Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Notes on Introduction and The Stoic System from Stoicism by John Sellars

Below are some notes and key things I learned from reading and studying the first two chapters of Stoicism by John Sellars.

While fragments of early Stoic writers have been found through the years, the earliest, complete surviving record of the philosophy comes from Cicero around 45 BC.

The founder of Stoicism is Zeno of Citium.  Citium is in modern day Larnaca Cyprus.

Zeno actually studied at two philosophy schools before founding the philosophy of the porch.  He studied with Polemo at Plato's Academy, and then studied with Stilpo at the Magarian school.

Zeno published a work entitled Republic in which he advocated for the abolition of law courts, currency, marriage and traditional education.

One of the first arguments in Stoicism was about "preferred" and "non-preferred" indifferents.  Zeno's student Aristo did not want the classification - he wanted to call all of them simply "indifferents."  But he lost the argument with other students.

The second founder of Stoicism was Chrysipus.  As Diogenes Laertius said, "If there had been no Chyrisippus, there would have been no Stoa" (p. 7, Sellars).  Chyrisippus advanced the philosophy by bringing all the ideas of his predecessors together, and then adding his own original material, thus leaving a highly systematic philosophical system for students learning Stoicism for the first time (see p. 7, Sellars).

In 128 BC, Panaetius became head of the Stoa.  He deviated from his predecessors in three major ways.

First, he "rejected the Stoic doctrine of the periodic destruction of the world" and instead declared the world eternal (p. 9, Sellars).

Second, he denied that virtues was "sufficient on its own" for a person to achieve happiness.

Third, he shifted "the focus of attention from the ideal sage to the average person on the street" (p. 9, Sellars).

The Stoic Posidonius was important because his most famous pupil was Cicero.  Posidonius was also a polymath, studying history, geography, astronomy, meteorology, biology and anthropology.

Both Panaetius and Posidonius deviated from the early Stoic doctrines.  Had they not deviated, perhaps they would been faithful disciples rather than philosophers who “expanded and developed” the early Stoic philosophy.  Posidonius deviated from Stoic orthodoxy in psychology.  Early Stoics did not separate reason and emotion into distinct faculties, whereas “Posidonius followed Plato in proposing a tripartite psychology, dividing the soul into the faculties of reason, emotion and desire” (p. 10, Sellars).

We own much to Seneca, who was born between 4 and 1 BC and survived until 65 AD.  We own him our gratitude for his diligence in writing.  Many of his texts have survived and have also "[shaped] the image of Stoicism in the West" especially as he was seen by the early "Church Fathers, medieval reading and Renaissance humanists" as sympathetic to Christianity" (p. 13, Sellars).

Musonius Rufus is sometimes called the third founder of the Stoa due to “his status as a Stoic sage … combined with his influence as the teacher of Epictetus, Euphrates, Dio and others” (p. 15, Sellars).

Sellars makes brief notes on Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but nothing new for me.

Sellars notes the decline of Stoicism around 200 CE.  While the decline can be explained by the rise of Neoplatonism, he also believes that the decline can also be attributed to the strong teaching and focus of Epictetus practicing the philosophy as opposed to commentating and theorizing on it.  As Sellars notes, Epictetus placed “value on deeds rather than words” (p. 26).  Coupled with Epictetus’ fame as a philosopher, followers would have spent more of their time practicing the philosophy rather than writing about it, hence writings of Stoicism would have diminished.

While I personally appreciate Epictetus’ sentiment on applied Stoicism over theoretical Stoicism, I do admit that we of the present day, owe it to subsequent generations to keep the flame alive as it were.  And being a rudimentary student of history and knowing how quickly knowledge can be lost, I feel it should be a duty and obligation of scholars and librarians to preserve the record as much as possible.  For my part, I take notes on what I read and commentate on Stoic books.  I try to share what I’ve learned with others, including my children and close friends.  In sum, we need to continue to learn and practice what we’ve learned.  However, in that process, we need to preserve in writing the theoretical.

