home page           'A Theory of Moral Objectivity' contents page

A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 3e - Stoicism)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

A hard-copy paperback book of this thesis is now available from and also on Amazon, price UK£25 (or equivalent). This relatively high cost is necessary because it is A4 size and has 487 pages (296,000 words). This print version includes an index.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

A downloadable pdf version of this thesis is available from the British Library at (you will need to search the original title 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity', and register with the ethos site, but registration is open and the download pdf is free for researchers). Alternatively you can download a pdf for a small cost from

Join discussion or ask questions on any aspect of the thesis on the new phpbb discussion board


3e)      Stoicism


Under the general heading of  “Stoicism” I shall be examining what appear to be common elements of the classical philosophy which began in a Greek context with Zeno (c. 333-262 BCE) and ended in a declining Roman Empire with Marcus Aurelius (c.121-180 CE)[1]. In Stoicism, as in Plato, there appear at first sight to be some strong non-dualist elements, which I shall need to examine in order to disentangle them from the eternalism which I take to be more influential. This eternalism contrasts with that of Plato in its empiricism but agrees with him in its ethical foundationalism. It provides a model of eternalism which is particularly worth examining because of its uniqueness in combining these elements: empiricism, materialism and determinism do not mean for the Stoic, as they often did in later ages, the abandonment of ethical foundationalism. Instead the combination has led to some subtle explorations which often seem to approach non-dualism, before more fundamental dualist assumptions re-assert themselves.



i)                    Stoic non-dualism


The non-dualist elements in Stoicism appear to be primarily related to the prevalence of spiritual exercises in Hellenistic philosophy in general, of which Hadot gives a detailed account. Important among these exercises as they appeared in Stoicism was prosoche or mindfulness, preparation for death, and the flight of the soul, all of which can suggest a non-dualist perspective.


Prosoche seems to have been very similar to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness (sati) (though not nearly so fully developed), involving a deliberate and systematic cultivation of awareness of the present moment. Hadot quotes from Marcus Aurelius:

Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now, and to apply rules of discernment to your present representations, so that nothing slips in that is not objective.[2]


Hadot goes on to explain the ways in which prosoche is a fundamental preparation for other practices: it frees us from passions associated with the past or future, increases vigilance, and “allows us to accede to cosmic consciousness[3]. As I shall argue later, this type of practice may work on a psychological level to reduce identification with the ego, provided it is performed in a balanced fashion, avoiding alienation[4]: but it is impossible to tell from purely textual or historical evidence whether or not this was the case.


The idea of philosophy as a training for death, which is clearly articulated in Plato’s Phaedo, also becomes prominent in Stoicism. But whereas in Phaedo the emphasis is on the soul as distinct from the body, and death as a release from corporeal imprisonment, in Stoicism there is more of an emphasis on dying to ones individuality and passions so that the inevitable dissolution of both can be met with equanimity. This involves rising to a higher standpoint of universal rationality. One interesting expression of this is the “flight of the soul” discussed by Hadot[5]: in the imaginative exercise of rising above the world as though in flight and looking down upon the puny human world the Stoics gained a universal perspective on human attachments.


Another expression of the outlook of universal rationality applied as a spiritual exercise is found in the doctrine of oikeoisis. This is a quality of affinity and attachment which all beings feel for themselves, but according to Hierocles it can and should be extended outwards, under the influence of reason, through concentric circles of affinity, beginning with friends and relatives and extending to the whole human race[6]. This again bears a similarity to a similar Buddhist practice, the mettŒ-bhŒvanŒ or cultivation of loving-kindness, the object of which is to bring about a habitual attenuation of ego-identification[7].


It does appear that the Stoics may have been able to perform such exercises without becoming drawn into the values of a Platonic dualism of soul and matter because of their materialism. For the Stoics the soul was not a non-physical thing but a particular tension in a subtle type of matter, the pneuma. The individual seat of consciousness, or hegemonikon, is the governing principle of the whole body, but is not metaphysically or causally independent of it[8]. Such exercises as the flight of the soul may possibly thus have been genuinely conceived as attempts to transcend the ego rather than to separate it from uncomfortable conditions. However, as I shall argue later, some of the other basic philosophical assumptions which provide the background to these exercises make it less likely that they are actually expressions of non-dualism.


