On the grounding of ethics


One of the common assertions used to discard the classical tripartite study of philosophy is ‘Stoic Ethics are not founded on their Physics.’  This assertion, often phrased as a demand for proof that the Ethics do follow from the Physics.  It’s very easy to ask a hard question, and it’s not as easy to answer it.  Many new Stoics find themselves floundering at this question, and in the inability to argue well, the case is lost.  So let’s look at the question:  Are Stoic Ethics predicated on Stoic Physics?

All human fields of study are built on axioms.  Axioms are unproven assertions that are taken for granted.  In mathematics, one such assertion is that 1+1=2.  Everything else is built on this, now while there are some who claim to prove that 1+1=2, the average person, the average university student even, cannot prove this (especially if you find “succession” and “recursion” arguments unconvincing).  It’s an axiom, for most.

Stoicism has some axioms as well.  Let’s look at some core axioms to Stoic Philosophy:

1.)  The existence of ‘adequate impressions’ or katalepsis (Gr: κατάληψις). (Epistemology, Logic)
2.)  Eudaimonia (Gr: εὐδαιμονία) as the telos of human life, and virtue is the only good, and the only thing necessary for it. (Ethics)
3.)  The cosmos is conscious and providential. (Theology, Physics)

You might wonder why I bring up these axioms, and that’s precisely to prove the point that at some point, some unproven thing must be accepted.  Else:  we’re forced to acknowledge that the Pyrrhonians are correct, (but I bet they still drive with their eyes open).  Understand:  such assumptions exist.  We’ll come back to this later.

Now, Physics as the classical Stoics understood it, was the study of nature (Gr: φύσις).  Their assumption was that without understanding the cosmos as it is, how can we begin to understand our right place in it?  For them, this included the natural process of the universe, human psychology, and all other things relevant. It’s a solid question, one which prompted the scientific inquiry (which may have become a preoccupation or end-in-and-of-itself, since) of the past five hundred years.

Now, the Epicureans argued that the infants’ crying out for food, warmth, and comfort is pleasure seeking behavior.  It was this, they argued, that showed the basic impetus for action is seeking of pleasure, and avoidance of pain.  The Stoics disagreed, they argued that the infants’ crying out for those things were indicative of an instinct for self-preservation.

You might think that’s splitting hairs a little finely, since these things are both pleasurable and life sustaining, but it is not.  For instance, let us look at exercise of the body.  Many people will say the enjoy it, but this is after the body is well accustomed to it.  Take your average couch potato and begin him on a running or weight training regimen.  This will very likely extend his life in the long run, it’s healthy.  But is it pleasant?  Most assuredly not.  In fact, the body is broken down, injured, exhausted.  Health decreases on the short term during this adaptation phase.  Here we can clearly see there is a difference between what’s preserving behavior and what’s pleasurable behavior.  The Epicurean then, is stuck seeing pleasure later in life, while the Stoic is then concerned with preservation of things valuable (which will reasonably extend beyond the self, shortly).

So, this natural instinct for self-preservation, this affinity for one’s own self is an interesting trait.  The classical Stoics thought so, too.  In more advanced critters, like humans, we see this affinity for one’s self extended to others.  Many animals show it, however, as an affinity for family members.  Some extend it towards their whole species.  Humans, as rational and socials critters, can extend it beyond all the others not just to our species, but indeed to all rational creatures.  This is called Oikeiôsis (Gr: οἰκείωσις).  This expansion of self-interest is the motivation for rushing into a burning building to save children, or the stranger who reaches out and pulls a pedestrian out of the car’s path.  For Stoics, it’s not a just a mere description, but a mandate for individual action and judgments.


Oikeiosis and the domains of affinity.

The process of this affinity is to “make things like family.”  We start by treating our fellow townsfolk as family, our fellow citizens in the state as neighbors, and foreigners as our countrymen.  We can even extend this in the future to other rational creature and treat them like siblings in the Logos.

Effectively, we’re extending each circle by one.  So family is treated as self, citizens, like family, etc., per the image to the right.

Oikeiôsis is a key Stoic ethical doctrine, and it is founded on the study of nature, on their physics.  How so?  Only by watching animals become aware as they are of themselves, and taking care of this possession of their lives as a natural function.  Then we see the social animals, even going so far as to sacrifice their lives for their societies, and to us, as rational and social animals as shown.  This Ethical maxim, this injunction to make others “like family”  is based on their observation of the universe and the things and creatures in it.

