Official Website of the
World Spirituality Organization

 


 

 Ethic

(This is taken from St. George William Joseph Stock's A Guide to Stoicism.)

Plutarch

We have already had to touch upon the psychology of the Stoics in connection with the first principles of logic. It is no less necessary to do so now in dealing with the foundation of ethic.

The Stoics we are told reckoned that there were eight parts of the soul. These were the five senses, the organ of sound, the intellect and the reproductive principle. The passions, it will be observed, are conspicuous by their absence. For the Stoic theory was that the passions were simply the intellect in a diseased state owing to the perversions of falsehood. This is why the Stoics would not parley with passion, conceiving that if once it were let into the citadel of the soul it would supplant the rightful ruler. Passion and reason were not two things which could be kept separate in which case it might be hoped that reason would control passion, but were two states of the same thing—a worse and a better.

The unperturbed intellect was the legitimate monarch in the kingdom of man. Hence the Stoics commonly spoke of it as the leading principle. This was the part of the soul which received phantasies and it was also that in which impulses were generated with which we have now more particularly to do.

Impulse or appetition was the principle in the soul which impelled to action. In an unperverted state it was directed only to things in accordance with nature. The negative form of this principle or the avoidance of things as being contrary to nature, we shall call repulsion.

Notwithstanding the sublime heights to which Stoic morality rose. It was professedly based on self-love, wherein the Stoics were at one with the other schools of thought in the ancient world.

The earliest impulse that appeared in a newly born animal was to protect itself and its own constitution which were conciliated to it by nature. What tended to its survival, it sought; what tended to its destruction, it shunned. Thus self-preservation was the first law of life.

While man was still in the merely animal stage, and before reason was developed in him, the things that were in accordance with his nature were such as health, strength, good bodily condition, soundness of all the senses, beauty, swiftness—in short all the qualities that went to make up richness of physical life and that contributed to the vital harmony. These were called the first things in accordance with nature. Their opposites were all contrary to nature, such as sickness, weakness, mutilation. Under the first things in accordance with nature came also congenial advantages of soul such as quickness of intelligence, natural ability, industry, application, memory, and the like. It was a question whether pleasure was to be included among the number. Some members of the school evidently though that it might be, but the orthodox opinion was that pleasure was a sort of aftergrowth and that the direct pursuit of it was deleterious to the organism. The after growths of virtue were joy, cheerfulness, and the like. These were the gambolings of the spirit like the frolicsomeness of an animal in the full flush of its vitality or like the blooming of a plant. For one and the same power manifested itself in all ranks of nature, only at each stage on a higher level. To the vegetative powers of the plant the animal added sense and Impulse. It was in accordance therefore with the nature of an animal to obey the Impulses of sense, but to sense and Impulse man superadded reason so that when he became conscious of himself as a rational being, it was in accordance with his nature to let all his Impulses be shaped by this new and master hand. Virtue was therefore pre-eminently in accordance with nature. What then we must now ask is the relation of reason to impulse as conceived by the Stoics? Is reason simply the guiding, and impulse the motive power? Seneca protests against this view, when impulse is identified with passion. One of his grounds for doing so is that reason would be put on a level with passion, if the two were equally necessary for action. But the question is begged by the use of the word ‘passion,’ which was defined by the Stoics as ‘an excessive impulse.’ Is it possible then, even on Stoic principles, for reason to work without something different from itself to help it? Or must we say that reason is itself a principle of action? Here Plutarch comes to our aid, who tells us on the authority of Chrysippus in his work on Law that impulse is ‘the reason of man commanding him to act,’ and similarly that repulsion is ‘prohibitive reason.’ This renders the Stoic position unmistakable, and we must accomodate our minds to it in spite of its difficulties. Just as we have seen already that reason is not something radically different from sense, so now it appears that reason is not different from impulse, but itself the perfected form of impulse. Whenever impulse is not identical with reason—at least in a rational being—it is not truly impulse, but passion.

