Saturday, February 29, 2020

Notes on Stoic Physics from Stoicism by John Sellars

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being and deals with all questions about the physical world.  The fundamental ontological assertion of the Stoics “underpinning all of Stoic physics is the claim that only bodies exist” (p. 81, Sellars).

The Platonic position was a “claim that the material world that we experience is merely a shadow of another realm where real existence lies” (p. 81, Sellars).

Plato was attacking all hard-lined, as well as moderate materialist perspectives.  He wished for any and all materialists “to admit to the existence of something that is not a body” (p. 82, Sellars).

Stoics believe that for something to exist it must have a body.

To avoid the Platonic trap, Zeno claimed that certain intangible things like soul, justice, virtue, and wisdom actually do exist and are bodies.  He grants Plato’s assumption that only bodies can act and be acted upon (p. 82, Sellars).  But as was discussed in the chapter on Logic in Sellars’ book, propositions (cognitions, impressions we assent to) are physical entities and so therefore intangibles such as virtue, justice or wisdom would be considered bodies.

Incorporeals subsist.  The four types of incorporeals are: void, time, place and sayables (p. 83, Sellars).

The present moment “belongs.”  This means the past and the future are non-existent realities and therefore subsist.  But the present is more real than the future or past, but still “is not as real as a physical object” and therefore “belongs” (p. 84, Sellars).

Universals of Platonic ideas, according to the Stoics “neither exist nor subsist” and “such entities are dismissed as ‘not-somethings’” … but by labeling these as “not-somethings” it creates another “category within the Stoic ontological scheme” therefore they “explicitly reject universals conceived as Platonic ideas” (p. 84, Sellars).

The ‘Stoic trap’ that Chrysippus devises goes like this:

If someone is in Athens, he is not in Magara;
“man” is in Athens;
Therefore, “man” is not in Magara.

The point Stoics want to make is “to deny that the generic name ‘man’ refers to anything at all.”  Platonists would insist that “man” is someone or something, yet the argument shows it cannot be someone or something.  The Platonist would agree with the first two premises, but if he agrees with the conclusion, he will agree with the Stoics that “man” is not-something, while if he rejects the conclusion, he must reject that “man” is someone or something – which he won’t want to admit.

The two material principals are:
a) “that which acts (to poioun) and
b) “that which is acted upon (to paschon) or we might say the active and the passive; they are God and matter” (p. 86, Sellars)

“Ancient sources” and “modern commentators suggest that the Stoics proposed a strict monism, that is, a conception of a single unified material reality.”  This conflicts with the two material principals, because how can a unified body, with nothing beyond itself, both act and be acted upon?

One way to resolve this conflict is to think of the two principles as “merely abstract or conceptual” and that the Stoics wanted “to give an account of the material world that does not have to refer to anything outside of Nature in order to explain its movement or development” thus “they are able to say that the material cosmos both acts and is acted upon … itself” (p. 87, Sellars).

The three ways in which two material entities might be mixed together are:

  1. juxtaposition
  2. fusion
  3. total blending

Fusion is where the original two entities cease to exist and a third entity is created.

Total blending is where the original two entities continue to distinctively exist and a third entity is created.

Pneuma or breath is “the active principle in Nature, sometimes identified with God, sometimes with the soul of God” (p. 163, Sellars)

Pneuma has three principle conditions, “reflecting a different level of ‘tension’”

  1. cohesion (hexis) – the force that holds physical objects, such as a stone, together.
  2. nature (phusis) – the living force, which causes biological organisms to live.
  3. soul (psuche) – the principle of life in animals that have powers of perceptions (impressions), movement (impulses) and reproduction. (See p. 91, Sellars)

Sellars states, “It is thus possible to make Stoic physics sound quite modern and thoroughly naturalistic.”  The three levels of tension coincide to levels of life forms and consciousness as well as a division between things that are purely acted upon and things that act as well as a division between things that are acted upon and which can also act.  Thus a rock would only possess cohesion pneuma and would not possess nature or soul and would be acted upon.  Going up the continuum, algae and plants would possess both cohesion and nature pneuma and could act on dirt and rocks.  Animals would have soul pneuma and could act on plants and rocks and even within animals, some animals such as humans might have greater soul pneuma.  Any modern biology class would most likely show simple versus complex lifeforms, not unlike the pneuma principles outlined above.

Two essential beliefs about the Stoic God are: God is not external to Nature, but rather God is Nature.  The other is “the cosmos is a living being” (p. 92-93, Sellars).

