Stoicism and Spinoza

In the Ethics the modern philosopher Baruch Spinoza produces an indubitable foundation for his metaphysics in the style of Euclidean proofs.  One of the principal focuses of the Ethics is to show that God is Nature and Nature is God.  Deus, sive Natura: “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists” (Ethics, Part IV, Preface). Like Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza was a rationalist, which meant he believed that all knowledge could be deduced from clear and distinct a priori self-evident truths.

The ancient Stoics would agree with Spinoza that God is Nature and Nature is God.  The ancient Stoics used an a priori argument to prove the existence of God as a reasoning Universe.  The Founder of the Stoic School, Zeno of Citium used the ontological argument to prove the Universe was a reasoning being.  Zeno declared,

“That which exercises reason is more excellent than that which does not exercise reason; there is nothing more excellent than the universe, therefore the universe exercises reason” (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, ii. 8.; iii. 9).

Spinoza reasoned that everything is God because God is a substance with infinite mental and material attributes.  Everything, even humans, owes its existence to God because all mental and material attributes constitute God.  We are all tied together with the substance of Nature/God itself.

According to Spinoza, while we are absolutely determined both mentally and materially to be as we are, God, or Nature, is self-determined because God is a being from which all cause and effect relationships arise.

“From God’s supreme power, or infinite nature, an infinite number of things – that is, all things have necessarily flowed forth in an infinite number of ways, or always flow from the same necessity; in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows from eternity and for eternity, that its three interior angles are equal to two right angles” (Ethics, Part 1, XVII)

God is truly an infinite being that necessitates all truths both material and mental. All truths can be deduced from God the same way that in mathematics the sum of three interior angles of a triangle is deduced from the sum of two right angles.

It’s a shame we don’t have the complete works of the ancient Stoics but we know that they used a variety of methods to support their conclusion that the Universe is Divine and Providential.  In addition to using the ontological-style argument, Zeno used an empirical argument from design,

“If melodiously piping flutes sprang from the olive, would you doubt that a knowledge of flute-playing resided in the olive? And what if plane trees bore harps which gave forth rhythmical sounds? Clearly you would think in the same way that the art of music was possessed by plane trees. Why, then, seeing that the universe gives birth to beings that are animate and wise, should it not be considered animate and wise itself” (Cicero, De Natura Deorum, II. 8)?

Unlike Spinoza, the Stoics used both a priori and a posteriori arguments to support their philosophical positions.

There’s no evidence the Stoics used the cosmological argument for the existence of God.  It’s doubtful they would’ve used such an argument primarily because the Stoics did not believe that the Universe had a beginning since the eternal Divine Logos is an eternal fiery reasoning substance that flickers out (ending the universe) and then reignites again (recreating the universe) ad infinitum. Also, God and Nature are inseparable.  The Universe is the necessary being that necessitates all things throughout Itself.

Despite different ways of justifying their pantheistic belief systems, Spinoza and the Stoics are on the same page that God is Nature and Nature is God.  Marcus Aurelius put it poetically,

“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being” (Meditations,
IV, 40).

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Stoic virtue vs Objectivist virtue

Ayn Rand could be characterized as a virtue ethicist. Rand claimed her virtue theory was inspired by Aristotle.  Ayn Rand reinterpreted Aristotle’s eudaimonic virtue theory as rational egoism. Rand explained her virtue theory as selfish and she had in mind an enlightened selfishness. So let’s consider Rand’s selfish virtue theory.

Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy is called Objectivism. She said her philosophy Objectivism asserts the importance of human rationality and affirms objective reality. Rand highly valued the preservation of an individual’s existence both physically and rationally. She said she would’ve called her philosophy Existentialism because of her concern with existence but the name was already taken. In the area of ethics, Objectivist virtue includes rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride.  These virtues might fit well with enlightened egoism if one defines justice outside its definition within mainstream philosophy. One wonders if productiveness is a virtue since it requires a lot of externals outside of one’s control. Rand seems to have in mind an artist or businessperson making goals and completing them. It seems like she had a certain personality in mind that not everyone can fit. With productiveness being a virtue, one can easily understand why some individuals are attracted to her philosophy. Rand made it clear that her egoism is categorically opposed to altruism. Ayn Rand suggests that one should never live for another but only for oneself and another should only live for themselves and not for another.