The Stoics, it will be observed, were Evolutionists in their psychology. But, like many Evolutionists at the present day, they did not believe in the origin of mind out of matter. In all living things there existed already what they called ‘seminal reasons,’ which accounted for the intelligence displayed by plants as well as by animals. As there were four cardinal virtues, so there were four primary passions. These were delight, grief, desire and fear. All of them were excited by the presence or the prospect of fancied good or ill. What prompted desire by its prospect caused delight by its presence, and what prompted fear by its prospect caused grief by its presence. Thus two of the primary passions had to do with good and two with evil. All were furies which infested the life of fools, rendering it bitter and grievous to them; and it was the business of philosophy to fight against them. Nor was this strife a hopeless one, since the passions were not grounded in nature, but were due to false opinion. They originated in voluntary judgements, and owed their birth to a lack of mental sobriety. If men wished to live the span of life that was allotted to them in quietness and peace, they must by all means keep clear of the passions.

The four primary passions having been formulated, it became necessary to justify the division by arranging the specific forms of feeling under these four heads. In this task the Stoics displayed a subtlety which is of more interest to the lexicographer than to the student of philosophy. They laid great stress on the derivation of words as affording a clue to their meaning; and, as their etymology was bound by no principles, their ingenuity was free to indulge in the wildest freaks of fancy.

Though all passion stood self-condemned, there were nevertheless certain ‘eupathies,’ or happy affections, which would be experienced by the ideally good and wise man. These were not perturbations of the soul, but rather ‘constancies’; they were not opposed to reason, but were rather part of reason. Though the sage would never be transported with delight, he would still feel an abiding ‘joy’ in the presence of the true and only good; he would never indeed be agitated by desire, but still he would be animated by ‘wish,’ for that was directed only to the good; and though he would never feel fear still he would be actuated in danger by a proper caution.

There was therefore something rational corresponding to three out of four primary passions—against delight was to be set joy; against grief there was nothing to be set, for that arose from the presence of ill which would rather never attach to the sage. Grief was the irrational conviction that one ought to afflict oneself where there was no occasion for it. The ideal of the Stoics was the unclouded serenity of Socrates of whom Xanthippe declared that he had always the same face whether on leaving the house In the morning or on returning to it at night.

As the motley crowd of passions followed the banners of their four leaders so specific forms of feeling sanctioned by reason were severally assigned to the three eupathies.

Things were divided by Zeno into good, bad, and indifferent. To good belonged virtue and what partook of virtue; to bad, vice and what partook of vice. All other things were indifferent.

To the third class then belonged such things as life and death, health and sickness, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, honour and dishonour, wealth and poverty, victory and defeat, nobility and baseness of birth.

Good was defined as that which benefits. To confer benefit was no less essential to good than to impart warmth was to heat. If one asked in what ‘to benefit’ lay one received the reply that it lay in producing an act or state in accordance with virtue, and similarly it was laid down that ‘to hurt’ lay in producing an act or state in accordance with vice.

The indifference of things other than virtue and vice was apparent from the definition of good which made it essentially beneficial.  Such things as health and wealth might be beneficial or not according to circumstances; they were therefore no more good than bad. Again, nothing could be really good of which the good or ill depended on the use made of it, but this was the case with things like health and wealth.

The true and only good then was identical with what the Greeks called ‘the beautiful’ and what we call ‘the right’. To say that a thing was right was to say that it was good, and conversely to say that it was good was to say that it was right; this absolute identity between the good and the right and, on the other hand, between the bad and wrong, was the head and front of the Stoic ethics. The right contained in itself all that was necessary for the happy life, the wrong was the only evil, and made men miserable whether they knew it or not.

As virtue was itself the end, it was of course choiceworthy in and for itself, apart from hope or fear with regard to its consequences.  Moreover, as being the highest good, it could admit of no increase from the addition of things indifferent. It did not even admit of increase from the prolongation of its own existence, for the question was not one of quantity, but of quality. Virtue for an eternity was no more virtue, and therefore no more good, than virtue for a moment.  Even so one circle was no more round than another, whatever you might choose to make its diameter, nor would it detract from the perfection of a circle if it were to be obliterated immediately in the same dust in which it had been drawn.

