Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Finished reading: Stoicism

Day before yesterday (Oct 28) I finished reading, Stoicism, by Rev. W. W. Capes. It was published in 1880, as part of a series - Chief Ancient Philosophies, by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.

This book discusses Stoicism in a historical perspective, focusing on its development via its chief philosophers, such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelus Antoninus, and its relation to early Christian teachings.

The Chapters give a glimpse of the contents of the book:

I.  The Thought and Character of Socrates

II. The Cynics

III. The Rise of Stoicism and its Relation to the Spirit of the Age

IV. Stoicism in the rigour of its Essential Principles

V. Stoicism tempered by Concessions to Common Sense

VI. Stoicism at Rome under the Republic

VII. The Critics and Enemies of Stoicism under the Early Empire

VIII. The Social Status of the Professional Moralists at Rome

IX. The Career of Seneca

X. Seneca as a Moralist

XI. Seneca and St. Paul, or the Relation of Stoicism to Christianity

XII. Epictetus, or Stoicism in the Cottage

XIII. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, or Stoicism on the Throne

XIV. The Stoic Creed and Temper in Relation to other Aspects of Thought

Here are some excerpts from the book, which I found interesting and enlightening:
“While so many of the wants of civilized life were thus discouraged, it was not likely that the institutions of the State would be regarded with much favour. The sage, they thought, should feel himself a citizen of the world at large, and be indifferent to the petty politics of any little State, with all their much ado about the trifles of honours or official rank.” [P. 17]

How relevant to each and every thinking mind! And how true especially for ‘petty politics of Pakistan’s little State, with all its much ado about the trifles of honor or official rank!’

“A theory which identifies the world with God, and believes Him therefore to exist alike in the evil and the good, might be in the long run fatal to intensity of moral purpose, tending as it naturally does to slur over and efface the broad lines of distinction between good and evil which the common sense of humanity has sharply drawn.” [P. 42]

Isn’t it a moral dilemma the mystics have to face, but how they resolve it is interesting to see!

“There was one contemporary figure, the most famous Stoic of the age, the younger Cato, who shows us in a striking form the strength and weakness of the standard by which he ruled his life. No one had more than he the courage to avow his principles and act up to his convictions; in an age of political corruption there was no stain upon his honour; and his moral influence, when once exerted to check the bribery of candidates for office, did more, we are told, than all the laws and penal sanctions which enforced them. In the worst crisis of the revolution, when the spirits of other men were soured, and the party cries grew fiercer, his temper seemed to become gentler, and to forbode the miseries of civil war. Inflexible before, he pleaded for concessions to avert the storm; and when they were refused, he raised his voice still for moderate counsels, and spoke to unwilling ears of the claims of humanity and mercy. He struggled on, while hope remained, fearlessly and consistently in what he thought the cause of right and order; and when at last that cause seemed ruined irretrievably, he calmly prepared to leave the scene where he could no longer act with self-respect, talking as he died upon the soul's immortal hopes, and the freedom which the wise man only can enjoy.” [PP. 73-74]

First, of course, stoicism is a philosophy which tries to answer the crucial question each thinking mind faces, i.e.: how to live, and in that, more than a philosophy, it is a theory of conduct.
Second, let’s see what happens with Pakistan’s Cato of the moment, Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim (Retired); whether he like Cato ‘leaves the scene’ or not! He is facing the same question how to fight for ‘cause of right and order!’ 

“But brighter days came in with Trajan and the Antonines. Freedom of thought and speculative studies were not tolerated only, but encouraged; special privileges were granted to the teachers, some of whom were treated with marked honour, and invited to the court; endowments even were created and salaried professors named, to represent the great historic systems of philosophy. At last Stoicism itself mounted on the throne, and in the person of Marcus Antoninus seemed to realize the high ideal of the king-philosopher which Plato had dreamed of centuries before.” [P. 105]

What impact is produced when a philosophy is espoused and patronized by ruling elites is quite a complex question but a very important one? Not discussed here! This reminds of the periods of the ascendancy of   Mutazilites and Asharites and its consequences when various Muslim rulers patronized the schools.

"As exercise and medicine provide," says Plutarch, "for the body's health and strength, so philosophy alone can cure the weakness or the sickness of the soul. By her help man learns to distinguish the noble from the base, the just from the unjust, the things worthy of our choice from those which we should shun; she teaches him how he ought to act in all the relations of his social life, warning him to fear the gods, honour his parents, respect old age, obey the laws, submit to governors, be loving to his friends, show self-control with womankind, tenderness with children, moderation with his slaves—above all, not to triumph overmuch in prosperous days, or to be cast down in adversity, not to be overmastered by pleasure, or brutalized by passion." [PP. 106-107]

So, it has been (and still is) for the Philosophy to teach men how to live? However, where philosophy did not take root, other ways of thought, not subject to correction or revision, developed, and taught masses at large how to live.