Living for oneself sounds alluring. Wouldn’t one want to be their own person, taking control of one’s life, and not allowing other people to determine one’s fate? It’s all incomplete. Objectivism is incomplete because sometimes a person must sacrifice one’s time for another. Sometimes a person must sacrifice a great deal of their time and even life for others. Sure, it’s reasonable to want time to oneself and to have one’s own projects. But don’t we care about others? Don’t we wish to help advance other people’s lives or projects just as well as ours? Never living for another but oneself as a categorical principle is simply uncaring of other’s needs and experiences. Selfishness as a virtue, even if enlightened, doesn’t agree with people’s notions of what a highly virtuous act would look like. Many find it virtuous for a soldier to jump on an enemy grenade to save the lives of other soldiers from being killed by the shrapnel and explosion.  That kind of virtue is not consistent with enlightened egoism. How about someone who gives up all their belongings to 20 people who absolutely need the belongings? Many of us could not conceive of ourselves acting so charitably but it would be an act of virtue. It would not be a virtue concordant with Objectivism.

Ayn Rand was once asked if one should save a drowning person and she replied affirmatively.  Rand’s own ethics undermine her reply.  Living for only oneself means that one should never sacrifice oneself for another. Clearly, by Rand’s philosophy, one shouldn’t save a person drowning. It’s because following Rand’s ethical advice means if saving someone’s life is a threat to one’s own, then one shouldn’t bother.

The Stoic virtues wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage are concerned with acting in one’s own interest and the interests of others.  Sometimes doing good will require a person to give up a significant amount of time to her own interests.  Helping others doesn’t mean the helper becomes a doormat. It’s important to stand up for oneself and one’s interests and principles. Acting courageous doesn’t mean a person should act selfish without fear of consequence. Acting courageous is doing what’s good for everyone and oneself despite the fear one might feel while doing so.   It’s often a Stoic duty to help others when their needs outweigh one’s own needs.  Being Stoic doesn’t mean always having to give up one’s life for others needs but it does mean giving up some private time. Ancient Stoics believed in philanthropy, which means love of humanity.  Remember what the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said:

For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away (Meditations II, 1).

Why is virtue the only good?

It’s fundamental that virtue is the only good for a Stoic.  There’s not a perfect proof for why virtue is the sole good.  As my philosophy professor at Drury U used to say, “you just have to bite the bullet when deciding to commit to any particular ethical theory.” People at times despair that if an idea doesn’t have a proof for it, then it’s pointless to commit to such an idea. I think with that kind of attitude, you won’t get far in life. Sometimes you believe in a position based on the best evidence and best reasons you have. I have the best reasons I can think of for why Stoic virtue is the sole good . I’d like to share those reasons. I’d like to discuss the popular modern ethical schools hedonistic utilitarianism and deontology and explain how they fail as viable ethical schools. I’ll also discuss hedonism and, specifically, Epicureanism and why hedonism and Epicureanism fail as life philosophies. In doing so, I’d like to explain why virtue by itself is worthy of pursuit. Finally, I’d like to discuss the Stoic Hierocles and his theory regarding animal and human development and how that supports Stoic virtue as the only good.

In hedonistic utilitarianism, the good is maximum pleasure of the most people. Hedonistic utilitarianism often requires decisions that we wouldn’t be comfortable making.  Utilitarianism is supposed to necessitate calculating the best decision that serves the most good for the most people. One problem emerges that it’s not plausible to know what’s the best for the most amount of people.  For example, does utilitarianism permit slavery if a few slaves are unhappy versus the happy multitude who benefit from slavery?  That’s just one sort of problem with utilitarianism out of the multitude of increasing problems. 

What about Kantian deontology?  In Kantian deontology, the good is an action that comports with the categorical imperative, a dutiful action. Immanuel Kant asserted that his moral system outlined in Metaphysics of Morals  was in congruence with our commonsense.  But is it commonsense to always be honest and to always keep a promise no matter what and when? Is it commonsense that justice must be served even if it means the whole world’s destruction? Also, there are many times in our life where it seems sensible to sacrifice the one for the many; just think of war as an example.  Also how many of us would pull the lever to save 5 lives over 1 life from a murderous Trolley in ethical Trolley dilemmas?  Probably a significant amount.

