Stoicism and Scottish Philosophy

Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) was professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).  He was part of the movement in academic philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Stewart was also good friends with Scotland’s national bard, the poet Robert Burns. 

Much of intellectual life in eighteenth-century Scotland is marked by the phenomenon nowadays called the “Scottish Enlightenment” – a flourishing exchange of ideas in a quite remarkably tolerant public space… Scotland before the Enlightenment was not devoid of interest in classical antiquity, yet during the eighteenth century one can identify an increased interest in Greek and Latin authors – particularly in the Stoics and Cicero…

Christian Maurer, ‘Stoicism and the Scottish Enlightenment’ in the Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016) edited by John Sellars

Stewart was one of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers most interested in ancient Stoicism and provides a very insightful summary of its doctrines in the following excerpt from his book The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (1829), Book 4, Chapter 4, Section 2.  I’ve made light editorial changes to the content, such as updating some anachronistic spellings and reformatting his extensive quotations from other authors, such as James Harris and fellow Scots Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Thanks to Colin Hay of The Scottish Stoics for help preparing the text. – Donald Robertson

Of Happiness. Systems of the Grecian Schools on the Subject.

In opposition to the Epicurean doctrines on the subject of happiness, the Stoics placed the supreme good in rectitude of conduct, without any regard to the event. They did not, however, as has been often supposed, recommend an indifference to external objects, or a life of inactivity and apathy. On the contrary, they taught that nature pointed out to us certain objects of choice and of rejection, and amongst these some to be more chosen and avoided than others; and that virtue consisted in choosing and rejecting objects according to their intrinsic value. They admitted that health was to be preferred to sickness, riches to poverty; the prosperity of our family, of our friends, of our country, to their adversity; and they allowed, nay, they recommended, the most strenuous exertions to accomplish these desirable ends. They only contended these objects should be pursued not as the constituents of our happiness, but because we believe it to be agreeable to nature that we should pursue them; and that, therefore, when we have done our utmost, we should regard the event as indifferent. 

That this is a fair representation of the Stoic doctrine has been fully proved by Mr. James Harris in the very learned and judicious notes on his Dialogue concerning Happiness; a performance which, although not entirely free from Mr. Harris’s peculiarities of thought and style, does him so much honour, both as a writer and a moralist, that we cannot help regretting, while we peruse it, that he should so often have wasted his ingenuity and learning upon scholastic subtleties, equally inapplicable to the pursuits of science, and to the business of life.  Harris observes:

The word παθος [pathos], which we usually render a passion, means, in the Stoic sense, a perturbation, and is always so translated by Cicero; and the epithet απαθης [apathes], when applied to the wise man, does not mean an exemption from passion, but an exemption from that perturbation which is founded on erroneous opinions. The testimony of Epictetus is express to this purpose. I am not, says he, to be apathetic like a statue, but I am withal to observe relations both the natural and adventitious; as the man of religion, as the son, as the brother, as the father, as the citizen. And immediately before he tells us, that a perturbation in no other way ever arises but either when a desire is frustrated, or an aversion falls into that which it should avoid. In which passage it is observable that he does not make either desire, or aversion, παθη [pathe], or perturbations, but only the cause of perturbations when erroneously conducted.

Harris, Dialogue Concerning Happiness

From a great variety of passages, which it is unnecessary for me to transcribe, Harris concludes that “the Stoics, in the character of their virtuous man, included rational desire, aversion, and exultation; included love and parental affection, friendship, and a general benevolence to all mankind; and considered it as a duty arising from our very nature not to neglect the welfare of public society, but to be ever ready, according to our rank, to act as either the magistrate or as the private citizen.” 

Nor did they exclude wealth from among the objects of choice. The Stoic Hecato, in his Treatise of Offices, quoted by Cicero, tells us,

That a wise man, while he abstains from doing anything contrary to the customs, laws, and institutions of his country, ought to attend to his own fortune. For we do not desire to be rich for ourselves only, but for our children, relations, and friends, and especially for the commonwealth, inasmuch as the riches of individuals are the wealth of a state.