To say that the good of men lay in virtue was another way of saying that it lay in reason, since virtue was the perfection of reason.

As reason was the only thing whereby Nature had distinguished man from other creatures, to live the rational life was to follow Nature.

Nature was at once the law of God and the law for man. For by the nature of anything was meant, not that which we actually find it to be, but that which in the eternal fitness of things it was obviously intended to become.

To be happy then was to be virtuous, to be virtuous was to be rational, to be rational was to follow Nature, and to follow Nature was to obey God. Virtue imparted to life that even flow in which Zeno declared happiness to consist. This was attained when one’s own genius was in harmony with the will that disposed of all things.

Virtue having been purified from all the dross of the emotions, came out as something purely intellectual, so that the Stoics agreed with the Socratic conception that virtue is knowledge. They also took on from Plato the four cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice, and defined them as so many branches of knowledge.  Against these were set four cardinal vices of Folly, Intemperance, Cowardice, and Injustice. Under both the virtues and vices there was an elaborate classification of specific qualities. But notwithstanding the care with which the Stoics divided and subdivided the virtues, virtue, according to their doctrine, was all the time one and indivisible. For virtue was simply reason and reason, if it were there, must control every department of conduct alike. ‘He who has one virtue has all,’ was a paradox with which the Greek thought was already familiar. But Chrysippus went beyond this, declaring that he who displayed one virtue did thereby display all. Neither was the man perfect who did not possess all the virtues, nor was the act perfect which did not involve them all. Where the virtues differed from one another was merely in the order in which they put things.  Each was primarily itself, secondarily all the rest. Wisdom had to determine what it was right to do, but this involved the other virtues. Temperance had to impart stability to the impulses, but how could the term ‘temperate’ be applied to a man who deserted his post through cowardice, or who failed to return a deposit through avarice, which is a form of injustice, or yet to one who misconducted affairs through rashness, which falls under folly? Courage had to face dangers and difficulties, but it was not courage unless its cause were just. Indeed one of the ways in which courage was defined was a virtue fighting on behalf of justice. Similarly justice put first the assigning to each man his due, but in the act of doing so had to bring in the other virtues. In short, it was the business of the man of virtue to know and to do what ought to be done, for what ought to be done implied wisdom in choice, courage in endurance, justice in assignment and temperance in abiding by ones conviction. One virtue never acted by itself, but always on the advice of a committee. The obverse to this paradox—He who has one vice has all vices—was a conclusion which the Stoics did not shrink from drawing. One might lose part of one’s Corinthian ware and still retain the rest, but to lose one virtue—if virtue could be lost—would be to lose all along with it.

We have now encountered the first paradox of Stoicism, and can discern its origin in the identification of virtue with pure reason.  In getting forth the novelties in Zeno’s teaching, Cicero mentions that, while his predecessors had recognized virtues due to nature and habit, he made all dependent upon reason. A natural consequence of this was the reassertion of the position which Plato held or wished to hold, namely, that virtue can be taught. But the part played by nature in virtue cannot be ignored. It was not in the power of Zeno to alter facts. All he could do was to legislate as to names. And this he did vigorously. Nothing was to be called virtue which was not of the nature of reason and knowledge, but still it had to be admitted that nature supplied the starting points for the four cardinal virtues—for the discovery of one’s impulses, for right endurances and harmonious distributions.

From things good and bad we now turn to things indifferent. Hitherto the Stoic doctrine has been stern and uncompromising. We have now to look at it under a different aspect, and to see how it tried to conciliate common sense.

By things indifferent were meant such as did not necessarily contribute to virtue, for instance health, wealth, strength, and honor. It is possible to have all these and not be virtuous, it is possible also to be virtuous without them. But we have now to learn that though these things are neither good nor evil, and are therefore not matter for choice or avoidance, they are far from being indifferent in the sense of arousing neither impulse nor repulsion.  There are things indeed that are indifferent in the latter sense, such as whether you put out your finger this way or that, whether you stoop to pick up a straw or not, whether the number of hairs on your head be odd or even. But things of this sort are exceptional. The bulk of things other than virtue and vice do arouse in us either impulse or repulsion. Let it be understood then that there are two senses of the word indifferent—

(1) neither good nor bad

(2) neither awaking impulse nor repulsion

Among things indifferent in the former sense, some were in accordance with nature, some were contrary to nature and some were neither one nor the other. Health, strengths and soundness of the senses were in accordance with nature; sickness weakness and mutilation were contrary to nature, but such things as the fallibility of the soul and the vulnerability of the body were neither in accordance with nature nor yet contrary to nature, but just nature.

