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November 5th, 2010:

Stoics and Epicurians – inspired by Ian B.

Some of Ian B’s arguments (in this and other places) have got me thinking – once I got past my default reaction of rage and fury (which is my normal reaction to so many things – hence “default”).

Specifically his claim that a libertarian really should welcome “libertine” behaviour – i.e. the seeking of pleasure via various sensual experiences, denying that such experiences have a moral content.

This led me to think of the Stoics and the Epircurians.

Everyone understands the Stoics (even those people who have never heard the word “stoical”) unbending servants of honour,  trying to keep their (often savage) emotions under control (seeing a cold exterior as an ideal  – even if they do not achieve it) – by seeking to fight evil and uphold good.  The classic Greek or Roman (of the better sort morally) or Germanic or Norse warrior (again of the better sort morally  – hence “Norse” not “Viking” which means “raider”) who will live honourably and die (dying tends to be a constant drum beat in the background of this philosophy) trying to defend others.

Of course the Stoic need not be a warrior, the second best known Roman Stoic philospher was a slave – Epictetus. Indeed it is one of the paradoxes of Rome that their higher philosphy held slavery to be an absurdity (people knew a slave was not automatically an inferior person – indeed it was common knowledge that some slaves, in spite of all the disadvantages and horrific humilations of their position, were better people than their masters), and even their legal theory did also (slavery being held to be against the “natural law”), but slavery went politically unchallenged – with the bland statement that slavery was allowed by the “law of all nations” being held to be an argument of crushing practicality (even by people such as Pliny the Elder who held that there were some nations whose law did not accept slavery – in his case he believed that slavery was unlawful in Ceylon).

However, the best known Roman Stoic philosopher (indeed better known than any of the Greek Stoics from Zeno onwards) is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius – almost the sterotype or characture of the Stoic.

A man in terrible pain from his sickness, yet (of course) bareing it heroically – although the end of death is clear. A man who held that peace is a great good and that aggressive war a terrible crime – but who spent his entire reign at war (indeed desperate and savage war with the very fate of civilization being held to be in the balance against the onrushing darkness).

And, at heart, a man whose every waking (and even sleeping) moment is dominated by fear  – not the fear of pain or death, but the fear that is he failing in his duty and that the darkness will claim the world in spite of him throwing himself (and smashing himself) against it.

Betrand Russell had a point when he mocked this sort of mentality as one which has come to the conclusion that happiness is impossible, and so tries to decieve itself and others that virtue will do instead – accept there is no deception involved. Also, in spite of all his faults, Marcus Aurelius would have seen through Betrand Russel as if he had been made of glass.

Marcus Aurelius had a nose for treason and Russell (not just his Cambridge friends in the Apostles Club) reeked of it – remember Russell is not just the man who pushed submission to the Soviets for so many years (under the mask of being “anti nuclear”), he was also the man who had urged submission to the Nazis (not even appeasment – submission, and remember there were no “nukes” at the time) in the 1930s.

Russell was a follower of that interpretation of Thomas Hobbes that holds that one should always submit to the strongest power – for in that way there will be order and personal survival. Such people have no honour – indeed mock the very concept of honour. To kill them is unjust (for their cowardice, for that is what it is, is not a crime – one is just careful to never put them into a position where they could commit treason) and to kill them is  a waste of a thrust of three inches of steel. But to treat them as great men (as our society does) is absurd.

However, remember that Marcus Aurelius lived in a civilization already in decline – if anyone doubts that look at the very column of Marcus Aurelius himself and compare it to the column of Trajan a century or so before (the older one shows a more advanced culture – in what it shows, and in the very way it is mined and carved).

Ian B. is quite right in arguing that there is something absurd in a Victorian statesman such as Lord Salisbury apeing Marcus Aurelius.

Firstly because Sailisbury had robust good health and a happy life, but also because he lived in an advancing civilization where things were getting better.

Indeed Salisbury himself helped the advice. Not only was he a competant minister and Prime Minsiter – he was also a man of science (experimental science as well) and of business (the railway business – amongst others). Who showed in everything he did how tradition (the Cecil family, Hatfield House) and progress could be married together.

Yet in his writings (his letters, his unsigned essays and so on) we enter of world of unrushing darkness . The expanding Empire is a terrible idea (the Saturday Review essays say so) but it is inevitable, socialism is also a terrible idea (indeed a vastly worse one) yet it will dominate the 20th century – and one can only delay it (and the collapse of civilization it will bring) one can not stop it.