Consider hedonism. In hedonism, pleasure is the sole good. Hedonism is appealing because prima facie, we do often seek pleasure and comfort and we avoid discomfort and pain. Pleasure as the sole good seems sensible enough. However, everyone knows that one should follow pleasure and avoid pain within limits. So what are these limits?  In terms of commonsense, we constrain our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain within an ethical apparatus not aimed at pure pleasure.  So then pleasure isn’t the sole source of good.  Pleasure is actually limited by a higher good than pleasure itself.  Epicurus sought to deal with the virtue and pleasure issue. In Epicureanism Ataraxia is the sole good (Ataraxia: tranquility due to total lack of pain).  The Epicurean’s ethical project was assigning virtue as one path to total lack of pain. This wasn’t successful because despite endorsing the practice of virtue, the virtue rang hollow. Epicurus believed that we should be virtuous because if we behave viciously, we’ll be troubled by the legal consequences or even if we don’t get caught we’ll fear that we will be caught later. Virtue as an instrument to tranquility doesn’t mesh with our conception of justice and courage. We should be just and fair to one another because it’s just and fair and not because we’ll be without pain. Being courageous in itself is a desirable ethical goal. Being courageous as a path to freeing oneself of pain is not courage at all. Also, no Epicurean could argue consistently that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the lives of others. How would that be a path to long-term pleasure or the complete lack of pain?

The Stoics didn’t see pain and pleasure as relevant to virtue and vice. Yes, sometimes doing what’s right will result in some pleasure and doing what’s wrong will result in pain. But pain and pleasure do not always correlate with virtue or vice. If you err and you get yourself into trouble, the Stoics would say that you should learn from your mistakes and do not regret your mistakes because regret is an unnecessary passion to have. The Stoics knew that people make mistakes throughout their life, whether attempting to live the good life or being ignorant about how to live the good life. Stoicism entails humility.  We all make mistakes, so let’s try to fix them and then move on.  No sense living with remorse.  Sometimes, we are ashamed but there is no sense in extending our grief over our prior faults.

What’s more is Stoicism allows for pleasure but regards it as neutral.  Stoicism allows for the pursuit of wealth, health, education, reputation, and pleasure and regards them as preferred although “indifferent” or ethically neutral. Stoics can pursue preferred externals so long as they don’t interfere with the pursuit of virtue.  Since Stoics can pursue externals without interfering with virtue, then Stoics might seem like regular people. Pursuing the same externals that everyone else prefers allows for Stoics to live in harmony with people around them. However, Stoics will stand out if there is an injustice and no one but them has the courage to stand against it.

Virtue is popular when people think about what virtue entails.  When people reflect on the virtue courage, they’d think that the soldier who jumps on the grenade to save the lives of other soldiers did good.  Most people would think that someone that risks their own life saving two kids from drowning is a brave person .  People have an ethical sense that corroborates virtue is the sole good.  That’s not to say that everyone has a perfect sense for what is virtuous but when people do take the time to reflect about what a good person is, they’ll think of someone behaving virtuously rather than a person who chooses what’s expedient as the right course of action.

So we know that people value courage and fairness. Couldn’t we be fooling ourselves and we only act courageous or treat others with fairness for pleasure? The Stoic Hierocles observed animals and humans and noted that all humans begin their infancy with self-love.  Eventually as people grow and develop their love expands outward from their self to their family, then later outward from their family to their community, and then finally outward from their community to all of humanity.   Hierocles also observed that animals were not merely motivated by pleasure and pain. Often animals would put themselves in harms way to protect their young. Human beings also endanger their lives for loved ones on a frequent basis. So humans aren’t purely motivated by pleasure, they’re motivated by protecting their own physical constitution in infancy and then later their own rational constitution. Humans and animals are motivated out of a concern for their own constitution and their own offspring’s constitution than they are with their own pleasure or pain. As humans learn to value their rational faculty, they can extrapolate their own love for themselves and friends outward towards all humanity. Love for one’s own rational constitution is to treat one’s reason as an end. Valuing one’s own reason means valuing wisdom, the ultimate virtue. That’s why virtue is the end.

So it’s worth biting the bullet for the axiom, “virtue is the only good.”  It’s because there’s just a smidgen to lose biting the bullet for virtue compared to the super-sacrifice of biting the bullet for utilitarianism, deontology, hedonism, and Epicureanism.

