Friday, January 15, 2010

Drowning in a Foot of Water (Stoics on the Broken Man)


This article in "The Broken Man" series will deal with the Stoics and their arguments concerning the difficulty of attaining happiness. Stoic ethics is fairly complex and often presented in a deliberately intuitive manner. The Stoics presented their ethics in paradoxes, phrases that are contradictory on all but the correct interpretation. Therefore, presenting Stoic ethics is tricky, but I will do so by putting forward the Stoic claims, and showing that the paradoxical conclusions do, indeed, follow:

Only things that are always good are good: The Stoics believed that there are certain goods that we might today call "instrumental" or "conditional" goods.  These are goods that can be misused, such as wealth.  For example, if I am wealthy, I can use my money to buy more drugs, or bribe a police officer to kill someone.  Wealth is only conditionally good: it is only good if I am virtuous.  However, this implies that it isn't really good.  Therefore...

Virtue is the only good:  The only thing that is unconditionally good, therefore, is virtue itself.  It makes everything else good, and only in a derivative way.  Further, the Stoics believed that the world is composed of a material reason that orders everything.  In so far as we are rational, we manifest this material reason.  (I will discuss Stoic physics in other posts).

There is only one virtue: What is meant by this is what is traditionally called the "unity of the virtues".  On this claim, virtue is all of a piece.  One cannot be brave, but not wise.  The brave but not wise person is actually reckless, not brave.  Bravery requires wisdom.  In fact...

Virtue is knowledge:  Virtue is identical with a kind of science ("episteme") or craft ("techne").  Since our virtue is what enables us to use conditional goods well, and what allows us to use conditional goods well is a kind of knowledge, virtue is a form of knowledge.  It is what Socrates called the "knowledge of good and bad", and directs all of our actions.

There are no degrees of knowledge: Stoics allow for no degrees of knowledge, as do most epistemological theories.  "Knowledge" is the term reserved for the state of complete understanding of something.  Without it, one might have opinions, even correct opinions, but knowledge itself admits of no degrees.  One either knows something or one doesn't.

Therefore...

There are no degrees of virtue:  Unless one is perfectly virtuous, one is not virtuous at all.  One might behave, in most respects, like someone who is virtuous.  However, if one deviates from virtue at all, one has no virtue.  After all, if virtue is one, and virtue is knowledge, and virtue has no degrees, it would be impossible for someone who had virtue to err at all.  The image used to capture this by the Stoics is that one drowns in a foot of water as easily as at the bottom of the ocean.  Someone who usually acts correctly might have largely right opinions, or good habits, or have been born with a fortunate disposition.  However, even the slightest deviation from virtuous action indicates that there is no virtue at all.  The truly virtuous person is the Stoic "sage", and it was a point of debate among the Stoics whether there had ever been such a person.  In other words, the Stoics believed that there may never have been a single virtuous person.

Two specific obstacles get in the way of attaining this perfect virtue:
  1. People are inclined to confuse conditionally good things with really good things.  We have a tendency to believe that things like money and health are really good.  It is true that the virtuous person persues these things, but if he or she fails to attain them, he or she is not saddened, because it is the virtue that is the ony true good.  Most of us believe that the conditionally good things are really good and are saddened.
  2. People have "pathe" or emotions as a result of bad things happening.  However, the world is perfectly providential.  While we pursue things in the future looking to nature as a model, we cannot know we will succeed.  However, when we look at events in the past, we can know that they were fated by the perfectly providential cosmic reason.  Most of us, though, feel sorrow about things that have happened.  Instead, we should positively rejoice.  The pathe result from a failure to know this fully.
The Stoics, therefore, believed that virtue is especially difficult.  They were one of a few groups to positively believe in a "craft of living".  However, they believed that such a craft is perhaps unattainable.  There are no degrees of virtue and vice, and almost no one is virtuous.

Painting: "Ophelia" by Paul Albert Steck

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