Cicero, De Officiis, iii.15

“Nay,” says Cicero, “if the wise man could mend his condition by adding to the amplest possessions the poorest, meanest utensil, he would in no degree condemn it.” [De Finibus, iv.12]

From these quotations it sufficiently appears that the Stoic system, so far from withdrawing men from the duties of life, was eminently favourable to active virtue. Its peculiar and distinguishing tenet was, that our happiness did not depend on the attainment of the objects of our choice, but on the part that we acted; but this principle was inculcated not to damp our exertions, but to lead us to rest our happiness only on circumstances which we ourselves could command. Says Epictetus:

If I am going to sail, I choose the best ship and the best pilot, and I wait for the fairest weather, that my circumstances and duty will allow. Prudence and propriety, the principles which the gods have given me for the direction of my conduct, require this of me, but they require no more; and if, notwithstanding, a storm arises, which neither the strength of the vessel nor the skill of the pilot are likely to with stand, I give myself no trouble, about the consequences. All that I had to do is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, to be anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned or come to a harbour is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I leave it entirely to his determination, nor ever break my rest with considering which way he is likely to decide it but receive whatever comes with equal indifference and security.

Epictetus, Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

We may observe further, in favour of this noble system, that the scale of desirable objects which it exhibited was peculiarly calculated to encourage the social virtues. It represented indeed (in common with the theory of Epicurus) self-love as the great spring of human actions; but in the application of this erroneous principle to practice, its doctrines were favourable to the most enlarged, nay, to the most disinterested benevolence. It taught that the prosperity of two was preferable to that of one; that of a city to that of a family; and that of our country to all partial considerations. It was up on this very principle, added to a sublime sentiment of piety, that it founded its chief argument for an entire resignation to the dispensations of Providence. As all events are ordered by perfect wisdom and goodness, the Stoics concluded, that whatever happens is calculated to produce the greatest good possible to the universe in general. As it is agreeable to nature, therefore, that we should prefer the happiness of many to a few, and of all to that of many, they concluded that every event which happens is precisely that which we ourselves would have desired, if we had been acquainted with the whole scheme of the Divine administration.  

In what sense are some things said to be according to our nature, and others contrary to it? It is in that sense in which we consider ourselves as separated and detached from all other things. For thus it may be said to be the nature of the foot to be always clean. But if you consider it as a foot, and not as something detached from the rest of the body, it must behove it sometimes to trample in the dirt, and sometimes to tread upon thorns, and sometimes, too, to be cut off for the sake of the whole body; and if it refuses this, it is no longer a foot. Thus, too, ought we to conceive with respect to ourselves. What are you? A man. If you consider yourself as something separated and detached, it is agreeable to your nature to live to old age, to be rich, to be in health. But if you consider yourself as a man, and as a part of the whole, upon account of that whole it will behove you sometimes to be in sick ness, sometimes to be exposed to the inconveniency of a sea voyage, sometimes to be in want, and at last perhaps to die before your time. Why then do you complain? Don’t you know that by doing so, as the foot ceases to be a foot, so you cease to be a man.


And as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus writes:

Oh world, all things are suitable to me which are suitable to thee. Nothing is too early or too late for me which is seasonable for thee. All is fruit to me which thy seasons bring forth. From thee are all things; in thee are all things; for thee are all things. Shall any man say, O beloved city of Cecrops! and wilt not thou say, O beloved city of God! 

Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

In this tendency of the Stoic philosophy to encourage the active and social virtues, it was most remarkably distinguished from the system of Epicurus. The latter, indeed, seems (as it was first taught) to have been the reverse of that system of sensuality and of libertinism, to which the epithet Epicurean is commonly applied in modern times; but it was at best a system of selfishness and prudent indulgence, which placed happiness in a seclusion from care, and in an indifference to all the concerns of mankind. By the Stoics, on the contrary, virtue was supposed to consist in the affectionate performance of every good office towards their fellow creatures, and in full resignation to Providence for everything independent of their own choice. 

It is remarked by Dr. Adam Ferguson that:

Their different schemes of theology clearly pointed out their opposite plans of morality also. Both admitted the existence of God. But to one the Deity was a retired essence enjoying itself, and far removed from any work of creation and Providence. 

The other considered the Deity as the principle of existence and of order in the universe, from whom all intelligence proceeds, and to whom all intelligence will return; whose power is the irresistible energy of wisdom and of goodness, ever present and ever active; bestowing on man the faculty of reason and the freedom of choice, that he may learn, in acting for the general good, to imitate the Divine nature; and that, in respect of events independent of his will, he may acquiesce in the determination of Providence. 