All things that were in accordance with nature had ‘value’ and all things that were contrary to nature had what we must call ‘disvalue’.  In the highest sense indeed of the term ‘value’—namely that of absolute value or worth—things indifferent did not possess any value at all. But still there might be assigned to them what Antipater expressed by the term ‘a selective value’ or what he expressed by its barbarous privative, ‘a disselective disvalue’. If a thing possessed a selective value you took that thing rather than its contrary, supposing that circumstances allowed, for instance, health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, life rather than death.  Hence such things were called takeable and their contraries untakeable. Things that possessed a high degree of value were called preferred, those that possessed a high degree of disvalue were called rejected. Such as possessed no considerable degree of either were neither preferred nor rejected. Zeno, with whom these names originated, justified their use about things really indifferent on the ground that at court “preferment” could not be bestowed upon the king himself, but only on his ministers.

Things preferred and rejected might belong to mind, body or estate.  Among things preferred in the case of the mind were natural ability, art, moral progress, and the like, while their contraries were rejected. In the case of the body, life, health, strength, good condition, completeness, and beauty were preferred, while death, sickness, weakness, ill condition, mutilation and ugliness were rejected. Among things external to soul and body, wealth, reputation, and nobility were preferred, while poverty, ill repute, and baseness of birth were rejected.

In this way all mundane and marketable goods, after having been solemnly refused admittance by the Stoics at the front door, were smuggled in at a kind of tradesman’s entrance under the name of things indifferent. We must now see how they had, as it were, two moral codes, one for the sage and the other for the world in general.

The sage alone could act rightly, but other people might perform “the proprieties.” Any one might honor his parents, but the sage alone did it as the outcome of wisdom, because he alone possessed the art of life, the peculiar work of which was to do everything that was done as the result of the best disposition. All the acts of the sage were “perfect proprieties,” which were called “rightnesses.” All acts of all other men were sins or “wrongnesses.” At their best they could only be “intermediate proprieties.” The term “propriety,” then, is a generic one. But, as often happens, the generic term got determined in use to a specific meaning, so that intermediate acts are commonly spoken of as “proprieties” in opposition to “rightnesses.” Instances of “rightnesses” are displaying wisdom and dealing justly, instances of proprieties or intermediate acts are marrying, going on an embassy, and dialectic.

The word “duty” is often employed to translate the Greek term which we are rendering by “propriety.” Any translation is no more than a choice of evils, since we have no real equivalent for the term. It was applicable not merely to human conduct, but also to the acting of the lower animals, and even to the growth of plants. Now, apart from a craze of generalization we should hardly think of the “stern daughter of the voice of God” in connection with an amoeba corresponding successfully to stimulus, yet the creature in its inchoate way is exhibiting a dim analogy to duty. The term in question was first used by Zeno, and was explained by him, in accordance with its etymology, to mean what it came to one to do, so that as far as this goes, ‘becomingness’ would be the most appropriate translation.

The sphere of propriety was confined to things indifferent, so that there were proprieties which were common to the sage and the fool. It had to do with taking the things which were in accordance with nature and rejecting those that were not. Even the propriety of living or dying was determined, not by reference to virtue or vice, but to the preponderance or deficiency of things in accordance with nature. It might thus be a propriety for the sage in spite of his happiness, to depart from life of his own accord, and for the fool notwithstanding his misery, to remain in it. Life, being in itself indifferent, the whole question was one of opportunism. Wisdom might prompt the leaving herself should occasion seem to call for it.

