Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Middleman

Middlemen, actually.

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. 

1 comment:

  1. The Epicurean: pleasure is good!
    The Cynic: pleasure is bad!
    The Skeptic: pleasure is equally bad and good!
    The Stoic: ... (face palm)

    I'm certainly partial to the Stoic. Lord Acton had good things to say about them as well in his "History of Freedom in Antiquity":

    "It is the Stoics who emancipated mankind from its subjugation to despotic rule, and whose enlightened and elevated views bridged the chasm that separates the ancient from the Christian state, and led the way to Freedom. Seeing how little security there is that the laws of any land shall be wise or just, and that the unanimous will of a people and the assent of nations are liable to err, the Stoics looked beyond those narrow barriers, and above those inferior sanctions for the principles that ought to regulate the lives of men and the existence of society. They made it known that there is a will superior to the collective will of man, and a law that overrules those of Solon and Lycurgus. Their test of good government is its conformity to principles that can be traced to a higher legislator. That which we must obey, that to which we are bound to reduce all civil authorities, and to sacrifice every earthly interest, is that immutable law which is perfect and eternal as God Himself, which proceeds from His nature, and reigns over heaven and earth and over all the nations."


    "True Freedom, says the most eloquent of the Stoics, consists in obeying God. A state governed by such principles as these would have been free far beyond the measure of Greek or Roman freedom; for they open a door to religious toleration, and close it against slavery. Neither conquest nor purchase, said Zeno, can make one man the property of another."

    On the failings of the ancient philosophies and the triumph of Christianity:

    "All that Socrates could effect by way of protest against the tyranny of the reformed democracy was to die for his convictions. The Stoics could only advise the wise man to hold aloof from politics, keeping the unwritten law in his heart. But when Christ said: “Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom."