Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
Many students, when they begin the study of philosophy, have it subtly conveyed to them that nothing much of interest happened in philosophy between the time of Aristotle until the advent of modernity.
Casey addresses several of the philosophers and philosophies introduced during the Hellenistic period.
Epicureans: Epicurus founded his school of philosophy in 306 BC, sixteen years after Aristotle’s death. Epicureanism is materialistic “through and through,” according to Casey. Atoms smashing together, with no directing intelligence whatsoever. It seems he could be considered the intellectual grandfather of the new atheists.
The good life is the life of pleasure; not pleasure in a positive sense, but pleasure as in avoiding pain – both to body and to soul. Human values other than pleasure are rejected. Morality and justice are merely matters of expedience, varying according to time and place.
Again, very “new atheist: all they can offer is “happiness” and the avoidance of pain when asked about how to give life meaning, when asked what it is we should strive for. What a shallow, empty life. I cannot imagine that anyone who truly believes this actually finds any happiness in it.
Cynics: a version of nineteenth century radical anarchists. Their escape lay in the renunciation of everything we might consider the goods of life.
The key ideas of Cynicism are the acceptance of nature as norm and the rejection of culture, self-sufficiency as a key to release from bondage to social control, and a habit of speaking truth to power…
Cynics were citizens of the world – cosmopolitans. Not in any positive sense, but in the sense that they rejected the limitations and restrictions of the polis. Casey describes these as “the Hippies of Hellenism.” Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Hey, anything peaceful!
Sceptics: skepticism could be seen as a desire for intellectual calmness, freedom from the desire for certainty. No position in philosophy is any more believable than any other. They survive this by conforming to whatever customs and practices of the place where they live.
Some sceptics offer that there is no such thing as truth; others suggest that there is, but humans are not capable of discovering it. It seems a terrible world to live in, with no foundation on which to stand. It would make me very cynical.
Stoics: stoicism had the most impact on its immediate environment. The omnipotence of the state was repudiated; the moral law of the individual was sovereign. Evil in the world is the product of ignorance; it can be avoided or minimized if one conforms his mind to universal reason, or logos.
The political implications are that all human beings are essentially the same in kind; all citizens of the universe – cosmopolitan. As mind is common to us all, then reason is also common to us all – making us all rational beings. From this, we will agree on what we should or should not do; therefore law is also common to us all. The universe is our community.
It seems the Stoics should speak with the Sceptics – it isn’t clear how they can get along with each other…rationally.
Cicero: No matter what constitutional provisions are made, the character of political society will be determined by the character of those who participate in it.
Cicero presented five theses:
1) The universe is governed by Providence
2) Man is an animal but one whose power of reason makes him akin to the gods.
3) We have been made to share justice with one another and justice is natural
4) Despite their local differences, human beings are essentially the same
5) The development of our human potential demands that we live with one another in community.
One can see natural law in this, and one can see it further developed in the Middle Ages and in Aquinas.
What a mess. Fortunately, for the West, the birth of Christianity was not far off. This would bring some focus to the governing philosophy – a path from Aristotle through Cicero and then to Aquinas.