One might argue “Yes, but this principle doesn’t have to be founded on physics.”  This is an unconvincing argument, because they were.  While it’s true, that such a ‘good behavior’ might be a mere social construct, when we are doing historical analysis, it behooves us to take into consideration what the folks themselves said they believed.  We might disagree with the conclusions, but it still needs to feature into the discussion; which (some-but-not-all) folks who want to discard Stoic physics seem reluctant to do.  Additionally, to digress slightly on the question of social constructs, just because a thing is a social construct doesn’t necessarily devalue it, or make it unimportant.  I’m not sure why this has become a catch argument these days, it’s not a reasonable objection.  Not wantonly killing innocents might just be a social construct, but it’s a good one.

So, do we need to believe in a two-thousand year old understanding of nature to be good people?  Nope, not in the slightest.  But if we want to understand a school of thought, even if we set it aside in favor of something else, we do need to understand appreciate what brought it about.  And when we’re talking about Stoic Ethics, that means an investigation into Stoic Physics.  Just as the axioms previously discussed, the foundation of Stoic Ethics in particular should be accepted as founded on their Physics.

Can you divorce Stoic Ethics from Stoic Physics?  Yes of course.  But should you?  Ah… that’s the question.  I would offer, no, you should not.

For more on the applicability of Stoic Physics to the modern understanding of the universe, please see this entry:  In defense of the conscious and providential universe.

On the unity of philosophy


“The first difference between a common person and a philosopher is this: the common person says, “Woe to me for my little child, for my brother, for my father.” The philosopher, if he shall ever be compelled to say, “Woe to me,” stops and says, “but for myself.” For nothing which is independent of the will can hinder or damage the will, and the will can only hinder or damage itself.”

— Epictetus, Discourses III.19

Classically, the various schools of philosophy, specifically those who traced their lineage back to Socrates, saw themselves as being closer or farther from that progenitor.  However, they recognized in the others a certain validity in aim.  Not looking back to Socrates, but Democritus, the Epicurean sought virtue through pleasure (albeit a strange, pseudo-ascetic sort), his being a philosopher would not inherently be questioned.

“Even Epicurus perceives that we are by nature social, but having once placed our good in the husk he is no longer able to say anything else. For on the other hand he strongly maintains this, that we ought not to admire nor to accept anything which is detached from the nature of good; and he is right in maintaining this.”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.23

Clearly, the main problem between the Epicureans and the Stoics is the nature of the good, of virtue, and the telos of human life.  Just some little, piddly stuff, right?  However, Epictetus (outside this quote), argues against Epicurus on the merits of his argument.  He doesn’t discard him as a sophist, but treats his argument on a level footing, as an equal.

“Then, if he is thus prepared, the true Cynic cannot be satisfied with this; but he must know that he is sent a messenger from Zeus to men about good and bad things, to show them that they have wandered and are seeking the substance of good and evil where it is not, but where it is, they never think; and that he is a spy, as Diogenes was carried off to Philip after the battle of Chaeroneia as a spy.”

— Epictetus, Discourses III.22

The Cynics, as the forbears of the Stoics, get a softer handling.  Indeed, Epictetus references Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic par excellence,  more often than he does Zeno of Citium, the very founder of the Stoic school.  What we can learn from these excepts is that the ‘rival’ philosophers still saw a certain fraternity in the process (excepting maybe the Cynics, as they’d say we’re all focused on the fluffery of life rather than virtue).  They might disagree with the conclusions reached, but the process of philosophical examination is the unifying factor.

So what does that mean for us?  Well, it seems to point in this direction:  that reason is a process not a product.  What I mean by this is that we can imagine it as a ‘black box.’  We feed it certain inputs, it does its thing (when functioning correctly), and it gives us outputs.  Does it not stand to reason, that we should pay the very closest attention to what the inputs are?  Herein lies the rub.

If we feed the ‘box’ shoddy material, we’re going to get shoddy out.  It should be clear that the outputs are how we can determine the quality of the inputs, then, correct?  And, it is these outputs over which we argue.

No one of the ancient schools questioned the basic axiom that eudaimonia was the goal of human life.  Today, no average citizen will question that we should ‘do what’s good’ in our lives.  These types of large categorical statements are not in debate, generally.  Think on that.  How many people have every said to you that the goal of human life should be destruction of pleasantness?  None, it runs contrary to the basic axioms of western civilization.  Now, what does it mean to ‘do what’s good?’  On these specifics is where the disagreement arises.

