The System of Stoic Philosophy

The System of Stoic Philosophy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite classification of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, and their subdivisions, etc., as reputedly described by the primary sources. It’s still a work in progress, see please feel free to post comments or corrections.

The Parts of Philosophy

From Diogenes Laertius (7.38-41)

Zeno introduced the tripartite division of philosophy in his book On Rational Discourse. Whereas some Stoics say the three parts of philosophy are mixed and taught together, Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, put them in the following order:

  1. Logic
  2. Physics
  3. Ethics

However, Plutarch says that Chrysippus thought the parts should be studied as follows (Early Stoics, p. 9):

  1. Logic
  2. Ethics
  3. Physics (and theology)

(Later, Epictetus said that the Discipline of Assent, which is linked to logic, should be studied last, as it is important to master the other aspects of Stoicism first.)

Cleanthes divided philosophy into six parts, however.

  1. Dialectic
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Ethics
  4. Politics
  5. Physics
  6. Theology

Several metaphors are used in conjunction with this tripartite division of philosophy. For example, philosophy is like an animal:

  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The fleshier parts
  • Physics = The soul

Philosophy is like an egg:

  • Logic = The shell
  • Ethics = The egg white
  • Physics = The yolk

Philosophy is like a productive field:

  • Logic = The surrounding wall
  • Ethics = The fruit
  • Physics = The land and trees

Philosophy is like a city “which is beautifully fortified and administered according to reason.” According to Sextus Empiricus, Posidonius compared philosophy to an animal, as follows (Early Stoics, p. 9):

  • Physics = The flesh and blood
  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The soul

Ethics & The Virtues

From Diogenes Laertius (7.84-131).

The early Stoics define “the good” as encompassing three senses:

  1. The most fundamental sense is that through which it is possible to be benefitted, which corresponds mainly to the virtues
  2. In addition, the good includes that according to which being benefitted is a typical result, which refers both to the virtues and to specific virtuous actions
  3. Finally, the good includes that which is such as to benefit, namely the Wise man himself, true friends, and the gods, who engage in virtuous actions and possess the virtues

From another point of view, the good is described as being both beneficial and honourable or praiseworthy. Alternatively, Diogenes Laertius gives the following list of synonyms for the good, according to the early Stoics all good (agathon) is inherently “expedient (sumpheron), morally binding, like a duty (deon), profitable, repaying more than was expended (lusiteles), useful for things (chreisimon), serviceable (euchrêston), beautiful (kalon), beneficial (ôphelimon), to be chosen (haireton), and just (dikaion).” Some of these terms are central to Stoic ethical theory.

Although Zeno and Cleanthes did not divide things in such detail, the followers of Chrysippus and others Stoics classify the sub-divisions of ethics as follows:

  1. On impulse
  2. On good and bad things
  3. On passions
  4. On virtue
  5. On the goal
  6. On primary value
  7. On actions
  8. On appropriate actions
  9. On encouragements and discouragements to action

Diogenes Laertius says that whereas Panaetius divided virtues into two kinds (theoretical and practical), other Stoics divided the virtues into logical, ethical and physical. According to Aetius also, there are three categories of virtue, which correspond with the three divisions of philosophy: physics, ethics, and logic (Early Stoics, p. 9). He doesn’t say what these virtues are, but we might speculate:

  1. Physics = Self-Control (Courage & Moderation, two of the cardinal virtues)
  2. Ethics = Justice
  3. Logics = Wisdom (or Prudence)

Most Stoics appear to have agreed that there are four “primary” virtues, common to other ancient schools of philosophy:

  1. Prudence or Practical Wisdom (Phronesis), sometimes just called Wisdom (Sophia), which opposes the vice of “ignorance”
  2. Justice or Integrity (Dikaiosune), which opposes the vice of “injustice”
  3. Fortitude or Courage (Andreia), which opposes the vice of “cowardice”
  4. Temperance or Moderation (Sophrosune), which opposes the vice of “wantonness”

These are defined as forms of knowledge (q.v., Stobaeus in Early Stoics, p. 125-130):

  1. Prudence is knowledge of which things are good, bad, and neither; or “appropriate acts”.
  2. Temperance is knowledge of which things are to be chosen, avoided, and neither; or stable “human impulses”.
  3. Justice is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person; or fair “distributions”.
  4. Courage is knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither; or “standing firm”.

The cardinal virtues are also sub-divided as follows:

  1. Prudence takes the form of deliberative excellence, good calculation, quick-wittedness, good sense, good sense of purpose, and resourcefulness.
  2. Temperance takes the form of organisation, orderliness, modesty, and self-control.
  3. Justice takes the form of piety, good-heartedness, public spiritedness, and fair dealing.
  4. Courage takes the form of endurance, confidence, great-heartedness, stout-heartedness, and love of work.

A famous slogan of Epictetus, anechou kai apechou, is usually translated as “bear and forbear” or “endure and renounce”. This can perhaps be seen to correlate with the two virtues relating to self-control in the broad sense: courage and temperance. It’s possible that these two complementary virtues both correspond somehow with the discipline of Stoic physics and with the passions, as follows:

  1. Endure (bear), through the virtue of courage, whatever irrational pain or suffering would otherwise be feared and avoided
  2. Renounce (forbear), through the virtue of temperance (or moderation), whatever irrational pleasures would otherwise be desired and pursued

According to Chrysippus and other Stoics, the main examples of indifferent things, being neither good nor bad, are listed as pairs of opposites (Diogenes Laertius, 7.102):

  1. Life and death
  2. Health and disease
  3. Pleasure and pain
  4. Beauty and ugliness
  5. Strength and weakness
  6. Wealth and poverty
  7. Good reputation and bad reputation
  8. Noble birth and low birth
  9. …and other such things.

