It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in Little History today in CoPhi, on the Stoics Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca. We’re also looking at the first half of our chapter on Right & Wrong, concerned mainly with deontologists and utilitarians. (They’re bumping last year’s complementary discussion of Stoics & Pragmatists.)
’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life.
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch.
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t.
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment.
Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.
The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca.
Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn't worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have.
The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.
But Nigel Warburton‘s question is right on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.
Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.
And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.
Stoicism, with its general mindset of not allowing oneself to be moved or harmed by externals beyond one’s control, and the crucial assumption that our own thoughts are ours to manage, always courts the cold of Vulcan indifference but also offers the last line of defense for prisoners of war and victims of malice. If you really can persuade yourself that physical pain is nothing to you, that emotional stress can’t touch you, that’s quite a defensive weapon.
And if Stoicism can turn the chill of age into the warmth of experience, friendship, and joyous memory, that’s quite an achievement. The older I get, the more I appreciate old Seneca’s wisdom about time (not that it’s in such short supply but that we’re such bad managers of it). But I continue to question his passive compliance with crazy Nero. Is that Stoicism or impotent resignation? Surely there’s a difference.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is on our plate today. Either God’s not the source of good, or good’s good only nominally and arbitrarily. Nigel implies there’s something destructive or Hobson-ish about this choice, but isn’t it just blindingly clear that pole A is the one to grab? Well no, it won’t be to many students. A good discussion is called for.
“Deontology,” a scary word for a scary over-devotion to “duty.” Or so I’ll say, today.
And, time permitting, I’ll put in some good words for both Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill’s respective versions of consequentialist utilitarian hedonism. Let’s not choose, let’s pick cherries.
Finally, the bonus topic: Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. Fire it up, we’ll see if anybody really wants to step inside.
I’m “flipping” my classes these days, which practically means less of my “content” explicated during the precious minutes of classtime (though it’s still right here for the taking, as always) and more group discussion. I like my DQs today, and look forward to seeing everyone else’s.
1. Do you think you could effectively adopt a Stoic mindset (“Our thoughts are up to us,” we shouldn’t be affected by circumstances beyond our control, etc.) that would enable you to endure captivity and torture? IDo you attempt to adopt that mindset in less extreme everyday circumstances (like a rainstorm just before class)?
2. Do you “hope [you] die before you get old” or do you look forward to the compensations of old age (memories, old friends, grandchildren etc.)? Do you think 100 become the new 65, in your lifetime? How long do you hope to live? If cryonics ever becomes plausible would you want to use it?
3. Are you a good time-manager, or a procrastinator? Do you usually approach life as if you had “all the time in the world”? If Nero ordered YOU to take your own life, would you resist or comply? Why?
4. Do you agree with Dostoevsky?: “If God doesn’t exist, anything is permitted.” Why or why not? Do you think the only thing preventing you from being good is the fear of divine retribution for being bad? Or do you think that to be good one must simply believe in goodness and reciprocity (“Do unto others” etc.)?
5. Do you consider yourself a good person? If so, what motivates your goodness? If not, why not?
6. Should we always try to “maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number”? Does it matter what kind of happiness we maximize? Are some pleasures just intrinsically higher and better than others? Is it “preferable to be a sad but wise Socrates than to be a happy but ignorant fool”? P 49
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