These aspects of Stoicism depend more generally on its therapeutic particularity, an aspect discussed in detail by Nussbaum[9]. She points out that for the Stoic, as for the Classical Sceptic, Epicurean or Aristotelian, the goal of philosophy should be seen along the lines of that of medicine, that of providing a prescription for individual spiritual ills. This particularly implies that arguments and their philosophical virtues have a purely instrumental value. Since she has doubts about some aspects of this instrumentalism, Nussbaum is also rather relieved to note the extent of Stoic respect for the autonomy of reason[10], but she still plainly puts the emphasis on the therapeutic model. However, Nussbaum’s account of  Stoicism concentrates on the application of ethics rather than its justification: even if the prescription itself is particularised, faith in it depends on a more general acceptance of the practice of medicine which can only be articulated in terms of more general justifications. As I shall argue in trying to delineate Stoic dualism, Stoic instrumentalism (and hence Stoic non-dualism) seems to be limited to the application of ethics below a certain level of particularity, and to exist side-by-side with Dogmatism and Eternalism at a more general level. It will be my contention that such tactical non-dualism is of limited moral usefulness without a more general strategic non-dualism, and that Nussbaum fails to consider important philosophical deficiencies in the Stoic approach to ethics which do have implications for its application at a more particular level.


ii)                  Stoic Dualism: the Cosmic Logos 


At the heart of the Stoic version of dualism is the Logos, the principle of rationality in the universe. The Logos exists both at a cosmic and at an individual level, but in both cases contains a claim to metaphysical truth about reality in itself: the claim that the universe is in itself rational and motivated by a rational force. Such a rational force is also believed to be naturally present in the reason of mature human beings. The Stoics apparently avoid a duality in their view of the universe by regarding it all as ultimately material. However, within this material reality exists the sub-division between Physis and Logos, between matter and its animating principle, which is also regarded as God in a pantheistic sense.[11] Physis and Logos are respectively the passive and the active principles which together constitute identifiable matter, neither being sufficient to do so alone[12]. To say that nature is rational is to say that it is subject to the Logos on the cosmic level, but individual creatures are themselves not rational, with the exception of mature human beings. Whilst other individual creatures are hence passive to the forces of nature, human beings can partake of its active principle.


The basis of the claim that the cosmos itself is rational is the Stoic epistemology, which enables absolute claims to be made about the universe on the basis of empirical evidence. In the face of the sceptical argument that we always have grounds to doubt the true correspondence of our mental impressions to reality, the Stoics argued that human beings in fact have the capacity to reach representational certainty. This involves both representationalism, to provide the view that language can correspond to reality, and the doctrine of phantasia kataleptike (‘cognitive impressions’), that certain impressions are of such a nature that, if assented to, they give rise to a reliable understanding of truth. Some version of these combined doctrines seems to have been adhered to consistently throughout their history[13].


The Stoic theory of language involved an understanding of linguistic representation as incorporeal, in the sense that although linguistic representation was made up of an arrangement of matter, the properties of the representation were not identical to the properties of the matter. Language was made up of lekta, a term which seems to fit both the modern English “words” and “propositions”: according to Long “this term may be translated ‘what is said’ or ‘what can be said’, and ‘meaning’, ’fact’, ’statement’, or ‘state of affairs’ are English interpretations which fit many of its uses in Greek[14]. These lekta were “deficient” if they did not take the form of a complete proposition having a grammatical form: but when this condition was fulfilled they were capable of truth or falsity, understood as correspondence or non-correspondence with reality[15]. The Stoics thus founded the correspondence theory as a bulwark of dualism, apparently removing the metaphysical construction of the Platonic Forms as an explanation for the correspondence, but putting in their place the lekta: structures of which the correspondence to reality cannot be any more experienced, only dogmatically assumed as are the Forms.


The doctrine of phantasia kataleptike enabled the Stoics to assert that not only are lekta capable of correspondence with reality, but that we have grounds to believe our judgements correct in identifying any such truth-correspondent lekta. The Stoics attempted to allow for perceptual Scepticism by arguing that there were false impressions which arose from particular deceptive conditions, but that these could be separated from true impressions. Impressions could also be true but not result in cognitive impression if the perceivers were in an abnormal state. However, cognitive impressions (phantasia kataleptike) could be perceived by normal perceivers in normal circumstances, and these were of such a nature that they could not be confused with impressions arising from false objects, for “if an impression from what is were such that an impression from what is not could be just like it, there was no cognitive impression”[16]. Cognitive impressions then give rise to truth-correspondent lekta.


This naturally still leaves the sceptical question of when we can know that a particular impression is cognitive. Later Stoics tried to deal with this by conceding that even a cognitive impression could be misinterpreted owing to external circumstances (such as being under a false belief about the reality of objects of the kind one is perceiving), but that when such circumstances were absent a cognitive impression almost forces our assent due to its clarity[17]. But we are still left with the difficulty of knowing whether or not such circumstances are operative in relation to any given impression. The Dogmatism of Zeno’s original formulation is preserved, whereby it is merely asserted that true cognitive impressions exist and that we cannot be mistaken about them.


