Chapter 1b

The Philosophy of Stoicism

19 Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism. According to him, every animal was by nature:

  • recommended to its own care, and
  • endowed with self-love

Nature causes every animal to preserve its existence as best as it can.

20 The self-love of man embraced his entire mind and body and desired their preservation. Whatever supported this state was naturally chosen. Whatever destroyed it, was rejected. These make us prefer health, strength, agility, and ease of body, and the eternal conveniences which promoted these. Examples are wealth, power, honours, the respect and the esteem of those we live with.

On the other hand, our self-love told us to avoid sickness, infirmity, pain of body, and all the eternal inconveniencies. Examples are poverty, lack of authority, and hatred of those we live with. Within these two opposite classes, some are more preferable.

In the first class:

  • health was preferable to strength
  • strength to agility
  • reputation to power
  • power to riches

In the second class:

  • sickness was more to be avoided than infirmity
  • disgrace than poverty
  • poverty than the loss of power

Virtue and the propriety of conduct was in choosing all objects that were naturally preferable, and rejecting those that were not. According to the Stoics, we maintained that perfect conduct by=

  • choosing and rejecting with this accurate discernment, and
  • bestowing on every object the precise attention it deserved, according to its place in this natural scale of things.

They called this:

  • to live consistently
  • to live according to nature
  • to obey those laws which the Author of nature prescribed for our conduct.

21 So far, the Stoical idea of propriety and virtue is not very different from that of Aristotle.

22 Nature recommended to us=

  • the prosperity of our family, relations, friends, country, mankind, and of the universe as primary objects
  • the prosperity of two entities as preferable to the prosperity of one entity

Therefore, the prosperity of all must be infinitely better as we ourselves were but one Consequently, wherever our prosperity was inconsistent with the prosperity of the whole, our prosperity should yield to the latter. All events are conducted by the providence of a wise, powerful, and good God.

Therefore, if we were in poverty, sickness, or any calamity, we should first try our best to rescue ourselves as allowed by justice and our duty to others. But if this is impossible, we should be satisfied that the universe’s perfection required for us to continue in this situation in the meantime.

The prosperity of the whole should appear preferable to ourselves which is so insignificant. This would make up the perfection of our nature. If any opportunity of extricating ourselves should arise, it became our duty to embrace it. The order of the universe no longer required our continuance in this case. The great Director plainly called on us to leave it, by clearly pointing out the road to follow. It was the same case with the adversity of our relations, our friends, our country. If we could prevent or end their calamity without violating any more sacred obligation, it was our duty to do so. The propriety of action is the rule which Jupiter gave us to direct our conduct. This rule required us to do this. But if it were out of our power to do either, we should consider this event as the most fortunate which could have happened.

Because it tended most to the prosperity and order of the whole. If we were wise and equitable, we should desire this order most of all. It was our own final interest, considered as a part of that whole. The prosperity of the whole should be the principal and sole object of our desire.

23 Epictetus says:

'How are some things according to our nature, and other things are contrary to it? It is in how we consider ourselves as separated from all other things. The nature of the foot is always to be clean. But if you consider your foot to be part of your body, it must sometimes trample in the dirt, tread on thorns, be cut off for the sake of the whole body. If your foot refuses to do these, then it is no longer your foot. This is how we should think of ourselves. If you consider yourself separated from humanity, it would be natural to live to old age, be rich, and healthy. But if you consider yourself as part of humanity, sometimes you must be sick, be exposed to the inconvenience of a sea voyage, be in want, and perhaps, die before your time. Why then do you complain? By complaining, the foot ceases to be a foot and so you cease to be a human?'

24 A wise man never complains of Providence’s destiny. He does not=

  • think that the universe is in confusion when he is out of order,
  • look on himself as separate from every part of nature, to be taken care of by itself and for itself.

He regards himself as how the divine Being regards him, as an atom of an immense and infinite system which must work to the convenience of the whole. He accepts whatever happens to him with joy. If he had known all the connections of the universe’s parts, then he would have wished the very lot himself.

  • If his destiny is life, he is contented to live.
  • If his destiny is death, he willingly goes where he is appointed since nature must not need his presence here.

A cynical Stoical philosopher said=

'I accept with equal joy whatever fortune can befall me. Riches or poverty, pleasure or pain, health or sickness, all is alike. Nor would I desire that the Gods change my destination in any respect. If I should ask of them anything, I ask them what they wanted to do with me, so that I can demonstrate my cheerfulness in embracing their allotment

Epictetus says:

'If I am going to sail, I choose the best ship and pilot and wait for the fairest weather possible. Prudence and propriety are the principles which the Gods have given me to direct me. They require that if a storm arises, I should not be troubled at the consequence. All that I had to do is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned or stay safe, is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I leave it entirely to his determination.

25 To the Stoical wise man, all the events of human life must be indifferent, because of=

  • this perfect confidence in that benevolent wisdom which governs the universe,
  • this entire resignation to whatever order that wisdom might think proper to establish.

