Stoicism, while in origin contemporaneous with Epicureanism, had a longer history and less constancy in doctrine. The teaching of its founder Zeno, in the early part of the third century B.C., was by no means identical with that of Marcus Aurelius in the latter half of the second century A.D. Zeno was a materialist, whose doctrines were, in the main, a combination of Cynicism and Heraclitus; but gradually, through an admixture of Platonism, the Stoics abandoned materialism, until, in the end, little trace of it remained. Their ethical doctrine, it is true, changed very little, and was what most of them regarded as of the chief importance. Even in this respect, however, there is some change of emphasis. As time goes on, continually less is said about the other aspects of Stoicism, and continually more exclusive stress is laid upon ethics and those parts of theology that are most relevant to ethics. With regard to all the earlier Stoics, we are hampered by the fact that their works survive only in a few fragments. Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, who belong to the first and second centuries A.D., alone survive in complete books.
Stoicism is less Greek than any school of philosophy with which we have been hitherto concerned. The early Stoics were mostly Syrian, the later ones mostly Roman. Tarn (Hellenistic Civilization, p. 287) suspects Chaldean influences in Stoicism. Ueberweg justly observes that, in Hellenizing the barbarian world, the Greeks dropped what only suited themselves. Stoicism, unlike the earlier purely Greek philosophies, is emotionally narrow, and in a certain sense fanatical; but it also contains religious elements of which the world felt the need, and which the Greeks seemed unable to supply. In particular, it appealed to rulers: 'nearly all the successors of Alexander—we may say all the principal kings in existence in the generations following Zeno—professed themselves Stoics,' says Professor Gilbert Murray.
Zeno was a Phoenician, born at Citium, in Cyprus, at some time during the latter half of the fourth century B.C. It seems probable that his family were engaged in commerce, and that business interests were what first took him to Athens. When there, however, he became anxious to study philosophy. The views of the Cynics were more congenial to him than those of any other school, but he was something of an eclectic. The followers of Plato accused him of plagiarizing the Academy. Socrates was the chief saint of the Stoics throughout their history; his attitude at the time of his trial, his refusal to escape, his calmness in the face of death, and his contention that the perpetrator of injustice injures himself more than his victim, all fitted in perfectly with Stoic teaching. So did his indifference to heat and cold, his plainness in matters of food and dress, and his complete independence of all bodily comforts. But the Stoics never took over Plato's doctrine of ideas, and most of them rejected his arguments for immortality. Only the later Stoics followed him in regarding the soul as immaterial; the earlier Stoics agreed with Heraclitus in the view that the soul is composed of material fire. Verbally, this doctrine is also to be found in Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but it seems that in them the fire is not to be taken literally as one of the four elements of which physical things are composed.
Zeno had no patience with metaphysical subtleties. Virtue was what he thought important, and he only valued physics and metaphysics in so far as they contributed to virtue. He attempted to combat the metaphysical tendencies of the age by means of common sense, which, in Greece, meant materialism. Doubts as to the trustworthiness of the senses annoyed him, and he pushed the opposite doctrine to extremes.
'Zeno began by asserting the existence of the real world. "What do you mean by real?" asked the Sceptic. "I mean solid and material. I mean that this table is solid matter." "And God," asked the Sceptic, "and the Soul?" "Perfectly solid," said Zeno, "more solid if anything, than the table." "And virtue or justice or the Rule of Three; also solid matter?" "Of course," said Zeno, "quite solid."'1
It is evident that, at this point, Zeno, like many others, was hurried by anti-metaphysical zeal into a metaphysic of his own.
The main doctrines to which the school remained constant throughout are concerned with cosmic determinism and human freedom. Zeno believed that there is no such thing as chance, and that the course of nature is rigidly determined by natural laws. Originally there was only fire; then the other elements—air, water, earth, in that order—gradually emerged. But sooner or later there will be a cosmic conflagration, and all will again become fire. This, according to most Stoics, is not a final consummation, like the end of the
world in Christian doctrine, but only the conclusion of a cycle; the whole process will be repeated endlessly. Everything that happens has happened before, and will happen again, not once, but countless times.
