December 3, 2014
Stoicism: Ethics, Physics, and Logic
There is something undeniably captivating and incredibly interesting about a person who chooses not to become moved by emotion or by an overwhelming turn of events. We all experience emotion but a Stoic refuses to let that effect them negatively. This gives the Stoic’s philosophy a certain mystery and allure. But once explored, Stoicism unfolds into a rational, straightforward philosophy. In modern usage, Stoicism can be mistaken for an unemotional or indifferent approach to pain, grief, pleasure, and joy (Philosophy Basics). This is actually contrary to Stoic philosophical roots. Stoicisim is a philosophy that “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions. It does not seek to extinguish emotions competely, but rather seeks to transform them by a resolute Asceticism (a voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures), which enables a person to develop clear judgment, inner calm and freedom from suffering -which it considers the ultimate goal” (Philosophy Basics). Historically speaking, Stoicism created a calm in the frantic lives of many Greeks. “Invented in just a few decades after Alexander the Great’s conquests and premature death upended the Greek world, Stoicism took off because it offered security and peace in a time of warfare and crisis” (Goodman). Ideas of stoicism became popular because many people were looking for calm in their lives. Similarly, modern day Stoicism brings a bit of certainty to a life of question and debate.
Logic, physics, and ethics all play a role in the Stoic doctrine. First, we will explore what is the biggest sector, in my opinion: the logical reasoning of this philosophy. Stoicism throws out all worries about uncertainty in a person’s life. For example, a person should not fret over something they cannot change, such as the death of a loved one. The Stoic mindset assures people that “no happiness can be secure if it’s rooted in changeable, destructible things” (Goodman). Rather, we are to look to logic and reason to solve our problems. Emotion is backed by our ability to change our feelings or mindset toward any certain thing. Rob Goodman, author of Rome’s Last Citizen describes the Stoic inward concept as this: “There is only one place the world can’t touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, to be good.” Stoicism is often viewed as a cold-hearted, emotionless philosophy, and it doesn’t look like that is the case here. The logic behind a Stoic is not always to dissipate all emotion completely, but rather to take the emotions people have control over and to change them for more positive and efficient outcomes.
Greek philosopher Epictetus is known as a Stoic. He believed that we had no reason to grieve when we could ultimately choose not to. He once wrote, “’Where is the good? In the will…If anyone is unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone’” (Goodman). So the logic behind Stoicism isn’t devoid of emotion, it is only made complete by the power of will. “A real Stoic isn’t unfeeling. But he or she does have a mastery of emotions, because Stoicism recognizes that fear or greed or grief only enter our minds when we willingly let them in” (Goodman). I personally enjoy this logic. I believe that altering the mind to think about what can and cannot be changed and acting upon that is quite a discipline, though. It is “ a way of life, involving constant practice and training, and incorporating the practice of logic” (Philosophy Basics). It requires training and attention to remain present and logical. This training, though, is said to have multiple benefits. “It’s a demanding way of life, but the reward it offers is freedom from passion–freedom from the emotions that so often seem to control us, when we should control them” (Goodman). Stoic logic, to me, does give a freedom that cannot be achieved under the authority of overwhelming emotion. One must realize the power he or she has over his or her mind and must question what they want and how to achieve that by taking control of the changeable things in their life.
So what is the logic behind the mind itself? Stoics believe that our views and reactions to life are guided by our physical sense. “All knowledge, they said, enters the mind through the senses. The mind is a blank slate, upon which sense-impressions are inscribed. It may have a certain activity of its own, but this activity is confined exclusively to materials supplied by the physical organs of sense” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This stands opposed to Plato’s ideas of idealism, as everything of our mind- illusion and error- are the sources of our senses, not the other way around. “The Stoics denied the metaphysical reality of concepts. Concepts are merely ideas in the mind, abstracted from particulars, and have no reality outside consciousness” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). So Stoic concepts and thoughts are derived from physical senses.
To understand some logical concepts, one must understand Stoicism from a physics standpoint. First, “the fundamental proposition of the Stoic physics is that "nothing incorporeal exists” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This means that everything is related under a common physical origin. For example, “body and soul, God and the world, are pairs which act and react upon one another. The body, for example, produces thoughts (sense impressions) in the soul, the soul produces movements in the body. This would be impossible if both were not of the same substance. The corporeal cannot act on the incorporeal, nor the incorporeal on the corporeal. There is no point of contact. Hence all must be equally corporeal” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). So Stoicism states that our mind, our soul, and all our thoughts and beliefs stem from our physical senses. I believe that is true: that our bodily experiences shape how we view life itself. The way in which we view life has to be a product of something physical: our brains producing chemicals and storing corporeal memories, thoughts and ideas.
So how does a person with physical and unique ideas act justly in a world where experience shapes and reshapes thought? Much of this relates back to Stoic logic and the opportunity to reason our emotions and actions. “As an ethical doctrine, the goal of Stoicism is freedom from passion (in the ancient sense of "anguish" or "suffering") through the pursuit of reason and "apatheia" (apathy, in its ancient sense of being objective, unemotional and having clear judgment). It teaches indifference and a "passive" reaction to external events” (Philosophy Basics). This guides ethical action. It also ensures that all Stoics are ethical beings and encourages an awareness of natural universal reason. “The Stoics taught that becoming a clear, unbiased and self-disciplined thinker allows one to understand the "logos" (the natural universal reason in all things). Thus, unhappiness and evil are the results of ignorance, and if someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason” (Philosophy Basics). This concept assumes, however, that Stoic, rational thought is the only way to live a truly ethical life.
Stoicism also became very popular within the religious community. The religious interpretation was called Neo-Stocism, which was a very similar branch of Stoicism. “Neo-Stoicism is a syncretic movement, combining a revival of Stoicism with Christianity, founded by the Belgian Humanist, Justus Lipsius. It is a practical philosophy which holds that the basic rule of good life is that one should not yield to the passions (greed, joy, fear and sorrow), but submit to God” (Philosophy Basics). This practicality and rejection of human passions is common in many Christian doctrines today. Stocism has played a large role in philosophical history.