back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #G59

Stoic ethics

27 February 2002
Scribe: Jane Sigen


These minutes were spoken on 1 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


        Professor Hutchinson began with a post-script to Monday’s lecture on Stoic Fatalism.  He wished to draw our attention to Xenophon’s Memorabilia  I.iv and IV.iii where Socrates argues the same point about how God manages this world for the best.  These two chapters seem to have been accepted as Gospel truth, but very slightly modified by the Stoics;  every important element is taken from Socrates’ conversations and interpreted into the Stoic system.  In particular God’s gift of divination, that signals us now to orient ourselves rightly towards the future, was totally taken over by the Stoics.


        Today’s lecture on Stoic ethics focused on:

1/    The difference between a thing being good, bad, or indifferent.  The Stoics seem to say that whether we live or die is not really a good or bad thing.

2/    The paradoxes in Letter IX on Friendship; the structure of friendship itself.


        Note that the text in Hellenistic Philosophy is the first modern translation of this piece.  John Stobaeus wrote for his son and essentially copied the work of Arius Didymus,  a first century BC Academician who was not a Stoic but wrote a resumé of stoic ethical systems.  In contrast, Seneca takes the direct approach and addresses specific, though fictional, problems.  The Stobaeus is like the rediscovered dinosaur skeleton – we have to flesh it out.  The Seneca is memorable, with pithy and relevant advice for life’s decisions.


        For the Stoics the philosophy of virtue is an elaborate exercise in classification.  For example in II95.5b “Of goods, some are virtues, some are not.  Prudence, then, and temperance <and justice> and courage <and great-heartedness and strength of body and soul> are virtues; joy and good spirits and confidence and wish and such things are not virtues.”    The good is divided into two things, both internal to a person : virtues and certain psychological states.


        The classification of the four cardinal virtues had a tremendous effect in the Middle Ages on Christian visual art and literature.  The virtues come from Plato but note that before him there were 5 virtues; he redefined piety as part of justice.  The Stoics faced many more virtues (for example Aristotle defined 11 or 12).  A 4th century research project followed the structure of Aristotlean analysis and classified a main level of four virtues, each having subordinates.  Thus the skeleton of the Stoic system has roots in the Academy.


        Virtue and good feelings are goods, all goods are internal.  Therefore, anything external is not a good.  External to what?  To the individual’s zone of control.  For many of us this apparent zone is a fair size.  But that is an illusion – we don’t fully control things in it.  Therefore, the Stoic focus is on the zone of total control into which external contingencies cannot enter, the zone of inner space.  You are not responsible for the images which strike you;  you are responsible for what you do with the impressions that enter your zone of autonomy.  How you conceive, prioritise, process the information, this you have responsibility for.


        The area of good coincides with the zone of control.  Therefore, the only true good is a moral good.  To describe things that are welcome or unwelcome, the Stoics coined the term ‘indifferent’ but among the indifferent we are not indecisive; in fact the more wise the person the more decisive.  Some things in this classification are to be preferred and some avoided.  For example, health is worth pursuing but not at risk of your mother being tortured.


        That is the structure of the theory, but it is still unsatisfying to many that we are held responsible only for internal decisions.  A student expressed concern in reconciling fatalism with this inner responsibility.  For the Stoics, this was easy, for us it is up and down.  When faced with a decision we use our judgement.  It is true that, if an outsider could know the complete history and memories of the person deciding, that outsider could predict the decision with a high degree of confidence.   However, we are not at liberty to reinvent our self at will, there is quite a lot of inertia in a personality. But this is not to say your decision, the expression of your self, is someone else’s responsibility.  Responsibility is to take an impression and give it your own judgement which is one that goes through the inner zone where nothing outside is capable of interfering.  In WW II Jean-Paul Sartre had to make decision between joining the resistance and caring for his mother.  As he said, at a certain point the reasons run out and you just have to jump.  We are not actually caused to decide, it is essentially an inner jump. The theory does not presuppose responsibility only when choice is absolutely freely possible.  The Stoic deterministic system is capable of leaving us responsible for choices; carte blanche of choice is not a precondition, however, of responsibility. 


        Nothing outside is strictly necessary.  This means the wise man not only looks inside but does not have to look outside.  Compare Plato and Aristotle on self-sufficiency and not relying on others.  Surely this is an obvious truth with issues of money and wealth, but with friends not so obvious. It is hard to imagine a wise or happy person completely independent of others. 


        Friendship is a zone of value to the wise and therefore a threat to the Stoic system for a friend is external therefore not good. Letter IX discusses the structural problem that the Stoic doctrine of self-sufficiency throws up for Seneca on the topic of friendship for the wise.  (Letter IX, page 48)


“Nevertheless, self-sufficient though he is, he still desires a friend, a neighbour, a companion. Notice how self-contented he is on occasion such a man is content with a mere partial self – if he loses a hand as a result of war or disease, or has one of his eyes, or even both, put our in an accident, he will be satisfied with what remains of himself and be no less pleased with his body now that it is maimed and incomplete that he was when it was whole.  But while he does not hanker after what her has lost, he does prefer not do lose them.  And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to doe without friends, not that he desires to do without them.  When I speak of his being ‘able ‘ to do this, what I am saying in fact amounts to this: he bears the loss of a friend with equanimity.” 


Just as he prefers to preserve his limbs but doesn’t regard a loss as diminishing himself, so when the circle of friends is diminished, the wise man is content with what remains.


        Because the wise man has the skills for loving he can make new friends.  This idea also causes some indignation; we cannot carve a living statue, and new statue, friends are not replaceable.   This requires delicate treatment.  In another letter, Seneca compares friends with shirts.  When a favourite shirt becomes un-wearable, it  is absurd to place a memoir in the paper and mourn.  Likewise when a friend dies it is sad but don’t grieve for ever.  This may seem a trivial comparison but, shirt or friend, the issue is the same: while both are strictly speaking irreplacable, it is unacceptable to go on for ever without making good the lack. 


        Friends support you, give you someone to support, enlarge your zone of concern.  This is still not a good in the strict moral sense so the issue of friendship for the wise has not been satisfied.  Since the idea is a threat to the Stoics, Seneca’s strategy is to attack Epicurus whose motivation for friendship is to serve himself, to provide allies.  Seneca joins the chorus of opposition: because the starting point is fundamentally flawed, the relationship is destined to remain essentially exploitive.  The more realistic Epicureans propose that though decision to establish a friendship may be initially entirely self-directed, the friendship can become highly altruistic in due course.


        The self-sufficiency issue is illustrated by the story of Stilbo (Letter IX, page 52).  Stilbo’s town of Megara is sacked by Demetrius the City Sacker.  Stilbo emerges “from the general conflagration, his children lost, his wife lost, alone and none the less a happy man.”  In other words, rip away all the things held most dear and ask “OK Mr. Philosopher, what have you lost?” – Stilbo and the Stoic Ideal answer “I have all my valuables with me.”  The ideal is to not regard as valuable anything that can be taken away.


        This focusing on extreme examples makes Stoicism unpalatable to many.  There are certain ideals applicable to the general problems of life but the system suffers from obsession with the ideal case, the wise man who makes no mistakes.  This is unfamiliar, we don’t know where to look for him.  So people quite definitely form two camps:  those who find the idealism of the Stoics inspiring and uplifting and those who find the idealism of the Stoics confusing and chilling.  Moral reality is neither conducted by ideal beings, nor is it endlessly divisible into the definitions provided by the system.  It looks like an academic not a practical philosophy.