So far, the doctrine might seem cheerless, and in no respect more comforting than ordinary materialism such as that of Democritus. But this was only one aspect of it. The course of nature, in Stoicism as in eighteenth-century theology, was ordained by a Lawgiver who was also a beneficent Providence. Down to the smallest detail, the whole was designed to secure certain ends by natural means. These ends, except in so far as they concern gods and daemons, are to be found in the life of man. Everything has a purpose connected with human beings. Some animals are good to eat, some afford tests of courage; even bed bugs are useful, since they help us to wake in the morning and not lie in bed too long. The supreme Power is called sometimes God, sometimes Zeus. Seneca distinguished this Zeus from the object of popular belief, who was also real, but subordinate.
God is not separate from the world; He is the soul of the world, and each of us contains a part of the Divine Fire. All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature. In one sense, everylife is in harmony with Nature, since it is such as Nature's laws have caused it to be; but in another sense a human life is only in harmony with Nature when the individual will is directed to ends which are among those of Nature. Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. The wicked, though perforce they obey God's law, do so involuntarily; in the simile of Cleanthes, they are like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.
In the life of an individual man, virtue is the sole good; such things as health, happiness, possessions, are of no account. Since virtue resides in the will, everything really good or bad in a man's life depends only upon himself. He may become poor, but what of it? He can still be virtuous. A tyrant may put him in prison, but he can still persevere in living in harmony with Nature. He may be sentenced to death, but he can die nobly, like Socrates. Other men have power only over externals; virtue, which alone is truly good, rests entirely with the individual. Therefore every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires. It is only through false judgments that such desires prevail; the sage whose judgments are true is master of his fate in all that he values, since no outside force can deprive him of virtue.
There are obvious logical difficulties about this doctrine. If virtue is really the sole good, a beneficent Providence must be solely concerned to cause virtue, yet the laws of Nature have produced abundance of sinners. If virtue is the sole good, there can be no reason against cruelty and injustice, since, as the Stoics are never tired of pointing out, cruelty and injustice afford the sufferer the best opportunities for the exercise of virtue. If the world is completely deterministic, natural laws will decide whether I shall be virtuous or not. If I am wicked, Nature compels me to be wicked, and the freedom which virtue is supposed to give is not possible for me.
To a modern mind, it is difficult to feel enthusiastic about a virtuous life if nothing is going to be achieved by it. We admire a medical man who risks his life in an epidemic of plague, because we think illness is an evil, and we hope to diminish its frequency. But if illness is no evil, the medical man might as well stay comfortably at home. To the Stoic, his virtue is an end in itself, not something that does good. And when we take a longer view, what is the ultimate outcome? A destruction of the present world by fire, and then a repetition of the whole process. Could anything be more devastatingly futile? There may be progress here and there, for a time, but in the long run there is only recurrence. When we see something unbearably painful, we hope that in time such things will cease to happen; but the Stoic assures us that what is happening now will happen over and over again. Providence, which sees the whole, must, one would think, ultimately grow weary through despair.
There goes with this a certain coldness in the Stoic conception of virtue. Not only bad passions are condemned, but all passions. The sage does not feel sympathy; when his wife or his children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply. Friendship, so highly prized by Epicurus, is all very well, but it must not be carried to the point where your friend's misfortunes can destroy your holy calm. As for public life, it may be your duty to engage in it, since it gives opportunities for justice, fortitude, and so on; but you must not be actuated by a desire to benefit mankind, since the benefits you can confer—such as peace, or a more adequate supply of food—are no true benefits, and, in any case, nothing matters to you except your own virtue. The Stoic is not virtuous in order to do good, but does good in order to be virtuous. It has not occurred to him to love his neighbour as himself; love, except in a superficial sense, is absent from his conception of virtue.
When I say this, I am thinking of love as an emotion, not as a principle. As a principle, the Stoics preached universal love; this principle is found in Seneca and his successors, and probably was taken by them from earlier Stoics. The logic of the school led to doctrines which were softened by the humanity of its adherents, who were much better men than they would have been if they had been consistent. Kant—who resembles them—says that you must be kind to your brother, not because you are fond of him, but because the moral law enjoins kindness; I doubt, however, whether, in private life, he lived down to this precept.
Leaving these generalities, let us come to the history of Stoicism.
