Pandaemonium

A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 3]: ON STOICISM, FREE WILL & FATE

My book on the history of moral thought, due to be published next year by Atlantic, is beginning to take shape (I should hopefully have finished writing it by late summer / early autumn). Every month I am posting small sections from the book. This excerpt is from the conclusion of Chapter 3, which begins in Aristotle’s moral thought and ends in Stoicism.


THE PHILOSOPHER ZENO WAS ONCE FLOGGING A SLAVE WHO HAD STOLEN SOME goods.  ‘But I was fated to steal’, the slave protested. ‘Yes, and to be beaten too’, Zeno responded. Zeno (334-262 BCE) was the founder of Stoicism. And for Stoics the acceptance of one’s fate was the road to tranquillity.

Stoicism, Bertrand Russell has observed, was less Greek than any other school of philosophy associated with the Greeks. The early Stoics came mainly from Asia Minor, the later ones were primarily Roman – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Zeno himself was a Phoenician born in Citium in Cyprus. Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates fuelled his passion for philosophy. He studied under Crates who, as a Cynic, preached a philosophy rooted in contempt for wealth and propriety. ‘Cynic’ means ‘dog-like’ and the Cynics were so named after their founder, Diogenes, took to living like a dog, sleeping in a tub in the marketplace and begging for a living.

Zeno never took to the life of a dog but he nevertheless remained deeply influenced by the Cynics’ outlook, not least in their devotion to Socrates. Socrates’ indifference to bodily comforts, his plainness in matters of food and clothing, his refusal to flee Athens when charged with a capital punishment and his calmness in the face of death all shaped Stoic thinking. Zeno took also from the Cynics their insistence that nothing mattered aside from virtue. Not that others saw him as a particularly virtuous soul. Diogenes Laertius described Zeno not just as ‘sour and of a frowning countenance’ but as ‘very niggardly, too, clinging to meanness unworthy of a Greek.’

Zeno took to lecturing from Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch, in the agora in Athens. In that porch the Stoics found their name. Unlike Epicureanism, the tenets of which barely changed after the death of its founder, Stoicism was a school of thought that evolved and refined over five centuries. Of the early Stoics, Zeno’s pupil Cleathes and Chrysippus, a student of Cleathes’, had equal influence on shaping its philosophy. It was Chrysippus who more than any other transformed Stoicism into a coherent body of thought. Over time the hub of Stoicism moved from Athens to Rome. Much of what we now know of Stocism comes from the work of later, Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus and Seneca.

At the heart of Stoicism is the belief that serenity comes from learning to live with the inevitable. ‘Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish’, Epictetus counselled, ‘but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.’

Driven by a deep-set materialism drawn from the Presocratics, the Stoics saw the universe as determined down to the last atom and governed by a set of inviolable laws that no amount of wishing or hoping could alter.  These laws constituted fate, for they admitted of no exception.  They also constituted Providence for they were laid down by a beneficient God for the profit of Man.  The Stoics saw no contradiction between their commitment to materialism and their belief in a providential Creator. Unlike Epicureans, who denied any purpose or goal in the universe, the Stoics held that God imbued the universe with meaning. God is not separate from the universe; God is the universe.  He is, in the words of Chrysippus, its ‘soul’, which is materially expressed in the pneuma, or cosmic breath, that is dispersed throughout all the individual bodies and organisms, maintaining each in its proper state and its proper relation to its environment.

From the Stoic point of view, that which will be will be, and no amount of rage or anger or desire or yearning will suffer to change it. The rational response to fate is to accept it and, in Epictetus’ words to ‘wish the things which happen to be as they are’. To be virtuous is to live by ‘in accordance with nature’. In one sense every life is in harmony with nature since the laws of nature caused that life to be as it is. But a human life is only truly so when an individual accepts his fate and acts upon to it.  You may be suffering from a debilitating illness, but it would be irrational to whine about it, as it would make no difference to your health. You may be falsely imprisoned, but no amount of anger and resentment will break down the door, so you might as well accept it with equanimity.

Humans, Epictetus wrote, have no control over their bodies, property or reputation. What does lie within our power are our opinions, desires and fears. So, he counseled, ‘if you attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy’ for control over these are not in our power. What truly troubles humans are not ‘the things which happen’ to them but their ‘opinions about the things’. Death, for example, ‘is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates’. The problem lies in people’s ‘opinion about death, that it is terrible’. Don’t worry, be happy and you will live a happy virtuous life.  Rage against fate, and try to change things, and you life will be neither happy nor virtuous.  Virtue, for the Stoics, was the sole good. Since we have little control over health or wealth and possessions, so these are of little account. All that matters is accepting fate and living in harmony with nature.