Such cognitive impressions still do not amount to knowledge (but only to weak assent) unless they are held by a wise man as part of a systematic understanding of nature. The wise man is able to bring together many instances of weak assent so that they become stronger as an irrefutable account of the causal necessities of the universe. As Long puts it

He never errs, never fails to grasp things with complete security. His knowledge is logically equivalent to ‘truth’, since it is based on the causal nexus which controls cosmic events. Unlike the ordinary man who utters some true statements which he cannot prove against every attempt to overturn them, the wise man’s judgements are infallible since he knows why each of them must be true.[18]


It is at this point that the facts established about nature through the operation of phantasia kataleptike also become values. The wise man would not only be the ultimate scientist, having gained an unassailable grasp of all the general causal laws operative in the universe, but, in the Stoic conception, the morally perfect man as well, since his mind and behaviour would be in accordance with these realities[19].


Here the Stoics reveal the source of their ethical foundationalism. To be good is to act in accordance with nature. We understand nature through empirical experience, and a perfect understanding thus gained results in goodness. Acting in accordance with nature can only be good if nature is itself good: the claim that it is so is the basis of the cosmic Logos. The phantasia kataleptike attempts to clear the way, making it possible for us to become wise, but it does not, by itself, provide any assurance of the goodness and rationality of nature. The epistemological doctrine accords with the Logos (if we can assume that a rational universe would want to make itself known to us) but does not prove it: rather, it pre-supposes it. Rather than providing a justification for our incremental discovery rationality in the universe (if it should prove to exist), then, the Stoic assumes that such rationality exists absolutely a priori and constructs an epistemology which is shaped in accordance with that assumption.


This premature claim about the absolute rationality of the universe is accompanied by an implicitly attached claim about the moral effects of gaining knowledge of that rationality. The Stoic claims that by gaining a complete causal knowledge of the laws of the universe one also gains moral virtue, because knowledge of the Cosmic Logos activates the individual Logos. We have no way of knowing whether this is true at the ultimate level, but the effects of such a premature ultimate claim at the relative level can only be dogmatic, preventing us from applying open observation to particular cases to see whether this rationality is actually present in our experience. Categorical beliefs, whether positive or negative, are unjustifiable because of the dubious relationship between observation statements and general theories[20], but the Logos can only be asserted as a categorical (metaphysical) belief, making it incompatible with the Stoics’ supposed empiricism. The belief in the moral effects of knowledge of the Logos, then, can only fortify the ego, having a negative rather than a positive effect on ones moral abilities.


Even if we ignore the defects in Stoic epistemology, and assume that the wise man could discover the truth about the universe through empirical means, there is still no reason to assume that what he would have to report would be the existence of the Logos in the sense of rationality, or even complete predictability, in the universe itself. Reality itself may not just be indescribable but to a greater or lesser degree chaotic. It seems yet more likely, though, that the degree of truth to be discovered about the universe corresponds to the sophistication of the epistemology, for the Stoic who believed that he was experiencing  phantasia kataleptike would already thus be pre-disposed to take a dogmatic attitude towards the truth of his experience, making insufficient allowance for the real subjectivity of his judgement about experience or of the language in which he described it. A Stoic seeking wisdom is thus seriously handicapped by his doctrines and, if he should attain to a deeper knowledge of conditions in spite of them, may be disappointed to discover the absence of the Logos that he believed in. But this does not mean that a Stoic, just because he is a Stoic, could not achieve a fuller knowledge of conditions and that this may not have positive moral effects. Even if the reality reached were one of relative chaos, as I shall argue later, the wise man could adapt his values optimally to the degree of predictability that existed[21]. 


In practice, though, the appeal to wise men in Stoicism appears to have been fairly abstract. According to Kerferd “the Stoics were uncertain whether there ever had been any wise men (or else felt that there could only have been one or two in all)”, the possible historical candidates being “Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes the Cynic, Heracles, and Odysseus[22]. Great men though all these undoubtedly were, it would not be difficult to point out ways in which they seemed to have an imperfect understanding of conditions (indeed I have already done this in the case of Socrates). In contrast with the cases of Buddhism and of Epicureanism, where a single founder provided the definitive example of a wise man, Stoicism seems to make little appeal to historical examples of wise men as models, concentrating more, as Nussbaum stresses[23], on the potential for the development of autonomous reason in each individual than on the following of a particular model individual who could be taken to have concretely achieved wisdom. The effect of this, however, is that there are not even any historical grounds based on claimed experience, however debatable, for the assertion of the existence of the Logos. Since nobody appears to have experienced it fully, belief in the Logos rests only on a faith developed from a partial interpretation of experience.


