Notes on Stoic Ethics in Cicero’s De Finibus

These are my rough notes summarizing the discussion of Stoic Ethics in Cicero’s De Finibus.  Cicero puts these words in the mouth of his deceased friend, the Stoic republican hero Cato of Utica.  It’s very interesting to compare this to the similar discussion in Diogenes Laertius, our other major source for Stoic Ethics.  The main text paraphrases De Finibus and my interpolated comments are in [square brackets].

Cato begins by denying that the apparent differences between Stoic Ethics and Platonism are merely terminological. He vigorously rejects the notion that anything except virtue is good, and argues bluntly that recognising other things as good would destroy morality. Cicero responds by saying that this position, that everything except virtue is indifferent, was also held by Pyrrho of Elis and Aristo of Chios. Cato accepts that they were good, brave, just, and temperate men in public life because nature guided them to virtue better than their philosophy could. Moreover, their position differs from the Stoics who claim that although virtue is the only true good, “It is of the essence of virtue that one makes choices among the things that are in accordance with nature.” If, like Aristo or Pyrrho, we make all externals equally indifferent, we make it impossible to select virtuously between them, and therefore virtue becomes inconceivable.

[For example, being just means treating other people fairly and with kindness, but we have to place some kind of “selective value” (axia) on different benefits we may seek to bestow on other people (such as wealth or property) in order to exercise the virtue of justice at all.  Many modern readers of Stoicism misunderstand this point, view all externals as totally indifferent, and thereby confuse Stoic Ethics with the position Cato is here explicitly rejecting.  Incidentally, praising a philosopher while rejecting his philosophy was a common rhetorical device in ancient literature and a good way of steering clear of the ad hominem fallacy – Seneca likewise heaps praise on Epicurus while condemning his philosophy as unethical.]

Cato then begins his systematic account by saying that he’s going to expound “the whole system of Zeno and the Stoics”, although in reality he  focuses almost entirely on their Ethics. This account starts with the Stoic claim that all animals are, by nature, self-interested. From birth, animals seek to preserve their own lives and protect their bodies, first and foremost, and other things such as food and shelter insofar as they serve this fundamental goal of survival. Against the hedonists and Epicureans, Cato argues that newborn animals instinctively seek out what is good for them and avoid what is harmful before they ever feel pleasure or pain. [He perhaps means that newborn animals instinctively seek to feed before even having tasted food, etc.] He takes this as evidence that they instinctively value their own survival and fear destruction, but that this also requires a kind of primitive self-awareness of their survival needs and their bodies. Cato describes this survival instinct as a form of “self-love” and the Stoics argue that this is the primary motivation of other animals but also of human infants.  [The belief that we can learn something about what humans naturally value by observing the instinctive behaviour of infants is known is the “cradle argument”.]

Cato says that most Stoics do not believe that pleasure should be ranked among the “natural principles”, by which I take him to mean the preferred indifferents. [Does this imply that some Stoics did?] He believes that many problematic consequences would follow for animals and humans if obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain were our primary motivation. He argues instead that animals want first and foremost to preserve the constitution or health of their bodies, and to do so requires a kind of instinctive self-awareness of what’s natural and healthy for them. [For example, a dog instinctively knows that losing an eye or a leg is to be feared and avoided, before it’s even experienced the pain of doing so; animals fear the touch of a flame without having had the experience of being burned – we have an innate sense of what it means to be injured that does not require the sensation of pain.  Why is this so important to the Stoics?  They want to argue that we are born with an innate preconception of our goal in life, what it means for us to flourish, and that we can be guided by reflecting on this rather than by feelings of pain and pleasure.  This preconception of our fundamental goal is presumably clouded by false impressions somehow but can be uncovered through Socratic questioning and philosophical reflection.]

Cato refers to “cognitions”, “graspings” or “perceivings” – the firmly-grasped knowledge of something – as worth attaining in their own right because they contain something that enfolds and embraces the truth. [He seems to imply that the knowledge of truth, or wisdom, is an end in itself, and therefore individual pieces of firmly-grasped knowledge are constituents of that supreme goal, and ends-in-themselves.  This is the Stoic phantasia kataleptike or “Objective Representation” and Hadot argues, I think rightly, that the Stoics were particularly concerned to emphasis that to grasp reality objectively in this way our perception of it must be purified of judgements that externals are intrinsically good or bad.] Cato again points to young children and says they instinctively delight in having worked out the truth in some matter, regardless of other motives. Grasping truth is naturally experienced as an end-in-itself. [Cato could have said that reason is an inherently goal-directed process and that to think at all is to implicitly value the goal of grasping the truth – nobody thinks in order to arrive at the wrong answer.] The systematic study of truth, the sciences, are valued for their own sake. Cato reinforces how central this grasping of truth is to Stoic Ethics by saying emphatically that: “As for assenting to what is false, the Stoics hold that of all things that are against nature, this is the most repugnant to us.”  [Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and wisdom is the supreme virtue for Stoics; virtue is wisdom applied to our actions, and to our desires and emotions.  The goal of life for Stoics can be understood as achieving wisdom and living rationally, grasping the truth objectively, and so this is an end in itself, and other things are valued instrumentally insofar as they help us to arrive at wisdom and live in accord with reason.]