Of Zeno,2 only some fragments remain. From these it appears that he defined God as the fiery mind of the world, that he said God was a bodily substance, and that the whole universe formed the substance of God; Tertullian says that, according to Zeno, God runs through the material world as honey runs through the honeycomb. According to Diogenes Laertius, Zero held that the General Law, which is Right Reason, pervading everything, is the same as Zeus, the Supreme Head of the government of the universe: God, Mind, Destiny, Zeus, are one thing. Destiny is a power which moves matter; 'Providence' and 'Nature' are other names for it. Zeno does not believe that there should be temples to the gods: 'To build temples there will be no need: for a temple must not be held a thing of great worth or anything holy. Nothing can be of great worth or holy which is the work of builders and mechanics.' He seems, like the later Stoics, to have believed in astrology and divination. Cicero says that he attributed a divine potency to the stars. Diogenes Laertius says: 'All kinds of divination the Stoics leave valid. There must be divination, they say, if there is such a thing as Providence. They prove the reality of the art of divination by a number of cases in which predictions have come true, as Zeno asserts.' Chrysippus is explicit on this subject.
The Stoic doctrine as to virtue does not appear in the surviving fragments of Zeno, but seems to have been held by him.
Cleanthes of Assos, the immediate successor of Zeno, is chiefly notable for two things. First: as we have already seen, he held that Aristarchus of Samos should be prosecuted for impiety because he made the sun, instead of the earth, the centre of the universe. The second thing is his Hymn to Zeus, much of which might have been written by Pope, or any educated Christian in the century after Newton. Even more Christian is the short prayer of Cleanthes:
Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Lead thou me on.
To whatsoever task thou sendest me,
Lead thou me on.
I follow fearless, or, if in mistrust
I lag and will not, follow still I must.
Chrysippus (280–207 B.C.), who succeeded Cleanthes, was a voluminous author, and is said to have written seven hundred and five books. He made Stoicism systematic and pedantic. He held that only Zeus, the Supreme Fire, is immortal; the other gods, including the sun and moon, are born and die. He is said to have considered that God has no share in the causation of evil, but it is not clear how he reconciled this with determinism. Elsewhere he deals
with evil after the manner of Heraclitus, maintaining that opposites imply one another, and good without evil is logically impossible: 'There can be nothing more inept than the people who suppose that good could have existed without the existence of evil. Good and evil being antithetical, both must needs subsist in opposition.' In support of this doctrine he appeals to Plato, not to Heraclitus.
Chrysippus maintained that the good man is always happy and the bad man unhappy, and that the good man's happiness differs in no way from God's. On the question whether the soul survives death, there were conflicting opinions. Cleanthes maintained that all souls survive until the next universal conflagration (when everything is absorbed into God); but Chrysippus maintained that this is only true of the souls of the wise. He was less exclusively ethical in his interests than the later Stoics; in fact, he made logic fundamental. The hypothetical and disjunctive syllogism, as well as the word 'disjunction', are due to the Stoics; so is the study of grammar and the inventions of 'cases' in declension.3 Chrysippus, or other Stoics inspired by his work, had an elaborate theory of knowledge, in the main empirical and based on perception, though they allowed certain ideas and principles, which were held to be established by consensus gentium, the agreement of mankind. But Zeno, as well as the Roman Stoics, regarded all theoretical studies as subordinate to ethics; he says that philosophy is like an orchard, in which logic is the walls, physics the trees, and ethics the fruit; or like an egg, in which logic is the shell, physics the white, and ethics the yolk.4 Chrysippus, it would seem, allowed more independent value to theoretical studies. Perhaps his influence accounts for the fact that among the Stoics there were many men who made advances in mathematics and other sciences.
Stoicism, after Chrysippus, was considerably modified by two important men, Panaetius and Posidonius. Panaetius introduced a considerable element of Platonism, and abandoned materialism. He was a friend of the younger Scipio, and had an influence on Cicero, through whom, mainly, Stoicism became known to the Romans. Posidonius, under whom Cicero studied in Rhodes, influenced him even more. Posidonius was taught by Panaetius, who died about 110 B.C.
