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

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