After this slight digression into discussion of the value of knowledge, Cato returns to the primary value of self-preservation for animals and human infants. (In this context, when referring to the “primary” things valued, I believe Cicero can perhaps be read as meaning things naturally desired by us in our infancy and childhood.)  He says that the Stoics call “valuable” (as opposed to “good”) anything which is either in accord with nature itself, or brings something about that is. These are the preferred indifferents, in other words, or things having “selective value” (axia). Cato says that the starting point of Stoic Ethics is the observation that things in accord with nature, i.e., things that constitute our physical survival and health, are ends-in-themselves, and contrary things are to be avoided. Following from this definition of what is natural, the initial “appropriate action” (kathekon) or duty is to preserve one’s life and natural constitution, i.e., to protect one’s health and bodily functioning. The next appropriate action is to do what accords with this and to reject its opposite, by which I take it Cato means to pursue what’s of instrumental value in relation to the primary goal of survival.

When such selection between things in life becomes continuous, stable, and in agreement with nature, Cato says the true good first appears. [I take it he means that as we mature and learn to use reason to properly co-ordinate our behaviour in accord with the value of things for self-preservation and health, we begin to glimpse wisdom, which is what the Stoics consider the only true good. What he says here sounds like the old Stoic concept of the goal of life as “living in agreement” or living consistently.]

Cicero says that human infants gradually develop an understanding or “conception” (ennoia) of order among the things that should be done in relation to the things is in accord with nature, such as food, shelter, etc. Over time, we learn that concordance or ordering is more valuable than the “first objects” themselves, the things we instinctively seek. Indeed, this is the location of the supreme good, or virtue. There appears to be a shift from valuing reason as a means to the end of achieving naturally desired things, things that serve our initial goal of self-preservation, to valuing reason as an end in itself. Virtue or wisdom is grounded in what the Stoics call homologia, which Cicero translates as “consistency”. [This appears to be an allusion to Zeno’s original definition of the goal of life as homologoumenos te phusei zen (ὁμολογουμένως τῇ φύσει ζῆν) or living in agreement with nature.]

“Appropriate actions” derive from nature’s “starting points”, according to Cato, which we might take to mean that all of our moral duties are ultimately derived from our natural instincts, particularly our self-preservation instinct. However, he stresses that attaining these things is not our supreme good, as virtue itself is not one of the things we instinctively desire at birth, it comes as a later development. However, virtue is also described as being “in accord with nature”, in a different sense, because it is the goal implicit in our rational nature.  [Nature gave us a self-preservation instinct like other animals and it is generally reasonable and appropriate to pursue this in life and so other things such as wealth and property are of value in the service of this, as means to the end of survival.  We have a duty to take care of the body we’ve been given, and to live a healthy life.  However, the goal of wisdom becomes the priority of the wise man: not merely to live but to live well, in accord with wisdom and virtue.   Life (self-preservation) is a preferred indifferent, it only becomes good insofar as we use it wisely.  It’s natural and reasonable to prefer life over death insofar as it provides us with an opportunity for living in accord with wisdom.]

At this point, Cato introduces the well-known Stoic analogy of the spear-thrower or archer. He says one must immediately avoid the error of thinking that Stoicism is committed to there being two ultimate goods. [This is interesting because one of the renegade Stoics mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, Herillus of Carthage, fell out with Zeno because he did argue that there were at least two goals in life, although one was “subordinate” and pursued by those who lacked wisdom.] Cato imagines the archer shooting at a target. His true goal is to do everything within his power to shoot the arrow well. Although he aims at the target, once the arrow has flown, it is outside of his control, so the target is merely something he uses to direct his behaviour. The same applies to virtue, it is all we can really do to act virtuously and wisely, and yet to make sense of that we do need external goals to direct our behaviour, nevertheless whether we achieve them or not is partly in the hands of fate, and so not ultimately our moral responsibility or concern. All that matters is that we try our best to move in the right direction, not whether we succeed in hitting the target or not. [This passage obviously recalls the Greek word for sin (hamartia), which literally means “missing the mark”, as in archery.] However, the Stoics might say that even a foolish and vicious person could hit the target by accident, whereas a wise and virtuous person may fail despite doing the best they can, because external forces intervene (like a gust of wind or someone moving the target). People do the right things for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t make them good. People can do the wrong things for the right reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad. Hitting the target and firing the arrow well are not two competing outcomes but rather they’re extremely closely connected with one another. Nevertheless the distinction is crucial. [If virtue wasn’t the supreme goal, though, we’d be tempted to hit the target by other means, to cheat ourselves, sell out, and sacrifice virtue for the sake of self-preservation, and other external things that have merely selective value.]

