Appropriations of Stoicism; or, the Place(s) of Ethics in Philosophy

Recent discussions in real life, and in several corners of the internet, have got me thinking about the seemingly quite widespread appeal of Stoic philosophy as a “plug and play” system: the way in which the ethical or practical bits of the ancient Stoics are so often taken as if they can stand alone, apart from wider systematic concerns. As one blogger recently relates, this sort of modular Stoicism is something you can learn in a weekend.

On the one hand, this is certainly true, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon. Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Platonist philosopher Simplicius was using Epictetus’ Handbook as an introductory text for his students. The subsequent centuries have seen elements of Stoic ethics taken up enthusiastically by Christians and other atheists who by would no means be willing to adopt traditional Stoic views in physics and theology.

But on the other hand, this plug and play approach is in sharp contrast to the approach of the original Stoics: Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus. Diogenes Laertius informs us that it was Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, who first introduced the tripartite division of philosophy into logic, physics, and ethics, which was enthusiastically adopted by his immediate successors, and was to a significant degree taken up by the other schools of Hellenistic philosophy as well. (So in the adoption of that three-part model, we see another “appropriation of Stoicism!”) Diogenes and other ancient authorities further inform us that at least for Zeno and Chrysippus, there was a necessary sequence between these subjects: logic comes first, physics builds upon logic, and finally, ethics follows and depends upon both logic and physics. A “plug and play” approach to ethics would run precisely counter to this way of treating the subject.

A short, rough-and-ready explanation of that three-part model is probably in order. By “logic,” we refer not only to the study of the formal structure of arguments, but more generally to the entire domain of how we acquire knowledge, of which formal reasoning and argumentation is but one part. “Logic” in this sense includes most of today’s field of epistemology along with quite a bit of the “philosophy of mind.”** “Physics,” in turn, refers to the entire study of nature (in Greek, physis), including what today we think of as the natural sciences along with psychology, fundamental ontology, and a good helping of metaphysics, insofar as we are concerned with the principles (arkhai) which ground and govern the cosmos. In physics, then, we use the epistemic tools of “logic” to discover how the world really, actually is. “Ethics,” in turn, builds upon that account of the world, to address how we might best or most effectively respond to the world, how we might act appropriately in the world as it really is.

So, we have three sequential questions that are answered by philosophy, through the domains of logic, physics, and ethics:

  1. How do we know (anything at all)?
  2. Using the tools of logic, what do we know about (the nature of) what there is?
  3. Given how the world is, how should we act?

Still, by the time of the Roman Imperial Stoics in the first centuries CE, this tripartite model of philosophy seems to be getting lost. Stoics of this period, like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, seem to go straight for the ethics, even to the point (in the former case) of seeming to disparage the study of logic. Of course, both the silence and the criticisms should be read subtly and in context: key physical doctrines are often lurking just below the surface, while the condemnations are of the sophist who fails to proceed onward from logic to the other disciplines of physics and ethics, thus mistaking the instrument for the goal, and thereby stopping far short of a philosophical life.

Nonetheless, Epictetus’ Discourses and Handbook, like Marcus’ Meditations, go a long way toward creating the appearance of a modular Stoic ethics, one that might easily be detached from Stoic physics—an impression which is only strengthened by Simplicius’ adoption of Epictetus’ Handbook as a text in a Platonist classroom. Yet far from being confused or somehow “degenerate,” I think that Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus actually gives us the final clue to understanding the place of ethics in the philosophical life.

