On First Principles and Stoicism

Radcliffe Camera, a part of Oxford University's Bodleian Library, and All Souls College to the right, in Radcliffe Square, looking north from the tower of St Mary's Church, the University Church, in central Oxford, England.
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger via Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

The Stoic Philosophy; Conway Memorial Lecture Delivered at South Place Institute on March 16, 1915The Stoic Philosophy; Conway Memorial Lecture Delivered at South Place Institute on March 16, 1915 by Gilbert Murray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered this lecture in George Strodach's notes to Epicurus' The Art of Happiness. I have been thinking about the format of Ancient Greek philosophies, specifically the outlining of the ethos, pathos, and logos of each philosophy. Put simply, these are modes of persuasion, where ethos refers to "character" and the guiding beliefs; pathos refers to emotional appeal, and logos refers to the appeal to logic. From what I can gather, a good deal of the logos of Stoicism is lost to antiquity, whereas Epicurus' logos is contained in his letters to Herodotus and Pythocles. Murray outlines the two major questions Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism) grappled with:
How to live and what to believe.
While the first question was the focus, Murray points out that one cannot address the former without first addressing the latter. First principles, if you will. The Sceptics (and Platonists) had developed ideas about ontology (the nature of being, reality, or existence) and epistemology (theories of knowledge and how we can know something), but Zeno was "a fighter" and "wanted to get to business". This explains in large part the practical nature of Stoicism. But here, like Heraclitus and Epicurus, the idea of God or the gods is an important first principle. Murray uses examples of the Duke of Wellington in asserting the positivist nature of Stoicism - this is a table, here it is, one can see it and touch it - an "uncompromising materialism". But how do we know?
By the evidence of our senses; for the sense-impression (here Stoics and Epicureans both followed the fifth-century physicists) is simply the imprint of the real thing upon our mindstuff. As such it must be true.
The idea of managing one's "impressions" is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy, and here Murray points out that our "sense-impression [is] all right; it is we who have interpreted it wrongly, or received it in some incomplete way". So our impressions are true - we can believe what we see - but how we react to these external events is the focus; the world is "real" and "knowable". So when we ask, What is it to live the good life? - Zeno meant it in "an ultimate Day-of-Judgment sense". Goodness is "performing your function well". This reminds me of Bentham's idea of utility - not being drunk all the time as a source of happiness, but utility as in a hammer to a carpenter. And acting well in accordance with one's "nature" is the point - Phusis here is translated as "Nature", but in the context of evolution, growth, or the process of growth - continuous improvement comes to mind - moving ever closer to perfection:
It means living according to the spirit which makes the world grow and progress, [where] Phusis is not a sort of arbitrary personal goddess, upsetting the natural order; Phusis is the natural order, and nothing happens without a cause.
Such ideas about "natural law" were not unusual to the Ancient Greek philosophers, "indistinguishable from a purpose, the purpose of the great world-process". Phusis is regarded by the Stoics as a form of intellectual fire, which forms:
a principle of providence or forethought [that] comes to be regarded as God, the nearest approach to a definite personal God which is admitted by the austere logic of Stoicism... Thus Goodness is acting, according to Phusis, in harmony with the will of God.
It is worth quoting Murray at length here to explain the idea of "good" and "nature":
The answer is clear and uncompromising. A good bootmaker is one who makes good boots; a good shepherd is one who keeps his sheep well; and even though good boots are, in the Day-of-Judgment sense, entirely worthless, and fat sheep no whit better than starved sheep, yet the good bootmaker or good shepherd must do his work well or he will cease to be good. To be good he must perform his function; and in performing that function there are certain things that he must prefer; to others, even though they are not really "good"; He must prefer a healthy sheep or a well-made boot to their opposites. It is thus that Nature, or Phusis, herself works when she shapes the seed into the tree, or the blind puppy into the good hound. The perfection of the tree or hound is in itself indifferent, a thing of no ultimate value. Yet the goodness of Nature lies in working for that perfection.
Murray ties his discussion together by looking at two problems of government - a government that is good during the bad times is not necessarily good during the good times, and vice versa. Stoicisms' dual character, however, provides armour when the world is evil, and encouragement when the world is good. In summing up, Murray states that we all, like herd animals, look for a friend, and we ineradicably and instinctively look for a Friend-God so we are not alone in the universe. This is not about reason but a "craving of the whole nature". Two other interesting features of this work are worth recalling. First, the chairman's introduction. He indicates what a good chair should do by outlining what a poor chair had done to Murray on a previous occasion. Second, the purpose of the lecture series was in honour of Dr Moncure Conway, whose:
untiring zeal for the emancipation of the human mind from the thraldom of obsolete or waning beliefs, his pleadings for sympathy with the oppressed and for a wider and profounder conception of human fraternity than the world has yet reached.
What I find most interesting about this work (and the purpose of the lecture series) is its congruence with my reading of Epicurus. Epicurus warned against believing in the popular gods and insisted instead upon an empirical understanding of the world. Maybe not as practical as Zeno's positivism, but certainly not a case of blind faith. Yet Epicurus was not an atheist, and his conception of God may well have been a precursor to monotheism, as much of Stoicism was a precursor to large elements of Christianity and Islam. Indeed, Murray provides a glimpse of this comparison - Ryan Holiday in "A Star is Born" on the Christmas edition of the Daily Stoic newsletter draws out comparisons between the words of Seneca and Jesus - and Strodach reads something similar. Add to this my present reading of Teddy Roosevelt's Autobiography, where he is discussing the power of the herd instinct when rounding-up cattle, and the coincidences are strongly correlating around a common theme! I began by discussing the lack of logos in Stoic philosophy, but Murray's work goes a long way to bringing this to light. It may not be obvious in the practical "enchiridion" sense of the three main books of the Roman Stoics, but when combined with a reading of Epicurus, this lecture says much in very few words.

View all my reviews

Gunning Weather