We pass on now another instance of accommodation. According to the high Stoic doctrine, there was no mean between virtue and vice. All men indeed received from nature the starting-points for virtue, but until perfection had been attained they rested under the condemnation of vice. It was, to employ an illustration of the poet-philosopher Cleanthes, as though Nature had begun an iambic line and left men to finish it. Until that was done they were to wear the fool’s cap. The Peripatetics, on the other hand, recognized an intermediate state between virtue and vice, to which they gave the name of progress and proficience. Yet so entirely had the Stoics, for practical purposes, to accept this lower level, that the word “proficience” has come to be spoken of as though it were of Stoic origin.

Seneca is fond of contrasting the sage with the proficient. The sage is like a man in the enjoyment of perfect health. But the proficient is like a man recovering from a severe illness, with whom an abatement of the paroxysm is equivalent to health, and who is always in danger of a relapse. It is the business of philosophy to provide for the needs of these weaker brethren. The proficient is still called a fool, but it is pointed out that he is a very different kind of fool from the rest. Further, proficients are arranged into three classes, in a way that reminds one of the technicalities of Calvinistic theology. First of all, there are those who are near wisdom, but, however near they may be to the door of Heaven, they are still on the wrong side of it. According to some doctors, these were already safe from backsliding, differing from the sage only in not having yet realized that they had attained to knowledge; other authorities, however, refused to admit this, and regarded the first class as being exempt only from settled diseases of the soul, but not from passing attacks of passion. Thus did the Stoics differ among themselves as to the doctrine of “final assurance”. The second class consisted of those who had laid aside the worst diseases and passions of the soul, but might at any moment relapse into them. The third class was of those who had escaped one mental malady but not another; who had conquered lust, let us say, but not ambition; who disregarded death, but dreaded pain, This third class, adds Seneca, is by no means to be despised.

From these concessions to the weakness of humanity we now pass to the Stoic paradoxes, where we shall see their doctrine in its full rigor.  It is perhaps these very paradoxes which account for the puzzled fascination with which Stoicism affected the mind of antiquity, just as obscurity in a poet may prove a surer passport to fame than more strictly poetical merits.

The root of Stoicism being a paradox, it is not surprising that the offshoots should be so too. To say that “Virtue is the highest good” is a proposition to which every one who aspires to the spiritual life must yield assent with his lips, even if he has not yet learned to believe it in his heart. But alter it into “Virtue is the only good” and by that slight change it becomes at once the teeming mother of paradoxes. By a paradox is meant that which runs counter to general opinion. Now it is quite certain that men have regarded, do regard, and, we may safely add will regard things as good which are not virtue. But if we grant this initial paradox, a great many others will follow along with it—as for instance that “Virtue is sufficient of itself for happiness”. The fifth book of Cicero’s _Tusculan Disputations_ is an eloquent defense of this thesis, in which the orator combats the suggestion that a good man is not happy when he is being broken on the wheel.

Another glaring paradox of the Stoics is that “All faults are equal”.  They took their stand upon a mathematical conception of rectitude. An angle must be either a right angle or not, a line must be either straight or crooked, so an act must be either right or wrong. There is no mean between the two and there are no degrees of either. To sin is to cross the line. When once that has been done it makes no difference to the offense how far you go. Trespassing at all is forbidden. This doctrine was defended by the Stoics on account of its bracing moral effect as showing the heinousness of sin. Horace gives the judgment of the world in saying that common sense and morality, to say nothing of utility, revolt against it.

Here are some other specimens of the Stoic paradoxes. “Every fool is mad”. “Only the sage is free and every fool is a slave”. “The sage alone is wealthy”. “Good men are always happy and bad men always miserable”. “All goods are equal”. “No one is wiser or happier than another”. But may not one man we ask be more nearly wise or more nearly happy than another? “That may be”, the Stoics would reply, “but the man who is only one stade from Canopus is as much not in Canopus as the man who is a hundred stades off; and the eight day old puppy is still as blind as on the day of its birth; nor can a man who is near the surface of the sea breathe any more than if he were full five hundred fathom down”.

