Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Stoics and Their Critics

TLS September 28 2012

from Noel Malcolm's review of Christopher Brooke's Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and political thought from Lipsius to Rousseau:

If you were an educated person in early modern Europe, some elements of Stoicism were in your intellectual bloodstream. You might have possessed only the vaguest ideas about the original Stoic philosophers Zeno or Chrysippus, but the works of Cicero and Seneca had been drummed into you in the schoolroom, and much of the stock wisdom of the age, circulating in commonplaces and sententiae,  was drawn directly or indirectly from their writings. Virtue, not pleasure, provides real happiness; a virtuous life is lived in accordance with reason; true virtue has no need of external goods; the wise and virtuous man is truly free; and so on.


The Stoics' dismissal of pity (as a weakness and indeed a vice) was hard to square with Christian ethics, and their cult of suicide was quite unacceptable. The notion that all vices were equally bad had to be either explained away or rejected. But perhaps the most persistent and far-reaching criticism was the one first expressed by St Augustine: at the heart of Stoic ethics was an exorbitant belief in the power of human reason and the ability of the wise man to perfect himself.


But perhaps the most telling anti-Stoic argument, to modern eyes, was the most simple one. This commonsensical view was summed up by Nicolas Malebranche as follows:

I grant that reason teaches us that we ought to suffer exile without sadness, but this reason teaches us that we should not feel pain when our arm is cut off.... Experience sufficiently shows us that things are not as reason says they should be, and it is ridiculous to philosophise against experience.

Or, as David Hume put it: the Stoics exhbited the "Folly of the Ancients" by engaging in "the great philosophic Endeavour after Perfection, which, under the Pretext of reforming Prejudices and Errors, strikes at all the most endearing Sentiments of the Heart, and all the most useful Byasses and Instincts, which can govern a human Creature". Reading those words, one hears a pre-echo of the great debate between prefectionist rationalists and fallibilist conservatives that continue, in some forms, to this day.

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