In conformity with these principles one sect recommended seclusion from all the cares of family or state. The other recommended an active part in all the concerns of our fellow creatures, and the steady exertion of a mind benevolent, courageous, and temperate. Here the sects essentially differed, not in words, as has sometimes been alleged, but in the views which they entertained of a plan for the conduct of human life. The Epicurean was a deserter from the cause of his fellow creatures and might justly be reckoned a traitor to the community of nature, of mankind, and even of his country.

The Stoic enlisted himself as a willing instrument in the hand of God for the good of his fellow creatures. For himself, the cares and attentions which this object required were his pleasures, and the continued exertion of a beneficent affection, his welfare and his prosperity.

Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science

Such was the philosophy of the Stoics; — “a philosophy,” says Mr. Smith, “which affords the noblest lessons of magnanimity, is the best school of heroes and patriots; and to the greater part of whose precepts there can be no other objection but this honourable one, that they teach us to aim at a perfection altogether beyond the reach of human nature.” 

I cannot however help remarking, that this is by no means an objection to their system; for it is the business of the moralist to exhibit a standard far above the reach of our possible attainments. If he did otherwise, he must recommend errors and imperfections. Speaking of eloquence and the fine arts – and the observation holds equally with respect to every other pursuit – Quintilian says:

It has sometimes happened that great things have been accomplished by him who was striving at what was above his power.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, ii.12

To the same purpose it is well said by Seneca:

It is the mark of a generous spirit to aim at what is lofty; to attempt what is arduous; and ever to keep in view what it is impossible for the most splendid talents to accomplish.

Seneca, De Vita Beata, c.20

The Stoics themselves were sensible of the weakness inseparable from humanity. Cicero, speaking the language of a Stoic, says:

Neither indeed, when the two Decii or the two Scipios are mentioned as brave men, nor when Aristides or Fabricius are denominated just, is an example of fortitude in the former, or of justice in the latter, proposed as exactly conformable to the precepts of wisdom. For none of them were wise in that sense in which we apply the epithet to the wise man. Nor were Cato and Laelius such, although they were honoured with the appellation. No, not even the seven wise men of Greece who have been so widely celebrated, although, from the habitual discharge of middle duties, (ex mediorum officiorum frequentid) all of them bore a certain similitude to the ideal character.

 Cicero, De Officiis, L.iii, c.4

Seneca also mentions it as a general confession of the greatest philosophers, that the doctrine they taught was not “quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum vivendum est.” [“even as they themselves were living, but as I have to live”] [De Vita Beata, c.18] 

I know that I shall not be Milo, and yet I neglect not my body; nor Croesus, and yet I neglect not my estate; nor in general do we desist from the proper care of anything through despair of arriving at what is supreme.

Epictetus, Discourses, L.i, c.2

In the writings indeed of some of the Stoics, we meet with some absurd and violent paradoxes about the perfect felicity of the wise man on the one hand, and the equality of misery among all those who fall short of this ideal character on the other.

As all the actions of the wise man were perfect, so all those of the man who had not arrived at this supreme wisdom were faulty and equally faulty. As one truth could not be more true, nor one falsehood more false than another, so an honourable action could not be more honourable, nor a shameful one more shameful than another. As in shooting at a mark, the man who had missed it by an inch had equally missed it with him who had done so by an hundred yards, so the man who, in what appears to us the most insignificant action, had acted improperly, and without a sufficient reason, was equally faulty with him who had done so in what appears to us the most important; the man who has killed a cock (for example) improperly, and without a sufficient reason, with him who had murdered his father. 

Mr Smith continues,

It is not, however, by any means probable that these paradoxes formed a part of the original principles of Stoicism, as taught by Zeno and Cleanthes. It is much more probable that they were added to it by their disciple, Chrysippus, whose genius seems to have been more fitted for systematizing the doctrines of his preceptors, and adorning them with the imposing appendages of artificial definitions and divisions, than for imbibing the sublime spirit which they breathed. Such a man may very easily be supposed to have understood too literally some animated and exaggerated expressions of his masters in describing the happiness of the man of perfect virtue, and the unhappiness of whoever fell short of that character.

That these paradoxes were not adopted by the most rational admirers of the Stoic philosophy we have complete evidence; for we find them treating expressly of those imperfect virtues which are attained by inferior proficients in wisdom, and which they did not dignify with the name of rectitudes, but distinguished by the epithets of properfit, and decent

Such virtues are called by Cicero officia, and by Seneca convenientia. They are treated of by Cicero in his Offices and are said to have been the subject of a book (now lost) by Marcus Brutus. 