The existence of the Logos, like that of a providential God, becomes even more unlikely when we consider that much empirical evidence appears to count against it. If we experience any events as evil it then becomes difficult to defend the view that all events are ultimately good without undermining the very appeal to human experience which initially distinguished the Stoics. Chrysippus offer arguments in explanation of evil very similar to the two traditional forms of theodicy found in Christian theology: the appeal to a cosmic perspective rather than a human one (like Augustine) and the view that evil is necessary for good (like Irenaeus)[24]. These approaches, however, assume in advance that belief in the Logos is a good thing and should be defended: if we begin without this assumption there does not appear to be any particular reason to attempt to take a cosmic perspective or to assume that evil is good contrary to our experience. As I have argued above in relation to cosmic justice beliefs in general, there are good reasons for suggesting that belief in cosmic justice actually impedes ethics. In the case of Stoicism, the belief is in providence alone rather than in cosmic punishment, but this nevertheless involves a constant and unfruitful recourse to dogmatism in explaining conditions which do not fit the providential theory.


To take a cosmic perspective in order to defend a doctrine, especially in the absence of direct experience of that cosmic perspective, is also a typically eternalist strategy of premature impersonality. Given that the very verbal form of the argument prevents the representation of a truly cosmic perspective, it is bound to represent another partial view without acknowledging that it is doing so. This kind of appeal is central not just to Stoic theodicy but to its naturalism in general, which requires a shift from a partial to a holistic viewpoint in order to establish what is truly good for an individual plant, animal or human being, rather than merely apparently good on the basis of what fulfils its desires, allows it to flourish etc. The success of such a shift depends entirely on the degree to which its failure is acknowledged and the extent to which we recognise the absence of a real holism. The evidence of the Stoics, however, seems to point strongly towards a premature shift from partiality to a form of fatalism. The grounds for this claim should become clearer as I turn from the cosmic Logos  to the individual one.


iii)                Stoic Dualism: the Individual Logos


At the individual level the Logos manifests itself in terms of ethics. The good for the individual consists in acting in accordance with the Logos, where the Logos primarily takes its cosmic form and only secondarily that of individual good. This appears to create a conflict in two closely related areas: that of freewill and that of ethical decision-making. In the area of freewill the evidence is ambiguous, but in that of ethical decision-making there are stronger indications of an alienation taking the place of genuine ethics, although this will be to some extent softened by the climate of ethical particularity in which Stoicism existed.


The area of freewill in Stoicism is problematic. In line with their materialism it seems that the Stoics conceived all events as following a strict causal determinism according to which all future events were theoretically predictable[25]. For the earliest Stoics such as Zeno and Cleanthes this does not seem to have created a problem for human responsibility, for to them “moral goodness largely consists in living willingly and to the best of your ability the life assigned to you by fate”[26]. At this time, also, no partial human good was recognised apart from that dictated by the cosmic Logos[27]. It would not be fair to assume from this, though, that these early Stoics were recommending a completely passive attitude to experience. As for later eternalist determinists such as Calvin and Marx, the ethical role of determinism for the Stoic is to provide a basis of confidence in providence rather than to undermine confidence in the effectiveness of individual ethical endeavour. Such an attitude is logically consistent given that there is no disjunction between the determination of any one event in relation to another: for any one given event on which one may reflect “my impression of freedom in relation to this event is illusory, so I have no reason to make any effort in acting” there will be other, similar or adjacent events for which the impression of freedom has apparently been confirmed by the achievement of the goals of the action. If all actions and results are determined, then there are no particular contrasts between determined and free actions and the determinist thus has no practical reason to avoid acting in a particular case. Since the determinism is also one of providence the determinist also has a reason not to consider the ethical complexion of his actions.


This kind of approach is taken by Cicero in his refutation of the “lazy argument”: “’You will recover, regardless of whether or not you call the doctor’ is fallacious. For it is just as much fated for you to call the doctor as for you to recover”[28] . This kind of argument effectively depends on a lack of belief in the dichotomy between freewill and determinism. If it is believed, however, that some events are due to freewill and others are determined, an egoistic response is naturally to believe that ones own actions are free and thus to introduce a philosophical theory to justify this freedom. This suspension of the issue on the part of the early Stoics does seem to contain an element of non-dualism, as is particularly emphasised by Alexander in his use of an incremental Sorites-style argument to show that fate does not contradict responsibility by showing that there are none other than conventional boundaries between the two concepts[29]. If this argument is followed through to its logical implications it is far reaching, involving not only a non-dualism of fate and freewill but of self (with which freewill must be identified) and other (with which determinism must be identified). That such a conception can also be found implicitly in Stoicism at a more practical level I have already argued: however, there does not seem to be any further evidence for its broader influence on the whole of Stoic thought. 