Cato uses the analogy of being introduced to someone, and coming to value the second person more highly than the one who made the introduction. The starting-points of our natural values lead us, as we develop reason, to perceive the virtue of wisdom, which we come to value more highly as an end-in-itself. [This contrasts with another Stoic metaphor whereby the ruling faculty, the seat of reason, is like a king, who assigns positions to people at court – their importance is conferred by the king but his own importance is absolute precisely because he is the one with the authority to assign rank to everyone else.] The body we have, our limbs and organs, has been designed for a particular way of life – it has particular survival needs. The Stoics say that in the same way nature has designed our mental desires for a particular way of life. [Cicero says horme, impulses toward action – does he mean instincts?] Likewise, reason has been designed to function in a particular way. Just as actors and dancers are assigned specific roles and steps in a production, so too the human being in general is assigned a particular way of living, and particular goals or virtues, in the universe.  [We’re born placing instinctive value on self-preservation, including the healthy functioning of our body, e.g., protecting our eyes or limbs from injury, and from that a whole hierarchy of values develops insofar as food, shelter, property, friends, etc., help or hinder our pursuit of health and survival.  However, as we develop reason, a radical transformation occurs.  Reason allows us to reflect on our instincts and values, and decide whether they’re good or bad.  We develop self-awareness, and a capacity for reflection and self-criticism, e.g., through Socratic questioning of our values.  The wise man therefore comes to value reason itself as the supreme good in life and self-preservation and other externals continue to be of value insofar as they provide the opportunity to live wisely.]

This is what Cicero calls the goal of being “consistent” and “concordant”. Wisdom is more like acting or dancing than navigation or medicine, because it’s goal is contained within the performance of the art itself, not external to it, although the correct way it is to be performed may be specified by the author of the production. Other arts like acting and dancing differ from wisdom, though, insofar as they are incomplete at any given moment, whereas right actions (katorthomata) “contain all the measures of virtue”, and are perfect in isolation.

Wisdom “embraces magnanimity and justice and judges itself superior to anything that might befall a person”. Magnanimity is greatness of soul, the part of all other virtues that specifically allows us to see external things as inferior or indifferent. Cicero says this is not a feature of other arts.  [Other arts seek to achieve externals, in other words.  Wisdom, like the Stoic archer, aims primarily to do what is within its power well.]

The final aim (telos) is “to live consistently and harmoniously with nature”. The wise are therefore happy (fulfilled) perfect and blessed lives, with no impediment or obstacle (because they desire nothing external), lacking nothing. The “controlling idea” behind human nature and the Stoic philosophy is therefore “that what is moral is the only good”. [The only good is moral good, or virtue, and the only evil moral evil, or vice.  As often the case, living in agreement with nature is closely linked to living in accord with virtue.] Living in accord with nature would mean self-preservation for animals, but for adult humans it means reasoning well, and consistently, about the various things we naturally desire, and prizing wisdom above all, which is synonymous with Stoic virtue.

Cato prefers the “brief and pointed way” the Stoics express what are potentially complex theories. He quotes the following syllogism (from Zeno?):

Whatever is good is praiseworthy.
Whatever is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore whatever is good is moral.

We might say that everything genuinely good in life deserves praise, everything that deserves praise is virtuous, therefore everything that is genuinely good is virtuous. [That syllogism does not prove that, conversely, everything virtuous or moral is good – nevertheless the Stoics believe these terms are synonymous. This argument seems odd to modern readers because in the ancient world it was generally assumed that what is good (agathon) is healthy or beneficial for us, but not necessarily that it is honourable or morally praiseworthy. What the Stoics were arguing for, we now take for granted. For example, the Epicureans argue that pleasure or ataraxia is supremely good but not that it is virtuous – virtue is merely a means to the end of the good life. Cato actually specifies that it is the first premise (the good is praiseworthy) that most people try to dispute, whereas everyone agrees that what is praiseworthy is moral or honourable.  It was an important part of Stoicism that they argued that the goal of life is both healthy (or beneficial) and honourable (or virtuous) – simultaneously good for us and morally good.  Compare:

What is healthy (good for us) is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is virtuous.
Therefore what is healthy is virtuous.]

He elaborates on the argument as:

What is good is to be sought.
What is to be sought is pleasing.
What is pleasing is worthy of choice.
What is worthy of choice is commendable.
What is commendable is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore what is good is moral.

[What is judged truly good deserves to be sought out in life, and therefore attaining it is praiseworthy; and what we praise in others we must also consider to be honourable or morally right. We have a duty to seek what is genuinely good, and so fulfilling that duty must be praiseworthy and honorable.]

He follows with this syllogism:

A happy (fulfilled) life deserves to be taken pride in.
We can only take pride in a moral life.
So a happy life must be a moral life.

He elaborates that nobody takes pride in an unhappy (happy meaning fulfilled) life, and that someone who is praiseworthy deserves to be proud and to have honour. If a happy life is marked out by morality, he concludes, then morality alone must be called good.

[He who is fulfilled is deserving of pride (praises himself); He who is deserving of pride is moral; therefore he who is fulfilled is moral.]

He adds that to conquer fear of death, and become truly brave, we must judge it to not be an evil, and pain or misfortune not to be an evil – courage depends on these judgements being refuted. Courage is honourable; therefore (he leaps to the conclusion) there is no evil except what is immoral.  [Courage requires judging things not to be evil; courage is praiseworthy and honourable; the virtuous must be right; therefore nothing external is bad; but the contrary of courage is bad; so only the contrary of courage, or vice, is bad.  Put another way, Cato is simply arguing that we naturally admire those who are courageous precisely because they view death, pain, and other external “catastrophes” as risks worth taking.  The courageous person acts as if these are not the most important things in life but instead they place more importance on honour, or doing the right thing.  We admire them precisely because they view death and other externals with relative indifference.]

He also tries to argue from the definition of the Sage as someone who takes pride in himself and believes nothing bad can befall him, that what is moral is the only good, and that to live happily (fulfilled) is to live with virtue. [The ideal Sage, the most praiseworthy person, takes pride in himself and views misfortune as indifferent, if he is right then there is no good except his own character, which is praiseworthy and virtuous, therefore virtue is the only true good.]

