The Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics

Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics in Marcus Aurelius: Part One

A positive reason for seeing Stoicism as influential on Marcus is that most of the Meditations are strongly reminiscent of Stoic ideas, even if Marcus does not use technical Stoic vocabulary and sometimes recasts these ideas in his own distinctive ways. We can identify at least five features which were seen in this period as distinctive of Stoicism; and they match strongly marked themes in the Meditations. One is the idea that the virtuous life is identical with the happy life (that virtue is all that is needed to ensure happiness). Other things widely regarded as good, such as health or material prosperity and even the well-being of one’s family and friends, are seen as being irrelevant for happiness; they are ‘matters of indifference’, even if they are naturally ‘preferable’.  A second theme is that emotions and desires depend directly on beliefs about what is valuable or desirable; they do not form a separate (non-rational) dimension of psychological life. The emotions and desires most people form are seen as shaped by mistaken ethical beliefs and in this sense as being psychological ‘sicknesses’. A third theme is that human beings have an in-built natural inclination to benefit others. This inclination, if properly developed, is expressed both in full-hearted engagement with family and communal roles and in a readiness to accept all human beings, as such, as part of a ‘brotherhood’ or ‘cosmic city’ and as proper objects of ethical concern. These three ideas add up to a highly idealised view of human ethics and psychology, one that ancient critics thought was over-idealistic and unrealistic. None the less, the Stoics maintained that all human beings are fundamentally capable of progressing towards the ideal state of complete virtue and happiness, though they admitted that no one had perhaps achieved this completely. Hence, ethical life, for Stoicism, consisted in an ongoing process or journey towards this goal, a journey for which their methods of practical ethics were a means of support.

            The three themes, together with the related ideas about ethical development or progress, fall within the sphere of ‘ethics’, as understood in Stoicism. Another distinctive theme falls within ‘physics’ (the study of nature) and the interface between ethics and physics. A topic of major debate at this time was whether the natural universe embodied in-built purpose or meaning or whether it was simply the random outcome of natural laws or processes. The Stoics, following Plato and Aristotle, adopted the first view, the Epicureans maintained the second, which was linked with their theory about the atomic nature of matter. The Stoic belief in in-built purpose was connected with their view that all events are determined, and that the whole sequence of events embodies divine purpose or providentiality. As this point illustrates, the Stoics saw the branches of philosophy (in this case, ethics and physics) as interconnected and mutually supporting. Thus, their belief in divine providence belonged to the study of theology (which for them formed part of physics). But this belief also helped to provide a meaningful framework for ethics; while ethics in turn made sense of ideas (such as ‘good’) which underpinned the notion of providentiality and thus supported the principles of theology. As this point indicates, the Stoics saw philosophy as forming a highly unified and systematic body of knowledge. The ability to trace and understand connections between different ideas and between the branches of philosophy thus formed an important part of the study of Stoicism.

This extract is © Christopher Gill, and is taken, with kind permission of Oxford World’s Classics, from the Introduction (xv-xvi) to Marcus Aurelius: Meditations with selected correspondence, trans. Robin Hard, with Introduction and Notes by Christopher Gill.

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