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Sextus' Attack on the Stoa in O.P. 3.21 ff.

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  • Jan E Garrett
    Some months ago a participant in the Forum challenged us to consider Sextus Empiricus criticisms of Stoic Ethics in Outlines of Pyrrhonism book III chapters
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2002
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      Some months ago a participant in the Forum challenged us to consider
      Sextus Empiricus' criticisms of Stoic Ethics in Outlines of Pyrrhonism
      book III chapters 21 and following. I offered to follow up when I could
      find a copy of the relevant work and as time permitted. I finally have
      the texts before me (the Loeb classics edition with the translation by
      Bury, and the Greek original on the facing even-numbered pages) and a
      little time.

      Before we can begin to evaluate the Pyrrhonist skeptic's attack on the
      ancient Stoics, we will need to have that attack before us, and try to
      understand it. That task in itself will involve some effort, but it is
      doable. Let's start:

      In the short chapter 21, Sextus writes "concerning the ethical division
      of philosophy": "There remains the ethical division, which is supposed to
      deal with the distinguishing of things good, bad, and indifferent. In
      order, then, to treat of this branch also in a summary way, we shall
      inquire into the reality of things, good, bad, and indifferent,
      explaining first the conception of each."

      Continuing straightway into chapter 22, Sextus writes:

      The Stoics, then assert that the good (agathon) is "benefit or not other
      than benefit" (I am translating "opheleia" as "benefit" rather than as
      "utility" as Bury does, because benefit is a usual translation of this
      word and "utility" has unfortunate associations with utilitarianism and
      marginal utility theory in economics we are better off without--J.G.),
      meaning by "benefit," virtue and right action, and by "not other than
      benefit" the good human being (Bury has "man") and the friend. [no
      paragraph break in the Loeb ed.]

      For "virtue," as consisting in a certain state of the ruling principle
      (hegemonikon), and right action, being an activity in accord with virtue,
      are exactly "benefit"; while the good human being and the friend are "not
      other than benefit." For benefit is part of the good man, being his
      ruling principle. But the wholes, they say, are not the same as the parts
      (for the human being is not a hand), nor are they other than the parts
      (for without the parts they do not subsist). Wherefore they assert that
      the wholes are not other than the parts. Hence, since the good man stands
      in the relation of a whole to his ruling principle [which is a part of
      this whole--J.G.], which they have identified with benefit, they declare
      that he is not other than benefit.

      It seems that Sextus so far is not guilty of gross misrepresentation
      here. What he says is confirmed by the summary of Stoic thought found in
      Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Loeb Classical
      Library), vol. II, p. 201: "good in general is that from which some
      benefit comes."

      There is a paragraph from Sextus' work Against the Professors 11.22-6
      (cited in A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers
      vol. I (Cambridge University Press), which reiterates much of this
      passage in Outlines of Pyrrhonism. A. A. Long is primary author of the
      comments (p. 374) on the Against the Prof. passage and related passages;
      his comments shed light on the Stoic position Sextus is discussing in OP
      3.22:

      "The most distinctive characteristic of Stoic ethics is its restriction
      of the ordinary Greek terms for 'good' and 'bad' to what we would call
      the moral sense of these words . . . Any Greek would have accepted the
      first part of the Stoic definition of 'good'--'benefit'; what was
      controversial was the direct equation of benefit with virtue and virtuous
      action.

      "This is plainly not a statement of synonymy but a claim about what
      things in the world are truly beneficial. We have seen why ordinary
      'goods' such as health and wealth fail to be beneficial in the required
      sense. The Stoics had formal arguments for the identity of 'good' and
      'honorable' (morally good), which look contrived and question-begging.
      Their best line of defense was the thesis that only the morally good is
      beneficial to man in his specific nature as a rational being Seneca (H
      [Letters 124.13-14--J.G.]) provides the main lines of Stoic thought on
      the relationship between the good and the rational, and what he says here
      can be supplemented by many other texts . . . Human beings are taken to
      have 'the same nature' as god. God's activity is one of perfect
      rationality . . . Therefore what is good for a person is the perfection
      of his own reason . . . Reason, then, and the good coincide in god and
      can coincide in man if he perfects his reason. Since the good is
      beneficial, and god is agreed to be good, god's sum of activities is
      beneficial and helpful to man. . . . Such theological and physical
      underpinning to Stoic ethics provides one of the answers to the obvious
      question, why should perfect rationality coincide with moral goodness?
      That just is the nature of god, is the Stoic reply, and as parts of god
      or universal nature human beings are designed to find their fulfillment
      in this kind of good.

      Those of us who find ancient Stoic theology, rooted as it is in Stoic
      physics (in many respects superseded by centuries of "normal" and
      "revolutionary" science), to be untenable today will of course not be
      able to make use of this argument to defend our equation of good in the
      strict sense with virtue.

      This is probably enough for a start. Time permitting, I shall follow up
      soon with a consideration of the next paragraph from Outlines of
      Pyrrhonism 3.22.
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