Saturday, 15 October 2016

Hard Truths and Happiness

I was unable to attend the 'Stoicon' event in New York in October 2016 but here is a rough first draft of what would have been my talk. 

There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in which philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.

Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.

What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.

In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.

I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.

There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3). Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.

This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.

Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.

But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature. By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.

Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)

To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:

Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)

Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).

Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.

What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.

The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.

The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world. I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to life well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Stoicism and the Art of Archery

First posted here but now also on the Stoicism Today blog. 

The Stoic philosopher Antipater is reported to have drawn an analogy with archery when trying to explain the goal of Stoic ethics. The good Stoic, Antipater suggested, is like an archer: he does everything he can to hit the target, but his happiness does not depend on whether he hits the target or not (Stobaeus 2,76,11-15). What matters is shooting well, for whether the arrow hits the target or not depends on other factors outside of the archer’s control.

In the ancient literature this led some to characterize the Stoic’s art – the art of living – as a stochastic art, like navigation or medicine, meaning that the outcome depends in part on factors other than the practitioner’s skill (Alexander, Quaest. 61,1-28). It also led to concerns about whether Stoicism in fact had two slightly different goals: to live a good life and to do everything one can to live a good life (Cicero, Fin. 3.22). In his discussion of this point Cicero wrote:

“Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.” (ibid.)

For the Stoic, then, what matters is not always hitting the target but rather becoming an expert archer, with archery understood as a special kind of art in which expertise does not always guarantee success.

This Stoic idea shares something in common with the account of learning the Japanese art of archery in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (London, 1953). Herrigel’s book is a personal memoir recounting his own experience of trying to learn the art of archery from a Japanese master, something he tried to do in order to deepen his own understanding of Zen. Along the way Herrigel makes a number of remarks about Zen and archery that resonate with Antipater’s image of the Stoic archer and may offer a fresh perspective on it.

Herrigel begins by reflecting on the artificiality of learning a medieval military art taken out of its original context and turned into a hobby for people who have no need to learn how to shoot arrows. Archery is no longer a matter of life and death. Yet, he comments, “archery is still a matter of life and death to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself” (p. 15). It has become a “spiritual exercise” in which “the marksman aims at himself” (p. 14). The modern Zen art of archery “can in no circumstance mean accomplishing anything outwardly with bow and arrow, but only inwardly, with oneself” (p. 18). The goal, then, is ultimately one of self-transformation.

One of the greatest challenges Herrigel faced was to relax. His master made the art look effortless, and for him it was. The more Herrigel tried to achieve the desired result (hitting the target) the more he failed. It was a classic case of making a strenuous effort to keep relaxed. The key, his master told him, was to stop caring about the arrow: “what happened to the arrow was even more a matter of indifference” (p. 40). The less one cares about hitting the target, the more smooth and relaxed one’s shot will be, which paradoxically will increase one’s likelihood of hitting the target. So not caring about reaching the goal will in fact improve one’s chances of reaching it.

Far more important, though, is a shift in the very goal itself. The real goal should not be hitting the target at all; the real goal is something internal, not external. This “the right art [of archery] ... is purposeless, aimless” (p. 46). One must become purposeless, on purpose. One must aimlessly aim the arrow. This will enable one to reach both goals, internal and external: to perfect the art of archery and to hit the target, but wanting to hit the target now looks like part of the problem rather than contributing to either goal.

How to do this? The answer is simple: stop thinking and simply let oneself be led by the moment (pp. 49-50), or led by Nature we might say. The master archer will have “no ulterior motive” and will be “released from all attachment” (p. 55). This involves an internal transformation that is central to making progress in the art. Thus, “more important than all outward works, however attractive, is the inward work which he has to accomplish if he is to fulfil his vocation as an artist” (p. 65). The archer performs “as a good dancer dances” (p. 77), which was another analogy also drawn by the Stoics (cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.24).