His happiness is in=

  • the contemplation of the perfection of the universe
  • the good government of=
    • the great republic of Gods and men
    • all rational and sensible beings

He preferred some events to others because morality required him to do so. This morality is the rule that the Gods had given him to direct his conduct. All his feelings were absorbed in two great feelings=

  • His feeling for this duty
  • His feeling for the greatest possible happiness of all rational and sensible beings

He trusted whatever happened to a superior power and wisdom, to promote that great end which he himself desired most.

26 This discernment was originally introduced and recommended to us by the things that we discern for their own sake. Yet when we became thoroughly used to discerning, the actual discernment necessarily appeared of much less value than=

  • the order, grace, beauty which we discerned in this conduct
  • the happiness which we felt from it.

From the observation of this propriety arose the happiness and the glory of human nature. From its neglect arose its misery and disgrace.

27 But to a wise man whose passions were controlled, the observation of this morality was always easy. If he were in prosperity, he returned thanks to Jupiter for having joined him with circumstances which= were easily mastered= there was little temptation to do wrong

If he were in adversity, he equally returned thanks to Jupiter for giving him a vigorous opponent. It made the contest more violent, but the victory more glorious and equally certain.

Therefore, there can be no evil. On the contrary, there can be the greatest good. A brave man exults in those dangers which his fortune has involved him, from no rashness of his own. They give a chance for him to exercise that heroic intrepidity which gives exalted delight from admiration. One who masters all his exercises is not afraid to measure his strength and activity with the strongest.

In the same way, one who masters all his passions, does not dread any circumstance given by the Superintendant of the universe. The bounty of that divine Being has provided him with virtues which render him superior to every situation. If it is pleasure, he has temperance to refrain from it. If it is pain, he has constancy to bear it. If it is danger or death, he has the magnanimity and fortitude to despise it.

The events of human life can never find him unprepared at how to maintain morality. Such propriety constitutes his glory and happiness.

  • Plato’s system is based on Propriety (Part 2, Section 1)
  • The Stoical system is based on the influence of chance (Part 2, Section 3)

28 The Stoics considered human life as a game of great skill which had a mixture of chance. In such games, the stake is commonly a trifle. The whole pleasure of the game arises from playing well, fairly, and skilfully.

If the skilled player loses by chance, the loss should cause fun instead of sadness. He has= made no false stroke done nothing which he should be ashamed of completely enjoyed the game’s whole pleasure

If the unskilled player wins despite all his blunders, his success can give him little satisfaction. He is mortified by the memory of all his faults. Even during the play, he can enjoy none of the pleasure it brings.

Almost his every stroke is preceded by fear, doubt, and hesitation from ignorance of the rules of the game. When he has played it, the mortification of finding it a gross blunder commonly completes the unpleasing circle of his sensations.

According to the Stoics, human life, with all the advantages which can possibly attend it, should be regarded as=

  • a mere two-penny stake, and
  • a matter too insignificant to merit any anxious concern.

Our only anxious concern should be about the proper method of playing and not about the stake. If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended on causes beyond our power and out of our direction. We necessarily exposed ourselves=

  • to perpetual fear and uneasiness
  • frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments

If we placed it in the propriety of our conduct or by playing well, fairly, wisely and skilfully, we placed it in what might be altogether in our own power, through proper discipline, education, and attention. Our happiness was perfectly secure and beyond the reach of fortune. The event of our actions was equally out of our concern, if it was out of our power. We could never=

  • feel fear or anxiety about it
  • suffer any grievous or serious disappointment.

29 They said that we can reject human life according to different circumstances.

The propriety of conduct required that we stay alive. On the other hand, if there were actually more circumstances contrary to nature, without any hope of amendment, life itself became the object of rejection. He was free to remove himself out of life. The propriety of conduct required him to do so. This propriety was the rule the Gods gave him to direct his conduct.

Epictetus says:

'I am ordered not to dwell at Nicopolis so I do not dwell there. I am ordered to dwell in the rocky island of Gyarae. I go and dwell there. But the house smokes in Gyarae. If the smoke is moderate, I will bear it and stay there. If it is excessive, I will go to another house. The door is open and I can walk out when I please. I can retire to that hospitable house which is always open to all, for no man living has any power over me.

The Stoics said:

Walk forth by all means if your situation is disagreeable and your house smokes too much for you. But walk forth without fretting, murmuring, or complaining. Walk forth calmly, contentedly, rejoicingly, returning thanks to the Gods. The Gods from their infinite bounty, have opened the safe harbour of death. It is ready to receive us from the stormy ocean of human life. It is beyond the reach of human rage and injustice. It is large enough to contain all those who wish and all those who do not wish to retire to it. It is an asylum which takes away from every man every pretence of complaining or even of fancying that there can be any evil in human life, except that which he may suffer from his own folly and weakness.

30 In the few fragments of their philosophy which have come down to us, the Stoics sometimes talk of leaving life with a gaiety and even with a levity. This might induce us to believe that they believed that we could morally leave life wantonly, on the slightest disgust or uneasiness.

