Blog Site

Monday, March 29, 2010

An excellent plain-language summary of Stoicism

[left] Zeno, founder of Stoicism. [right]
Baruch Spinoza. Composite by DT Strain.
Recently I came across a blog called A Jedi and a Philosopher Walk into a Bar by a housewife and substitute teacher named Elaine. The post was, "Stoic vs. Spinozan Pantheism". However, what struck me was Elaine's description of Stoicism, particularly in paragraphs 2-5, where she writes:

In the Stoic view, the Greek concept of Logos (divine Reason) is identical with what we think of as the laws of nature. We can puzzle out these laws through the use of our own reason; therefore Reason must be the creator of (or, in the Stoic view, identical with) natural laws.

Because God was identified with the course of nature, the "good life" was one lived in accordance with nature. You didn't try to accumulate more than you needed for a healthy life, nor did you try to prolong your life beyond its natural limits. In fact, good and evil could never happen to you, as all externals were considered valueless. The only good or evil thing was how the Stoic behaved, and how s/he accepted life.

What that means is that, if someone injures or insults me, that's neither good nor evil, because it's external to me. What would be evil is if I fought back through injury or insult in turn--but not necessarily because it would be wrong to injure or insult another person. I would be doing wrong by letting my emotions override my reason; that's the true evil in the human world.

Reason was the driving force behind the Stoic understanding of right and wrong. The Stoic determined right and wrong based on reality (i.e., nature), but also had to filter ideas about nature through reason, rather than emotion. Thus the Stoic would find that, since death is natural, death is not bad--but being overcome with sorrow or fear is. The passions (strong emotions that could cloud judgment, such as anger or lust) were not to be trusted; there were appropriate emotions, such as joy, doubt, or hope. The difference between the two (passions vs. appropriate feelings) is that the passions are not reasonable, whereas appropriate emotion comes out of reasoned thought.

I often try to talk about philosophies in ways that are easy to understand for those who don't choose to spend a lot of time learning technical terms, because I think the best philosophy is that which can be useful to people in their lives. Elaine has done a great job of giving this brief overview so I wanted to share that today. Many thanks to her!