The Seductive Dead-End of Stoicism

I have long wondered at the (to me) odd sense of passivism and fatalism that I find among some of those who state their admiration for Epicurus.  I now think, after spending much of a weekend reviewing Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” that I have a much better sense of the reason why this occurs – at least among those who are also fans of Stoicism.  I write this while aware and considerate that I have many good friends who hold Stoicism, and particularly Marcus Aurelius, in high regard.  I myself have long held Cicero in such regard, but it is important to separate out the practical good that such men did from their philosophical errors.  As one generation passes and new students of philosophy arise, the old errors constantly attract new converts.  It is regularly necessary for Epicureans to recalibrate their guns and fire again on Stoicism, lest it infect new generations.  For the truth is, those who espouse the Stoic platitudes — which I regret to say includes both Marcus Aurelius and Cicero — are like philosophical vampires, always lurking in the shadows to steal the life from the unsuspecting; always in the service of the oldest dead-head vampire of them all — Plato.

Those who praise Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism as supplements to Epicureanism need to be forthright about the views that they are promoting.  No one can read “Meditations” (or much of the other Stoic literature) without observing that its essential core is the worst kind of Religionism, Fatalism, and PassivismHow far from the philosophy of Epicurus, and how irreconcilable with it, is the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism!

No matter how much effort is employed to pass off the Stoic conception of Nature as similar to the Epicurean concept, those who flirt with Stoicism tie themselves to the mast of a ship always in the process of sinking, for the constant Stoic incantation of “Nature” is nothing but illusion.  Stoicism fails to define or ground the guidance of Nature in anything real — unlike Epicureanism, which grounds Nature’s guidance in pleasure.  In the place of Nature’s guide of pleasure, Stoicism erects the high-sounding platitude of virtue, which the Stoics say must be chosen for its own sake.  All the while the Stoics give no meaning to the term other than that which they blindly accept citing divine inspiration from their non-existent gods, or citing “reason” divorced from the clear evidence provided by Nature.

It is time to remind those who read this blog of the Epicurean warnings against the danger of Stoicism.

First, Cassius Longinus to Cicero, 45 BC, pointed out to Cicero that choosing the good for its own sake makes no sense, and that Cicero’s Stoic friends are unable to demonstrate the nature of the good, and thus fall back on repetitious recitations of the deeds of men who they assert — without foundation — were “good”:

For it is hard to convince men that “the good is to be chosen for its own sake”; but it is both true and demonstrable that pleasure and tranquility of mind is acquired by virtue, justice, and the good.  Why, Epicurus himself, from whom all the Catiuses and Amafiniuses in the world, incompetent translators of terms as they are, derive their origin, lays it down that “to live a life of pleasure is impossible without living a life of virtue and justice”.  Consequently Pansa, who follows pleasure, keeps his hold on virtue, and those also whom you call pleasure-lovers are lovers of what is good and lovers of justice, and cultivate and keep all the virtues. And so Sulla, whose judgment we ought to accept, when he saw that the philosophers were at sixes and sevens, did not investigate the nature of the good, but bought up all the goods there were; and I frankly confess that I bore his death without flinching.

Epicurus warned specifically against believing that the legends about the gods might be correct.  See his Letter to Herodotus:

We must also recollect that which principally contributes to trouble the spirit of men is the persuasion which they cherish that the stars are beings imperishable and perfectly happy, and that then one’s thoughts and actions are in contradiction to the will of these superior beings. They also being deluded by these fables, apprehend an eternity of evils, and they fear the insensibility of death, as if that could affect them. What do I say? It is not even belief, but inconsiderateness and blindness which govern them in every thing, to such a degree that, not calculating these fears, they are just as much troubled as if they really had faith in these vain phantoms.  And the real freedom from this kind of trouble consists in being emancipated from all these things, and in preserving the recollection of all the principles which we have established, especially of the most essential of them.

Epicurus warned emphatically against Fate and Determinism.  See his Letter to Menoceus:

The wise man laughs at the idea of “Fate”, which some set up as the mistress of all things, because the wise man understands that while some things do happen by chance, most things happen due to our own actions.  The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men.  But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them.  It would therefore be better to believe in the fables that are told about the gods than to be a slave to the idea of Fate or Necessity as put forth by false philosophers. At least the fables which are told about the gods hold out to us the possibility that we may avert the gods’ wrath by paying them honor.  The false philosophers, on the other hand, present us with no hope of control over our own lives, and no escape from an inexorable Fate.
In the same way, the wise man does not consider Fortune to be a goddess, as some men esteem her to be, for the wise man knows that nothing is done at random by a god. Nor does he consider that such randomness as may exist renders all events of life impossible to predict.  Likewise, he does not believe that the gods give chance events to men so as to make them live happily.  The wise man understands that while chance may lead to great good, it may also lead to great evil, and he therefore thinks it to be better to be unsuccessful when acting in accord with reason than to be successful by chance when acting as a fool.