It is a view of the good life that both drew upon and challenged Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia. For Aristotle, happiness consisted of acting virtuously in accordance with reason.  Eudaimonia could not be reduced to health and wealth or honour. But, Aristotle believed, without health and wealth and honour it became that much more difficult to acquire happiness. Virtue was a means to an end, not an end in itself.  And happiness was not compatible with suffering or misfortune. Material, physical and social well-being was a necessary condition of eudaimonia. Stoics disagreed. You could be facing penury, your body ravaged by disease, your name reviled in your community. And yet you could still be ecstatically happy. Happiness is all in the mind.

There was a social element to this disagreement, too. Aristotle denied that the poor could be as virtuous as those better endowed with wealth. A working life ‘is not noble, and it militates against virtue.’ It was necessary to have ‘leisure to develop their virtue’. Those who worked for a living lacked such leisure and therefore could not be virtuous, at least to the same degree. The Stoics opened up virtue to everyone. They accepted that the poor could be virtuous – but only if they resigned themselves to their poverty and sought not to combat it. ‘Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast’, as Marcus Aurelius counselled.

As a philosophy of personal endurance rather than of social transformation, Stoicism was appealing to ruling elites. ‘Nearly all the successors of Alexander – we may say all the principal kings in existence in the generation following Zeno – professed themselves Stoics’, suggested the nineteenth century classicist Gilbert Murray. It became more or less official the official philosophy of the upper classes in the Roman Empire especially after Emperor Marcus Aurelius championed it. And beyond Rome, the Stoic acceptance of the world as it is found an echo in Christianity, and through Christianity in many Western philosophical traditions.

* * * *

The Stoic belief in fate led to the insistence that one should be resigned to the inevitability of things. Their belief in Providence suggested that one should be resigned with a happy heart. Fate is not a chain around our necks by which a malevolent master pulls us hither and thither. It is, rather, a well paved road to a virtuous world along which humans are guided by beneficent Creator. But if the universe is guided by a Providential God who has the best interest of humans at heart, how come there is in the world so much pain and suffering? Would a providential God have allowed Socrates to be executed? Or for Greece to have come under Macedonian rule? Or for Thebes to have been destroyed and its population enslaved?

We only imagine that evil exists, or that the good suffer, the Stoics responded, because we do not have insight into God’s greater plan. Not that Stoics did not attempt to find a rational explanation for suffering. Even the most minor inconvenience, Chrysippus suggested, had been carefully designed by God for our benefit. God had created bed bugs to ‘awaken us out of our sleep’ and mice to encourage humans to be tidy.

Chrysippus argued, too, that it would have been impossible for good to exist without evil, for humans would not know the meaning of justice without perceiving injustice, or courage without cowardice, or wisdom without foolishness. Seneca similarly suggested that ‘God afflicts the best men with ill health or sorrow or some other misfortune… for the same reason that in an army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks’  – the gods ‘require most effort from those of whom they have the surest hopes’.  So those who seem to suffer unjustly should say to themselves ‘God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.’

Such justification of suffering and evil came to be known as ‘theodicy’ and was highly influential in shaping Christian moral thought. There may appear something deeply callous in such validation of torment and misery, a callousness that was, as we shall later, to rub off onto Christian theologians too. For Stoics, however, accepting the inevitable was not about rationalizing wretchedness and injustice, but of asserting human control over a world that appeared out of control.

Despite the insistence that one should be resigned to one’s fate, and despite Marcus Aurelius’ counsel to ‘retire into yourself’, the Stoics, unlike the Epicureans, set great store by public service and public duty. They believed in setting an example, in not just behaving virtuously but encouraging others to do so, in acting as, in modern terminology, role models.

The Stoic acceptance of fate fused with the sense of public duty and a fearless view of death to create a startlingly sanguine, seemingly celebratory, view of suicide. There was, to Stoics, an almost redemptive quality to taking one’s life. The difference between life and death, they claimed, was insignificant when compared to the difference between virtue and vice. Faced with a situation in which it is impossible to live up one’s ideals, noble suicide is better than dishonourable acquiescence to injustice.