It is only fair to the Stoics to add that paradoxes were quite the order of the day in Greece, though they greatly outdid other schools in producing them. Socrates himself was the father of paradox.  Epicurus maintained as staunchly as any Stoic that “No wise man is unhappy”, and, if he be not belied, went the length of declaring that the wise man, if put into the bull of Phalaris would exclaim: “How delightful! How little I mind this!”

It is out of keeping with common sense to draw a hard and fast distinction between good and bad. Yet this was what the Stoics did.  They insisted on effecting here and now that separation between the sheep and the goats, which Christ postponed to the Day of Judgment.  Unfortunately, when it came to practice, all were found to be goats, so that the division was a merely formal one.

The good man of the Stoics was variously known as ‘the sage’, or, ‘the serious man’, the latter name being inherited from the Peripatetics. We used to hear it said among ourselves that a person had become serious, when he or she had taken to religion. Another appellation which the Stoics had for the sage was ‘the urbane man’, while the fool in contradistinction was called ‘a boor’. Boorishness was defined as an inexperience of the customs and laws of the state.  By the state was meant, not Athens or Sparta, as would have been the case in a former age, but the society of all rational beings into which the Stoics spiritualised the state. The sage alone had the freedom of this city and the fool was therefore not only a boor, but an alien or an exile. In this city, Justice was natural and not conventional, for the law by which it was governed was the law of right reason. The law then was spiritualised by the Stoics, just as the state was. It no longer meant the enactments of this or that community, but the mandates of the eternal reason which ruled the world and which would prevail in the ideal state. Law was defined as right reason commanding what was to be done and forbidding what was not to be done. As such, it in no way differed from the impulse of the sage himself.

As a member of a state and by nature subject to law, man was essentially a social being. Between all the wise there existed “unanimity,” which was “a knowledge of the common good,” because their views of life were harmonious. Fools, on the other hand, whose views of life were discordant, were enemies to one another and bent on mutual injury.

As a member of society the sage would play his part in public life.  Theoretically this was always true, and practically he would do so, wherever the actual constitution made any tolerable approach to the ideal type. But, if the circumstances were such as to make it certain that his embarking on politics would be of no service to his country, and only a source of danger to himself, then he would refrain. The kind of constitution of which the Stoics most approved was a mixed government containing democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements. Where circumstances allowed the sage would act as legislator, and would educate mankind, one way of doing which was by writing books which would prove of profit to the reader.

As a member of existing society the sage would marry and beget children, both for his own sake and for that of his country, on behalf of which, if it were good, he would be ready to suffer and die. Still he would look forward to a better time when, in Zeno’s as in Plato’s republic, the wise would have women and children in common, when the elders would love all the rising generation equally with parental fondness, and when marital jealousy would be no more.

As being essentially a social being, the sage was endowed not only with the graver political virtues, but also with the graces of life.  He was sociable, tactful and stimulating, using conversation as a means for promoting good will and friendship; so far as might be, he was all things to all men, which made him fascinating and charming, insinuating and even wily; he know how to hit the point and to choose the right moment, yet with it all he was plain and unostentatious and simple and unaffected; in particular he never delighted in irony much less in sarcasm.

From the social characteristics of the sage we turn now to a side of his character which appears eminently anti-social. One of his most highly vaunted characteristics was his self-sufficingness. He was to be able to step out of a burning city, coming from the wreck not only of his fortunes, but of his friends and family, and to declare with a smile that he has lost nothing. All that he truly cared for was to be centered in himself. Only thus could he be sure that Fortune would not wrest it from him.

The apathy or passionlessness of the sage is another of his most salient features. The passions being, on Zeno’s showing, not natural, but forms of disease, the sage, as being the perfect man, would of course be wholly free from them. They were so many disturbances of the even flow in which his bliss lay. The sage therefore would never be moved by a feeling of favour towards any one; he would never pardon a fault; he would never feel pity; he would never be prevailed upon by entreaty; he would never be stirred to anger.

As to the absence of pity in the sage, the Stoics themselves must have felt some difficulty there since we find Epictetus recommending his hearers to show grief out of sympathy for another, but to be careful not to feel it. The inexorability of the sage was a mere consequence of his calm reasonableness, which would lead him to take the right view from the first. Lastly, the sage would never be stirred to anger. For why should it stir his anger to see another in his ignorance injuring himself?