What matters, then, is the performance of the art itself rather than any further outcome, such as hitting the target. Herrigel’s master insists that “if you hit the target with nearly every shot you are nothing more than a trick archer who likes to show off ... Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit” (pp. 78-9). If one does hit the target this is not significant in itself: “hits are only outward confirmations of inner events” (p. 80). Thus all attention ought to be focused on the internal practice of the art rather than the external result. One ought neither to grieve over bad shots nor rejoice over good ones. “You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity” (p. 85).

Herrigel did make some progress in the art of archery. At the end of his training his master said to him “You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself” (p. 90).

Does this help us to understand Stoicism? I think it might in the following way. The ancient charge that Stoicism becomes confused by proposing two goals – effectively trying to hit the target but also trying not to care if one misses – has not completely gone away. ‘Surely it is disingenuous to try to do something but then say you don’t care when it doesn’t work out.’ ‘If the Stoic is indifferent to the outcome of events, then why even try to do anything?’ What Herrigel’s account does is dismiss the first goal altogether: just forget about hitting the target. The real goal is not external at all; it is internal. It involves an internal transformation that, as it happens, will also improve one’s external successes, although that is now almost beside the point. What matters is how one acts, not the outcome of those acts. According to Herrigel this involves a process of letting go, just acting rather than over thinking. At first glance this might sound very Zen but not very Stoic and perhaps the point at which any parallel breaks down. But we might translate it into a broadly Stoic framework by saying that the advice is simply to follow Nature, to act spontaneously, to embrace one’s natural instincts, rather than to over think about what the right thing to do is. The Stoics do encourage people to follow ‘reason’ but this is the reason or order within Nature, which is not necessarily the same thing as deliberative, instrumental rationality.

What the Zen art of archery and the Stoic art of living share is a seemingly paradoxical indifference to whether one is successful or not. What matters is mastering the art and practising it. In the case of Stoicism this means acting virtuously, with the right intentions, at all times and for its own sake. It is about cultivating the appropriate frame of mind that, as Herrigel’s master put it, enables one to enjoy an easy equanimity whether one hits one’s targets or not.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Stoic Worldview

First posted on the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).

In my workshop at Stoicon 2015 I talked about Stoic physics and about its relationship with what we would today call religion and science. My aim was simply to try to give participants a sense of the broader ‘Stoic worldview’ beyond their practical advice about how to live well.

I Bodies

The Stoics begin with the claim that only bodies exist (Cicero, Acad. 1.39). Everything that exists is a physical thing. Anything that has any kind of causal power must ultimately be a physical body. So, if the Stoics claim that virtue impels us to act, for instance, and so has some causal power, then virtue must be a body. And they think it is: virtue is an excellent mental state, i.e. the physical soul organized in an optimal way. Closely connected to this claim that only bodies exist, the Stoics reject the existence of universals (i.e. Plato’s Ideas or Forms). Only particulars exist. So when they talk of ‘virtue’ they are not talking about some general concept or abstract ideal, which doesn’t exist, but rather about specific virtuous actions or specific optimal brain states. (Talk of brain states might sound anachronistic but it is pretty much what they have in mind.)

II Breath

They go on to claim that all bodies are composed of two principles or aspects: matter and ‘breath’ (pneuma) (Diog. Laert. 7.134). Matter is passive; breath is active. Breath is what makes things alive, and because everything is composed of both matter and breath, everything is alive. Breath comes in a variety of degrees of ‘tension’ (tonos) and the greater the tension the more complex the object. Inanimate objects such as stones have the lowest level of tension; living things such as plants have a higher degree; animals with the powers of sensation and movement are higher again; adult humans with rationality have the highest degree of tension. The higher the tension of the breath, the more complex the living organism will be (see Philo, in Long-Sedley 1987, 47P-Q). An important point here is that there is no difference in kind between a stone and a human being, only a difference in tension of breath (we might say a difference in internal organization or structural complexity; A.A. Long once proposed ‘wave-length’ as a way of thinking about this).