The Irrational Passions

According to Zeno, the passions are defined as essentially voluntary responses, which can be described as (Diogenes Laertius, 7.109):

  1. Irrational (alogos) judgements
  2. Unnatural (para phusin) movements of the soul
  3. Excessive impulses (hormê pleonazousa)

According to Zeno, the most general division of these irrational passions is into four categories:

  1. Pain or suffering (lupê), an “irrational contraction” of the soul, over the failure to avoid something judged bad or to obtain something judged good
  2. Fear (phobos), the (irrational) “expectation of something bad”
  3. Craving (epithumia), an “irrational striving” for something judged to be good
  4. Pleasure (hêdonê), an “irrational elation over what seems to be worth choosing”, i.e., what is judged good

These can be subdivided as follows (following Diogenes Laertius but also Stobaeus, in Early Stoics, pp. 138-139):

  1. Pain can take the form of pity, grudging, envy, resentment, heavyheartedness, congestion, sorrow, anguish, or confusion. Or according to Stobaeus, envy, grudging, resentment, pity, grief, heavyheartedness, distress, sorrow, anguish, and vexation.
  2. Fear and can take the form of dread, hesitation, shame, shock, panic, or agony. Or according to Stobaeus, hesitation, agony, shock, shame, panic, superstition, fright, and dread.
  3. Craving can take the form of want, hatred, quarrelsomeness, anger, sexual love, wrath, or spiritedness. Or according to Stobaeus, anger (e.g., spiritedness, irascibility, wrath, rancor, bitterness, etc.), vehement sexual desire, longings and yearnings, love of pleasure, love of wealth, love of reputation, etc.
  4. Pleasure can take the form of enchantment, mean-spirited satisfaction, enjoyment, or rapture. Or according to Stobaeus, mean-spirited satisfaction, contentment, charms, etc.

The Good Passions

In addition to the irrational, excessive or unnatural (unhealthy) passions, there are also corresponding “good passions”. Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, and he also describes them as being more transitory than virtues. These fall into three categories, because no good state corresponds with emotional pain (suffering) or contraction of the soul (Diogenes Laertius, 7.116).

  1. Joy or delight (chara), a rational elation over the good, which is the alternative to irrational pleasure
  2. Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a rational avoidance of the bad, which is the alternative to irrational fear
  3. Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a rational striving for the good, which is the alternative to irrational desire

A.A. Long actually translates boulêsis as “well-wishing”, which suggests a connection with “natural affection” (philostorgia). These good passions can be subdivided as follows:

  1. Joy can take the form of enjoyment/delight (terpsis), good spirits/cheer (euphrosunos), or tranquility/contentment (euthumia)
  2. Caution can take the form of self-respect/modesty/dignity (aidô) or sanctity/purity/chastity (agneia)
  3. Wishing can take the form of goodwill/favour (eunoia), kindness (eumeneios), acceptance/welcoming (aspasmos) or contentment/affection (agapêsis)

In other words, a distinction can be made between rational and irrational passions as follows:

  1. Elation (eparsis) can take the form of rational joy (chara) or irrational pleasure (hêdonê)
  2. Aversion (ekklisis), or the impulse to avoid something judged to be bad, can take the form of rational discretion (eulabeia) or irrational fear (phobos)
  3. Desire (orexis), or the impulse to get something judged to be good can take the form of rational willing (boulêsis) or irrational craving (epithumia)
  4. There is no rational form of pain or suffering (lupê), in the Stoic sense

The healthy passion of caution (or discretion) concerning the bad, and its subordinate passions of self-respect and chastity, appears to particularly resemble the virtue of temperance. The healthy passion of wishing (or willing) the good appears to mainly encompass love (agapêsis), and related affects, such as goodwill, kindness, acceptance and affection. This is the rational alternative to anger and sexual lust, or irrational desire. It may be particulalry related to the most obviously “social” virtue: justice. (A passage in Stobaeus appears to claim that for the Stoics, philia, love or friendship, was actually a species of the virtue justice.)

The Three Disciplines of Epictetus

In addition to the distinctions made in earlier Stoic writings, Epictetus seems to describe a tripartite distinction between three practical disciplines.

  1. The Discipline of Assent (sunkatathesis). The ability to assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgement toward uncertain ones. This appears to be linked to the Stoic topic of logic, and perhaps also with the virtue of wisdom.
  2. The Discipline of Desire (orexis). To have desire for and attain the good, to have aversion toward and avoid the bad, and to feel indifference toward indifferent things. The good is to be defined as being solely in the domain of things under one’s control, one’s volitions or actions, making wisdom and other virtues the highest good. This is the discipline of the passions and, perhaps surprisingly, may be linked to the Stoic topic of physics, as this encompasses the study of human nature and the passions, which are themselves primarily forms of desire and aversion, and it may also correspond with the virtues of courage and temperance, which relate to self-control over irrational desire (craving) and aversion (fear).
  3. The Discipline of Action (hormê). To seek to act or not act, always in accord with one’s appropriate actions (kathêkonta) or duties, in terms primarily of natural and acquired social relationships. This appears to perhaps be linked to the Stoic topic of ethics, and perhaps also with the virtue of justice.

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