One more touch has yet to be added to the apathy of the sage. He was impervious to wonder. No miracle of nature could excite his astonishment—no mephitic caverns, which men deemed the mouths of hell, no deep-drawn ebb tides—the standing marvel of the Mediterranean dweller, no hot springs, no spouting jets of fire.

From the absence of passion it is but a step to the absence of error.  So we pass now to the infallibility of the sage—a monstrous doctrine which was never broached in the schools before Zeno. The sage, it was maintained, held no opinions, he never repented of his conduct, he was never deceived in anything. Between the daylight of knowledge and darkness of nescience Plato had interposed the twilight of opinion wherein men walked for the most part. Not so however the Stoic sage.  Of him it might be said, as Charles Lamb said of the Scotchman with whom he so imperfectly sympathized: “His understanding is always at its meridian—you never see the first dawn, the early streaks.” He has no falterings of self suspicion. Surmises, guesses, misgivings, half intuitions, semiconsciousness, partial illuminations, dim instincts, embryo conceptions, have no place in his brain or vocabulary. The twilight of dubiety never falls upon him. Opinion, whether in the form of an ungripped assent, or a weak supposition, was alien from the mental disposition of the serious man. With him there was no hasty or premature assent of the understanding, no forgetfulness, no distrust. He never allowed himself to be overreached or deluded, never had need of an arbiter, never was out in his reckoning nor put out by another. No urbane man ever wandered from his way, or missed his mark, or saw wrong, or heard amiss, or erred in any of his senses; he never conjectured nor thought of a better thing, for the one was a form of imperfect assent, and the other a sign of previous precipitancy. There was with him no change, no retraction, and no tripping. These things were for those whose dogmas could alter. After this it is almost superfluous for us to be assured that the sage never got drunk. Drunkenness, as Zeno pointed out, involved babbling, and of that the sage would never be guilty.  He would not, however, altogether eschew banquets. Indeed, the Stoics recognized a virtue under the name of ‘conviviality,’ which consisted in the proper conduct of them. It was said of Chrysippus that his demeanor was always quiet, even if his gait were unsteady, so that his housekeeper declared that only his legs were drunk.

There were pleasantries even within the school on this subject of infallibility of the sage. Aristo of Chios, while seceding on some other matters, held fast to the dogma that the sage never opined.  Whereupon Persaeus played a trick upon him. He made one of two twin brothers deposit a sum of money with him and the other call to reclaim it. The success of the trick however only went to establish that Aristo was not the sage, an admission which each of the Stoics seems to have been ready enough to make on his own part, as the responsibilities of the position were so fatiguing.

There remains one more leading characteristic of the sage, the most striking of them all, and the most important from the ethical point of view. This was his innocence or harmlessness. He would not harm others and was not to be harmed by them. For the Stoics believed with Socrates that it was not permissible by the divine law for a better man to be harmed by a worse. You could not harm the sage any more than you could harm the sunlight; he was in our world, but not of it.  There was no possibility of evil for him, save in his own will, and that you could not touch. And as the sage was beyond harm, so also was he above insult. Men might disgrace themselves by their insolent attitude towards his mild majesty, but it was not in their power to disgrace him.

As the Stoics had their analogue to the tenet of final assurance, so had they also to that of sudden conversion. They held that a man might become a sage without being at first aware of it. The abruptness of the transition from folly to wisdom was in keeping with their principle that there was no medium between the two, but it was naturally a point which attracted the strictures of their opponents.  That a man should be at one moment stupid and ignorant and unjust and intemperate, a slave and poor, and destitute, at the next a king, rich, and prosperous, temperate, and just, secure in his judgements and exempt from error, was a transformation, they declared, which smacked more of the fairy tales of the nursery than of the doctrines of a sober philosophy.

 

 

 

 

 

Home
Up
Contents

Back
Next

 


 
Please use the box below to search our site for a specific term or phrase:
Google
 
Web www.worldspirituality.org

 

You can also visit our online bookstore.