Epictetus says:

'When you drink with such a person, you complain of his long stories about his Mysian wars. "He says "Now my friend, having told you how I succeeded at such a place, I will tell you how I was besieged in another." But if you do not want to be troubled with his long stories, do not accept of his supper. If you accept his supper, you cannot complain of his long stories. It is the same case with the evils of human life. Never complain of something which is in your power at all times to get rid of.'

However, despite this gaiety and levity of expression, the alternative of leaving life or of remaining in it, was a most serious and important matter for the Stoics. We should never leave it until we were distinctly called on to do so by that superintending power which originally placed us in it. But we were to consider ourselves as called on to do so, not merely at the appointed and unavoidable term of human life.

Whenever that superintending Power rendered our life the proper object of rejection, the great rule which he had given us for the direction of our conduct required us to leave it. We might then hear the awful and benevolent voice of that divine Being distinctly calling on us to do so.

31 It was on this account that it might be the duty of a wise man to remove out of life though he was perfectly happy.

While, on the contrary, it might be the duty of a weak man to remain in it, though he was miserable. If, in the wise man’s situation, there were more circumstances of rejection, the whole situation became the object of rejection. The rule which the Gods had given him for the direction of his conduct, required that he should remove out of it as fast as the circumstances rendered convenient. However, he was perfectly happy even while he remained in it. He had placed his happiness not in:

  • obtaining the objects of his choice, or
  • avoiding the objects of his rejection

He always placed his happiness in choosing and rejecting with exact propriety the fitness of his endeavours and exertions, not in its success. If, in the weak man’s situation, there were more circumstances of choice, his whole situation became the proper object of choice. It was his duty to remain in it. However, he was unhappy from not knowing how to use those circumstances. Even if his cards were so good, he did not know how to play them. He could get no real satisfaction on the progress of the game whatever way it turns out.

32 Suicide was a common doctrine to the ancient philosophers even to the peaceable and indolent Epicureans. The Stoics insisted on the propriety of suicide.

During that age,the founders of all the principal sects of ancient philosophy flourished. During the Peloponnesian war and many years after it ended, all the Greek republics were almost always distracted by the most furious factions at home. Abroad, they were involved in the most sanguinary wars.

Each faction sought superiority and the complete destruction of all its enemies, or what was not less cruel, to= reduce them into domestic slavery, the vilest of all states to sell them, man, woman, and child, like herds of cattle, to the highest bidder in the market

The smallness of most of those states raised the possibility of them falling into that very calamity which they perhaps inflicted or attempted on their neighbours.

In this disorderly state of things, the most perfect innocence, joined to the highest rank and greatest public services, could not secure any man from being condemned to the most cruel punishment of some hostile faction. Even if he was at home and among his own relations and fellow-citizens. He was exposed to greater injuries and insults if= he were taken prisoner in war, or his city was conquered But every man naturally familiarizes his imagination with the distresses he foresees frequently exposed to him. It is impossible that a sailor should not frequently think of= storms and shipwrecks foundering at sea how he will feel and act on such occasions

In the same way, it was impossible that a Greek patriot or hero should not familiarize his imagination with all the calamities he is constantly expose to. An American savage=

  • prepares his death-song,
  • considers how to act when he has fallen into the hands of his enemies,
  • is put to death in the most lingering tortures amidst the insults and derision of all the spectators.

A Greek patriot would think about his sufferings when captured, enslaved, and tortured.

But the philosophers of all the sects very justly represented virtue or wise, just, firm, and temperate conduct as the most probable, certain and infallible road to happiness even in this life. However, this conduct could not always exempt. It might even sometimes expose the person to all the calamities during those unsettled times.

Therefore, they tried to show that happiness was independent of fortune.

  • The Stoics showed that happiness was independent altogether.
  • The Platonic and Aristolean philosophers showed that happiness was independent in a great measure.

Firstly, wise, prudent, and good conduct most likely ensured success in all undertakings. Secondly, if it fails, the virtuous man can still enjoy=

  • the complete approbation of his own breast and keep calm and have peace within.
  • the love and esteem of every intelligent and impartial spectator.

33 Those philosophers tried to show that the greatest misfortunes could be supported more easily than imagined. They tried to point out the comforts we might still enjoy when=

  • reduced to poverty
  • driven into banishment
  • exposed to the injustice of popular clamour
  • labouring under blindness, deafness, in old age, near death

They pointed out, too, how his constancy could be supported under the agonies of=

  • pain and torture
  • sickness
  • sorrow for the loss of children, death of friends and relations, etc.

The ancient philosophers’ writings on these subjects are the most instructive and interesting remains of antiquity. The spirit and manhood of their doctrines make a wonderful contrast with the desponding, plaintive, and whining tone of some modern systems.

34 Milton says that those ancient philosophers suggested how to arm the hardened breast with stubborn patience, as with triple steel, they tried to convince their followers that=

  • there was no evil in death
  • if their situation became too hard, the could kill themselves without fear.
  • if there was no world beyond the present, death could be no evil
  • if there was another world, the Gods must likewise be there.

A just man could fear no evil while under their protection. In short, those philosophers prepared a death-song which the Greek patriots and heroes might use on the proper occasions.

Of all the sects, I think the Stoics prepared the most animated and spirited song by far.


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