[The ideal person recognises his own goodness, and takes pride in it, and is therefore simultaneously indifferent to external setbacks or misfortune, he  necessarily loves his own magnanimity or aloofness from externals. Magnanimity is therefore praiseworthy, and what is praiseworthy is honourable and a virtue. Virtue is therefore the only true good.]

These arguments actually follow-on from the discussion of self-interest in animals because they revolve around the implications of the Sage’s self-love, which relates to the perception of the supreme good in himself. If he is genuinely self-interested he must be able to perceive the good in himself and he must love it above everything else, so he must regard it as worthy of praise and admiration, but what is praiseworthy is virtue and our duty.

The term “good” can is defined by Stoics in several complementary ways. Cato prefers Diogenes of Babylon’s definition of it as “what is complete by nature.” He also defines what is “beneficial” (ophelema) as movement or rest which originates from what is complete by nature. Although we know the primary things in accord with nature from experience, we have to employ “rational inference” to identify the nature of the supreme good. [In a sense, the good, or virtue, is an abstract concept, which has to be derived from reflection on our experiences and natural values.]

The good, and virtue, are qualitatively different from things of secondary “value” (axia). No matter how much you accumulate things of this secondary “value”, they will not equal or surpass the good.

Cicero suggests that in many cases pathe, or emotional disturbances, could be translated as “illness”, although this would not fit all cases. It’s the root of our word “passion” but also “pathology”. He says the Romans would not call anger or pity “illnesses”, but the Greeks call them pathos. He chooses the term “disturbance”, which makes more sense in terms of the concept of vice.

The passions (“disturbances”) take many forms but are grouped by the Stoics under four categories: sorrow (pain), fear, lust (desire), and pleasure (hedone). (The language here is slightly stronger/more negative than the normal translation from Greek to English.) Cicero notes that hedone can mean bodily or mental pleasures. [Only mental pleasure is a “passion”, bodily pleasure is an “indifferent”.] He says he prefers to speak not of pleasure but of “elation”, meaning “the sensuous delight of the exultant mind”. There is nothing natural about the passions, the wise man is free of them. They are merely beliefs, and “frivolous judgements”.

Cato repeatedly notes that the view that the moral (virtue) is to be sought for its own sake is one shared by the Stoics with many other schools of philosophy. [Except the Epicureans, and two other unnamed schools, who do not include virtue in the definition of the supreme good.]

He elaborates that the desire to study the nature and causes of the movements of heavenly bodies, for example, must be seeking knowledge for its own sake, and not merely for some ulterior purpose or pleasure. (Again, knowledge is naturally seen as an end-in-itself, and this leads to wisdom.) We cannot help but contemplate with delight the good deeds of great families, such as those of Maximus and Africanus. [Nature has predisposed us to value the sight of virtue in others, and to praise and admire wise and good men.] Likewise, immorality is naturally despised and shunned. Cato adds that we must condemn immorality in itself otherwise there is nothing to say against those who do it in secret, or under cover of darkness. [A recurring criticism of Epicurus, for whom vice is only shunned because of its risk of painful consequences.]  Vices are shunned not only because they are bad in themselves but because of the vicious acts that follow from them. [These are not consequences or outcomes of vice that are judged bad for another reason, but rather acts that “participate” in vice itself.]

Carneades, whom Cicero admires, tirelessly and eloquently argued that there is no difference between the Stoics and the Peripatetics on “the problem of good and evil”, except a terminological one. Cato disagrees strongly. He argues that the Peripatetics treat other things as constitutive of the good life, whereas for Stoics only virtue can be.

The theory that regards (bodily) pain as evil means that the wise and good person cannot be “happy” (=fulfilled) on the rack, which Cato rejects. Cato argues that pain is borne more easily when it’s for the sake of one’s country. [We might say that pain is endured more easily if it’s for the sake of protecting our children, or for undergoing necessary surgery, or as part of physical exercise – the Stoics elsewhere use similar examples.] This proves that the sensation of pain in itself is not unendurable but how we respond to it depends on our value judgements and attitude.

Aristotelians must say that a virtuous act that is painless is more worthwhile seeking than a virtuous act accompanied with pain, but the Stoics deny that the presence of pain or pleasure makes any difference because the value of pain and pleasure are incommensurate with that of virtue.

The Stoics refer to virtue as “ripeness” (eukairia) and this does not increase over time. Right conduct, goodness, consistency, and being in harmony with nature, “do not admit of cumulative enlargement”. [There is perhaps a difficulty for Stoicism here in that we would have to value “indifferent” things such as bodily health more highly than a single act of virtue as it provides a means to allowing us to engage in many acts of virtue in the future – that kind of instrumental value would threaten to undermine their strict division between “indifferent” and “good” things. So many virtuous acts cannot be more valuable than a single one.] “For Stoics a happy life is no more desirable or worth seeking if long than if short.” Cato says that good health may be more valuable the longer it lasts but this analogy with virtue does not hold because the value of virtue is judged not by duration but by “ripeness” (completion?).