Lucretius warned us against being entrapped like fools by Heraclitus, that same philosopher who Marcus Aurelius praises repeatedly in Meditations.  See Book I of De Rerum Natura:

For which reasons they who have held fire to be the matter of things and the sum to be formed out of fire alone, are seen to have strayed most widely from true reason.  At the head of whom enters Heraclitus to do battle, famous for obscurity more among the frivolous than the earnest Greeks who seek the truth.
For fools admire and like all things the more which they perceive to be concealed under involved language, and determine things to be true which can prettily tickle the ears and are varnished over with finely sounding phrase.

Thomas Jefferson warned us against the Stoics:

Epictetus indeed, has given us what was good of the stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. Diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention. These they fathered blasphemously on him who they claimed as their founder, but who would disclaim them with the indignation which their caricatures of his religion so justly excite. Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates himself complained.  [letter to William Short]

I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s Republic. I am wrong, however, in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been, that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world, indeed, should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly, how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato! Although Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, and honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. With the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few in their after years have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities and incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth, he is one of the race of genuine sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first, by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly, by the adoption and incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind is forever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen through a mist, can be defined neither in form nor dimensions. Yet this, which should have consigned him to early oblivion, really procured him immortality of fame and reverence. [Letter to John Adams, 1814]

(I could give many more examples, both from the Epicurean texts and the Meditations that follow.  I will rework this post as a page in the future to do so.)

Before I turn to the Meditations, I want to emphasize that the divergences which are evident when comparing it to the core Epicurean texts are not trivial matters.  These differences go to the core of Epicureanism and the truth.  For if Marcus Aurelius were right and if the gods DO arrange the affairs of men, or care about them to the extent that the gods reward “good” and punish “evil,” then the we must abandon the views of Epicurus in TOTAL, for it is only if the opposite positions are true that Epicureanism has any merit at all.

But the facts of reality DO support Epicurus.  Through the capacities given us by Nature we know that we possess free will, that our lives are short, that our consciousness ends at death, and that Nature directs us to pursue lives of pleasure and happiness according to Her rules, which are open to all men with the sense to observe and understand them.

From our grounding in Epicureanism, what worse errors could be made that PASSIVISM and FATALISM?  What worse error than to seek to persuade ourselves, or others, that we must meekly accept our “fates” — our “lots in life”?  What worse error than to resign ourselves to failing to act aggressively to arrange our lives so as to maximize what happiness IS available to us by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain rationally!

But passivism and fatalism reek from every page of Marcus Aurelius!  If these are the views of the leaders of the Roman Empire of Aurelius’ time, it is no wonder that Aurelius failed so miserably to provide for a proper successor, and it is no wonder that the Roman Empire started so quickly on the descent which led to its eventual fall to the Christian superstitions that replaced it.

Those who are not familiar with Marcus Aurelius also should be warned that Aurelius at several places quotes Epicurus accurately and approvingly.  Do not let these limited acknowledgements of Epicurus dispose you more favorably toward him.  Be warned about this — Aurelius constantly wars against virtually every core Epicurean principle, but he does occasionally cite them to suit his own fatalistic and passivistic purposes.  For although Aurelius contends for the Religionist position throughout, he is willing to employ Epicurean arguments if they will assist him in convincing his readers that Passivism and Fatalism are good enough as ways to order one’s life.  For it is not necessary to convince an Epicurean to believe that the gods of Olympus control his life in order to stunt his mind.  One need only convince the innocent student to passively accept his “fate” and to resign himself not to seek aggressively after happiness.  Either way, the result is the same — the individual who gives up core Epicurean principles gives up the possibility of living a happy life, even if he does not accept the wrath of the gods as the reason he must do so.

For the remainder of this post I simply cite some of the most egregious of the errors of Marcus Aurelius, from the George Long translation.  Comments not a part of the translation are in italics.  I hope to fill in the post with citations to the remainder of Meditations as time goes by.