In about a half-dozen places in that commentary, Simplicius offers extended discussions of various metaphysical issues: the existence and providence of the Gods; the nature of the soul; the correct understanding of evil as having only a derivative subsistence, parasitic on and in service of the good; etc. Indeed, Simplicius asserts in so many words that while Epictetus gives us the appropriate conclusions, about both physical and ethical issues, Epictetus omits the demonstrations for those conclusions, which Simplicius himself will then supply. The apparent modularity of Epictetus’ text is thus a direct consequence of its being incomplete, unable to fully stand on its own. The Handbook gives us a succinct account of what to do, but is incomplete insofar as it fails to fully explain why that’s what we should do. For Simplicius to complete it will require some fairly heavy lifting in Platonic physics and metaphysics, as well as the refutation of false metaphysics (such as Gnostic dualisms on which there is an origin, arkhē, of evil) which are incompatible with the ethical prescriptions being offered. Through these acts of completion, Simplicius reaffirms the dependence of ethics upon the physics.

But if Epictetus’ text is incomplete, why is Simplicius using it at all? Here, we might appeal to the Platonist doctrine of the ascending grades of virtue. We encounter the basic account across the mature Platonists, including in Marinus’ Life of Proclus, Damascius’ Commentaries on the Phaedo, and Olympiodorus’ Commentary on the Alcibiades.

On this account, the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice—all manifest at each of several successive levels. (There are at least five such levels, and as many as seven, the higher reaches sometimes being run together or omitted from the discussion altogether, when they are not immediately relevant to the context.) At the most basic level of natural or physical virtues, the cardinal virtues are understood in terms of our perceptual capacities, bodily strength, bodily beauty/symmetry, and general health and vitality, respectively. And the next level, the ethical, the virtues are, respectively, the habits of piety, fearlessness, freedom from mastery by pleasures, and truthfulness. At each of these two foundational levels, the virtues are discrete and do not necessarily entail or imply each other. Building upon these foundations, we can then ascend to the levels of constitutional, cathartic, and contemplative/theoretic virtue, in each of which there is a necessary mutual implication between the cardinal virtues. The key point is that the first two grades of virtue—including the ethical virtues properly so called—are preparatory, while it is only after we have attained those preliminary virtues that we can truly ascend to the grades of virtue that are properly philosophical.

Now, let’s couple this model with the fact that Simplicius is starting his students with the Handbook: it seems to stand at the beginning of the course of instruction. On the grades of virtue model, we all need some basic habituation before we can even be ready to ascend to the higher grades of virtue. At the level of ethical virtue in the strict sense, we should expect, from the perspective of the learner, to be dealing with apparently disconnected, modular guides to action. Like the physical virtues, the ethical virtues do not mutually entail one another. This is because the ethical virtues are habits acquired by repetition. To be sure, for many students, it can be a help and an encouragement to know (or simply to believe, even if we cannot explain it for ourselves) that the habits we’re being invited to form do in fact fit into a larger system and connect with how the world really is. But it is only from the perspective of the teacher that such an account is really necessary.

In conclusion, then, we find ourselves with not one, but two places for ethics in philosophical education. We have ethics situated in the final, culminating position of the triad of logic, physics, and ethics, where ethics must follow from a richly worked-out account of the world and its principles, on the basis of the tools of reason. But we also have a kind of ethics as the formation of basic habits and dispositions, situated as a prerequisite for approaching that entire philosophical triad. It would seem, then, that an effective and responsible approach would be to follow in the footsteps of Simplicius: begin by giving the student an ethics which is sufficiently “modular” in its appearance, such that the student can begin to adopt it even prior to mastery of logic and physics. But when presenting that ethics, do so in a way that points outward, beyond ethics alone, to the necessity of ultimately grounding ethics in physics and metaphysics—a foundation which, for the teacher, is already firmly established.


** On including “philosophy of mind” within the same domain as epistemology/logic: I think that this is an accurate description of what was going on in Hellenistic and later Greek philosophy, though I’m prepared to allow the study of mind and cognition to slide into the domain of physics as well. My interpretation is influenced by the study of classical Indian (Sanskrit-language) philosophy, where there is clearly and beyond any doubt a single domain of enquiry: pramāṇavāda, the study of the instruments by which acts/events of knowing are produced as occurring in the mental life of some specific cognizing agent. But more on that in a subsequent post. Stay tuned…

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