faculty which got out control (McIntosh, 1966). If one were to make any Biblical references, Matthew 5:29-30 sounds quite similar If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. It must be clarified however, that this is not a Biblical call for the removal of problematic body parts, but a call to contemplate on the source or faculty of that is out of control (sinning). Both religion and Stoicism would remind us of reason (and the power of choice), agreeing that our actions are a product of our nature. Even St. Paul traced evil to an internal source, rather than an external one. In the end, Stoicism is not a perfect ethical system. Some of the solutions that it presents are humanely unattainable. Apathy cannot be a healthy stance in todays dogeat-dog world; an apathetic one is sure to be taken advantage of in the long run. Nor would suppression of emotion be healthy, because emotion is what gives vigor to life may it be happiness, sorrow, loneliness and so on. Without it, life would be no more exciting than being a vegetable. But one cannot deny that Stoic concepts are useful for helping to achieve happiness. To try living a moral life; to do things for their own sake (instead of its aftereffects); to let reason prevail in actions all these are in line with what would be considered good today.

Sources: Brennan, T. (2005). The stoic life: emotions, duties, and fate. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Garrett, J. (2006, May 31). Classical stoicism in a nutshell. Western Kentucky University. Retrieved October 5, 2012, from Grant, F. C. (1915). St. paul and stoicism. Chicago Journals, 45(5), 268-281. Inwood, B. (1986). Goal and target in stoicism. Journal of Philosophy, Inc.,83(10), 547556. Ioppolo, A. (1990). Presentation and assent: a physical and cognitive problem in early stoicism. Cambridge University Press, 40(2), 433-449. McIntosh, C. (1966). Johnson's debate with stoicism. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 33(3), 327-336. White, N. (1979). The basis of stoic ethics. Department of the Classics, Harvard University, 83, 143-178.