Stoicism, Autonomy, and a Right to an Abortion

The Stoics believed in virtue and, in particular, the chief one among them, justice.  The Stoics also believed in preferred indifferents, for example, health, wealth, reputation, pleasure, and education.  What did they believe about autonomy though?

The Stoics believed that autonomy was something within our possession.  In fact, if we worked hard at it, we would achieve freedom from everything.  The only path to freedom was to focus on what was truly in our power:  virtue.

In all honesty, virtue is only freedom if you are truly virtuous.  Since none of us are truly free, like the Sage, we need a form of autonomy that is lesser in nobility but still carries weight.  We need a life of self-determination.  We also need a life where we can pursue our preferred indifferents in order to help us work our way to virtue.  Our natural preferences for health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation are where we derive our rights.  We have a right of pursuit of preferred indifferents, so we ought to have a society that allows for our ability to obtain them.  Where does this lesser form of autonomy fit?  The lesser form is being free to participate in health, wealth, education, pleasure, and reputation within reason.  We’re free when we can do this.  And these preferred indifferents give us a chance to find the true autonomy:  virtue.

Where does a woman’s right to an abortion fit into this?  She has autonomy over her own health.  She can determine what is best for herself, even if that means terminating a pregnancy.  People will debate this point because they feel “life” might begin at conception.  I presume these people are wrong because zygotes hardly represent a person in the way we can conceive of them.  It becomes almost pointless to discuss pain and pleasure that the fetus would experience because the Stoics would just say, “they don’t have proper use of impressions.”  We can maybe agree as a society of Stoics that we can terminate pregnancies up to 9 months.  It’s kind of arbitrary to make this determination but we have some historical reasons for doing so.  Many of the ancients, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans believed abortion was permissible and that human life began at first breath.  The ancient Stoics in general believed that the fetus was plant-like and became an animal at birth as it took its first breath (pneuma) and so they generally regarded abortion as morally permissible (Sellares, 2003).  There were exceptions to this rule, Musonius Rufus did oppose abortion (Lecture XV) but for population reasons not necessarily having to do with respect to the fetus and its interests.  With this conception in mind, we have some historical precedent to base our determination on what distinguishes infanticide from a mere abortion.  There’s never going to be some perfect philosophical argument for why people have the right to an abortion.

Of course, as a society, if we really want to do away with abortion, one way is to make all forms of contraception free for everyone.  This also means educating people about sex and contraception as early as we can.

Not every follower of Stoicism will agree that abortion is a right but maybe we can all agree that access to contraception is a right.  One thing is for sure, contraception is certainly worth talking about as often as the taboo topic of abortion arises.

References

Sallares, J. Robert (2003), “abortion”, in Hornblower, Simon;
Spawforth, Anthony, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), Oxford:
OxfordUP, p. 1, ISBN978-0-19-860641-3


Stoicism, Moral Responsibility, and Freedom

Most people if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people if you ask them if they believe that everyone is basically morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes.

The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and that everything including our own behaviors were causally determined.  The question of course is how can humans be morally responsible and determined at the same time?

The Stoic Chrysippus distinguished between extrinsic causes that are all external to ourselves and intrinsic causes which are internal to our character.  Chrysippus used a clever analogy of a cylinder being pushed to roll.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents our intrinsic character and the force pushing the cylinder represents an external stimulus/impression.    In the analogy the cylinder will only roll if two conditions are met: 1. it is pushed and 2. it is round.   1&2 are required for the same effect:  rolling.   So our character assenting to an impression and the external impression itself is what determines us to have an impulse or not.  If we are stimulated but we do not respond, we do not act.  Only when both conditions are satisfied is an action or impulse caused.  Even if the act is to not do anything at all.  Essentially, the idea is that everything is fated but we help co-fate our future.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.

Something counter-intuitive that the Stoics would say is, yes, we have limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allows but on top of that, none of us are truly free except for the Sage.  Ancient Stoics believed that if we couldn’t truly be a master of all of our passions and desires, we were a slave to our passions/desires and ultimately are not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible), it also seems to paradoxically hold a hard determinist position that there is no true freedom for anyone except for the Sage.

So we end with that paradox.  We all possess a limited amount of freedom that is compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re capable of being free in a sense but not truly so.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us each bear responsibility even if truly the Sage only bears true responsibility.  We’re living in an illusion of freedom because we’re all still slaves to our desires/passions unless we become truly free from our desires/passions and become Sages.