Saturday, March 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Ethics from Stoicism by John Sellars

The beginning, the foundation and basis for Stoic ethics is oikeiosis.  This is “the nature of living beings.”  Roughly translated into English, it means ‘orientation’ and ‘appropriation’ (see p. 107, Sellars).

The theory of oikeiosis is that animals, including human beings, first and foremost have a desire and impulse for self-preservation – they love to physically exist and wish to protect that desire.

With this innate impulse to survive and to continue existence, humans will ascribe good and bad values to things that will help them preserve their existence.  Platonism, alternatively, “posits the existence of an absolute, transcendent concept of ‘the Good’ to which all value ascriptions may be referred” (p. 108, Sellars).  It is on this basis that Platonism looks to in order to understand everything else.  The Stoics, on the other hand, will honestly and seriously consider “the primitive behavior of animals and human beings, and [they do] not try to pretend that selfish motivations are not at the heart of most people’s actions” (p. 108, Sellars).

As discussed in the previous chapter on physics, we learned pneuma has different levels of tension; and the levels of tension increase in complexity from cohesion up to having a soul.  The nature of humans is unique in that self-preservation not only exists for the physical body, but it also exists for our rational nature.  As Sellars states, “If I am to survive as a rational being and not merely as an animal then I must pursue those things that will help preserve my rationality as well as those things that will preserve my body” (p. 108).  And furthermore, humans will put a higher priority on their rational existence over their physical existence.  Therefore, if an individual’s freedom as a rational being is put at risk with the threat of physical death, then the rational choice may be to commit suicide rather than give up rational independence.  This was the choice Socrates, Cato the Younger and Seneca faced, and all chose suicide.

“Zeno divided things that exist into three groups:” (p. 110, Sellars)

  1. good / virtue / arete / and things that participate in virtue
  2. bad / vice / kakia / and things that participate in vice
  3. indifferents / adiaphoron – things such as life, reputation, health, poverty or wealth, external objects

arete / virtue is the only good.  A broader translation would be “excellence” or “an excellent disposition of the soul … perfect rationality” (p. 110, Sellars).

Just as food is valuable because it ensures the viability of our physical body, virtue is valuable because it “contributes to our survival as rational beings” (p. 110, Sellars).

There are three reasons why virtue is the only good: (see p. 110-111, Sellars)

  • First, as the basis of self-rational-preservation, exercising excellence in rationality preserves this unique trait in rational beings.
  • Second, indifferents are a means to an end – either for good or for bad, therefore they are not inherently good.
  • Third, externals cannot guarantee happiness in rational beings.  But virtue can.

Indifferents were divided into three categories: (see p. 111, Sellars)

  1. preferred
  2. non-preferred
  3. indifferent

It is natural to prefer wealth, health and respect to the non-preferred indifferents of poverty, illness and ill repute.  In a sense, these things bring value to physical well-being of rational beings.  They can also bring an added measure of happiness in one’s life.

There are no varying degrees of vice.  If something is bad, it is all bad (see p. 112, Sellars).

The Cynics, Stoics and Aristotelians are on a rough spectrum when it comes to what brings happiness in a rational being’s life.  On the one end, the Cynics strictly adhered to the notion that virtue is the sole good and “they would reject any attempt to prioritize among the indifferents.”  One the other end, the Aristotelians “argued that such things [indifferents] are necessary along with virtue for a happy life.”  The Stoics do not go to either end of the spectrum, and say externals are not necessary for a happy life – that virtue alone is sufficient – but they do recognize that preferred indifferents add to the value of a physical life (see p. 112-113, Sellars).

Epictetus categorized the good, the bad and the indifferent into two categories: things that are “up to us” and things that are “not up to us” (p. 113, Sellars).

Epictetus said that spending time and effort choosing between preferred and non-preferred indifferents was not a good use of time and energy.  We would be much better off if we spent “all our attention on developing the only thing that is genuinely good, namely our virtue or excellence.”  Furthermore, he would contend that there is a slippery slope from “frustration to a violent emotion” for those people who would pursue preferred indifferents (see p. 114, Sellars).

The one thing that is good (virtue / arete / excellence) is also found completely within our control by means of “our faculty of ‘choice’ (prohairesis)” (p. 114, Sellars).  This means, we can always choose virtue and live virtuously, no matter the circumstance or what preferred or non-preferred indifferents we possess.

Zeno held emotions to be the product of judgments instead of thinking emotions are judgments (as Chrysippus contended).  Zeno’s reasoning is more reasonable due to the notion that people’s actual emotions of an event (say a death of a parent) will usually fade over time.  But, the person’s opinion of the death of their parent may be that the death was still a terrible thing, even years later.  Therefore, if we assume judgments are emotions, then it would stand to reason the emotion from an event, should be just as strong (years later) as at the time of the event.  But since this is usually not the case, we can conclude the judgement causes emotion instead of judgement being emotion.

