Both Cynics and Cyrenaics expressed an important need in society – for a philosophical answer to the questions of ethics that religion was increasingly abandoning. Yet both schools suffered the same flaw: they were too extreme to gain many followers. The Cyrenaic pursuit of momentary pleasure was too exhausting and destructive to appeal; the Cynical independence appealed to many, but the hardship and unpopularity that it entailed kept followers away. What was needed was clearly something that could bring this philosophy to the people. To fill the void, two schools emerged. The Stoics descended directly from the Cynics – their founder, Zeno of Citium, was a pupil of Crates, husband of Hipparchia, and so they could claim unblemished apostolic descent from Socrates (whose wisdom and martyrdom had by now made him a powerful figure in the popular imagination). Their rivals, the Epicureans, did not directly descend from the Cyrenaics, although their influence is clear – nonetheless, Epicurus could claim apostolic descent from Plato’s Academy, although the students of Democritus were clearly more important to him.
Both schools shared a key development – they saw eudaimonia not as attaining something difficult, but avoiding something. The implication is that eudaimonia is natural for all men, and can be restored to them all. Furthermore, both schools use the same term for this new goal – ataraxia, typically translated ‘tranquillity’, or more directly ‘freedom from disturbance’. This was not novel to these new schools – the term aochlesia, with almost exactly the same meaning, had already been used by the Megarians, and promoted to primacy in ethics by Speusippus (the successor to Plato), who used it to mean the absence of the twin evils of pleasure and pain. The Stoics and Epicureans had their own interpretations.
The Stoics evolved from the Cynics; their founder, Zeno, is sometimes counted a Cynic, and much of the school’s doctrine was created by his student, Chrysippus. Arguably the greatest Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, did not live until many centuries later; the most famous is the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Their prime principle is to live in accordance with nature.
The Stoics believed that virtue was sufficient for eudaimonia, that virtue was the sole good, and that virtue meant living according to reason. Everything else was evil (if it was contrary to virtue) or indifferent. Because only virtue was good, and virtue meant reason, and reason is unitary, everything virtuous was equally virtuous – either it was or it wasn’t. Likewise, all evil things were equally evil. This could be extended to people, as there was only one virtue, which could not be possessed in degrees: the world was divided into the absolutely good (Socrates, Diogenes, perhaps a handful of other ‘sages’ in history) and the absolutely evil (everybody else). Here they use the analogy of drowning: a man drowning five feet from the surface is drowning in exactly the same way as a man on the sea floor. You are either drowning or you aren’t.
The key development of Stoicism is that reason was no longer seen as merely dictated BY nature – it now dictated TO nature. Stoics believed that the universe was governed absolutely by Reason (‘the Logos’). Accordingly, living according to reason is living according to nature. Yet, if nature is, as the stoics believed, deterministic and unchangeable, and includes everything that happens, how is it possible to NOT live according to nature? The key is that there is a shift in emphasis from action to attitude. What matters is not whether the actions are rational, but whether the attitude is rational. The rational attitude is to select those actions that are rational – and that means choosing whatever happens. This is not simply an acceptance of events, but a positive willing prior to events.
In practice, this proceeds by the principle of ‘appropriateness’. Some actions are appropriate to our natures; as we grow older and wiser, we gain a better grasp of what these things are. Eventually, we realise that it is virtue, and virtue only, that is our sole good – this must be the case, because the ultimate good must always be good, and only virtue is always good for us. But although only virtue is necessarily appropriate to us, some things – health, wealth, friendship – are in general likely to be appropriate to us. Thus, we should in general select these things, not because they are good, but because they are likely to be what Reason (ie fate) chooses for us. If fate chooses that we are instead sickly and poor, we should not be disappointed – because all we wanted was whatever was chosen for us. If we are upset by, for instance, the death of our child, it is because we inappropriately desired it to live NOT because, as is proper, we assumed that that would be what Reason intended for it, but instead because we actually were so foolish as to think that its survival was itself a good thing. And if we happen to know that our child is about to die, we should positively desire that it happen – even if we ourselves are sure to die, we should want to die. We are only one part of the universe, and should accept our place in it – just as, Chrysippus says, his foot, if it had a will, would desire to get muddy, because that is its function in his body. The whole universe is one body, with a single will. The Stoics here express an idea propounded by Socrates himself: “no harm may come to a good man”.