That this element of non-dualism and the dualist criticisms it attracted from rival schools were a source of anxiety to the Stoics is evidenced by Chrysippus’s attempts to allow for responsibility by modifying the Stoic account of causality. Chrysippus attempted to distinguish between necessitation and causal determinism, where human assent to impressions created by outward causal  mechanisms, although causally determined, followed a separate path of causality due to previous assents rather than to outward stimuli themselves, hence not being necessary in the sense of being determined by the outward stimuli alone[30]. This did not change the basic belief, however, that the mind is subject to causal determinism just as the body is. Chrysippus’s argument does not seem to have made much difference to fundamental Stoic moral attitudes, where a belief in responsibility was already entrenched for on a quite different basis.


This basis is ably brought out by Long:

What matters to the Stoic sage is his disposition, how he is inside. He is free because he feels free, because he makes up his own mind about moral action in accordance with the values prescribed by the orthos logos. At the very least he can have the consciousness of determining his own attitude to events and a feeling of freedom about the actions he performs. How a man feels about himself is fundamental in Stoicism.[31]


Long goes on to attribute a strong account of this positive freedom (to use the phrase first coined by Isaiah Berlin) to Epictetus[32], indicating the extent of its influence in Stoicism. Such an approach defines freedom not in terms of the absence of sufficient causality (or any other form of coercion) for “free” mental events, but in terms of the positive development of the rational self unhindered by passions[33]. Berlin takes a negative attitude towards this development, talking of  “the retreat to the inner citadel”[34], and pointing out the ways in which it can be readily used to justify an authoritarianism of the late Platonic type I have already discussed[35]. What Berlin effectively criticises, however, is the dualism according to which ideas of positive freedom can be used to rationalise the imposition of moral policies with inadequate regard to the conditions of their success. It is not rational control itself which is at fault so much as the rejection (or at least the neglect) of interfering conditions beyond that rationality: a rejection which can be readily explained in terms of the rejection of the remainder of the psyche by the ego. Positive freedom can thus be dualistically imposed by such a rejection, or alternatively non-dualistically created through an incremental process of psychological integration.


The role of freewill, largely understood in terms of positive freedom, thus remains inconclusive as an indicator of the degree of eternalism, at least when taken by itself. We need to examine the way in which ideas of freedom were ethically applied in order to decide whether ideas of positive freedom had a functional role similar to that of freewill in eternalism, or how far they had a non-dualist function. We must thus approach Stoic ethics with the question of how far these ethics are productive of a mere eternalistic belief in the cosmic Logos, by which positive freedom is dualistically imposed, or of a balanced progression in which belief merely gives direction without alienation. One indicator of this will be whether there is an emphasis on the duality between the cosmic perspective and the individual one, or whether there is an incremental gradation between them, as there is in Alexander’s argument about fate and freewill. Another indicator will be whether Stoic psychological ethics encourages the acknowledgement of  feelings not in accordance with the dominant rationality, or encourages the mere assertion of reason in the way that I have argued is typical of Plato.


On the first of these indicators, the evidence is not very hopeful. The Stoics (at least from the time of Chrysippus) made a clear distinction between the morally good and the morally indifferent, the good being so only from a cosmic perspective, and what appears to human beings as good from their own perspective being strictly indifferent[36], deriving only from a partial perspective. Only the morally good is constitutive of happiness, and this is concerned with attitudes rather than with outward actions. A person’s happiness does not in the least depend on the presence or absence of such moral indifferents as health or wealth. Nevertheless it is considered rational to value some indifferents over others, so long as their lack of ultimate value was recognised, the basis of this valuation being how far the indifferent was in accordance with nature[37].


Here the Stoics not only introduce a radical discontinuity on the ethical scale, but open the doors to a completely different kind of ethical judgement below this point of discontinuity. Since only the wise man will be able to judge infallibly what is truly good, it is assumed that others will not be able to participate to any extent in this goodness. This assumption follows from the mistakes I have already identified in the Stoic belief in the cosmic Logos. If this belief consists in the view that knowledge of a universal causal nexus can be attained and that this also provides knowledge of the locus of ultimate value, but also that it has not actually been attained in any clearly identifiable cases, then the only relative version of value available to those that are not wise is that of conventional social morality. For absolute value only becomes available together with absolute understanding of causality, and short of that point the realms of fact and value remain logically separate. Such a discontinuity, as I shall argue more fully later[38], is not at all inevitable: for if, on the other hand, the cosmic perspective was not identified with particular causal laws but with an attitude which seeks to maximise our understanding both of such laws, as far as we know them, and of our ignorance of them, then that cosmic perspective would be open both to an absolute (understood as optimal) and an incrementally relative understanding.


Through the introduction of moral indifferents, however, the Stoics left their adherents only with “nature” as a guide to practical ethics. Since an argument can be made for any value held by a human being to be “natural”, the only remaining guide to what is in accordance with nature is thus what one’s society believes it to be. As Nussbaum writes:

In general, from Chrysippus on, Stoicism is committed to arguing from the “common conceptions”, and to using these as its touchstones and basic criteria. This is so, not because beliefs derived from society have any value as such, but because human beings are believed to come into the world with an innate orientation toward what is really good and reasonable – so that their deepest moral intuitions can for this reason be good guides to what is really good in the universe.[39]


In the absence of any justifiable criteria to distinguish true from false moral intuitions, however, this legitimation of intuition appears to offer no challenge to those whose “intuitions” only reflect the conditioning influences of conventional social morality. In practice Stoicism also appears to have offered a subtle training to those individuals who wished to refine their intuitions with the guidance of reason[40], but the good imparted to those who benefitted from such spiritual training may have been slight in comparison to the harm done by Stoicism through those who took its naturalism more superficially. For these it could provide an entirely conventional view of morality with the support of the belief that this view has an ultimate rational justification and is entirely in harmony with providence. I shall return to this theme when I consider the political effects of Stoicism later.


The extent to which Stoicism was committed to the discontinuity which created this naïve naturalism is reflected by the treatment of an early Stoic who objected to it. Aristo of Chios, a pupil of Zeno, argued that morally indifferent things were of equal value in themselves, there being none that always took precedence, but rather each case was to be judged afresh according to the circumstances with the goal of promoting wisdom[41]. His argument was consequentialist, saying that there could be some circumstances where, for example, sickness was to be preferred to health in order to avoid a greater evil[42]. Like the Cynics, he seems to have had a healthy disrespect for prevailing social mores and a realisation of the lack of ultimate justification for any naturalistic formulation. However, Aristo met a chorus of opposition from most other Stoics. Cicero accused him of  removing the whole basis of virtue through which life could be ordered[43]. Sandbach adds an argument of his own against Aristo which is representative of the sort of naïve naturalism he was up against:

If nothing but virtue has value per se, the temporary value of other things must be due to their promoting virtue and negative value to their encouraging vice. But usually they will be quite irrelevant in these regards. No one avoids the mutilation of his fingers because a damaged hand will make him morally worse.[44]


Since most of the good (and evil) deeds in history could not have been performed without functioning fingers, Sandbach’s assertion of their moral irrelevance is almost incredible. Even though one cannot describe the mutilation of fingers as good or evil a priori, the idea that one cannot thus describe it in any particular case can only be based on a view of ethics which only understands a very narrow range of motives as morally relevant: a view which consigns ethics to complete ineffectuality. But his approach seems entirely in line with the main stream of the Stoic tradition in its unduly narrow view of what constitutes virtue.


My second indicator, the degree of assertion of reason over feeling, also points to a dualist rather than non-dualist emphasis. At a theoretical level this assertion is represented by the Stoic view that reason and affect are identical, a view argued by Chrysippus and defended by Nussbaum[45]. This is explained in terms of the judgements of belief in relation to experience, through which affect always expresses itself. Since affects are never formed or expressed in isolation from judgements of belief, it is assumed that affects are therefore reducible to belief. For the Stoics, a cognitive therapy is thus sufficient to deal with the excessive affects which constitute the passions, and to reveal to the individual that “the judgements with which the passions are identical are false”[46]. In order to fight false beliefs, such as the belief in the value of moral indifferents, we use reason to establish true beliefs in their place.


The inextricable mutual causality between belief and affect is an issue which I will develop much more fully later[47]. This non-dualism of belief and affect, however, does not imply that the whole can necessarily be transformed through purely cognitive forms of therapy: to assume this is actually to employ an egoistic reduction of affect into belief rather than recognising their interdependence. If cognitive therapies begin with recognition of the ego and attempt to incorporate other parts of the psyche into its rational framework, non-cognitive therapies begin with a recognition of the remainder of the psyche which may well be essential to bring about integration. The Stoic reliance on cognitive therapy alone seems likely to merely motivate the ego towards an abstract good understood from a position of premature holism, and, in the absence of accompanying moves towards integration, result only in alienation.


That the fundamental stress in Stoicism is towards purely cognitive therapy is clear from the fact that its therapeutic goal is to extirpate the passions. As Seneca writes, “It is often asked whether it is better to have moderate passions or none. Our people drive out the passions altogether [expellunt]”[48]. The wise man is depicted as totally free from passions. Perhaps it was the case that some Stoics did indeed discover a Middle Way by which they avoided the weaknesses of this over-cognitive approach, and it is important not to jump to the conclusion that any given individual Stoic necessarily adopted a strategy of emotional repression without more particular evidence. Nevertheless, the Stoic commitment to the method of reason alone suggests that this may have been the case in most instances.


