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Core Stoicism

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  • Grant Sterling
    I won t have much time to post for a while, as I am starting to get swamped at work. But here s something for everyone to chew on.... [I have to go to class
    Message 1 of 211 , Sep 19, 2005
      I won't have much time to post for a
      while, as I am starting to get swamped at work.
      But here's something for everyone to chew on....
      [I have to go to class now, so I don't have time to
      edit this. Please forgive any howling errors.]

      The question came up as to how to explain
      the basics of Stoicism without technical
      terminology. Daniel has given us his version,
      which I find to be an admirable beginning. Here
      is my own version--or, at any rate, the skeleton
      of my version. Obviously all the points below
      would need to be spelled out. I offer as the only
      virtue of my version the fact that I have tried to
      show how the ideas of Stoicism are connected--
      how they flow. More on this below.

      Th = theorem The basic principles of
      Stoicism, for which I give no argument here.
      Some of these may be true theorems [unprovable
      fundamental postulates defensible only by
      appeal to intuition of their truth], some are
      empirical propositions the Stoics thought
      were obvious, some are propositions for which
      a proof might be offered but it's too complicated
      for me to bother with today.
      I have not tried to make this strictly
      deductive. I leave this as an exercise for the
      Spinozists and logicians on the List.

      Section One: Preliminaries
      Th 1) Everyone wants happiness.
      Th 2) If you want happiness, it would be irrational
      to accept incomplete or imperfect happiness
      if you could get complete [continual, uninterrupted]
      happiness.
      2*) Complete happiness is possible. [To be proven
      below.]

      Section Two: Negative Happiness
      Th 3) All human unhappiness is caused by having
      a desire or emotional commitment [I will henceforth
      say "desire" for simplicity] to some outcome,
      and then that outcome does not result.

      4) Ergo, if you desire something which is out
      of your control, you will be subject to possible
      unhappiness. If you desire many things out
      of your control, the possibility of complete happiness
      approaches zero.
      5) By 4, 2*, and Th2, desiring things out of your
      control is irrational [if it is possible to control your
      desires].

      Th 6) The only things in our control are our
      beliefs and will, and anything entailed by our
      beliefs and will.
      Th 7) Desires are caused by beliefs (judgments)
      about good and evil. [You desire what you judge
      to be good, and desire to avoid what you judge to
      be evil.]
      8) Ergo, Desires are in our control.
      9) By 5 and 8, desiring things out of our control
      is irrational.

      Th 10) The only thing actually good is virtue, the
      only thing actually evil is vice.
      11) Ergo, since virtue and vice are types of acts
      of will, they are in our control.
      12) Ergo, things that are not in our control are
      never good or evil.
      13) [cf 9, above] Desiring things out of our control is
      irrational, since it involves false judgment.

      14) Ergo, if we value only virtue, we will both judge truly
      and be immune to all unhappiness.

      Section Three: Positive Happiness or Appropriate
      Positive Feelings
      15) Ergo, if we truly judge that virtue is good, we will
      desire it.
      Th 16) If you desire something, and achieve it, you
      will get a positive feeling.
      17) Ergo, if we correctly judge and correctly will, we
      will have appropriate positive feelings as a result.
      Th 18) Some positive feelings do not result from desires,
      and hence do not result from judgments about value.
      [E.g., the taste of a good meal, the sight of a beautiful
      sunset, etc.]
      19) Ergo, such positive feelings are not irrational or
      inappropriate. [Though if we desire to achieve them
      or desire for them to continue beyond the present,
      then that would involve the judgment that they are
      good, and hence that would be irrational.]
      Th 20) The universe is, or is governed by, Nature,
      Providence, God or the gods. [Different Stoics
      approach this idea differently.]
      Th 21) That which is Natural, or is governed by
      Providence, God, or the gods is exactly as it
      should be. [Zeus is just, or however you wish
      to express this.] {Nota bene that this produces
      a problem for those stoics who are strict
      determinists, since it would mean that even
      acts of vice were somehow correct, and are not
      actually in our control in any important sense.
      But I don't think strict determinism about internal
      states is a core belief of Stoicism.}
      Th 22) If you regard any aspect [or, better, all
      aspects] of the world as being exactly as it
      should be, you will receive appropriate positive feelings.
      23) Ergo, the Stoic will be positively happy, will
      have positive feelings, in at least three ways: appreciation
      of his own virtue, physical and sensory pleasures, and
      the appreciation of the world as it is. The last of those
      three is something that the Stoic could experience
      continually, every waking second, since at every waking
      second one can perceive something as being what it
      is, and hence what it should be.

      Section Four: Virtue
      Th 24) In order to perform an act of will, the act of will
      must have some content. The content is composed
      of the result at which one aims.
      Th 25) Some things are appropriate objects at which to
      aim, although they are not genuinely good.
      Th 26) Some such objects are things like life [our own,
      or others'], health, pleasure, knowledge, justice, truth-
      telling, etc.
      Th 27) Virtue consists of rational acts of will, vice of
      irrational acts of will.
      28) Ergo, any act that aims at an object of desire is
      not virtuous, since all desires are irrational.
      29) Ergo, virtue consists of the pursuit of appropriate
      objects of aim, not the pursuit of the objects of our
      desires. Such virtuous acts will give us good feelings
      [by 17], and since we have no desires regarding
      the actual outcome, they will never produce unhappiness
      for us.

      So now the threads of the sections can be tied
      together. Someone who judges truly will never be unhappy,
      will in fact experience continual uninterrupted appropriate
      positive feelings, and will always act virtuously. Anyone
      would agree that someone who led a life like that was
      happy. Judgment is in our control. Hence, not only is
      prefect continual happiness possible, it is actually in our
      control--we can actually guarantee it by simply judging
      correctly, and acting on those judgments.

      One final comment. Several people on the List
      have suggested, at one time or another, that they
      regarded Stoicism as a body of doctrines from which
      they would extract only those that they wished to use
      in combination with some other set of ideas. Of course this
      is perfectly appropriate--one should never accept everything
      a theory says if one has reason to believe some elements
      of that theory are false, nor should one reject all of a theory
      if one has reason to believe some parts of it are correct. But
      there is a danger to Smorgasbord Stoicism. I have tried to
      indicate above that the core ideas of Stoicism interconnect
      in important ways. Denying one principle may undermine
      support for others, and the very things in Stoicism one
      sought to preserve may fall apart. For example, one could
      deny theorem 20, or 21, and this would undermine a
      great deal of the Stoic view of positive happiness, but would
      not obvious damage the views on virtue or avoiding unhappiness
      too seriously. But if one denies that emotions or desires are
      the result of false judgments [Th 7], then 8, 9, 13, 14, 28, and 29
      all collapse. You lose the idea that it is irrational to desire
      things, which means you cannot control your happiness,
      and that means you lose the argument that all desiring
      acts are not virtuous. So denying that one theorem makes
      the whole house of cards, regarding both virtue and happiness,
      crumble into dust. So if you wish to pick and choose among
      the Theorems, be very careful to look at what supports what.

      Regards,
      Grant [who probably will be limited to short
      posts for a few weeks--much to everyone's relief]
    • Nigel Glassborow
      At risk of stirring up all sorts of objections, I return to the perennial thread of ‘Emotions’. In Andrew Piekarski’s book ‘Living Well, An Ethics
      Message 211 of 211 , Mar 14, 2016

         

        At risk of stirring up all sorts of objections, I return to the perennial thread of ‘Emotions’.

         

        In Andrew Piekarski’s book ‘Living Well, An Ethics Guide for Adolescents and Adults’, he points to Panaetius and Posidonius stating that ‘emotions’ are natural but ought to be ruled by reason, as against what is seen as the earlier Stoic view that ‘emotions’ are the result of faulty judgements about what is good and what is bad and are therefore unnatural.

         

        Both views come from what may nowadays be classed as classic Stoicism.

         

        By the time we come to Panaetius and Posidonius we are of course looking at close on (only) 200 years between the original thoughts of Zeno and the resultant developments of the studies that their philosophy encouraged.  It may be said that the development of the understanding of ‘emotions’ (by the succession of Stoics) and the many and varied ingredients of ‘emotions’ gradually led to Panaetius and Posidonius’ change in view. 

         

        But it may equally be that the Stoic developments in logic, epistemology and rhetoric etcetera are also part of what led to what is probably only a restating of what was the same original issue, but offering a far greater depth of understanding.  We do not have available the writings from the earliest Stoics, but it is probable that Panaetius and Posidonius did – so it may be as well if we at least listen to some of what they had to say .

         

        Being native Greek speakers of the time, they will have had a better understanding of the use of language by the earlier Stoics.  They may have understood idioms and the like as used in the earlier writings that are lost on us today.