The Roman statesman Cato, famed for his moral integrity, distaste for corruption and immunity to bribes, and an implacable opponent of Caesar’s, committed suicide after Caesar seized power, rather than submit to his unjust rule. According to Plutarch, Cato had supper with friends, after which he engaged robustly in a philosophical discussion, finishing with a debate over ‘what were called the “paradoxes” of the Stoics, namely, that the good man alone is free, and that the bad are all slaves.’ He retired to his room to read Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates argues that a true philosopher regards all of life as a preparation for death. He called for a sword so that he could be ‘master of the course which I decide to take’. He then disembowelled himself. When his ‘physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound’, Cato pushed him away, ‘tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.’

Cato’s distressing death raises a perplexing question. How could Cato be ‘master of the course which I decide to take’ if fate rules all? And if fate does rule all what is the point in setting an example to others, or in yourself suffering to remain honourable? And since, for the Stoics, the mind is a collection of atoms whose course has already been rigidly determined, how can our thoughts and feelings (including the decision we take whether or not to be virtuous) be our own, rather predestined? Caesar was fated to act disreputably, Cato to take his life to defend his honour. In what way, then, could one be said to better than the other, or either responsible for his actions?

These questions return us to the debate about free will and fate that runs back to Homer and beyond and forward to our own age.  The Stoic answer was that our actions might be fated, but we still have to assent to our fate.  How any individual acts, Chrysippus suggested, is the result not simply of external forces but of their internal character too. Suppose you push a cylinder down a hill. It rolls partly because you pushed it, but partly also because it is cylindrical in shape. A cube would not have rolled so easily or so far. The nature of an object determines at least partly the actions it is fated to take. So it is with humans. Cato behaved honourably and Caesar disreputably because of their respective natures.

The argument is an important step in the attempt to understand the relationship between fate and free will. The trouble is, there is a hole at the heart of it because it conflates the ideas of responsibility and of agency. Cato and Caesar were responsible for their actions because each responded to circumstances according to their different natures. But those natures were themselves imposed upon them by fate. Through the workings of fate, both were born with particular dispositions, were exposed to particular experiences and developed particular personalities. Chrysippus might have explained why even those who lack freedom of will should be held responsible for their actions. But he did not explain what free will meant in a determined world.

Despite this conundrum, Chrysippus’ distinction between the two kinds of causes was important for it helped establish better the idea of fate not simply something external to agents, a force that operates upon them, but rather as a force that operates through agents. When, almost two thousand years later Marx was to write that ‘Men make their own history, but… they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’, he was expressing that distinction first drawn by Chrysippus. In Marx’s time, however, the idea of humans ‘making history’ seemed far more credible than it did in the time of Chrysippus, and so the idea of human agency seemed also more meaningful. For Chrysippus, free will was about accepting with good heart what fate has thrown at you. For Marx it was about challenging such fate.  It is, as we shall see, in that historical transformation in human possibilities that free will acquired new meaning.

Perhaps, however, the most important Stoic legacy to the history of moral thought was in the concept of universal brotherhood. In his famous Elements of Ethics, part of which was discovered as a papyrus fragment in 1901 at Hermopolis, now in modern Egypt, the second century Stoic philosopher Hierocles imagines very individual as standing at the centre of a series of concentric circles. The first circle is the mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, the local community, the community of neighbouring towns, the country, and finally the entire human race. To be virtuous, Hierocles suggested, is to draw these circles together, constantly to transfer people from the outer circles to the inner circles, to treat strangers as cousins and cousins as brothers and sisters, making all human beings part of our concern. The Stoics called this process of drawing the circles together oikeiosis, a word that is almost untranslatable but means something like the process by which everything is made into your home.

There were limits, of course, to the Stoics’ benevolence. Epictetus might have been a freed slave, but Stoics had little to say about slavery. All humans sprang from the same mould. ‘The man whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock’, Seneca wrote,  ‘is smiled upon by the same skies and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies.’ But slavery was a condition of the body and therefore untouchable by human hands. Stoics certainly thought that slaves should be treated decently. But they did not believe it possible to challenge the actual institution. The slavery that mattered to Stoics was the slavery of the soul. Physical slaves, they believed, could transcend their brute bondage, indeed could only transcend their brute bondage, by exercising their freedom of spirit.

Nevertheless, in an age in which rights and duties were defined solely in relation to the polis or the state, in which barbarians were regarded as fit for enslavement, and in which Aristotle defended slavery on the grounds that some people were naturally created to be enslaved, there is something hugely impressive about the Stoics’ pursuit of oikeiosis. ‘Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian’, Epitectus wrote, ‘but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth?’ From God, Epictetus continued, ‘have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth’. So why should not every human being ‘call himself a citizen of the world?’

It is a cosmopolitan vision that would be startling today, let alone two thousand years ago.

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