Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

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“A Sage wants nothing but needs many things; a fool wants everything.”

At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.

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Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, AZ © Dave DuBay

Seneca opens his letter explaining a common misconception: “Lack of feeling” in Stoicism means “a soul which rejects any sensation of evil,” not lack of emotion. That is, Sages “feel their troubles but overcome them.”

A Sage has friends but also is self-sufficient. “If he loses a hand…he’ll be satisfied with what is left. …But while he doesn’t pine for these parts…he prefers not to lose them.”

Seneca goes on to clarify that friendship prevents our nobler qualities from lying dormant.

But his disagreement with Epicurus, ancient Stoicism’s opponent, is that friendship isn’t about having someone by your side in a time of need. That’s a fair weather friend who won’t actually show up.

“Hence, prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends”—but “a friend because it pays will cease when that pays.” Instead, the value Stoicism places on human connection means that friendship is about you being there in your friend’s time of need.

One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all nobility.

This frames the Stoic view of self-sufficiency.

A Sage is self-sufficient when it comes to eudaimonia. Too often translated as “happiness,” Seneca defines it as “an upright soul.”

But a Sage still needs many things for mere existence. Sages are not gods.

It’s here that Seneca quotes Chrysippus, the third leader of Stoicism, whose writing are mostly lost to history:

The wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.”

Desire stems from dependency, but the Sage understands that “the supreme good…arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.”

If what is truly good comes from within then the removal of external objects of desire—the ploy of conquerors—has no power. That’s how the conquered conquers the conqueror.

In other words, the Sage “deems nothing that might be taken to be good.” A Sage practices non-attachment much like a Buddhist monk.

In the end, Seneca is distinguishing needs and wants. Not that he, or I, or you are Sages. It’s an ideal aspired to if rarely attained.

Marcus Aurelius: Pleasure & pain

Stoics and Epicureans have serious disagreements about pleasure and pain. Marcus Aurelius articulates why the Stoic view is best for human flourishing.

Balance rock, Lincolnville, Maine

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Don’t fear pain or seek pleasure

The human soul degrades itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or pain (2.16). To fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen. And with the world being what it is, that’s impious. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly impious (9.1).

Even pirates, perverts, parricides, and tyrants enjoy pleasure to the full (6.34). When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Remorse is annoyance at having passed up something to your benefit. But if it’s to your benefit it must be something a virtuous person would be concerned about. But no virtuous person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure. So pleasure cannot make you more virtuous (8.10).

Watch out for desire

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).

Keep it simple

You don’t need much to live happily. Just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, and obeying God (7.67).

Non-attachment

Don’t dream of possessing what you don’t have. Reflect on the blessings of what you do have, and how much you’d miss them if they weren’t there. But be careful. Don’t become so dependent on this pleasure that it would upset you to lose them (7.27).

Character is most important

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you inside or out (4.8). And what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly; and with integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it (2.17).

What’s truly harmful is compromising your character

For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs their senses, or the fulfillment of what they intend. So too for rational creatures. Anything that obstructs the mind is harmful. Apply this to yourself. Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? That would harm you if you failed to recognize this possibility. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed because no one can obstruct the operations of the mind (8.41).

Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your judgment of it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Keep the judging part of you quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone — bad and good alike — is neither good nor bad {i.e. it doesn’t affect your character unless you let it}. What happens in every life — lived naturally or not — is neither natural nor unnatural (4.39).

The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only the perpetrator is harmed by it — and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to (8.55).

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

Think it through

It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal — if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad? (6.33)

Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been (4.7, see also 7.14). Remove your judgments of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you is in trouble it can form its own judgments for itself (8.40).

Enduring pain

Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them (8.28).

Unendurable pain carries us off. Chronic pain can be endured: the mind preserves its serenity by withdrawing from the body – reason is not impaired by pain. The parts injured by pain can protest if they can (7.33).

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then stop complaining and endure it. If it’s unendurable also stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. But remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable by treating it as in your interest or nature to do so (10.3).

Forgive

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose (7.22).

Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them or get upset with them. We just keep an eye on them after that – but not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance. We need to do that in other areas as well. We need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance without suspicion or hatred (6.20).

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Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations on justice & providence

Marcus Aurelius claimed that everything that happens is just (4.10). This is so because divine providence determines everything (4.26). But his view is irrational because if everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Yet, if justice – the basis of all Stoic virtue (11.10) – is moot then Stoic virtue also is moot. Ancient Epicureans criticized Stoicism along similar lines.

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Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

All is just

“Everything that happens is right.” Look closely and you’ll see it’s true. Not just right overall, but just – as if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely and embody it in your actions. Goodness defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do (4.10).

Just as you hear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him,” say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. Here “prescribed” means something like “ordered to further his recovery.” What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny, for there is a single harmony (5.8, see also 10.5).

What we experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

There are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of wellbeing in what directs the world — of its wellbeing, its fulfillment, of its very existence even (5.8).

The whole is damaged if you cut away anything from its continuity and its coherence — anything at all. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying (5.8).

I am a part of a world controlled by nature. And I have a relationship with other, similar parts. With that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6).

Justice is the number one virtue

Nature is never inferior to art. Art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, universal nature itself cannot fall short of any artistic invention. Now, all the arts create the lower in the interests of the higher. Won’t universal nature do the same? This is the origin of justice, which is the source of all the other virtues. But how could we do what justice requires if we are distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue that counters justice. But I see a virtue to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. And for the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence — respect for the divine — no less than to act justly. That too is kind of fellowship, and a prerequisite for justice (11.20).