Sellars said, “If we assume that the Stoics were philosophers simply in the same sense in which a modern academic is a philosopher, then we run the risk of countless misunderstandings and distortions” (p. 31).  If I understand the context correctly, then it would seem the modern academic philosopher is one who studies the various philosophies that have been developed over the centuries.  The academic philosopher would be able to describe frameworks and philosophic paradigms and may not necessarily practice any of the philosophies.  Whereas the ancient Stoics sought love of wisdom in practice – it was a never-ending pursuit for identifying the proper way to live and then demonstrating that knowledge.  They viewed philosophy as the way to properly live life and not simply describe how it ought to be lived.  Much like a doctor who demonstrates her ability to heal as opposed to writing a book on it.  The value is in the doing and practicing, rather than the learning and teaching.

The Epicureans hold pleasure to be the key to happiness.  The Peripatetics “hold virtue to be the key to happiness, but [required] favorable external circumstances” as well (p. 32, Sellars).  The Stoics, on the other hand, “must be able to translate those doctrines into concrete behavior.  It is not enough to say that one can be virtuous, and thus happy, regardless of circumstances; one must actually be happy regardless of circumstances, whether one is in danger, disgraced, sick or dying” (p. 32, Sellars).  Therefore, the Stoics differ from the Peripatetics by dropping the requirement for favorable external circumstances.  They view that happiness is found entirely from one’s attitude and perspective and adherence to virtue, no matter the circumstances or external factors.

Regarding the sage -  the problem with the sage is the near impossibility of the criteria for a person to become a sage.  The qualifications for sage-hood would be a person who is “never impeded, who is infallible, who is more powerful than everyone else, richer, stronger, freer, happier and the only person truly deserving of the title ‘king’” (p. 36, Sellars).  The qualifications for being a sage are so high, the Stoics could hardly produce an example of someone who embodied the Sage.  “There is something inevitably futile about devoting one’s life to trying to become a sage if that is an impossible goal to reach” (p. 41, Sellars).  Stoics addressed this problem by providing some examples of people who embodied various examples of specific Stoic doctrine.  Therefore, while Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic may not have been a full Sage, they nonetheless practiced key teachings that Stoicism embraced, and subsequently, provide examples for people who are trying to live the philosophy (see p. 41, Sellars).

There are various similes which represent the three parts of Stoic philosophy.

One is the animal, where logic corresponds to bones and sinews, and where ethics corresponds to the fleshy parts and physics corresponds to the soul.

Another simile is that of an egg: shell is logic, the white is ethics and the yolk is physics.

Another simile is the orchard: the fence is logic, fruit is ethics and soil and trees are the physics.  Posidonius rejected the orchard simile because the representations of the orchard could exist independently of each other (p. 42-43, Sellars).

The second stage of philosophy after one learns doctrines or theory, is “to put those doctrines into practice” through “a series of exercises (askeseis)” or what Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (p. 45, Sellars).  The purpose of this practice “is to habituate the soul so that one’s consciously chosen philosophical beliefs can shape one’s unconscious habits, and so determine one’s everyday behavior” (p. 46, Sellars).

Is the two-stage paradigm of learning and live philosophy necessary?

Socrates maintained that if a person gains knowledge of something, they will necessarily follow on with the correct behavior.  This stands against the Stoic notion of practice, because the first stage is sufficient and all that is needed to change behavior.

It appears not all classical Stoics were united on the two-stage process.  Aristo argued exercises would be of no benefit for someone who is ignorant and for someone who is free from ignorance, the exercises are unneeded.  Seneca cites Cleanthes “who held that this second stage of philosophical education ‘is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles’” (p. 49, Sellars).

I think the two-stage process is needed for people (like me) who have never seriously inquired about their personal philosophy until much later in life, having lived in a world full of false judgements and emotions.  However, for a young person who is taught philosophy from youth, perhaps with right knowledge written on a somewhat ‘blank mind’ then right actions will naturally follow and therefore, practice is not needed.  With all that said, I am of the opinion that the large majority of people will need to learn then practice before full absorption takes hold.