“He (Marcus Antoninus,) gave the Stoic Rusticus the credit of his conversion to philosophy:—"It was he who made me feel how much I needed to reform and train my character. He warned me from the treacherous paths of sophistry, from formal speeches of parade, which aim at nothing higher than applause. Thanks to him I am weaned from rhetoric and poetry, from affected elegance of style, and can write now with simplicity. From him I have learned to concentrate my thoughts on serious study, and not to be surprised into agreeing with all the random utterances of fluent speech." [PP. 108-109]

What matters ultimately is the substance, the real content of thought!

"Let us not wonder that what lies so deep is brought out so slowly. How many animals have become known for the first time in this age! And the members of future generations shall know many of which we are ignorant. Many things are reserved for ages to come, when our memory shall have passed away. The world would be a small thing, indeed, if it did not contain matter of inquiry for all the world. Eleusis reserves something for the second visit of the worshipper. So, too, Nature does not at once disclose all her mysteries. We think ourselves initiated: we are but in the vestibule. The arcana are not thrown open without distinction and without reserve. This age will see some things, that which comes after us others."  (Quote from Seneca) P. 239

Seneca, how patient and resolute he is and he knew that arcana will continue to open ‘without distinction and without reserve,’ and of course without an end!

Taking advantage of this opportunity, let us see: what is Stoicism?

I would limit this to the books I have in my personal library, instead of getting lost in the jungle of the world wide web:

The ethical doctrine which endorses a life of virtue, action in accordance with the rational way of the universe, and endurance in the face of unavoidable difficulties.

[Glossary of Common Philosophical Terms, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form, Edited by Frank N. Magill; Harper & Row, Publishers; New York, 1961]

The general trend of Cynic philosophy was carried on by Stoicism, which was founded by Zeno. It is reported that he was a merchant engaged in commerce, but, after having suffered shipwreck, he happened, at Athens, upon Xenophon’s account of Socrates and began the study of philosophy. In time, he established his own school in Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) at Athens; whence the name “Stoic.”

{As for this view that ‘Stoicism carried on the general trend of the Cynic philosophy,’ Capes also tell: “The Roman satirist Juvenal remarked that the distinction between the Cynics and the Stoics lay only in the coat they wore, . . .” P. 22}

Like Epicurus, Zeno held that ethics is the most important part of philosophy. To gain the good life men must know how to think straight and must understand the universe in which they live. Knowledge is built up inductively by generalizing sense experiences, and because of the similarity of all minds common emotions are derived that are valid for all. As Heraclitus has suggested, human reason is identical in essence with a world reason that pervades the universe and keeps it in order. This is the Divine Reason, or the Logos. Conviction of knowledge comes when a feeling of finality, an irresistible impression, seizes one. The Stoics added to technical logic by discussing the hypothetical form of the syllogism.

Zeno, too, regarded the material world as the real world, but believed it is pervaded by force. Reality is designated by various terms: matter, spirit, reason. All things are animated by a universal Soul. Pantheism is the true doctrine. From the World Soul all finite souls come; and they exist on different levels of perfection, from the human rational down through the animal and vegetable to the simple elements. The universe evolves through cycles, each culminating in a universal conflagration, ending one cycle and beginning the next. No souls are immortal beyond this point.
Human beings are very limited in their freedom, but the causal law of the universe goes through human beings as well as other things. As causal elements themselves, men are so far free and responsible. Man is free to determine his mental attitude toward life and what it brings him. His obligation is to live rationally and accept nature as an orderly expression of World Reason or Providence, submitting without complaint to what it brings. PP: 41-42

[Handbook in the History of Philosophy, by Albert E. Avey, Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, 1954, Second printing 1955]