III Nature and God

The physical world, Nature as a whole, is a continuum and is infinitely divisible; the divisions between physical objects are to an extent only relative. Ultimately there is just one physical thing, Nature, of which we are all parts. The breath that structures and animates all of Nature the Stoics call ‘God’. Some sources say God is the breath, the soul of the world, just as the breath in our bodies is our soul. Other sources identify God with Nature as a whole, with the breath being his soul and the matter his body (the difference is between God being an animating force within Nature or simply being Nature). So, Nature is a living organism comprised of a soul and a body, breath and matter, and because, by definition, there is nothing greater than this, it, if anything is, must be God. On either view, we are fragments of God. If God is the world soul, the breath animating all of Nature, then the breath that animates us, our soul, is simply one part of that.

IV How Religious?

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss. However the idea of a divine breath permeating Nature would later influence the Christian idea of a Holy Spirit (pneuma), and then would be interpreted by Church Fathers and others looking to harmonize Stoicism with Christianity right through to the seventeenth century. Perhaps that afterlife gives Stoic accounts of pneuma stronger religious overtones than they originally had. It is very hard to know. But again, Cleanthes’ Hymn appears quite sincere.

V How Scientific?

When the Stoics developed this idea of the soul as breath permeating the body they were doing so in dialogue the science of their day. In the image they give of the human soul comprised of a commanding centre with tentacles spreading pneuma (breath) throughout the body was inspired in part by the work of early anatomists (esp. Praxagoras; also Erasistratus) who were cutting open bodies and finding arteries and nerves. Chrysippus located the commanding centre of the soul in the chest (following Praxagoras), which of course contains the heart and arteries leading off it that spread through the entire body. (Praxagoras thought that arteries were pipes also connected to the lungs, carrying pneuma.) A later Stoic disagreed with Chrysippus and said the commanding centre of the soul was in the head, which of course contains the brain with nerves leading off it spreading through the entire body. This shift in position may well have been prompted by further observations (i.e. dissections): the distinction between arteries and nerves was still unclear in Chrysippus’ day and he commented that the scientific evidence was only tentative and one ought to wait for further discoveries. The important point to make here is that all this talk of a soul pervading and animating the body was actually part of a first step towards developing an account of the brain and nervous system. As crude as it may have been, this was a theory based on the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the day.

VI Some Concluding Comments

The Stoics give us arguments for why we ought to think that Nature is rational, alive, and intelligent. We have those properties, nothing without those properties can give birth to something with them; therefore they must be properties of Nature (Cicero, Nat. D 2.22). (There are philosophers of mind today who continue to argue against the claim that consciousness could be an emergent property.) The Stoics then call this living Nature ‘God’. If Nature (or the Cosmos) encompasses everything, and if only bodies exist, and if God is something than which there is nothing greater, then it looks as if God must be identified with Nature. God cannot be anything lesser than Nature and cannot be anything outside Nature. However it remains difficult to know how seriously we ought to take this: is it a devout pantheism (you really ought to worship Nature), simply a deflationary use of language (when you say ‘God’ what you really mean is Nature), or a cautious pragmatism (rather than deny the existence of God, let’s call Nature ‘God’)? We do know the Stoics repeatedly engaged with (what we would now call) the science of their day: Chrysippus drew on the anatomist Praxagoras, the Stoic Posidonius studied botany and geology, a later Stoic, Cleomedes, wrote on astronomy, and Seneca wrote not just his ethical works but also his Natural Questions (on meteorology). The Stoics wanted to understand Nature because Nature taken as a whole is the greatest thing there is and we are parts of it. They aspired to a ‘smooth flow of life’, which they defined as a life in harmony with Nature, something that will require at least some appreciation of how Nature works. Whether we choose also to call Nature ‘God’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Gaia’ is perhaps less important.

Monday, 9 November 2015

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections

A couple of quite different projects I have been working on recently have required me to have a view about how to define a Stoic. Here are some thoughts. Some of this material comes from my introduction to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. It is also posted on the Stoicism Today blog.