         

        We may not be looking at two different takes on the one subject, but simply a clarification of what was really meant.  There may be no fundamental difference between what Zeno said and what Panaetius and Posidonius had to say.

         

        The whole matter may rest on what Panaetius and Posidonius viewed, in light of their studies, to be the definition and classification of ‘pathos’ and the other ‘stirrings’ that were classed under different headings by the earlier Stoics in what were often relayed as simple maxims that were used to make a point.  Panaetius and Posidonius, as heads of the Stoic school, probably had access to more detailed deliberations of the earlier Stoics than we do.

         

        It is also probable that some of these came into sharper definition in light of legitimate challenges by other schools and the resultant development of Stoic study to counter such.

         

        It is probably no coincidence that Cicero in looking to the Stoic ideas on ‘pathos’ classified the issue that the Stoics were trying to deal with as ‘perturbations’ (his translation of the intent of the word ‘pathos’) as against the natural and appropriate levels of ‘emotions’ (‘stirrings’).

         

        Of course the Stoic training still works when looking at Panaetius and Posidonius’ statements.  ‘Pathos’ as ‘perturbations’ or ‘morbid emotions’ are still to be avoided, especially if one is to be able to think rationally.  But one will not think rationally about various issues if one is ruled by ‘pathos’.  So it is necessary to use the rational mind as and when it is not being usurped by ‘pathos’ to enter into the Stoic training and to reinforce one’s chosen ‘neural pathways’ rather than the old unhelpful habituated ones.

         

        It is not necessarily the ‘emotions’ that are the core of the Stoic training, but rather the important aspects are rational judgements about attachments to externals etcetera.  All of the debates on defining ‘emotions’ become irrelevant when it comes to Stoic training.  Basically, by ignoring the issue of ‘emotions’/’pathos’, and instead concentrating on the nature of ‘good judgements’ and the issue of ‘attachment’ etcetera, the ‘emotions’ will sort themselves.

         

        After all, Seneca states that it is necessary to have a sound mind in order to be a Stoic.  If one is in the grip of a ‘morbid emotion’ such a depression then the Stoic mind training can help to lead a person towards greater rationality.  And for the person of sound mind, the Stoic mind training will help to ensure that they retain a sound mind. 

         

        And a sound mind consists of one’s ‘feelings’ and one’s ‘rationality’ being at one with each other whereby the ‘rationality’ is never swamped by the ‘feelings’ and the ‘feelings’ are never totally missing or suppressed by over much ‘rationality’.

         

        On the other hand, all of the above could be a pipe dream on my part in as far as I would naturally be drawn to such ideas as they accord with my own ideas. 

         

        But there again, I would appear to be in good company in viewing ‘emotions’ as not being the issue; but rather the issue in hand is the rational management of our opinions, through the use of reason, so keeping our ‘feelings’ and ‘stirrings’ to appropriate and natural levels as befits any given situation, and so not allowing the ‘emotions’ to become obsessions through excessive attachment (as Andrew concludes in note 10 of his book).

         

        The Stoic mind training is not so much about improving one’s mind-set just for the sake of such improvement, but more about being able to get on with actually living life as a fully integrated individual.  The Stoic mind training is not the aim.  It is merely the means.

         

        [As an aside, while Epictetus is seen to have adopted some Aristotelian ideas and Panaetius and Posidonius is seen to have adopted some Platonic ideas, there is nothing to demonstrate that this is only a reflection of their own personal take on matters.  Zeno, and no doubt other Stoics, had also studied Plato and Aristotle and had borrowed from them in addition to the much vaunted borrowing from the Cynics.  It was not a question as to who had said what, but how it could possibly be incorporated, with any necessary adaptations, into the Stoic sphere of ideas.  So maybe it should be no surprise to see some ideas from Plato and Aristotle re-surfacing in writings by the various later Stoics.]

         

        [As a further aside, I find it interesting that the word ‘pathos’ rarely merits its own entry into the indexes of many well-known commentaries on Stoicism, resulting in the ongoing confusions that can be caused by instead using and indexing the word ‘emotions’ - this being a very inappropriate translation of ‘pathos’ or even ‘passion’.  As stated, in his attempts to avoid any confusion, not even Cicero wanted to talk of the Stoic take on ‘pathos’ as being simply ‘emotion’ (‘stirrings’).]

         

        Nigel

         

         

         

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