Stoics, exponents of a philosophical school that appeared on the basis of Hellenistic culture in the 4th century B.C. under the impact of cosmopolitan and individualistic ideas and technical developments impelled by the expansion of mathematical knowledge. Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus were the most prominent exponents of the school in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. The role of the sciences treated by the Stoics was defined by them as follows: logic is the fence, physics is the fertile soil, and ethics its fruit. The chief task of philosophy concerned ethics; knowledge was no more than a means of acquiring wisdom and skill of living. Life, the Stoics held, had to be lived according to nature. That was the ideal of every wise man. Happiness lay in freedom from emotion, in peace of mind, in imperturbability. Fate preordained everything in life. He who consented was led on by fate; he who resisted was dragged along. The Stoics were materialists in their conception of nature, but their materialism combined with nominalism. In contrast to predicate logic, Stoics created propositional logic as a teaching about transforming simple propositions into complex ones, and used it as a basis for evolving a propositional theory of inference. The Stoics established the varieties of the connection of judgments which modern logic designates as conjunction, disjunction and material implication. Stoics appeared on Roman soil in the first centuries A.D.; they applied themselves to the moral and religious ideas of the stoic school; prominent among them were Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

[Dictionary of Philosophy, Edited by I. Frolov; Progress Publishers, Moscow, First printing 1967; Second revised edition 1984]

Stoics. Movement founded by Zeno of Citium (c.336-c.264 BC; different from Zeno the Eleatic), and named from the porch (‘stoa’) in Athens where he taught. Stoics treated knowledge under three heads: logic, physics, ethics. They developed propositional logic and the theory of implication, and tried to discover a sure mark (‘criterion’) of truth. They developed a thoroughgoing materialism, treating matter as a continuum (as opposed to Epicurean atomism), but added a rather non-material flavour with their pantheism and notions such as the ‘tension’ (‘tonos’) that matter was subject to. In ethics (towhich the later Stoics largely confined themselves) they held determinist views and advocated acceptance of fate, based on self-sufficiency and a realization that ‘virtue’ was the only ultimate value. Leading Stoics include also Chrysippus (c.280-c.206 BC), Posidonius (c.135-c.51 BC), Cicero (106-43 BC), Seneca (c.4 BC-AD 65), Epictetus (c.AD 50-c.138), Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-80).

[Dictionary of Philosophy, A. R. Lacey, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, First published 1976, Second edition 1986]

رواقیہ Rawaqiyah
Stoicism, so named by the Muslim philosophers because the founder of the school of Stoicism, Zeno (Zainun, as distinguished from Zainun al-Akbar) used to teach in a rawaq, i.e. in Stoa Poecile or a Painted Porch at Athens. According to the Stoics, virtue alone is good while there are no degrees of moral goodness: it is all or nothing. One ought to have a full control of one’s passions and desires by becoming completely indifferent to pain and pleasure; for, thus, alone could one attain to the life of virtue. The Stoics enlarged the area of moral responsibility from the confines of a City-State to include all human beings. Everyone is a citizen of one and the same State, i.e. the State of Humanity. All men are of same blood, of one family and so each should treat everyone else as “sacred beings.” In their view of the universe they inculcated a kind of pantheism. The Muslim philosophers welcomed their humanitarian and cosmopolitanism, and also keenly studied their theory of knowledge and logic.

[A Dictionary of Muslim Philosophy, Professor M. Saeed Sheikh, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1970]
رواقی مدرسۂ فکر
ایک فلسفیانہ مدرسۂ فکر جو سائپرس (قبرس) کے شہر ’’سی ٹیم‘‘ سے تعلق رکھنے والے مفکر زینو (۳۵۰ـ قبل مسیح) سے منسوب ہے۔ اس کے مطابق خودکشی جائز ہے اور ۲۰۶ ق م میں اس نے خود کشی کی۔ ایک خیال کے مطابق رواقیت محض ایک مدرسۂ فکر ہی نہیں بلکہ ایک زمانہ میں مذہب کی حیثیت اختیار کر گیا۔ اس کے مطابق ہستی اولیٰ کی جستجو دراصل مقصدِ آخریں کی تلاش ہے جو زندگی کے لیے باعثِ فیض ہے۔ حکمت یا فضیلت ہمارے اعمال کی غایت ہے۔ سب سے اعلیٰ نیکی راست روی اور عقل کی روشنی میں عمل کرنا ہے۔

[کشافِ اصطلاحات فلسفہ (اردوـانگریزی)، ڈاکٹر عبدالقادر قاضی، شعبہ تصنیف و تالیف و ترجمہ، کراچی یونیورسٹی، کراچی، ۱۹۹۴]

By sharing the ideas of the Stoics, I want to invite your attention to the view that it is the Moral Question which is the most crucial question for human beings, and we must face it:

How to live morally and rationally in the present Pakistan?

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  1. We live as "citizens produced by the state". I know personally, that even if a state is Socialist but honest, then the citizens produced by that socialist state will be honest, at least.

  2. What a nourishing read has this been!