A corollary of this view that virtue cannot be increased in value, is that one person cannot be more wise than another. Cato uses the analogy of a man drowning just below the surface of water, or a puppy opening its eyes, to claim that virtue is all-or-nothing. We can get closer to it, but virtue itself is only of (absolute, intrinsic) value when it is complete. Someone who has made progress toward wisdom is as unfulfilled (incomplete) as someone who has made no progress at all.

Diogenes of Babylon says that material wealth is not merely conducive but essential to developing pleasure and good health in life. However, it does not have this value in relation to virtue. It may be conducive to virtue but it is not essential. So if pleasure or health are classed as goods then wealth would also have to be called instrumentally good (which presumably other philosophers denied), but if wisdom is the only good then wealth is not necessarily even instrumentally good. Only what is part of the good is essential to it, i.e., things that are of instrumental value are not essential, because there are always other ways to achieve the same good.

Stoic Ranking of Values.  Cato says if nothing (external) is ranked above anything else then life (decision-making) would be thrown into chaos, as it is by Aristo of Chios, who held all externals to be absolutely indifferent. Prudence or wisdom would have no role in choosing between things, or making decisions, because every outcome is equivalent. For the Stoics it is well-established that virtue (or the moral) is the only good and vice the only evil. However, there must also be a ranking of value between external things, or primary natural desires: some positive, some negative, and some totally neutral.

We have good reason to prefer some, but not all, of the things we naturally value from birth: health, well-functioning senses, freedom from pain, honour, wealth, etc. And their opposites are dispreferred. [What does he leave off this list?] Zeno coined the technical terms proegmenon and apoproegmenon for these: preferred and dispreferred. Zeno said that at court nobody speaks of the king as being “preferred” with regard to rank (proegmenon). This term is applied to those who hold office, just below the king in rank: they are “promoted” or “advantageous”, but in a sense clearly subordinate to the king.

We define as “indifferent” (adiaphoron) anything that is of this secondary rank or value, and it has a merely “moderate” value, unlike the good. The analogy is given of the game of knucklebones. Our goal is to throw a knucklebone so it stays upright. One thrown so it happens to land in that position will have some advantage but it doesn’t guarantee that it will remain upright, which is the real goal.  [This is an incomplete example.  I suspect it’s lifted from a familiar analogy in a previous author who argued that skill in the game of knucklebones is like wisdom in life.  As with the archery example, no matter how skillfully the bones are thrown, we might be unlucky.  The game combines skill and chance, like life in general.  A good player accepts that the outcome is partly down to chance but he still develops his throwing ability (virtue).  Someone foolish or a bad player could also just get lucky with a throw.  The good player consistently aims well but doesn’t necessarily win.] Likewise, “advantageous” things are relevant to achieving the goal but “do not constitute its essence and nature.”

Goods that are constitutive of the supreme goal are called telika, whereas those that are merely productive of it are called poetika. The only constitutive goods are moral (virtuous) acts. The only productive good is a (wise and good) friend. Wisdom (virtue), though, is both productive and constitutive. Wisdom is “harmonious action”, which makes it constitutive of the good, but it also occasions and produces moral acts, making it productive.  [So here he appears to be saying that externals cannot be productive of the good.  They do, however, seem to provide an opportunity for it to be exercised, e.g., we need to be alive (have life) to exercise justice, courage, moderation, and other virtues.  These are perhaps two different types of instrumental value.  Wise friends and teachers actually produce wisdom and virtue in us, whereas physical health and life merely provide the opportunity for us to develop and exercise virtue.  Presumably the Stoics would concede that we need a minimum of physical health (to be alive) to be virtuous and that good teachers and role models are helpful in learning virtue.  However, these are still externals, and not actually constituents of virtue in itself – they’re means to an end and not the end itself.]

Some things are advantageous in their own right, and others instrumentally so, and a third class are both advantageous themselves and instrumentally so. Things that are advantageous or disadvantageous might be “a certain quality of countenance and expression, a certain bearing, a certain way of moving”. [It’s unclear whether these are advantageous in their own right or can be either advantageous or disadvantageous.] Money is advantageous instrumentally. [It does not constitute virtue and is not directly helpful in relation to it, but can potentially bring about other things that are helpful relative to virtue.] Well-functioning senses, good health, etc., are both advantageous in themselves and instrumentally so. [Basically this is our supreme primary goal: good health and functioning?]

Chrysippus and Diogenes said that good reputation (eudoxia) is not worth lifting a finger for, aside from whatever instrumental benefits it may have. Later Roman authors found this harder to accept, and argued that even if our posthumous reputation (being honoured by friends and descendants, etc.) has no instrumental value to us, we should still value it as an end-in-itself. They were partly encouraged to adopt this position based on criticisms from the Skeptic Carneades.

“Appropriate actions” (specific duties) are neither good nor evil, but we should engage in them. An appropriate action is defined as any action of which a reasonable explanation can be given. They may be between virtue and vice, neither good nor bad, but nevertheless of some value. We all love ourselves (are self-interested) so the wise and foolish both engage in appropriate actions, although the wise do so for different reasons, and virtuously.

“It is the appropriate action to live when most of what one has is in accord with nature.” [Perhaps implying physical health, strength, and functioning eyesight, limbs, etc.] When the opposite is the case and most of what one has is against nature, then it is appropriate to depart life. [To commit suicide by euthanasia?] That means that it is sometimes appropriate for the wise person to depart from life, though happy (virtuous and fulfilled), and appropriate for the fool to live on, though wretched (vicious and unfulfilled).