Stoic alienation and repression is evident in two related areas at an individual level. One is a kind of fortress mentality of the self, where, rather than relaxing the boundaries of the ego, the Stoic appears to hold them rigidly by the continuous application of nervous energy. This mentality connects the rationality of the ego with a type of self-sufficiency  which is unable to acknowledge the power of other influences upon it. “Philosophy builds an impregnable wall around the self, fortifying it against all possible assaults of fortune”[49]. This does not merely consist in a physical retreat in order to focus on the condition of the mind, but on the contrary consists in mental retreat from attachment to the physical world in order to become attached to a solipsistically-nurtured idea of autonomy. Here we see the counterpart of Plato’s idealism, despite the fact that Stoic idealism attempts to encompass the whole cosmos. But through the device of the Logos the cosmos has, in a sense, been reduced to the level of the self through a process of projection, and the existence of anything beyond that self-universe denied.


The other area is fatalism, which we might expect to be the psychological effect of the belief in providence. This is particularly evident in Marcus Aurelius:

There are two reasons, then, why you should willingly accept what happens to you: first, because it happens to yourself, has been prescribed for yourself, and concerns yourself, being a strand in the tapestry of primordial creation; and secondly, because every individual dispensation is one of the causes of the prosperity, success, and even survival of That which administers the universe.[50]


Marcus Aurelius here makes the link between cosmic and individual Logos explicit. It is possible to interpret this view of the correct individual response as a mere pragmatic acceptance of those forces we have no control over, but this would not do justice to the Logos or the extent to which the individual Logos is identified with the cosmic one. The individual has to play his part in the providential scheme, but in doing this, he has to give up all individual drives. The possibility of any particular beliefs about providence being false or of such drives being for the good does not arise. Thus whilst Marcus Aurelius entertains many reflections which sound non-dualist, taken in their total context, which remains unquestioned, they remain dualist. Perhaps one practical implication of this can be seen in the fact that Marcus Aurelius seems to have made two disastrous political decisions during his reign as emperor, both possibly motivated by feelings of wanting to limit his own power in relation to other members of his family or adoptive family in a way which he obviously felt was in accordance with nature, but paradoxically insisted upon against the wishes of the senate: first when he insisted on his adoptive brother joining him on the throne, and later when he made the same arrangement with his son[51]. In both cases the choices were proved by later events to have been unwise, neither of them being nearly as suitable for positions of responsibility as Marcus was himself. Marcus’s Stoicism seems not to have equipped him with a consistently clear judgement about the whole range of conditions which surrounded him, but rather, with a fatalistic tendency towards self-abnegation and at times an avoidance of responsibilities.


It is such examples which enable Stoicism to be politically characterised as conservative. Although one of the earliest works of Stoicism was the lost Republic of Zeno, typically this did not, so far as we can tell, deal with how the ideal state could be constructed after the manner of Plato, but rather what it would be like if it existed and was composed of perfect citizens[52]. The Stoic preoccupation with purity for more serious adherents and a vague naturalism for others does not seem the best combination of qualities to promote political change that took into account the real imperfections of actual political situations. Although the early Stoics had little respect for social conventions, they seem to have provided the ethical grounding for the much more influential later Stoic adherence to the existing law as a natural and rational one[53]. Although many Stoics were involved in public life they thus do not seem to have seen it as their goal to change its nature significantly at a political or social level.


In her fascinating examination of Seneca’s view of the place of anger in public life Nussbaum brings out the political attitudes of one late Stoic[54]. Seneca on the one hand believes that anger should never be displayed, and preferably never felt, but at the same time does believe that one should preserve a sense of honour and not simply accept injustice. Instead he maintains that it is better to commit suicide than to give way to a display of anger. As Nussbaum writes

We wonder…whether Seneca does not attach too much importance to an ideal of purity and integrity that is, if one considers it, more than a little egocentric. For the person who reacts to tyranny by leaping into a well does not do anything for others; and he protects his gentle involvement with humanity at the price of a selfish sort of non-involvement….In the very act of deciding for suicide, the Stoic has become as deeply implicated in the world and its evils as the angry person. For he judges that the condicio humanae vitae…really does, in this case matter too much….The beliefs characteristic of the suicide are in effect a kind of anger: for they include the judgement that a grave injustice has been done, and also the judgement that it ought to be punished. The only difference is that the suicide refuses, whether through impotence or through exaggerated purity, to get personally involved in the punishing.[55]


The contradictions that Nussbaum uncovers here[56] are those of one who sees two opposed extremes (in this case attachment to anger and failure to oppose injustice) and, having a general sense that there must be a definite intermediate path of right, leaps upon the most obvious, dramatic, and well defined such alternative without sufficient reflection as to whether it actually avoids the equally unhappy extremes he wants to avoid. The failure involved is ultimately one of a certain type of courage, in looking beyond the bounds of immediate culture or tradition: a courage which needs to be linked with awareness of the wide range of possible subtle alternatives to the most obvious courses of action. Seneca’s undoubted courage in other respects should not obscure this.  He indeed had the courage to take his own advice, in this case not to avoid anger but to maintain control over the mode of his own death: for after being implicated in a plot to overthrow Nero and condemned to death, he opened his own veins and apparently continued dictating to his scribe whilst his life-blood gradually flowed away.