What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). Some scholars have tried to downplay this remark, suggesting that as a rule members of all the Hellenistic schools had a strong sense of loyalty to the school’s founder, in this case Zeno of Citium.

Zeno founded the “school” in Athens around 300 BCE, after having studied with the Cynic Crates, the Megarian Stilpo, and Polemo in Plato’s Academy (Diog. Laert. 7.2). It was not Zeno but, so the story goes, the school’s third head Chrysippus of Soli who really developed Stoicism into a systematic body of thought. Chrysippus is reported to have written some 705 books (7.180). As Diogenes Laertius put it, “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa” (7.183). However the idea of a philosophy as an abstract system of thought is very much a modern one, gaining currency in the eighteenth century, even if the Stoics did emphasize the unity of their own philosophy (see e.g. Diog. Laert. 7.41-3). How unified Chrysippus’s “philosophy” was remains an open question. One of our most important sources is the later Platonist Plutarch who quotes seemingly contradictory passages from works by Chrysippus in order to show the contradictions inherent in Stoicism. Yet it is almost impossible to judge Plutarch’s claims when the quotations are all out of their original context. Contradictory passages might come from works written decades apart, for instance. If Chrysippus was the great philosopher many in antiquity claimed him to be then surely he could have developed his views and changed his mind over time. There may never have been a single unified thing that we could call “Chrysippus’s philosophy” consistently maintained over 705 books, even if some subsequent Stoics may have tried to summarize that vast output.

In the ancient world and for a long time after, histories of philosophy were written as histories made up of philosophers, not philosophies, with those philosophers grouped into schools. The story of the Hellenistic Stoa is above all a story about a series of individual philosophers who self-identified as “Stoics”. Initially this reflected the fact that the founding members of the school met at a particular place, the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in Athens, but over time came to reflect a commitment to a shared set of philosophical views. (It is worth noting that Zeno’s earliest followers called themselves “Zenonians”, only adopting the name “Stoics” later on (see Diog. Laert. 7.5). The change perhaps reflected a desire not to be bound by the doctrines of the founder.) Even so, as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another. Well-known examples include Aristo of Chios on the distinction between different types of “indifferents” (Diog. Laert. 7.160) and Boethus of Sidon on the cosmos being a living being (7.143). These both look like central Stoic doctrines, yet neither of these Stoics felt compelled to leave the school and they were not forced out by those they disagreed with either. Aristo is forever labelled a “heterodox Stoic” but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.

We might wonder whether there was indeed a core set of philosophical views to which all Stoics subscribed, or simply a set of philosophical family resemblances that meant no one doctrine was sacrosanct, or perhaps just an ever-developing tradition of thought that happened to be able to trace a line of succession back to Zeno’s gatherings at the Painted Stoa. However one might try to answer that question, the point I would like to make here is that the Hellenistic Stoa was itself a developing tradition of thought, founded by Zeno, strongly identified with Chrysippus, but embracing a wide range of other philosophers too, from Aristo and Cleanthes to Panaetius and Posidonius. In traditional accounts Panaetius and Posidonius are presented as so-called “Middle Stoics”, heterodox and eclectic when compared with their predecessors. The extent to which Posidonius, for instance, was heterodox has been challenged in recent years, but even if he were, the preceding variety and dispute within the school would not make him out of place. (To repeat: this is what philosophers do, they argue among themselves!) Even in the Hellenistic period, then, Stoicism was a rich and diverse movement, a complex living tradition.

The living tradition of masters and pupils who could trace their lineage back to Zeno was over by the end of the Hellenistic period. The last recorded heads of the school were Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Cicero, Acad. 2.69). Cicero, who wrote our earliest and in some ways most important accounts of Stoicism, visited Athens at a time when the Athenian schools were more or less at an end, but he did manage to attend the lectures of Posidonius in Rhodes, making him one of the last people to have first hand knowledge of the Athenian Stoic tradition. The first few centuries of our era saw many philosophers who explicitly identified themselves as Stoics but they now depended on texts for their knowledge of Athenian Stoic philosophy.

One of the first and most famous of these “text-based Stoics” was Seneca. Seneca embraced the title “Stoic” but was happy to draw on ideas from Epicurus when he found them reasonable (again: he was a philosopher, not a religious convert). He also studied in the philosophical school of Sextius, via whom he adopted a number of Pythagorean ideas and practices (and many of the practical exercises that Seneca exhorts and people now think of as distinctively “Stoic” in fact had their origins in Pythagoreanism). So Seneca drew on ideas from a number of sources but chose to self-identify as a Stoic. He was also in close contact with a number of others who embraced Stoicism, including his nephew Lucan, Cornutus, and the poet Persius who is reported to have owned a collection of more or less all of Chrysippus’s works. This was a new, local Stoic community of friends.

Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome and his lectures were attended by a slave called Epictetus, who would go on to found his own school in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece after gaining his freedom. Students at Epictetus’s school studied works by Chrysippus, while continually being reminded to apply Stoicism to their daily lives. Reports of Epictetus’s lectures were recorded by one of his students, the historian Arrian, and these proved to be a decisive influence on the young Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own notes “to himself” towards the end of his life. Again we see a mix of what we might call “text-based Stoicism” and the creation of new Stoic communities.

The texts of Chrysippus were still readily available during this period, as we can see from the frequent quotations in authors such as Plutarch and Galen; by late antiquity these were seemingly all lost. Since then the reception of Stoic ideas has been closely bound up with the transmission of texts either by later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) or by other, often hostile, authors reporting Stoic views. In the Latin West the principal sources were always Seneca and Cicero.

The reception of Stoic ideas since antiquity has differed from Roman Stoicism in two ways: first, later readers have taken Roman authors as their main source of information rather than having access to works by the Hellenistic Stoics; and second, the vast majority of those readers were for a very long time sincerely or otherwise publically committed to Christian doctrine and so did not affirm every Stoic idea they encountered. They welcomed some doctrines but rejected or were silent about others. In this they were no different from the Roman Stoics themselves or even many of the Hellenistic Stoics, as I have tried to show.

What does all this mean for the question “What is a Stoic?”? Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

The phrase “modern Stoicism” is a perfectly good one for referring to the recent upsurge of interest in Stoicism as a source of practical guidance for everyday life. It indicates that people don’t claim to be resurrecting an ancient system of thought as a whole, but instead taking what they find useful and applying it in a modern context. However it would be a mistake to think that “modern Stoicism” might be defined as a set of doctrines, in some way abstracting the core ideas of ancient Stoicism and updating them for the modern world, against which individuals might in some way be judged as “Stoics” or not (and which itself might be judged as not properly “Stoic” enough). Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Stoic Mindfulness

A recurring theme in popular discussions of Stoicism is a perceived affinity between Stoicism and mindfulness techniques adapted from Buddhism. This modern version of mindfulness, often abstracted from its original context, promotes attention to one’s immediate experiences and often proceeds by recommending paying close attention to the experience of one’s own breathing. The Stoic idea that we ought to keep our thoughts not on the past or future but rather the present moment (e.g. Marcus Aurelius 12.3) looks like it might offer some form of parallel here. Did the Stoics in their comments about the importance of focusing on the present moment propose something close to modern versions of mindfulness?

I want to suggest that the Stoics did have their own version of mindfulness but that it was quite different from the modern version adapted from Buddhism. While that version encourages paying attention of our immediate sensory experience (e.g. our breathing) in order to draw our attention away from anxieties or destructive thoughts, the Stoic version proposes that we continually keep in mind a series of key philosophical principles so that they can guide our action in each moment. So, while modern Buddhist-inspired mindfulness attempts to shift our attention from thoughts to experience, Stoic mindfulness attempts to replace unthinking actions shaped by habit with conscious actions shaped by philosophical principles always kept ready to hand.