The primary objects of nature (health, etc.) are “the subject and material of wisdom”, although the Stoic concepts of “good and bad” develop later, from reflection on the way these selections are being made.  “The Stoics hold that living happily – that is living in harmony with nature – is a matter of timeliness (ripeness).” [Doing what is opportune.] He then says that the wise person is to relinquish life when it is opportune.

Social Oikeiosis.  The Stoics consider it important to emphasise that a parent’s love for their children arises naturally. From this starting point, all human society is derived. The constitution of the human body makes it clear that we are designed to procreate, and it therefore seems natural that we should not be indifferent to our offspring. [But animals who procreate sometimes are!] Our instinct to love our offspring is as natural as our aversion to pain. [But the Stoics say our aversion to pain is not our natural instinct, but merely supervenes on it.] This is the basis of the bond between all humans, and that we should not see any other human as a stranger to us. We are fitted by nature to be social beings, like ants or bees.

The Stoics see the universe as a single city shared by humans and gods. From this it follows that we should value the common good more than our own. In the same way that the laws of a city value the welfare of all above the individual, the wise value the welfare of all above their own. [Cicero talks about Stoic conceptions of natural law in On Laws.] We praise those who risk their lives in battle for their country, and those who make wills to take care of their children after their death. Nobody would choose to live in isolation regardless of the pleasures they may have available.  [Compare Cicero’s On Friendship, which portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise.] We are naturally inclined to help as many people as possible, especially by passing on our wisdom, through speech and writing. We are as much inclined toward teaching, or passing on our knowledge, as we are to learning.

Stoics call Zeus: “Greatest”, “Highest”, “Saviour”, “Shelter”, “Defender”. That’s because human existence depends on the care or love of Zeus. However, it would be hypocritical to praise Zeus for loving humanity, like a father, but not to have parental love ourselves. If we did not live in societies there would be no opportunity for the Stoic virtues of justice or benevolence. [Being part of a society is of instrumental value, a preffered indifferent, as it is a requirement of exercising the social virtues such as justice.]  Although there is a code of law binding humans, there is none between humans and other animals. Chrysippus said that humans and gods were created for their own sake but that everything else, including other animals, were created for our sake, so we can use them with impunity.

It is natural for the wise man to “want to take part in the business of government, and, in living by nature, to take a spouse and to wish to have children.” Not even sexual passion, so long as it is pure, is considered to be incompatible with being wise. “Some Stoics say that the Cynics’ philosophy and way of life is suitable for the wise person, should circumstances arise conducive to its practice. But others rule this out altogether.”

Friendship.  Friends are “helpful” because they are (the only thing) productive of the good and fulfilment, but they should nevertheless be loved for their own sake. [Problematic: If friends are good insofar as they are productive of virtue and the supreme good in us, then how can we avoid loving them as instrumentally good rather than as ends in themselves?] Stoics disagree as to whether the interests of a friend are treated as equal to one’s own or not. There can be absolutely no justice or friendship where these are treated as of instrumental value, rather than ends in themselves. [Which constitutes a criticism of Epicureanism.  Friends have a special status in Stoic ethics – they are not constitutive of our good but they are productive of it, and so they appear to rank above even the things “indifferent” but “advantageous” in themselves.]

To the virtues of justice (benevolence, Oiekeiosis, friendship, etc.) they add those of physics and logic. Logic is a virtue because it protects what we have learned, and removes rashness and ignorance [or error]. Cicero says it stops us assenting to what is false or “being deceived by the captiousness [confusing, entangling nature] of probability”. [He appears to mean rashly taking uncertain but probable things as if they were certain – externals are the domain of uncertainty but the Stoics believe we can grasp the nature of the good (virtue) with certainty.]

Physics is a virtue because “the starting point for anyone who is to live in accordance with nature is the universe as a whole and its governance.” We cannot make a correct judgement about what is good or evil without knowledge of the life of the gods, and whole system of nature, and how human nature is in harmony with the universe. We need to understand physics to grasp the meaning of the ancient maxims: “respect the right moment”, “follow god”, “know oneself”, “do nothing to excess”. Only physics can reveal the role of nature in justice and friendship. We must study nature also to understand the virtue of piety toward the gods.

The Stoic wise man is the true king and the richest of men. He who knows how to use all things, owns all things. He will also be the only truly beautiful person. Whereas Solon said you can judge no man happy until after he is dead, the Stoics totally reject this view and argue that someone can be happy in the moment.


Some Musings on the Nature of the Good in Stoicism

This will be a bit of a different blog post from me.  Rather than publishing a finished piece of work, I’m just going to post some thoughts on a work in progress.  I’m currently writing something on Stoic Ethics and particularly the definition of the good in Stoicism.  This is arguably the central definitive feature of Stoicism.  Famously, Stoicism was divided into three topics: ethics, physics and logic.  However, when ancient authors compare Stoicism to other philosophical schools they typically focus on the uniquely uncompromising ethical doctrines adopted by the Stoics.  Although there are many similarities between Stoicism and certain other schools of philosophy, particularly the “Academic” (Platonic) and “Peripatetic” (Aristotelian) schools, there are also some celebrated differences.  The other philosophical schools generally recognised that the most important good for man was virtue or excellence (aretê).  The main exception was the Epicurean school, which taught that the chief good in life was pleasure, or the avoidance of pain – although even they recognised an important, albeit secondary and instrumental, role for virtue.  However, those schools that recognised the central importance of virtue tended to endorse a composite view of the good life, which required other non-moral goods as well, i.e., external goods as well as the virtues.  The Aristotelians introduced a threefold distinction between types of good, in descending order of value:

  1. Goods of the soul, such as virtue
  2. Goods of the body, such as physical health
  3. Goods of accident or external goods, such as wealth and reputation

Perfection of the soul is, at least to some extent, under our direct control, because it depends on our voluntary thoughts and actions.  Perfection of the body is theoretically attainable but not within our direct control.  However, possession of all external goods, and avoidance of all external evils, is clearly impossible for anyone to achieve – nobody can actually own everything in the universe and be friends with everyone, etc.

Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) was generally understood by all schools to be the chief goal in life, although they defined it differently.  Eudaimonia isn’t a subjective feeling but rather the exalted condition of the person who is living the supremely good life; it literally means having a good daimon or “divine spark” within.  The “good life” was assumed to be a life that is, in a sense, complete: lacking nothing good, and containing nothing bad.  Hence, Cicero wrote: “When we say ‘happy’ the essential significance of this word is that everything that is bad shall be excluded and everything good shall be included.”  Virtue may be essential but it might also be said that someone cannot have a good life and be happy, unless he has also been blessed with a healthy body and possesses external good fortune, such as property and good reputation.  That might seem like common sense.  However, it does leave it somewhat in the hands of fate whether someone has a good life and attains happiness/fulfilment or not because out of these three categories of “good”, only the first is actually under our control.  Hence, Theophrastus (the Peripatetic) apparently wrote: “Chance, and not wisdom, rules the life of men”, which Cicero says his critics called “the most demoralizing utterance that any philosopher has ever made.”  By contrast, even Epicurus wrote: “Over a man who is wise, chance has little power”, which is also the Stoic position.  Indeed, for philosophers in the Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics, the pre-eminent example of the good life was the life of Socrates, who flourished even in the face of external “misfortune” and persecution.

Hence, the Stoics notoriously challenged this notion of a composite good life encompassing three distinct classes of good, and adopted instead a stridently moral position.  They vigorously argued that good men necessarily have good lives, regardless of their external fortune.  As Cicero wrote:

The belief of the Stoics on this subject is simple. The supreme good, according to them, is to live according to nature, and in harmony with nature. That, they declare is the wise man’s duty; and it is also something that lies within his own capacity to achieve. From this follows the deduction that the man who has the supreme good within his power also possesses the power to live happily. Consequently, the wise man’s life is happy. (Tusculan Disputations, 5.28)

This forces them to reject the threefold view above and to argue that “the only good is moral good” or virtue.  Health, wealth, and reputation might be called “goods” but this is only a figure of speech.  They are not truly “good” in the same sense as virtue.  Crucially, the life of the virtuous man lacks nothing, even if it is deprived of health, wealth, and reputation.  The Sage is complete, whatever misfortunes befall him.  His is the good life and he is therefore supremely happy.

The life of a wealthy and famous man, who is full of vice, is not one iota better than that of a poor and ridiculed Sage.  Cicero illustrates this using the metaphor of a set of scales, a kind of “moral balance”, which he attributed to a Peripatetic philosopher called Critolaus of Phaselis.  He said that if virtue is placed on one side of the scales, no matter how many external (or bodily) goods are heaped up on the other side, it would never be enough to shift the balance.   This is a vivid way of expressing the notion that moral and external goods are absolutely incommensurate for the Stoics.  Indeed, for these reason they refer to external and bodily things as “indifferent”.  Epictetus advises his students to rehearse literally saying in response to them: “This is nothing to me.”  No amount of health, wealth, and reputation, can outweigh the importance of wisdom, justice, courage, self-control, etc.  Now, the Stoics (with some exceptions) did recognise that health, wealth, and reputation, etc., were naturally to be desired, and preferred to disease, poverty, and condemnation.  Rather than refer to these as “good” and “bad”, though, they refer to them as “preferred” and “dispreferred” or “advantageous” and “disadvantageous” to make it clear that they were talking about a second (different) system of value.  This led some ancient authors to argue that the Stoics were merely introducing a terminological distinction.  However, others felt that they were making an important ethical distinction that marked their whole philosophical system out from the other schools.  Of course, among different Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians, some were closer to the views of rival schools and some further removed, in terms of their own philosophy.

For example, some of the arguments employed by ancient Stoics to defend the view that “moral goodness is sufficient for perfect happiness” are as follows:

The Sage is Beyond Emotional Disturbance

It’s not the absence of external goods that determine unhappiness but our fears and desires with regard to them.  Someone who has absolutely no craving for wealth and is totally unafraid of poverty, rises above his circumstances in this regard and is no less happy for lacking it.  Hence, the Stoics said that Diogenes the Cynic, although poor and naked, was (paradoxically) wealthier than Xerxes, the “Great King” of Persia.  Xerxes was, despite his boundless wealth, notoriously insatiable in his craving for more luxuries.  However, Diogenes famously desired nothing he did not already possess.  Emotional disturbance is incompatible with peace of mind and complete happiness.  Human (moral) goodness necessarily entails the possession of virtues such as wisdom, courage and self-control, through which we overcome emotional disturbance.  The perfectly good man is therefore free from emotional disturbance.  Or rather he’s as free from disturbance as he can be, through voluntary action, although he may still experience some distress in the form of automatic thoughts and feelings, which may occur unbidden.  The good man therefore also has a good and happy life because he is not distressed even by the lack of external and bodily goods.