This apology, however, it must be confessed, will not extend to all the errors of the Stoic school. In particular, it will not extend to the notions it included on the subject of suicide.  But for these errors, if it is impossible to apologize, we may at least account in some measure, by the peculiar circumstances of the times when this philosophy arose, and which infected with the same spirit, though perhaps not in an equal degree, the peaceable and indolent followers of Epicurus. Says Mr. Smith:

During the age in which flourished the founders of all the principal sects of ancient philosophy — during the Peloponnesian war, and for many ages after its conclusion — all the different republics of Greece were at home almost always distracted by the most furious factions, and abroad involved in the most sanguinary wars, in which each sought not merely superiority or dominion, but either completely to extirpate all its enemies, or, what was not less cruel, to reduce them into the vilest of all states — that of domestic slavery. The smallness of the greater part of those states, too, rendered it to each of them no very improbable event, that it might itself fall into that very calamity which it had so frequently inflicted or attempted to inflict on its neighbours.

In this disorderly state of things the most perfect innocence, joined to the highest rank and the greatest services to the public, could give no security to any man, that even at home and among his fellow citizens, he was not, at some time or other, from the prevalence of some hostile and furious faction, to be condemned to the most cruel and ignominious punishment. If he was taken prisoner of war, or if the city of which he was a member was conquered, he was exposed, if possible, to still greater injuries.

As an American savage, therefore, prepares his death song, and considers how he should act when he has fallen into the hands of his enemies, and is by them put to death in the most lingering tortures, and amidst the insults and derisions of all the spectators, so a Grecian patriot or hero could not avoid frequently employing his thoughts in considering what he ought both to suffer and to do in banishment, in captivity, when reduced to slavery, when put to the torture, when brought to the scaffold. It was the business of their philosophers to prepare the death song which the Grecian patriots and heroes might make use of on the proper occasions; and of all the different sects it must, I think, be acknowledged, that the Stoics had prepared by far the most animated and spirited song.

Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

After all, it is impossible to deny that there is some foundation for a censure which Lord Bacon has some where passed on this celebrated sect. “Certainly,” says he, “the Stoics bestowed too much cost on death, and by their preparations made it more fearful.” At least, I suspect this may be the tendency of some passages in their writings, in such a state of society as that in which we live; but in perusing them we ought always to remember the circumstances of those men to whom they were addressed, and which are so eloquently described in the observations just quoted from Mr. Smith. The practical reflection which Francis Bacon adds to this censure is invaluable and is strictly conformable to the spirit of the Stoic system, although he seems to state it by way of contrast to their principles. He says,

It is as natural to die as to be born; and to a little infant perhaps the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for a time scarce feels the hurt; and therefore, a mind fixed and bent upon somewhat that is good doth best avert the dolors of death

Bacon, Essays

Upon the whole, notwithstanding the imperfections of this system, and the paradoxes which disgrace it in some accounts of it that have descended to our times, it cannot be disputed, that its leading doctrines are agreeable to the purest principles of morality and religion. Indeed, they all terminate in one maxim: That we should not make the attainment of things external an ultimate object but place the business of life in doing our duty and leave the care of our happiness to him who made us. Nor does the whole merit of these doctrines consist in their purity. It is doing them no more than justice to say, that they were more completely systematic in all their parts, and more ingeniously, as well as eloquently, supported, than anything else that remains of ancient philosophy. 

I must not conclude these observations on the Stoic system, without taking notice of the practical effects it produced on the characters of many of its professors. It was the precepts of this school which rendered the supreme power in the hands of Marcus Aurelius a blessing to the human race; and which secured the private happiness and elevated the minds of Helvidius and Thrasea under a tyranny by which their country was oppressed. Nor must it be forgotten, that in the last struggles of Roman liberty, while the school of Epicurus produced Caesar, that of Zeno produced Cato and Brutus. The one sacrificed mankind to himself; the others sacrificed themselves to mankind. 

Hi mores, hsec duri immota Catonis 
Secta fuit, servare modum, finemque tenere, 
Naturamque sequi, patriaeque impendere vitam; 
Nec sibi, sed toti genitum se credere mundo. 

[This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.]

Lucan, Pharsalia, Lib. ii. 1. 380

The sentiment of President Montesquieu on this subject is well known.

Never, were any principles more worthy of human nature, and more proper to form the good citizen, than those of the Stoics; and if I could for a moment cease to recollect that I am a Christian, I should not be able to hinder myself from ranking the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race.

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