There are two interesting texts where this idea is developed, one in Epictetus and one in Marcus Aurelius. The key term here is prosochê, which is usually translated as ‘attention’. Epictetus’s Discourses 4.12 is devoted to this notion. There Epictetus exhorts his readers to pay attention not to the present moment but rather to a number of fundamental principles, none of which will come as any great surprise to readers familiar with his work: i) no one can control another person’s faculty of choice (proairesis), ii) this is where all good and evil reside, and so consequently iii) each person has complete control over good and evil in their lives. What is striking is Epictetus’s insistence that one’s attention to these principles must be maintained at all times without exception and that if one falls into inattentiveness poor behaviour and distress will follow almost immediately. Epictetean mindfulness demands constant vigilance lest one lose sight of central Stoic ideas even for a moment.

In the Meditations we can see Marcus Aurelius trying to put this idea from Epictetus into practice. The key passage is Meditations 4.3. Here Marcus recommends periods of retreat during which one might reflect on ‘brief and fundamental truths’ already within the mind in order to ‘wash away all distress’ and to attain ‘perfect ease’. He then gives us a couple of examples of what he has in mind, such as reminding himself that he is by nature a social animal in order to keep in check any anger he might feel towards people who behave poorly. He goes on to suggest that there are two fundamental ideas that must be kept ‘ready to hand’ (procheiros): i) that mental disturbances are the product not of things but of our judgements, and ii) nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to universal flux. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible in order to aid memorization: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which might be translated expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’. What is striking about these two key principles that must be kept ready to hand is that they are not ethical principles relating to conduct. Instead one comes from Stoic physics, the other from Stoic logic. (Marcus is interested in logic and physics – not in the details of logical and physical theory, but rather living in accord with a series of logical and physical claims central to Stoicism.) In Meditations 4.3 as a whole he shows us how reflecting on doctrines in Stoic epistemology and physics might contribute to the cultivation of a mind at complete ease and in good order. His version of Stoic mindfulness involves keeping these maxims abstracted from Stoic physics and epistemology continually in his conscious mind.

So, while the Roman Stoics do often encourage us to pay attention to the present moment rather than dwell on the past or be anxious about the future, their own brand of ‘mindfulness’ is quite different from the sort of thing people usually associate with the term today. Rather than try to empty the mind of everything and pay attention to one’s sensory experiences in the present moment, Stoic mindfulness involves continually repeating and reminding oneself of the central Stoic ideas according to which one is trying to live. Hence the importance of short summaries (Epictetus’s Handbook), memorable maxims (such as Marcus’s above), and daily reading practices.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Stoicism and the Human Condition

A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog

A common remark about the recent revival of interest in Stoicism is that this is merely a reaction to current economic difficulties in parts of the developed world. In tough times people turn to Stoicism, so the story goes, but when all is well people have little interest in or need for Stoicism. This echoes Hegel’s account of Roman Stoicism written two centuries ago, claiming that their focus on self-transformation merely reflected the fact that they were powerless to change the world.

I don’t think this is right. Of course it may be true in some cases, but it hardly tells the whole story. Rather than see Stoicism as a response to current external circumstances, a sort of short-term therapy for current adversity, I would rather see it as a response to something more basic and fundamental about the human condition. The central ideas presented by the Roman Stoics all reflect in different ways on the fact that we are by nature finite beings, mortal and limited in our power.

Our lives are by their nature brief moments in time. As finite beings it is necessarily so that we cannot completely control the external world. We have no say whether we get ill or not, or precisely when we shall die. We can of course do what we can to influence these things, do things to secure our health, search for a cure for cancer, and so on, but we can never change the basic facts that we are mortal, we shall die, and all our loved ones will die. What time we do have is limited and we have no say over how much we shall have or when it will end.