The Sage is Confident about Fortune

Unlike the Skeptics who believed the wise man must embrace uncertainty, the Stoics thought that the Sage must necessarily have certainty in key areas of life and a firm grasp of his philosophical principles.  Cicero therefore argues that the ideal Sage must have an unshakeable sense of security.  If he does not know that the good life is under his control then he is doomed to experience anxiety and insecurity.  The Sage is inconceivable unless we assume that all of the ingredients of the good life are under his control, that happiness is entirely within his grasp.  Moral good must therefore be the only good and sufficient for happiness because perfect happiness that depends on external fortune would necessarily be polluted by uncertainty over the future.  Cicero says, “nothing that there is the slightest possibility of eventually losing can be regarded as an ingredient of the happy life”, which would relegate all bodily and external goods to the level of “indifferent” things.

The Good Life is Praiseworthy

The good life of the Sage is thoroughly praiseworthy.  However, only moral good is praiseworthy.  We do not praise a man because of his wealth, health or reputation but because of his virtues.  Although people desire external goods for themselves, in other words, they do not really praise their possession in others.  The only true good therefore is moral good, because only moral good is agreed to be truly praiseworthy.  A foolish and unjust man is no more praiseworthy if he is healthy, rich, and famous.  A Sage, like Diogenes or Socrates, is no less praiseworthy if he is physically frail, poor, and ridiculed.  In fact, ironically, the Sage may actually be even more praiseworthy if he retains his virtues despite misfortune, i.e., the loss of bodily and external goods.

I will give you a short rule of thumb by which to measure yourself, by which you will perceive that you are now perfect; you will have your own good when you understand that the successful are the most unsuccessful. (Seneca, Letters, 124)

In particular, although foolish men may sometimes judge the “good” otherwise, someone who is wise and good will judge the value of all things in terms of how praiseworthy they are but only the morally good is praiseworthy, he will therefore judge his own life and that of others in terms of how praiseworthy and morally good they are.  The Sage will therefore not judge the value of his life as the majority of men do, but because of his possession of virtue, he will judge his life to be good or bad purely in moral rather than material terms.

What is Truly Good Cannot be Made Bad

The Stoics argue that what is “good” in the true sense of the word, what is intrinsically and absolutely good, cannot be turned into something bad.  If it seems something “good” has turned into something “bad”, that suggests that it was never really good at all, but that its use was good.  For example, the wealth of a good man is “good” insofar as it is used virtuously, but the wealth of a bad man is judged a “bad” thing, if used viciously by him.   Hence, these things are actually indifferent, but the wisdom and virtue of the person using them are what is truly good.  External things are made apparently “good” or “bad” by the use we make of them, but the presence or absence of external goods cannot affect virtue.

The Finitude and Transience of Virtue Doesn’t Affect its Value

The Stoics would perhaps want to argue that contemplating the transience of all material things and the finitude of human existence allows us to see the whole picture more clearly, in a way that allows the mind to naturally better discern where true value (the good) really lies. Heaping up wealth, enjoying pleasure, or acquiring fame, for a few seconds might seem very trivial, and when considered in relation to the whole cosmos, all human life appears as if it might as well be a few seconds in duration. However, do we naturally judge virtue’s worth in the same way? An act of great courage and integrity may take place in a few seconds but would we naturally discount that as worthless in the way we do with fleetingly brief pleasures? Someone might say that we don’t normally focus on the bigger picture, so why should we care? The Stoics might respond that the totality is the truth and that our normal, narrow perspective on events is a falsehood, a kind of “selective thinking” or lie of omission.  It’s striking that a split-second of absolute bravery appears so valuable whereas pleasure, wealth, and public acclaim, seem to lose their worth if they are merely fleeting.  All mortal things are miniscule and fleeting, though, compared to the whole of Nature, the Cosmos, or the Olympian perspective of Zeus.

Socrates and Cato Looked Down on Death

As Epictetus puts it very bluntly: Death cannot be an evil for if it were then Socrates would have judged it to be so also.  He’s alluding to a more general Stoic argument which says that if external things were truly “good” or “bad” then everyone would agree that they are, especially the most wise.  It’s our own judgements that make external things appear good or bad, and consequently distress us.  The Stoics argue that some animals will risk injury and death to protect their young, so they do not judge these things to be absolutely bad.  Likewise, even foolish men will often endure things others fear or renounce things others desire, in order to achieve other (foolish) goals.  Acrobats, soldiers, and lovers, will often risk their lives, because of something else they judge more important than avoiding death.  Hence, things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes them so.  However, wisdom is defined as the knowledge of good and bad, and so it is the only thing which we can truly say is good, and folly is bad.  The virtues are all defined as forms of knowledge and therefore species of practical wisdom.  So perhaps the Stoics, who do note this circularity, might say that nothing is good except the wisdom to know that “nothing is good except wisdom”.  (This recalls Socrates’ “ironic” claim to know only that he knows nothing, and to be wiser than other men in that respect alone.)