Posidonius (ca. 135–ca. 51 B.C.) was a Syrian Greek, and was a child when the Seleucid empire came to an end. Perhaps it was his experience of anarchy in Syria that caused him to travel westward, first to Athens, where he imbibed the Stoic philosophy, and then further afield, to the western parts of the Roman Empire. 'He saw with his own eyes the sunset in the Atlantic beyond the verge of the known world, and the African coast over against Spain, where
the trees were full of apes, and the villages of barbarous people inland from Marseilles, where human heads hanging at the house-doors for trophies were an every-day sight.'5 He became a voluminous writer on scientific subjects; indeed, one of the reasons for his travels was a wish to study the tides, which could not be done in the Mediterranean. He did excellent work in astronomy; as we saw in Chapter 24 his estimate of the distance of the sun was the best in antiquity.6 He was also a historian of note—he continued Polybius. But it was chiefly as an eclectic philosopher that he was known: he combined with Stoicism much of Plato's teaching, which the Academy, in its sceptical phase, appeared to have forgotten.
This affinity to Plato is shown in his teaching about the soul and the life after death. Panaetius had said, as most Stoics did, that the soul perishes with the body. Posidonius, on the contrary, says that it continues to live in the air, where, in most cases, it remains unchanged until the next world-conflagration. There is no hell, but the wicked, after death, are not so fortunate as the good, for sin makes the vapours of the soul muddy, and prevents it from rising as far as the good soul rises. The very wicked stay near the earth and are reincarnated; the truly virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round. They can help other souls; this explains (he thinks) the truth of astrology. Bevan suggests that, by this revival of Orphic notions and incorporation of Neo-Pythagorean beliefs, Posidonius may have paved the way for Gnosticism. He adds, very truly, that what was fatal to such philosophies as his was not Christianity but the Copernican theory.7 Cleanthes was right in regarding Aristarchus of Samos as a dangerous enemy.
Much more important historically (though not philosophically) than the earlier Stoics were the three who were connected with Rome: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius—a minister, a slave, and an emperor, respectively.
Seneca (ca. 3 B.C. to A.D. 65) was a Spaniard, whose father was a cultivated man living in Rome. Seneca adopted a political career, and was being moderately successful when he was banished to Corsica (A.D. 41) by the Emperor Claudius, because he had incurred the enmity of the Empress Messalina. Claudius's second wife Agrippina recalled Seneca from exile in A.D. 48, and appointed him tutor to her son, aged eleven. Seneca was less fortunate than Aristotle in his pupil, who was the Emperor Nero. Although, as a Stoic,
Seneca officially despised riches, he amassed a huge fortune, amounting, it was said, to three hundred million sesterces (about three million pounds). Much of this he acquired by lending money in Britain; according to Dio, the excessive rates of interest that he exacted were among the causes of revolt in that country. The heroic Queen Boadicea, if this is true, was heading a rebellion against capitalism as represented by the philosophic apostle of austerity.
Gradually, as Nero's excesses grew more unbridled, Seneca fell increasingly out of favour. At length he was accused, justly or unjustly, of complicity in a widespread conspiracy to murder Nero and place a new emperor—some said, Seneca himself—upon the throne. In view of his former services, he was graciously permitted to commit suicide (A.D. 65).
His end was edifying. At first, on being informed of the Emperor's decision, he set about making a will. When told that there was no time allowed for such a lengthy business, he turned to his sorrowing family and said: 'Never mind, I leave you what is of far more value than earthly riches, the example of a virtuous life'—or words to that effect. He then opened his veins, and summoned his secretaries to take down his dying words; according to Tacitus, his eloquence continued to flow during his last moments. His nephew Lucan, the poet, suffered a similar death at the same time, and expired reciting his own verses. Seneca was judged, in future ages, rather by his admirable precepts than by his somewhat dubious practice. Several of the Fathers claimed him as a Christian, and a supposed correspondence between him and Saint Paul was accepted as genuine by such men as Saint Jerome.
Epictetus (born about A.D. 60, died about A.D. 100) is a very different type of man, though closely akin as a philosopher. He was a Greek, originally a slave of Epaphroditus, a freedman of Nero and then his minister. He was lame—as a result, it was said of a cruel punishment in his days of slavery. He lived and taught at Rome until A.D. 90, when the Emperor Domitian, who had no use for intellectuals, banished all philosophers. Epictetus thereupon retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, where, after some years spent in writing and teaching, he died.
Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121–180) was at the other end of the social scale. He was the adopted son of the good Emperor Antoninus Pius, who was his uncle and his father-in-law, whom he succeeded in A.D. 161, and whose memory he revered. As Emperor, he devoted himself to Stoic virtue. He had much need of fortitude, for his reign was beset by calamities—earthquakes, pestilences, long and difficult wars, military insurrections. His Meditations, which are addressed to himself, and apparently not intended for publication, show that he felt his public duties burdensome, and that he suffered from a great weariness. His only son Commodus, who succeeded him, turned out to be one of the worst of the many bad emperors, but successfully concealed his vicious propensities so long as his father lived. The philosopher's wife Faustina was accused, perhaps unjustly, of gross immorality, but he never suspected her, and after her death took trouble about her deification. He persecuted the Christians, because they rejected the State religion, which he considered politically necessary. In all his actions he was conscientious, but in most he was unsuccessful. He is a pathetic figure: in a list of mundane desires to be resisted, the one that he finds most seductive is the wish to retire to a quiet country life. For this, the opportunity never came. Some of his Meditations are dated from the camp, on distant campaigns, the hardships of which eventually caused his death.
It is remarkable that Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are completely at one on all philosophical questions. This suggests that although social circumstances affect the philosophy of an age, individual circumstances have less influence than is sometimes thought upon the philosophy of an individual. Philosophers are usually men with a certain breadth of mind, who can largely discount the accidents of their private lives; but even they cannot rise above the larger good or evil of their time. In bad times they invent consolations; in good times their interests are more purely intellectual.
Gibbon, whose detailed history begins with the vices of Commodus, agrees with most eighteenth-century writers in regarding the period of the Antonines as a golden age. 'If a man were called upon,' he says, 'to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.' It is impossible to agree altogether with this judgment. The evil of slavery involved immense suffering, and was sapping the vigour of the ancient world. There were gladiatorial shows and fights with wild beasts, which were intolerably cruel and must have debased the populations that enjoyed the spectacle. Marcus Aurelius, it is true, decreed that gladiators should fight with blunted swords; but this reform was short-lived, and he did nothing about fights with wild beasts. The economic system was very bad; Italy was going out of cultivation, and the population of Rome depended upon the free distribution of grain from the provinces. All initiative was concentrated in the Emperor and his ministers; throughout the vast extent of the Empire, no one, except an occasional rebellious general, could do anything but submit. Men looked to the past for what was best; the future, they felt, would be at best a weariness, and at worst a horror. When we compare the tone of Marcus Aurelius with that of Bacon, or Locke, or Condorcet, we see the difference between a tired and a hopeful age. In a hopeful age, great present evils can be endured, because it is thought that they will pass; but in a tired age even real goods lose their savour. The Stoic ethic suited the times of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, because its gospel was one of endurance rather than hope.
Undoubtedly the age of the Antonines was much better than any later age until the Renaissance, from the point of view of the general happiness. But careful study shows that it was not so prosperous as its architectural remains would lead one to suppose. Graeco-Roman civilization had made very little impression on the agricultural regions; it was practically limited to the cities. Even in the cities, there was a proletariat which suffered very great poverty, and there was a large slave class. Rostovtseff sums up a discussion of social and economic conditions in the cities as follows:8
'This picture of their social conditions is not so attractive as the picture of their external appearance. The impression conveyed by our sources is that the splendour of the cities was created by, and existed for, a rather small minority of their populations, that the welfare even of this small minority was based on comparatively weak foundations; that the large masses of the city population had either a very moderate income or lived in extreme poverty. In a word, we must not exaggerate the wealth of the cities: their external aspect is misleading.'
On earth, says Epictetus, we are prisoners, and in an earthly body. According to Marcus Aurelius, he used to say 'Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.' Zeus could not make the body free, but he gave us a portion of his divinity. God is the father of men, and we are all brothers. We should not say 'I am an Athenian' or 'I am a Roman,' but 'I am a citizen of the universe.' If you were a kinsman of Caesar, you would feel safe; how much more should you feel safe in being a kinsman of God? If we understand that virtue is the only true good, we shall see that no real evil can befall us.
I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace? 'Tell the secret.' I refuse to tell, for this is in my power. 'But I will chain you.' What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain—yes, but my will—no, not even Zeus can conquer that. 'I will imprison you.' My bit of a body, you mean. 'I will behead you.' Why? When did I ever tell you that I was the only man in the world that could not be beheaded?
These are the thoughts that those who pursue philosophy should ponder, these are the lessons they should write down day by day, in these they should exercise themselves.9
Slaves are the equals of other men, because all alike are sons of God.
We must submit to God as a good citizen submits to the law. 'The soldier swears to respect no man above Caesar, but we to respect ourselves first of
all.'10 'When you appear before the mighty of the earth, remember that Another looks from above on what is happening, and that you must please Him rather than this man.'11
Who then is a Stoic?
Show me a man moulded to the pattern of the judgments that he utters, in the same way as we call a statue Phidian that is moulded according to the art of Phidias. Show me one who is sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him me. By the gods I would fain see a Stoic. Nay you cannot show me a finished Stoic; then show me one in the moulding, one who has set his feet on the path. Do me this kindness, do not grudge an old man like me a sight I never saw till now. What! You think you are going to show me the Zeus of Phidias or his Athena, that work of ivory and gold? It is a soul I want; let one of you show me the soul of a man who wishes to be one with God, and to blame God or man no longer, to fail in nothing, to feel no misfortune, to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy—one who (why wrap up my meaning?) desires to change his manhood for godhead, and who in this poor body of his has his purpose set upon communion with God. Show him to me. Nay, you cannot.
Epictetus is never weary of showing how we should deal with what are considered misfortunes, which he does often by means of homely dialogues.
Like the Christians, he holds that we should love our enemies. In general, in common with other Stoics, he despises pleasure, but there is a kind of happiness that is not to be despised. 'Athens is beautiful. Yes, but happiness is far more beautiful—freedom from passion and disturbance, the sense that your affairs depend on no one' (p. 428). Every man is an actor in a play, in which God has assigned the parts; it is our duty to perform our part worthily, whatever it may be.
There is great sincerity and simplicity in the writings which record the teaching of Epictetus. (They are written down from notes by his pupil Arrian.) His morality is lofty and unworldly; in a situation in which a man's main duty is to resist tyrannical power, it would be difficult to find anything more helpful. In some respects, for instance in recognizing the brotherhood of man and in teaching the equality of slaves, it is superior to anything to be found in Plato or Aristotle or any philosopher whose thought is inspired by the City State. The actual world, in the time of Epictetus, was very inferior to the Athens of Pericles; but the evil in what existed liberated his aspirations, and his ideal world is as superior to that of Plato as his actual world is inferior to the Athens of the fifth century.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius begin by acknowledging his indebtedness to his grandfather, father, adopted father, various teachers, and the gods. Some of the obligations he enumerates are curious. He learned (he says) from Diognetus not to listen to miracle-workers; from Rusticus not to write poetry; from Sextus to practise gravity without affectation; from Alexander the grammarian, not to correct bad grammar in others, but to use the right expression shortly afterwards; from Alexander the Platonist, not to excuse tardiness in answering a letter by the plea of press of business; from his adopted father, not to fall in love with boys. He owes it to the gods (he continues) that he was not brought up too long with his grandfather's concubine, and did not make proof of his virility too soon; that his children are neither stupid nor deformed in body; that his wife is obedient, affectionate, and simple; and that when he took to philosophy he did not waste time on history, syllogism, or astronomy.
What is impersonal in the Meditations agrees closely with Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius is doubtful about immortality, but says, as a Christian might: 'Since it is possible that thou mayst depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.' Life in harmony with the universe is what is good; and harmony with the universe is the same thing as obedience to the will of God.
'Everything harmonizes with me which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return. The poet says, Dear city of Cecrops; and wilt not thou say, Dear city of Zeus?'
One sees that Saint Augustine's City of God was in part taken over from the pagan Emperor.