This is not meant to sound overly pessimistic; it is simply stating a series of facts. Stoicism, like many other practically oriented philosophies, is a reflective response to these facts. Its insights can inform the way we look at both good and bad periods in our lives. Seneca advises that we reflect on how much is ultimately out of our control when things are going very well as much as when they are going badly. The successes we have are as much out of our control as our failures, both the product of chance and forces outside of us as much as they are due to our efforts. A Stoic attitude, then, ultimately ought to be one of humility in the face of forces much larger than ourselves. We are but momentary arrangements of matter soon to be dissipated and forgotten. As Samuel Beckett put it:

They give birth astride of a grave,
The light gleams an instant,
Then it is night once more.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:

Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.

These sorts of reflections have nothing to do with frustration about not being able to change the world for the better. Great wealth or political power do not make them go away, as the case of Marcus Aurelius himself amply illustrates. Instead they speak of something more fundamental about what it means to be a finite being, limited in power and duration, surrounded by forces that might overwhelm us at any moment.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cicero on Living a Stoic Life

A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).

What is involved in living a Stoic life? In his book On Duties (1.107 ff.) the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero outlines a theory involving four distinct rules for living a life. This is known as the four personae theory and it is usually supposed that Cicero is following a now lost work by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. There are scholarly debates about how closely Cicero follows Panaetius and to what extent Panaetius might be deviating from the orthodox Stoic view, but putting those questions to one side Cicero’s account is on its own terms an interesting window on what might be involved in living a Stoic life. 

We have, Cicero says, two natures, one common and one individual. Our common nature as human beings offers one sort of guide to how to live. The fact that we are rational, social animals gives us one set of pointers to what a life in accordance with nature might look like. However we also each have our own individual natures, the specific set of character traits that we have not chosen and that make us who we are. Some people are loud and outgoing; others shy. Some are sporty and physical; others intellectual and bookish. Some are artistic by nature; others more inclined to technical problems. None of us chose the particular set of strengths and weaknesses that we have; they have been given to us by nature.

Central to Cicero’s account is the claim that a life in harmony with nature ought to be sensitive to these aspects of our individual nature. It is not simply a question of following universal guidelines about being rational or virtuous; it is also about being sensitive to who we are as individuals. There is of course the possibility that the two might come into conflict with one another, in which case Cicero says that universal nature comes first: ‘Each person should hold on to what is his as far as it is not vicious … we must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature; but while conserving that, let us follow our own nature’.

So, while our primary commitment ought to be to universal nature, we ought also to be true to ourselves, our unique individual natures. Living in harmony with nature is as much about living in harmony with our own nature as it is conforming to Nature with a capital ‘N’. Of course this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given that the former is merely a local expression of the latter.

What we need, then, is plenty of self-knowledge about who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and enough self-belief to remain true to what we find rather than trying to be like other people: ‘everyone ought to weigh the characteristics that are his own, and to regulate them, not wanting to see how someone else’s might become him; for what is most seemly for a man is the thing that is most his own. Everyone, therefore, should acquire knowledge of his own talents, and show himself a sharp judge of his own good qualities and faults’.

So far I’ve mentioned just two elements and at the outset I said there were four. The other two, which Cicero introduces later, are chance or circumstance and our own pursuits. Chance or circumstance refers to the aspects of situations that are out of our control. Someone might be a naturally gifted opera singer but find themselves at home with small children unable to realize that talent. Others might by nature be gifted sportsmen but due to injury be unable to compete any more. Chance can throw up situations in which we are unable to remain true to our individual natures, although if one buys the broader Stoic view of fate one would have to accept that these chance situations are also ultimately the product of Nature.

Our own pursuits includes things like the career we choose for ourselves. Cicero says that this is the one of the four elements where we actually have some choice. We decide whether to train as a doctor or a bricklayer. Cicero suggests that this ought to involve significant deliberation. However it is not clear just how much choice there really is, as the sort of deliberation Cicero has in mind ultimately boils down to self-examination so that we can find out who we really are. The person well suited to become a doctor may not be well suited to the life of a bricklayer, and vice versa. As Cicero puts it, ‘in such deliberation all counsel ought to be referred to the individual’s own nature’. But we also need to take into account the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves: ‘Nature carries the greatest weight in such reasoning, and after that fortune’.

So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.