So, our practice should be to select in our minds what we prefer. If it is clear that only one course is virtuous, we must choose it, and that choice outweighs all others. If it is clear what is going to happen, we must select that, as that is what is rational to happen. If, however, as is usually the case, virtue does not seem to be at issue, and we have no knowledge of the future, we must simply guess at what is likely to prove to be rational – and this guesswork proceeds by the principle of what is most appropriate to us, which can be associated with various instinctive and learned desires (food, water, warmth, company, friendship, health, wealth, freedom, and so forth). If the guess is wrong, we should not be disheartened, if we made it in good faith to the best of our knowledge. The concept of ‘appropriateness’ may be linked to Aristotle’s discussions of telos – the Stoic ‘appropriate to our nature’ means ‘appropriate to our form’, or ‘appropriate to our characteristic functions’.
The chief obstacles to virtue are four terrible evils: pleasure, distress, appetite, and fear, which the Stoics considered the four passions. Two, appetite and fear, arose in considering things to come; the other two, pleasure and distress, were a reaction to things that had occurred. It is commonly thought that the Stoics believed in suppressing all emotions, but this is untrue – only the passions had to be suppressed. A variety of other positive emotions were acceptable, including positive versions of three of the passions: joy, watchfulness and wishing. These are distinguished from passions in that they are entirely the servant of reason; the passions, on the other hand, may have a rational cause, but swiftly run out of control, like a man running downhill who cannot stop himself. The virtuous man, therefore, is in a state of ataraxia, or tranquillity, unperturbed by such disturbing emotions.
Unlike the Cynics, the Stoics also made positive statements about the nature of the world – indeed, these may be central to their ethics. Fundamentally, they divided the world into two parts – matter (the insensate, immotile universe) and Reason, which motivated and directed it (although at a higher level they recognised that these two were in fact the same). Reason was omnipotent, invariate and immanent – essentially a monotheist God. Earlier we said that Plato took Heraclitus as his model for the apparent world, and Parmenides as his model for the world of Forms; the Stoics repeated this synthesis, only now they placed the Parmenidean perfection not above the world but active within it. They were even more explicitly Heraclitean than Plato, however, in their descriptions of the natural world – not only was the world composed of Fire, but the whole world would be engulfed in flame in a final destructive event. This event, however, was only one of an endless sequence – in other words, they said that not only did all objects exist in flux, but the universe as a whole did likewise.
The Stoics were strict materialists – they believed that only material bodies existed, which is to say were capable of action, and of being acted upon. All other things that might be talked about merely ‘subsisted’. They also believed in a ‘plenary’ universe – that is, they denied the existence of vacuum. Consequently, they felt a need to define some reason why objects were distinct from one another –why did the endless friction of movement not tear the universe into an indistinguishable fluid? Their answer was ‘pneuma’, ‘breath’, a fine substance composed of fire and air, that pervaded coarser matter, and provided, by a continuous balance between expansion and contraction, certain tensile structures. There were, however, multiple possible tensile structures, which the Stoics identified with different species of object – replicating the hierarchy of beings composed by Aristotle, and explaining why different things had different fundamental natures.
The chief rivals to the Stoics were the Epicureans, followers of Epicurus. They too were strict materialists – stricter than the Stoics, as they discounted the significance of many subsisting things. To the Epicureans, the soul was material (composed of soul atoms), and could respond to nothing that was not physical – there was nothing mental, not even imagination. Perception was the result of thin films of atoms, laminas, being cast off material objects and hitting the eyes, where the soul detected them; imagination, the result of even finer radiation that was able to penetrate through to the chest, where the mind (a part of the soul) was located, and be perceived there. All imaginative thoughts are only the soul's representation of the laminas all around us in the air – what appears to be creative, voluntary thought is merely the soul attending to the floating laminas in a different order. Errors in perception occur when laminas become distorted or bedraggled in the air. The mind was concerned solely, not with perception, but with reason – which in practice means the endeavour to maximise pleasure and minimise pain – that was the ultimate striving of all things, and accordingly the goal of life (whether or not we admit it).