The process leading to the formation of an emotion (p. 115-116, Sellars):

  1. “receive impressions that present external objects to us” over which we have no control
  2. “we make a judgment” and “sometimes we add an unconscious value judgement to our impressions”
  3. “if we assent to impression that includes one of these unconscious value judgments then we shall create an emotional response”

First movements are “immediate physical responses” people will sometimes experience “before they have had a chance to form a judgement about what is happening” (p. 116, Sellars).

The difference between first movement and a genuine emotion is the gap in time and thinking of the presentation of the external event or object.  Seneca notes that genuine emotion is in the act of surrendering to these snap, unconscious judgments (see p. 116, Sellars).

The more often we practice proper reasoning, in order to avoid mistaken judgments and “assents to impressions that include unwarranted ascriptions of value” the better off we can control our emotions.  And since our rationality and ability to judge and assent are entirely within our control, our emotions can be entirely within our control (see p. 117, Sellars).

The three good emotions are: joy, caution and wishing (p. 118, Sellars).

Caution can be a good emotion as “rational avoidance” in counter to fear.  Caution is good (wise) as one takes measures “to prevent the loss of ones’ virtue” (p. 119, Sellars).

The three good emotions produce six good emotional states as follows:

  • joy --> mirth and cheerfulness
  • caution --> modesty and reverence
  • wishing --> benevolence and friendliness

A rational being preserves oneself as a rational being “by cultivating virtue” (p. 120, Sellars).

The names of the two types of appropriate actions (kathekon) that one should pursue are middle or intermediate (meson kathekon) and perfect or completely correct (katorthoma) (see p. 120-121, Sellars).

According to Stoics, non-rational animals can pursue appropriate actions, but they cannot pursue completely correct actions (see p. 121, Sellars).

When two people perform appropriate actions throughout their life, in exactly the same way, but the first person does so “without much conscious thought or consideration” and the second person acts consciously and deliberately and has “come to a firm conclusion that these are the most appropriate actions to undertake” then the second, ‘conscious’ person is said to have taken “completely correct” action and their behavior would be preferable to the first person’s.  Furthermore, the second person would be able to explain exactly why they have taken appropriate action – they would be able to explain their art and craft of living and would be able to sustain their way of life in the future (see p. 121-122, Sellars).

Sellars writes, “Being virtuous is good because in some sense it is good for me to be virtuous” (p. 122).  Returning to the basis of Stoic ethics is the idea of self-preservation both physically and rationally.  Not only should rational beings not harm themselves physically or rationally, but they should do what must be done to promote well-being within themselves in both the physical and rational sense.  In other words, they would want to flourish physically and rationally.  Therefore, choosing a life based on arete and striving for that excellence in living is good for (beneficial for) the rational being.

“The Stoics, like the vast majority of ancient philosophers, are “eudaimonists.”  Eudaimonia has been translated to mean ‘happiness.’  “It refers to a substantive well-being in one’s life … [and] is sometimes translated as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’” (p. 123, Sellars).  Ancient philosophers considered eudaimonia to be universally desired and therefore there was no reason to explicitly state that the end of all philosophy was to achieve eudaimonia.  They simply viewed it to be “the summum bonum, namely that ‘for the sake of which everything is done but which is not done for the sake of anything else’” (p. 123, Sellars).

Regarding the translation of arete to ‘virtue’ – it would be better to simply use the word arete as there is no precise translation and the meaning is much broader than ‘virtue’ alone.  Sellars defines it as “an excellent disposition of the soul” and sometimes the translation is shortened to ‘excellence.’  In sum, one should educate himself of the full definition and meaning of the word and use the word rather than simple English translations.

Eudaimonia (translated as happiness) is the end-all of philosophy.  It is not some external benefit (i.e. preferred indifferent) like health and wealth.  Since the Stoic can act with excellence of soul and thus possess eudaimonia, and this effort is entirely within the control of the rational being, happiness, therefore, is not an external benefit – it is the end.

The Stoics, beginning with Zeno, have stated that to achieve the summum bonum one must live in harmony or consistently with Nature.  There are three aspects to living according to Nature (see p. 125, Sellars).

  1. “living harmoniously with oneself … living consistently and free from internal emotional conflict”
  2. “living in accordance with one’s own nature … as a rational being” and actively pursuing this rather than “passively reacting to external forces”
  3. “bringing oneself into harmony with Nature as a whole”

There are two aspects to human beings: the physical and the rational.  Sellars only discusses the rational.  But one could say that a human should live in harmony with their physical nature.  Choosing to live free from external physical conflict by doing what should be done to promote a healthy, sound physical body.  Sellars gets close to addressing this on page 128 when he writes, “Thus it is in harmony with Nature (my own nature) to choose those things that will contribute to my own self-preservation, things such as health and wealth …”  And he goes on to clarify that it is in the choosing that we remain in harmony with Nature, and that actually obtaining those things is beyond our control.

We become cosmopolitan when we widen our circle of self-preservation to those nearest to us and then extending that concern outward to neighbors, communities, cities, states, nations, then eventually the world and the universe.  This is known as “social oikeiosis” (p. 131, Sellars).

Albert Einstein shared a similar sentiment when he consoled a grieving father who lost his young son to polio.  Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (source).

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