Thus both the political and ethical inadequacies of Stoicism can be traced particularly to the discontinuity of their ethics and this, in turn, to the eternalism of the Logos. Although the picture of Stoic ethical success and failure is a very mixed one which also reveals much to admire, I do not judge that the complexity of the evidence is sufficient to obscure this basic error. Where the Stoics came significantly near to grasping aspects of non-dualism, however, they succeeded (largely as Plato did) mainly in confounding it with eternalism. The failure is not so much an individualised one as is the case with Plato, but the collective failure of courage involved was perhaps more far-reaching in its historical implications. This may become clearer as I go on to consider Christianity.


[1] Since the most influential expositions were made by the early Greek Stoics (particularly Chrysippus), and the sources of these are fragmentary, I shall be unashamedly reliant on secondary sources and translated compilations here.

[2] Hadot (1995) p.84, giving his own translation (here translated from the French by Davidson) of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations 7.54, with his own emphasis. Existing English translations of Marcus Aurelius give very different interpretations of this passage which evidently reflect a lack of understanding of the place of spiritual exercises like that of prosoche in Stoicism.

[3] ibid. p.85

[4] See 5.e.i

[5] op. cit. p.238-250

[6]  See Sandbach  (1975) p. 33-5

[7]  See 5.e.ii & Kamalashila (1992) ch.2

[8]  Long (1974) p. 171-2

[9]  Nussbaum  (1994)

[10] ibid. ch.9

[11] Long (1974) p.147-150

[12] Long & Sedley (1987) p.270-1

[13] ibid. p.241-253

[14] Long (1974) p. 135

[15] ibid. p.135-6

[16] Cicero, Academica 2.77-8 (giving an account of views attributed to Zeno): quoted in Long & Sedley (1987) p.242

[17] Long (1974) p.128

[18] ibid. p.130

[19] Kerferd (1978) gives a convincing account of this being the attainment of the wise man, as opposed to, on the one hand, complete omniscience in the sense of knowledge of all facts, and on the other, an entirely contentless disposition.

[20] See 2.b.i

[21] See 5.f.ii

[22] ibid. p.127. Kerferd does not offer any primary references for either of these points.

[23] Nussbaum (1994) p.344: “Because practical reason has intrinsic value, Stoicism constructs a model of the teacher-pupil relationship that is strongly symmetrical and anti-authoritarian.”

[24] Long (1974) p.168-9

[25] ibid. p.164

[26] Long & Sedley (1987) p.392 (their emphasis)

[27] ibid. p. 395, quoting Diogenes Laertius 7.87-9: “The nature consequential upon which one ought to live is taken by Chrysippus to be both the common and, particularly, the human. But Cleanthes admits only the common nature….”

[28] ibid. p.340, quoting Cicero On Fate 28-30

[29] ibid. p.391, quoting Alexander On Fate 207,5-21

[30] ibid. p.386-8, quoting Cicero On Fate 39-43

[31] Long (1971) p.175

[32] ibid. p.189-192

[33] Berlin (1969) p.131-3

[34] ibid. p.135 ff.

[35] See 3.d.iv

[36] Sandbach (1975) p.30; Long & Sedley p.395

[37] Long & Sedley (1987) p.354-9

[38] See esp. 6.a & b

[39] Nussbaum (1994) p.332

[40] See 3.e.i

[41] Sandbach (1975) p.38-9

[42] Long & Sedley (1987) p. 355-6, quoting Sextus Empiricus Against the professors II.64-7

[43] Sandbach (1975) p.38-9

[44] ibid. p.39

[45] Nussbaum (1994) p.373-386

[46] ibid. p.390

[47] See most of chapter 5, especially 5.b & d

[48] Nussbaum (1994) p.389, quoting Seneca Epistles 116.1

[49] Nussbaum (1994) p. 395, paraphrasing Seneca Epistles 82.5

[50] Marcus Aurelius (1964) 5.8

[51] ibid. 1.17 (and footnote); Sandbach (1975) p. 172 (footnote)

[52] See Schofield (1991)

[53] Long & Sedley (1987) p.429-437

[54] Nussbaum (1994) ch.11

[55] ibid. p.436

[56] Here I am choosing to ignore the fact that Nussbaum’s understanding of  “egocentric” is obviously very different from mine (being evidently based on unexamined modern Western ethical assumptions). In this case the effects of the analysis with either sense of  “egocentric” are very similar.


Return to thesis contents page

Return to home page



A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



Other books:

A New Buddhist Ethics

The Trouble with Buddhism


List of all books and papers


Objections & responses


Comment on the blog


Home page