Marcus Aurelius is persuaded that God gives every man a special daemon as his guide—a belief which reappears in the Christian guardian angel. He finds comfort in the thought of the universe as a closely-knit whole; it is, he says, one living being, having one substance and one soul. One of his maxims is: 'Frequently consider the connection of all things in the universe.' 'Whatever may happen to thee, it was prepared for thee from all eternity; and the implication of causes was from eternity spinning the thread of thy being.' There goes with this, in spite of his position in the Roman State, the Stoic belief in the human race as one community: 'My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.' There is the difficulty that one finds in all Stoics, of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will. 'Men exist for the sake of one another,' he says, when he is thinking of his duty as ruler. 'The wickedness of one man does no harm to another,' he says on the same page, when he is thinking of the doctrine that the virtuous will alone is good. He never inferred that the goodness of one man does no good to another, and that he would do no harm to anybody but himself if he were as bad an Emperor as Nero; and yet this conclusion seems to follow.
'It is peculiar to man,' he says, 'to love even those who do wrong. And this happens if, when they do wrong, it occurs to thee that they are kinsmen, and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; and above all, that the wrong-doer has done thee no harm, for he has not made thy ruling faculty worse than it was before.'
And again: 'Love mankind, Follow God…. And it is enough to remember that Law rules all.'
These passages bring out very clearly the inherent contradictions in Stoic ethics and theology. On the one hand, the universe is a rigidly deterministic single whole, in which all that happens is the result of previous causes. On the other hand, the individual will is completely autonomous, and no man can be forced to sin by outside causes. This is one contradiction, and there is a second closely connected with it. Since the will is autonomous, and the virtuous will alone is good, one man cannot do either good or harm to another; therefore benevolence is an illusion. Something must be said about each of these contradictions.
The contradiction between free will and determinism is one of those that run through philosophy from early times to our own day, taking different forms at different times. At present it is the Stoic form that concerns us.
I think that a Stoic, if we could make him submit to a Socratic interrogation, would defend his view more or less as follows: The universe is a single animate Being, having a soul which may also be called God or Reason. As a whole, this Being is free. God decided, from the first, that He would act according to fixed general laws, but He chose such laws as would have the best results. Sometimes, in particular cases, the results are not wholly desirable, but this inconvenience is worth enduring, as in human codes of law, for the sake of the advantage of legislative fixity. A human being is partly fire, partly of lower clay; in so far as he is fire (at any rate when it is of the best quality), he is part of God. When the divine part of a man exercises will virtuously, this will is part of God's, which is free; therefore in these circumstances the human will also is free.
This is a good answer up to a point, but it breaks down when we consider the causes of our volitions. We all know, as a matter of empirical fact, that dyspepsia, for example, has a bad effect on a man's virtue, and that, by suitable drugs forcibly administered, will-power can be destroyed. Take Epictetus's favourite case, the man unjustly imprisoned by a tyrant, of which there have been more examples in recent years than at any other period in human history. Some of these men have acted with Stoic heroism; some, rather mysteriously, have not. It has become clear, not only that sufficient torture will break down almost any man's fortitude, but also that morphia or cocaine can reduce a man to docility. The will, in fact, is only independent of the tyrant so long as the tyrant is unscientific. This is an extreme example; but the same arguments that exist in favour of determinism in the inanimate world exist also in the sphere of human volitions in general. I do not say—I do not think—that these arguments are conclusive; I say only that they are of equal strength in both cases, and that there can be no good reason for accepting them in one region and rejecting them in another. The Stoic, when he is engaged in urging a tolerant attitude to sinners, will himself urge that the sinful will is a result of previous causes; it is only the virtuous will that seems to him free. This, however, is inconsistent. Marcus Aurelius explains his own virtue as due to the good influence of parents, grandparents, and teachers; the good will is just as much a result of previous causes as the bad will. The Stoic may say truly that his philosophy is a cause of virtue in those who adopt it, but it seems that it will not have this desirable effect unless there is a certain admixture of intellectual error. The realization that virtue and sin alike are the inevitable result of previous causes (as the Stoics should have held) is likely to have a somewhat paralysing effect on moral effort.