(For American readers), the liberal says that the welfare state helps the poor, and the conservative says that the welfare state bleeds dry the middle class.  Regardless of the validity of the arguments, both are arguing from a moral question: namely, how do we help people?  Partisans of either stripe will argue the other side is in fact not trying to help people, but a discussion with the average individual of either side will show that to be false.  Politicians at the top-tier might be so minded, but the average voters are not.

“Observe yourselves thus in your actions, and you will find to what sect you belong. You will find that most of you are Epicureans, a few Peripatetics, … But show me a Stoic, if you can. Where or how? But you can show me an endless number who utter small arguments of the Stoics. For do the same persons repeat the Epicurean opinions any worse? And the Peripatetic, do they not handle them also with equal accuracy? who then is a Stoic?”

— Epictetus, Discourses II.19

So, are philosophers (Stoics) born or made?  A philosophically inclined “nature v. nurture” question, then.  Will someone prone to hedonism more so than the average tend to see value in Epicureanism or Stoicism?  My suspicion is that it’s a combination of both, we’ll leave it unanswered for now.  Which leads us to the next point:

Stoicism in the twenty-first century as we are currently seeing it has two main camps.  The Orthodox traditionalists and the Modern atheists are each arguing they represent the ‘truer’ form of Stoicism.  What lesson, if any, can we take from the classical schools of philosophy in this issue?

Will we see the atheist Stoics as fellow travellers on the path, or as godless deviants, derailing our anciently established traditions?  Will we look at the Orthodox Stoics as magically-oriented “believers” who need a supernatural story rather than their own reason, or will we see folks who also are interested in goodness, truth, and wisdom but see a different way?

Are atheist and deists born or made?  Does it matter?  Or, instead, should we see brothers and sisters on the Path of the Sage, understanding that reason is a process and not a product?

There’s plenty of room in “big tent” Stoicism, are you trying to share in the experience, or trying keep folks out?

“That then which makes a dog beautiful, makes a horse ugly; and
that which makes a horse beautiful, makes a dog ugly, if it is true that their natures are different.”

— Epictetus, Discourses III.1

In defense of the conscious and providential universe.


There is a split in the Stoic community. On one side we have the anti-theist/atheist camp, and on the other is the theist/deist camp. This is not a particularly new debate in philosophy, and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. That being said, for current practitioners there are those who are being called Orthodox or Traditional Stoics and the Modern Stoics. The Moderns aren’t calling themselves that, they’re not taking an adjective as I think they’d rather just be called  ‘The Stoics,’ but I think it’s fair to hand one to each. I’d prefer to say “atheist Stoic” but whichever works.

The key divisor between the two camps tends to revolve around Stoic Physics. The Moderns see it as utter rubbish, and the Orthodox are unwilling to toss out a key part of the traditionally tripartite study of philosophy. I’m not at all sure how everyone reads the Physics, but I see it as mere romantic or allegorical description of modern science. I see them in agreement.  It’s important to note that the classical Stoics were speaking as they could, with the terminology they had.  They were speculating.  Speculation is the realm of philosophy, and when it becomes accepted as fact, we call it science.  What the Stoics had on the nose for modern understanding is quite astounding.

The Stoics classically believed that the universe expands and then contracts in a great fire, called Ekpyrosis. Sounds a lot like the Big Bang and Big Crunch (Heat Death fans will take umbrage here). The ancient Stoics discussed pneuma, the active function of matter, the Logos, or God permeating and infusing all things, connecting and enlivening them. Sounds to me like quantum entanglement and zero-point fields. I personally see no big issue with the manner that our ancient forbears used to describe speculatively the things we test today. If we borrow atoms from the Epicureans, then we’ve got an empirically tested system with flowery language. I’m fine with this.

Additionally, the universe is providential in that causes yield effects. This is regular and is the unconscious basis on which all living critters navigate the cosmos.  We see an unmitigated trend towards increasing complexity and energy consumption.  We can posit from this the cosmos is working towards some end, and the classical Stoics would say that such an end will be ‘good’ on the level of the universal scale.  The universe seems perfectly constituted to bring about living creatures, and (I will argue) consciousness.  Additionally, the laws of physics are so finely tuned as to allow for our existence.  The tiniest change (as I’m told by specialists) in the speed of light, the functions of gravity, the forces required for the universe to support us, and it wouldn’t.