Be sure your actions are not arbitrary or different from what justice would do (12.24). Justice – speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should — and as other people deserve. Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, what people will say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (12.1).

Injustice is blasphemy

Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. (9.1).

Be indifferent to external events, and commit to justice in your own acts. This means thought and action resulting in the common good – what you were born to do (9.31).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else – not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

Do your best to convince others. But act on your own if justice requires it. If met with force then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances – you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished (6.50).

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, and to approach this thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54).

You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action – and be satisfied if each one achieves its goal (as far as it can). No one can keep that from happening. “But there are external obstacles.” No obstacle, though, to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense (8.32).

Providence

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning (8.19).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

External events happen randomly or by design. You can’t complain about chance. You can’t argue with providence (12.24). And nature is indifferent to some things. That is, they happen impartially through cause and effect following from the ancient decree of providence. From this starting point it embarked on creation as we know it – laying down the principles of what was to come, and determining the forces of existence, change, and their successive stages (9.1).

Everything you’re trying to reach — by taking the long way round — you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice (12.1).

Don’t be disturbed. Don’t overcomplicate things. Someone has done wrong – but to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present — thoughtfully, justly, with unrestrained moderation (4.26).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

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Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Nature, the Universe & the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius believed in an interconnected universe where everything is just and happens according to divine will – even if that means you’re oppressed.

Modern science has not vindicated the ancient Stoic view of nature. Their rivals – the Epicureans – believed that nature is atomistic, impersonal, and that divine providence doesn’t exist. 

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Pantheism

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together (4.40).

The natural can never be inferior to the artificial. Art imitates nature, not the reverse (11.10).

Interconnection

Keep reminding yourself how things are connected. All things are related one another and in sympathy with each other (6.38).

There is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes (5.8).

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos (7.9).

Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it (10.20). Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world. That should be enough right there. But if you look closely you’ll generally notice something else as well: whatever happens to a single person is for the good of others (6.45).

To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early (4.23).

To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you, return to you (4.23).

Nature is personal

The soul of the universe is kind and social. It has made the inferior orders for the sake of the superior; and has suited the superior beings for each other. You see how it has subordinated, coordinated, and distributed to each according to its merit, and brought nobler beings together into a mutual agreement and unanimity (5.30, see also 7.55).

For a rational being, to act in accordance with nature is to act in accordance with reason (7.11). All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human (3.4).

To lie is to blaspheme against nature because nature is synonymous with truth (9.1). What injures the hive injures the bee (6.54).

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead where nature is leading (7.55). Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything happens by necessity

Nature is passive and malleable. And the logos that governs it has no reason to do evil. It knows no evil, does none, and causes harm to nothing. It dictates all beginnings and all endings (6.1).

Nature brings about everything (6.9). Nature willed the creation of the world. We must agree that everything – even the worst we see – happens as a necessary consequence or connection with those excellent things primarily intended (7.75). Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all — and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?) (9.28).

Through nature all things happen as they should. That things happen for the worst and always will, that the gods have no power to regulate them, and the world is condemned to never-ending evil—how can you say that? (9.35, see also 10.6)

No one can keep you from living as your nature requires. Nothing can happen to you that is not required by Nature (6.58). What humans experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

Reason, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces — to what is possible. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Nature is constant change

The whole is composed of individual parts whose destruction, or transformation, is inevitable. How can the whole run smoothly if this is harmful to the parts? Is nature oblivious? Neither seems very plausible (10.7).

All things are little, changeable, and presently to vanish. All things proceed from the universal governing mind, either by direct and primary intention, or by necessary consequence and connection with things primarily intended. Thus, the horrid jaws of the lion, poisons, and whatever is pernicious (as thorns or mire) are the consequences of those venerable and lovely things you admire. So don’t think they’re foreign to nature, which you revere, but rather the fountain of all things (6.36).

The universe is preserved by the changes of the elements, by the changes of the complex forms. Let these thoughts suffice; let them be your maxims, laying aside that thirst after multitudes of books; that you may die without repining, meek and well satisfied, and sincerely grateful to the gods (2.3b).

Even the incidental effects of the processes of nature have their own charm and attraction. For anyone who has a deep affection of soul, and insight into the workings of the whole, scarcely anything connected with nature will fail to recommend itself agreeably to him (3.2).

All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. Constantly observe everything that comes from change. The nature of the whole loves nothing so much as to change what exists and makes new things from it (4.36).

You have arisen as a part in the universe, you shall disappear again, returning to your source – or rather, by a change shall be resumed again, into that productive intelligence from you came from (4.14). Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature (9.3).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly (7.23). The world is continually renewed (7.25). To decompose is to be recomposed. That’s what nature does (9.35).

Nature gives and nature takes away. Anyone with sense and humility will tell her, “Give and take as you please” – not out of defiance, but out of obedience and goodwill (10.14).

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare – as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

The big picture

Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part; how brief and fleeting your appointed time is; and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).

Remember these things always: what the nature of the universe is, what your nature is, and how this is related to the universe; what sort of part you are, what sort of whole (2.9), and the governor of the universe from whom you flowed as a small stream from a great fountain (2.4). And that no man can hinder you from acting and speaking in agreement with the whole, of which you are a part (2.9).

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Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.