I come now to the second contradiction, that the Stoic, while he preached benevolence, held, in theory, that no man can do either good or harm to another, since the virtuous will alone is good, and the virtuous will is independent of outside causes. This contradiction is more patent than the other, and more peculiar to the Stoics (including certain Christian moralists). The explanation of their not noticing it is that, like many other people, they had two systems of ethics, a superfine one for themselves, and an inferior one for 'the lesser breeds without the law'. When the Stoic philosopher is thinking of himself, he holds that happiness and all other worldly so-called goods are worthless; he even says that to desire happiness is contrary to nature, meaning that it involves lack of resignation to the will of God. But as a practical man administering the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius knows perfectly well that this sort of thing won't do. It is his duty to see that the grainships from Africa duly reach Rome, that measures are taken to relieve the sufferings caused by pestilence, and that barbarian enemies are not allowed to cross the frontier. That is to say, in dealing with those of his subjects whom he does not regard as Stoic philosophers, actual or potential, he accepts ordinary mundane standards of what is good or bad. It is by applying these standards that he arrives at his duty as an administrator. What is odd is that this duty, itself, is in the higher sphere of what the Stoic sage should do, although it is deduced from an ethic which the Stoic sage regards as fundamentally mistaken.
The only reply that I can imagine to this difficulty is one which is perhaps logically unassailable, but is not very plausible. It would, I think, be given by Kant, whose ethical system is very similar to that of the Stoics. True, he might say, there is nothing good but the good will, but the will is good when it is directed to certain ends, that, in themselves, are indifferent. It does not matter whether Mr A is happy or unhappy, but I, if I am virtuous, shall act in a way which I believe will make him happy, because that is what the moral law enjoins. I cannot make Mr A virtuous, because his virtue depends only upon himself; but I can do something towards making him happy, or rich, or learned, or healthy. The Stoic ethic may therefore be stated as follows: Certain things are vulgarly considered goods, but this is a mistake; what is good is a will directed towards securing these false goods for other people. This doctrine involves no logical contradiction, but it loses all plausibility if we genuinely believe that what are commonly considered goods are worthless, for in that case the virtuous will might just as well be directed to quite other ends.
There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can't be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and, in a bad world, useful; but it is neither quite true nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere.
Although the main importance of the Stoics was ethical, there were two respects in which their teaching bore fruit in other fields. One of these is theory of knowledge; the other is the doctrine of natural law and natural rights.
In theory of knowledge, in spite of Plato, they accepted perception; the deceptiveness of the senses, they held, was really false judgment, and could be avoided by a little care. A Stoic philosopher, Sphaerus, an immediate disciple of Zeno, was once invited to dinner by King Ptolemy, who, having heard of this doctrine, offered him a pomegranate made of wax. The philosopher proceeded to try to eat it, whereupon the king laughed at him. He replied that he had felt no certainty of its being a real pomegranate, but had thought it unlikely that anything inedible would be supplied at the royal table.12 In this answer he appealed to a Stoic distinction, between those things which can be known with certainty on the basis of perception, and those which, on this basis, are only probable. On the whole, this doctrine was sane and scientific.
Another doctrine of theirs in theory of knowledge was more influential, though more questionable. This was their belief in innate ideas and principles. Greek logic was wholly deductive, and this raised the question of first premisses. First premisses had to be, at least in part, general, and no method existed of proving them. The Stoics held that there are certain principles which are luminously obvious, and are admitted by all men; these could be made, as in Euclid's Elements, the basis of deduction. Innate ideas, similarly,
could be used as the starting-point of definitions. This point of view was accepted throughout the Middle Ages, and even by Descartes.
The doctrine of natural right, as it appears in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, is a revival of a Stoic doctrine, though with important modifications. It was the Stoics who distinguished jus naturale from jus gentium. Natural law was derived from first principles of the kind held to underlie all general knowledge. By nature, the Stoics held, all human beings are equal. Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, favours 'a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed'. This was an ideal which could not be consistently realized in the Roman Empire, but it influenced legislation, particularly in improving the status of women and slaves. Christianity took over this part of Stoic teaching along with much of the rest. And when at last, in the seventeenth century, the opportunity came to combat despotism effectually, the Stoic doctrines of natural law and natural equality, in their Christian dress, acquired a practical force which, in antiquity, not even an emperor could give to them.