Unlike the Cyrenaics, Epicurus divided pleasures into two species: kinetic and katastematic. Kinetic pleasures are those that are pleasurable in the instant: pleasures, he believed, that were only the removal of a pain. In this way, pleasure from food or drink was only the relieving of pains of hunger or thirst. Epicurus did not say that these pleasures were bad, but he believed it was unwise to pursue them - as greater pleasure could only come from greater pain. Therefore, for instance, sexual constancy was to be recommended, as excessive indulgence became habit-forming - and although more sex meant more pleasure, this was only so because the pain of lust was increased proportionally. Moreover, kinetic pleasures often had side-effects - eating, for instance, could lead to indigestion. As pain followed pleasure followed pain, the individual could be lead down a path of increasing volatility and disturbance. Katastematic pleasures, on the other hand, were continually enjoyable, and did not require a contrary pain. Indeed, the highest pleasure was held to be simply an absence of pain, which occurred in two forms: aponia, the absence of physical pain, and ataraxia, the absence of mental pain, or tranquillity. Epicurus' advice therefore has two branches: first, a life of constancy and health to minimise physical pain; secondly, the avoidance of fear and anxiety.
Ataraxia could, in general, be broken by two things: disturbance from the past, and from the future. Disturbance from the past came from the memory of painful times - this was to be avoided. Contrariwise, current pain could be minimised by the recollection of past pleasures and the contemplation of future ones. A greater threat, however, was disturbance from the future: fear and anxiety. Much of Epicureanism is therefore a fight against fear.
Firstly, false cures to fear were to be abandoned. In this, Epicurus placed a great many desires, such as those for fame and wealth, which he believed masked deeper desires for security. He repudiated all such desires - no amount of wealth could buy safety, for instance, and greater wealth resulted in greater temptation to thieves, and hence more fear. Instead, he advocated humility, a partial withdrawal from society, and the cultivation of close friends as the best way to avoid hardship. Moreover, he stressed how few the true needs of a man were, and how low he would have to fall to fail to meet them.
More famously, however, he discarded the old fears of death and the gods. Of death, he said that no harm came to the dead, as nobody existed beyond death, and so could not be subject to pain (the only possible harm). Hence no harm could come from death, either before death (when one was not yet dead), or after death (when one was not dead, because one was not anything). "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not." Of the gods, he affirmed their existence as material, physical beings - but said that they were located a very long way away and clearly had no interest in human affairs.
Accordingly, he (or his followers) formulated what is known as the Four-Part Cure, or Tetrapharmikon:
"Don't fear the gods;
Don't worry about death;
What is good is simple to get;
What is terrible is easy to endure."
Stoicism and Epicureanism were rivals, but were quite different sorts of movement. Stoicism (which later became the doctrine of the Roman aristocracy and politicians) was always a fertile movement, more a tendency than a formal school. As Seneca said of his philosophical forebears: "I go where they lead, not where they send me". Epicureanism, on the other hand (partly because of its professed simplicity), was known for its conservativism and its reverence for the words of its founder. Accordingly, Epicurus is the only Epicurean philosopher of note - although his physical theories are poetically expressed by the Roman poet Lucretius. Epicurus became the doctrine of the Roman military.
The Stoics wrote at unprecedented length. Chyrsippus alone wrote over 165 volumes of philosophy - none survive, although we do posses fragments. Nor have we any works by Zeno, their founder, nor by Cleanthes, the third head of the "Old Stoa". For these, and for most of the theoretical basis of the school, we must rely on hostile witnesses, and on Cicero, a sympathiser though not a follower himself. The Roman philosophers Epictetus and Seneca have left surviving works, which tend to the exhortatory, rather than the theoretical.
Epicurus has left a little more, thanks to scrolls unearthed from Herculanaeum, including fragments of On Nature, his main work. However, the most accessible (if unsystematic) source for his ethical views are the numerous sayings preserved by his followers: the Principal Doctrines and the Vatican Sayings. Lucretius provides a literary account of his physics and psychology.
Betty: that, of course, is begging the question. If you asked Descartes, or Plato, what was verified by "human experience of the world", they'd give you the conclusions of reason and logic, and say that you couldn't trust the physical senses. And they'd have a point - we DO experience reasoning. For them, the certainty that attaches to some forms of reasoning is paradigmatic of 'verified' knowledge, as opposed to the mere opinions formed by touch and sight. Of course, if you asked Hume, he'd give you physical sensation instead, and tell you not to trust all that reasoning business.
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!