Basically the whole corpus can be reduced to “WE ARE DOOMED” written over and over again (although in very elegant prose – of vastly higher standard then anything I can write). That may have made sense for Marcus Aurelius (disgusted by his own society, the slavery, the gladitorial games , everything he believed both wrong and unstopable,  – but also, better than any man alive, aware of the pityless savagery of enemies who pressed on the Empire and every side and would leave everything a pile of ash and dried blood). But does it really make sense for Lord Salisbury? Or was it an attitude (as Ian B. suspects) that was a self fullfilling prophecy.

Some people really believed A(and some still do) that the state could make people more moral – Sailsbury did not (no more than Gladstone did) some people really believed (and very many still do) that an expanding state would be good for the poor – Sailsbury did not, he knew that in the end it would be a terrible thing for the poor and everyone else.

So who  is worse? The people who sincerely believed in statism and worked to bring it about – or the people who knew it would be terrible, but allowed a “we are doomed” state of mind to undermine all their efforts against it?

In short – Ian B. has a point. And I rather think that the real Marcus Aurelius (had he find himself in the position of Sailsbury) been rather less “Marcus Aurelius like” than Sailsbury was.
The Epicurians:

Again most people think they understand this philosophy (again even if they have never heard the word “ep – however they are normally wrong about it.
The real Epicurius was not a sensualist in the sense of rushing after wine, women and song. On the contrary this Ancient Greek philospher was a quiet and reserved man (oddly enough – like Marcus Aurelius, in pain for most of his life).

The “Gardens of Epicurus” were not the scenes of orgies -but of the friends of Epicurus disscussing matters in a civilized way, and just enjoying the gardens and fellowship.
Edmund Burke argued that the alternatives facing man where either to chain his own passions (by either religion, philosphy or both)  or face the breakdown of social order – and the rise of state tyranny. That license led not to freedom – but to despotism, the end of all freedom.

However, “chaining the passions” is how a Stoic thinks (and Burke was, in part,  a Stoic whether he accepted it or not) – an Epircurian does not not “chain” his savage passions (by force of will and sense of duty) he transcends them – into a state of kindness and gentleness.

I do not really understand this (I am not one of nature’s Epicurians), but I have seen it in some people.

Now in political philosophy Epicurianism is often associated with Utilitarianism  – the belief that state policy should be directed to create the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” regardless of honour (lying is fine if it promotes happiness – as indeed is crime) or traditional limits on state power (although some utilitarians have argued that tradtional limits on state power actually serve the greatest happiness of the greatest number). However, some Greek Stoics had collectivist fantasies of their own (indeed some Stoics were determinists as well – basically on “it is very depressing so it must be true” grounds)  – so “some of the followers of this philosophy are statists, therefore it is wrong” is a silly argument.

However, Epicurus himself was nothing like this – he had no master plan to make “society” happy. He was interested in suggesting a way of life that he thought would make indivduals (if they voluntarily accepted it) happy.

On the other hand the very unpolitical nature of Epicurus that was his strength was also his weakness – for he had no reply to tyranny, no suggestion (or even conception) of what men should do to avoid it, let alone reverse it.

Well that is not true – what Epicurus would have done is go to the tyrant (the state planner or whatever) and ask whether he was really happy ordering people about (having them burned alive and so on), or whether he would not prefer a life of modest work (as much as he needed to do to get by) and fellowship with other people on a basis of kindness and gentleness. In this (as the reader may already have noticed) there is a strong simularity to Chinese Taoism – and whilst their have been whole dynasties in China influenced by Taoism (such as the Tang dynasty) Taoism (like Epicurianism) is essentially a nonpolitical philosphy.

So what are we to choose – the path of duty of the Stoics (with its hidden drumbeat of pessimistic – do not let them take you alive, when you have bought as much time as you can for the civilians to excape, use the last bullet on yourself… ism) or the path of Epicurianism – not “libertineism” but, YES, trying to have a life with some joy and fellowship in it (even if it is a philosophy that really does not have a political content – at least not in its orignial form)?

The followers of Aristotle – whether the originals as they walked about thinking and talking (other philosphers tended to sit still – the walking about is how the followers of Aristotle got their nickname) or the later Aristotelians down  the centuries (who have differed with Aristotle on many matters – but shared his basic way of thinking),  thought they had a better way.

Aristotle came before Zeno or Epicurus (although not before the thinkers who inspired them) yet his followers held they combined the sense of duty of the Stoics, with the moderation and fellowship of the Epicurians – and combined them in such a way as to include the excellience in all things (but sane sense of proportion and prudence)  that many Greeks (and later Romans – and later many others) had traditionally admired (and, the Greeks at least, associated with Athena – not the city of Athens, but the concepts for which the Godness was held to stand, in war and peace, in private study, public affairs, or production and business).

Did they succeed? Either in the past or in modern times? For various schools of Aristotelians are still very much with us.

I do not know is the truthful (although unsatisfying) answer – at this point you need a better philosopher than me.

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