  • Book I
    • From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and to be undeviating of purpose; to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason….  [Epicurus held reason to be secondary to the senses, the pain / pleasure mechanism, and the anticipations.]
    • To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offense against any of them…   [Epicurus held that perfect beings do not meddle in the affairs of others.]
  • Book II
    • All that is from the gods is full of providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by providence. From thence all things flow; and there is besides necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part.  [Epicurus held that perfect beings do not meddle in the affairs of others.]
    • But in truth they [the gods] do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him not to fall into real evils. [Epicurus held that perfect beings do not meddle in the affairs of others.]
    • Remember that all is opinion.  [Epicurus said that the wise man will speak dogmatically.]
    • [A]nd the end of rational animals is to follow the reason and the law of the most ancient city and polity. [The end established by Nature is to follow pleasure according to her laws.]
    • And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after fame is oblivion.  [What about the happiness that is possible during life, as directed by Nature?]
    • But this [philosophy] consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came…. [ Epicurus held pleasure to be the guide of life, and did not talk in terms of goals that are superior to pleasure.  Likewise, Epicureanism is a prescription for maximizing a life of pleasure, not “accepting all that happens and all that is allotted as coming from the gods.]
  • Book III
    • We ought, then, to check in the series of our thoughts every thing that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the over-curious feeling and the malignant ; and a man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, What hast thou now in thy thoughts?  With perfect openness thou mightest immediately,  answer, This or That; so that from thy words it should be plain that everything in thee is simple and benevolent, and as befits a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts, pleasure or sensual enjoyments at all, nor has any rivalry or envy and suspicion, or anything else for which thou wouldst blush if thou shouldst say that thou hadst it in thy mind. For the man who is such and no longer delays being among the number of the best, is like a priest and minister of the gods, using too the [deity] which is planted within him, which makes the man uncontaminated by pleasure, unharmed by any pain, untouched by any insult, feeling no wrong, a fighter in the noblest fight, one who cannot be overpowered by any passion, dyed deep with justice, accepting with all his soul everything which happens and is assigned to him as his portion; and not often, nor yet without great necessity and for the general interest, imagining what another says, or does, or thinks.  …  And he remembers also that every rational animal is his kinsman, and that to care for all men is according to man’s nature…  [Aurelius makes many references that discount the role of pleasure as the guide to life, instead referring to men as “social” beings with whose affairs we should concern ourselves, in place of the Epicurean view.]
    • For it is not right that anything of any other kind, such as praise from the many, or power, or enjoyment of pleasure, should come into competition with that which is rationally and politically [or, practically] good.  [Again, pleasure is denigrated, and an unanchored standard of “rational” and “political” action is erected in its place.]
    • Wherefore, on every occasion a man should say: this comes from God; and this is according to the apportionment and spinning of the thread of destiny, and such like coincidence and chance; and this is from one of the same stock, and a kinsman and partner, one who knows not however what is according to his nature.  [Aurelius is ” on every occasion” referring to  non-existent determinants of life warned against by Epicurus.]
    • If then everything else is common to all that I have mentioned, there remains that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him.  [Passive giving in to Fate.]
  • Book IV
    • Recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily.  [Here we combine (1) a totally wrong goal for life, (2) a passive non-resistance to injustice, and (3) a denial of free will (men do wrong “involuntarily”).]
    • Take away thy opinion and then there is taken away the complaint ” I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.  [Do you really think so?  Is there no Natural, unchanging, standard for what is harm and what is not harm?]
    •  Consider  that  everything which happens, happens  justly, and if thou observest carefully, thou  wilt  find  it to  be  so.  [Epicurus has a very clear standard for what is just and what is unjust, and “everything” does not happen justly.]
    • Within ten days thou wilt seem a god to those to whom thou art now a beast and an ape, if thou wilt return to thy principles and the worship of reason. [If there is one thing Epicurus does NOT worship, it is “reason.”]
    • Occupy thyself with few things, says the philosopher, if thou wouldst be tranquil.  [Epicureans do not look for “tranquility” — they look for pleasure, or better stated – happiness.]
    • [O]ut of the universe from the beginning everything which happens has been apportioned and spun out to thee.  [Pure determinism.]
    • He is a runaway who flies from social reason…. He is an abscess on the universe who withdraws and separates himself from the reason of our common nature through being displeased withe the things which happen, for the same nature produces this and has produced thee too:  he is a piece rent asunder from the state who tears his own soul from that of reasonable animals, which is one.  [Too many errors here to list.]
    • Love the art, poor as it may be, which thou hast learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has intrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has….  [ A prescription for passivity and religionism.]
    • Willingly give thyself up to Clotho, one of the Fates, allowing her to spin thy thread into whatever things she pleases.  [What more need be said?]


To summarize, Epicureans should once again follow the lead of Jefferson, and in regard to Stoicism ask themselves:

While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this?