I got into a friendly debate with a fellow Stoic on the Great Book of Faces, and we were hashing out the particulars of the claim made by the Orthodox Stoics that the universe is both conscious and providential. I will summarize my argument there, below.

Although I cannot prove it, most folks will accept that four billion years ago there was nothing we would call ‘consciousness’ on Earth. Today, that is not the case. Is this point debated? I think not. From this, we can interpret that consciousness is a developmental state of matter; if we remove the possibility of a Personality-God injecting it into creation a la the Abrahamic faiths. Take for instance that at some point during the life cycle of a human, the fetal cells are not-conscious. It is alive, but nothing we’d recognize as ‘consciousness’ is happening there. Then, at some later developmental point this is no longer true, and the human is conscious. Where this occurs is not a material factor in this discussion (is for others), but let us say that it in fact does occur. In this case, we see a thing go from non-consciousness to consciousness.

I do not claim to understand the mechanism here, and I’m not sure there is anyone alive who does. However, I will posit a possibility. Consciousness is a point on a continuum of matter. As matter organizes itself on the rational principles of the universe (meaning we can divine them by reason), in certain configurations it goes from mere chemicals to organic compounds. Those organic compounds like amino acids begin to form into larger, more complicated things like DNA. From there, we get living things, made up of the very same base-stuff as the non-living parts of the universe. At some point, specialized cells begin forming electro-chemical networks. Given enough time and appropriate energy availability, these networks might form something we would call “consciousness.” We see this in evolution and in ourselves. It occurs on the scale of the geologic and the individual lifetime. We see that things in the universe go from one state to another regularly, might not this trend continue?

This position is without superstition, religion, or magic. I suspect there is something special about consciousness, something in our ruling faculty that merits being called a soul. Something religious, but we will set that aside for now; although I would like to come back to that at some point.

The universe has produced reason and consciousness, since it contains such a thing, it’s fair to say it is such a thing. We are part and parcel of the universe. Now, one might call out the Fallacy of Composition. If the universe is constituted in such a way to produce consciousness within it, I argue it’s fair to call it conscious. Just as the cells of my finger are not themselves conscious (to my knowledge), I am. A rock or a pencil are not conscious, indeed not even living like hair, but the larger body is, (as hair:humans). It could have been phrased “since humans are conscious, consciousness is a feature of the universe.” Maybe this would be more palatable to some?

If that’s true (granted: large ‘if’), then I’m comfortable with saying the universe is conscious and providential. I don’t understand the mechanisms; however, the universe has never shown itself to be overly bothered with my understanding it or not.

I see no contradiction between the Physics of the classical Stoics (and the Orthodox today) and modern science. One does not necessarily preclude the other, as the atheist Moderns would contend. What I would like the reader to take away from this, is not my position wholesale (on faith), but the element of doubt enough to ask “what if?” Take that ‘what if’ and see where it leads you. You might just find, Fate permitting, that it’s an interesting and meaningful place.

MA School Completion


I got the notification that I have completed the year-long Marcus Aurelius School with the College of Stoic Philosophers.  Looking back on the last year, a lot had changed for me and my life.  I’ve quit my job, (temporarily, Fate permitting) relocated halfway across the country, started a new job, new apartment, and really made some serious changes.

In many ways, my study of philosophy helped me to find the boldness in myself to do these things.  My understanding of the conception of indifferents, operating with the reserve clause, and seeing that ‘the good’ lies in my moral and willful choices has helped me do these things which I suspect I would not have done previously.

Big risks, in a conventional way of thinking; but I’m comfortable and confident that no matter what happens with these projects, preoccupations, and activities:  there is no risk to my moral purpose by making these choices.  Certainly, other things can help or hinder that, but not these things.  It’s an empowering place to find one’s self.

Through the last year, the thing that has remained constant for me has been my obligation to the MA School.  It’s an interesting thing to look back and see that.  I’m glad I had it, and I’m glad to have gone through it.  Philosophy can be this constant thing, this companion and challenging path in one.  While improvement and progress is something we try so hard to see, the utility of having this monolithic quest provides a certain context for the rest of life.

Looking back at where I’ve been the past year, I am excited to see where I will be next year, with my faithful companion of philosophy to help.