The orthodox Stoic belief was that Nature / the cosmos is conscious (see quotes from Zeno and Diogenes Laertius p. 93-94, Sellars).

The Stoic God is a conscious, living being that is Nature.

The Stoic cosmos can be described in a few points.

Point 1: there is nothing but void beyond the cosmos; therefore nothing external to the cosmos orders it: “The Stoics are thoroughgoing naturalists who want to give an account of the movement and order in the cosmos that does not depend on any entity outside the cosmos” (p. 95-96, Sellars).

Point 2: Nature / the cosmos “organizes and regulates itself” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 3: Nature / the cosmos is a “living organism [and] is also conscious” (p. 95, Sellars)

Point 4: the cosmos is viewed as “a spherical being” and is “a finite cosmos” (p. 96, Sellars)

Point 5: the cosmos is “held together by the breath or pneuma that pervades it” (p. 97, Sellars)

Point 6: “at certain moments, the entire cosmos was dissolved entirely into fire” causing its destruction and birth.

Point 7: The destruction and birth are cyclical.  “The life of the cosmos in each cycle is identical to its predecessor.  The cosmos, governed by reason, has the best possible organization, this is repeated in each cycle.  Thus, there is eternal recurrence … as a single cycle, repeated endlessly” (p. 99, Sellars).

“Whole” or holon “refers to the cosmos.  “All” or pan “refers to both the cosmos and the infinite void surrounding it” (p. 97, Sellars).

Pneuma or breath holds the cosmos together and “is a conscious and rational organizing principal.  It is the soul of the cosmos, analogous to the soul of any other living being” (p. 97, Sellars).

Per the Wikipedia page, the phoenix “is a long-lived bird that cyclically regenerates or is otherwise born again. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.”  This is an appropriate comparison to the Stoic eternal recurrence, where the cosmos goes through conflagration and birth in a single cycle, repeated endlessly.

Stoic fate is described as “a continuous string of causes, an inescapable order and connection between events” (p. 100, Sellars).

Stoic providence is described as “God, who pervades the entire cosmos, forms the cosmos into a harmonious whole and orders events in a providential manner.  The cosmos is ‘administered by mind and providence’” (p. 100, Sellars).

Fate and providence are reconciled by Stoics who argue that they “are in fact one and the same thing.”  God’s will is an ordered, continuous string of events and furthermore, because “God is supremely good and supremely rational, then there will surely be only one course of action open to him, namely the best and most rational course of action.”  And this “necessary and unalterable order of causes … is providentially arranged by God to be the best possible order” (p. 101, Sellars).

The theory of cosmic sympathy offers that all parts of the cosmos are continually interacting, such as the sun’s charged particles striking atoms in the earth’s atmosphere causing auroras to appear.  “This sympathy between all of the parts of the cosmos is a product of the fact that it is all permeated by breath or pnuema” (p. 103, Sellars).  Therefore, small events can have wide-ranging impacts.

Between Stoic fate, Stoic providence and cosmic sympathy, it would appear human will or agency is limited.  Some would suggest that individual humans have little to no free will and that their fate is entirely determined, regardless of their actions – so why should humans bother acting at all?  This is known as the “lazy argument.”

Chrysippus’ response to the “lazy argument” references two types of fated things.

  • Simple fated things are “necessary and [are] a product of the essence of a thing.”  An example would be death – all mortals will die.
  • Conjoined fated things are more complex and involve “two types of causes” called internal and external.  External causes would be things external to human nature that would impact the outcome.  Internal causes are things inherent to human nature.

Thus, humans can attempt to influence their fate when they are sick and may die at night.  While dying is an internal cause, dying at night is not a given as the human may call a doctor or take medication, thus influencing the outcome.

The cosmos is mirrored at the human level.  Where the cosmos has pneuma which constitutes God’s soul, the human soul is a fragment of the cosmic pneuma.  Where the cosmos is embodied in matter, so too the human body is a fragment of cosmic matter (see p. 104, Sellars).

The rational human being has pneuma at four levels of tension (p. 105, Sellars):

  • hexis – cohesion of the body
  • phusis – being alive in most basic biological sense
  • psuche – animal faculties of impression and impulse
  • logike psuche – rational power of judgement that can intervene between receiving impressions and acting on impulses.

The commanding faculty of the pneuma is called hegemonikon and is comprised of three parts (p. 105, Sellars):

  • faculty of impressions; faculty of impulse; faculty of assent
  • Humans share the faculties of impression and impulse with animals.
  • The faculty that makes humans unique (their nature) is the faculty of assent.

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