Appendix 11/04/17: 

On 11/3/17, a blogger by the name of Massimo wrote a response to this post.   I will eventually post more in response, but for the time being have these comments:

(1) I have prepared a much more detailed presentation of the differences between Stoic and Epicurean philosophies in chart form here

(1) I also want to point to the concluding paragraph of Massimo’s post – where presumably the take-home point is anyway: “So, my Epicurean friends, no need to hurl insults at us (they wouldn’t take anyway, see Discourses I, 25.28-29), or waste much time to try to show that we are “wrong.” Incidentally, isn’t so much passion about philosophical discourse with strangers a precisely non-Epicurean thing to do, since it likely brings pain and no pleasure?”

Fittingly for his final point, this encapsulates the major error – Massimo accepts that Epicurus advised passivity in discourse and avoidance of pain/disturbance as the ultimate test of action. Of course Massimo and Epictetus consider what I am about to point out to be inconsistency, but we know that Epicurus himself showed no passivity in attacking his rivals. From Diogenes Laertius:

“Epicurus used to call this Nausiphanes jellyfish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato’s school he called “the toadies of Dionysius,” their master himself the “golden” Plato, and Aristotle a profligate, who after devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a porter and the secretary of Democritus and village school-teacher; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus [“trifler”]; and Antidorus Sannidorus [“flattering gift-bearer”]; the Cynics enemies of Greece; the Dialecticians consumed with envy; and Pyrrho [the Skeptic] an ignorant boor.”

And very few writers in history have exceeded Lucretius in urgency and intensity – in painful work – in writing to advocate philosophical truth and denounce error.

There is much more to take apart in Massimo’s article, and to do so requires effort (which we can relate to pain). But it is an effort/pain that will be well worth doing, for this reason: There is nothing more important in this argument than emphasizing how little people understand Epicurus when they argue that his philosophy told him (and us) not to undertake any pain, even those pains that are the price of achieving pleasure. Such undertakings were not inconsistent when done by Epicurus and Lucretius, but pure applications of their philosophy. We need to see why it is not they, but the Passivists / “Tranquilists”, who do not understand Epicurus.

(3) I see that Massimo mentions my cite to Jefferson, and that reminds me that anyone reading this post needs also to refer to Nietzsche’s “Fraud of Words” denunciations of Stoicism: 

You desire to LIVE “according to Nature”? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, “living according to Nature,” means actually the same as “living according to life”—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature “according to the Stoa,” and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?… But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to “creation of the world,” the will to the causa prima.

Beyond Good And Evil, (Gutenberg edition, translated by Helen Zimmern)  Chapter 5, section 188

188. In contrast to laisser-aller, every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against “nature” and also against “reason”, that is, however, no objection, unless one should again decree by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals, is that it is a long constraint. In order to understand Stoicism, or Port Royal, or Puritanism, one should remember the constraint under which every language has attained to strength and freedom—the metrical constraint, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm.

Beyond Good And Evil, (Gutenberg edition, translated by Helen Zimmern)  Chapter 5, section 198

198. All the systems of morals which address themselves with a view to their “happiness,” as it is called—what else are they but suggestions for behaviour adapted to the degree of DANGER from themselves in which the individuals live; recipes for their passions, their good and bad propensities, insofar as such have the Will to Power and would like to play the master; small and great expediencies and elaborations, permeated with the musty odour of old family medicines and old-wife wisdom; all of them grotesque and absurd in their form—because they address themselves to “all,” because they generalize where generalization is not authorized; all of them speaking unconditionally, and taking themselves unconditionally; all of them flavoured not merely with one grain of salt, but rather endurable only, and sometimes even seductive, when they are over-spiced and begin to smell dangerously, especially of “the other world.” That is all of little value when estimated intellectually, and is far from being “science,” much less “wisdom”; but, repeated once more, and three times repeated, it is expediency, expediency, expediency, mixed with stupidity, stupidity, stupidity—whether it be the indifference and statuesque coldness towards the heated folly of the emotions, which the Stoics advised and fostered; or the no-more-laughing and no-more-weeping of Spinoza, the destruction of the emotions by their analysis and vivisection, which he recommended so naively; or the lowering of the emotions to an innocent mean at which they may be satisfied, the Aristotelianism of morals; or even morality as the enjoyment of the emotions in a voluntary attenuation and spiritualization by the symbolism of art, perhaps as music, or as love of God, and of mankind for God’s sake—for in religion the passions are once more enfranchised, provided that…; or, finally, even the complaisant and wanton surrender to the emotions, as has been taught by Hafis and Goethe, the bold letting-go of the reins, the spiritual and corporeal licentia morum in the exceptional cases of wise old codgers and drunkards, with whom it “no longer has much danger.”—This also for the chapter: “Morals as Timidity.”

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